An effective way to develop, if you are able to write, is to write. Writing is another integrative activity that helps us deepen psychologically and spiritually. It takes strength and mind to pick up a writing utensil or sit down at the keyboard and express ourselves. If turned the right direction, writing expresses heart and soul in a way that makes our feelings and our spiritual experiences more tangible and more connective. If you are interested in loving the Lord, your God, with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, then it makes sense to take out the headphones or put down the remote and write.
I know that last line sounds accusatory, so please forgive me if you must. But we have to acknowledge that what used to be simple is getting harder for lack of use. It feels hard, even weird, to write. Writers write and we consume their product. But we don’t write back. Someone told me last week that their family member wouldn’t even text back to a family group text! — writing is too something for them. Our capacity is being reduced by the technologies we use and the slave masters behind them. So writing has become an exercise in nonconformity or rebellion — if we aren’t too dulled or afraid to do it.
I suppose I am innately rebellious, but I mostly use writing to keep open to God. For me, writing is about opening things up, exploring things, revealing things, and receiving things of the Spirit. Receiving things is what I mainly want to talk about today. I was reading Teresa Blythe’s very practical book 50 Ways to Pray and she started by suggesting we use writing to pray. Other Jesus followers have written wonderful things, the New Testament being primary, and you could exercise the same Spirit and intention those writers exercised by writing yourself! Let’s try that.
Create your own psalm
One of the ways Blythe suggested praying was to write your own psalm. She offered an exercise to help us create one. This appealed to me because I have been writing pslams, with my dear wife, for many years. Most Sundays we get up and write a psalm. Then we share it with each other and pray together. If I am not with her for some reason, I do it anyway. It is a good way for me to pray. There is so much heart, soul, mind and strength involved in that loving, open receptive act! I would have a terrible time parting with the discipline.
This past week I was reflecting on songs that had moved me and sustained me in my grieving. I wrote this final stanza to my psalm:
I thank you that Spring
will be right on time again,
and though my sprouts
will never be the same,
they will, in time, sprout again.
and so many have died,
my past is gone
and soon go will I.
Maybe they are waiting,
I will then know, in the place
where the lost things go.
When I feel a bit lost,
lose things, lose thoughts,
I delight in your touch.
A whiff of music scents my soul
And pulls my attention
like Spring in the air.
I turn into it expectantly
and meet you there.
My psalm is not high art, even after I have fixed it up a little from my original. I never meant to show it to you, anyway. Most psalms are not written for public use; they are a way to connect with God, a way to open up, to use some strength on behalf of what’s happening inside, to get it out, to get it heard. Writing a psalm is much more like your baby or your dog, for that matter, making sure you know it is time for dinner than it is about doing good art. It’s following an urge. Besides, God’s great art is you. When we function spirit to Spirit with him, she sees a piece of art in action. A beautiful rendition of your best is frosting, but everything you do with heart, soul, mind, and strength is cake.
My wife can write a nice psalm that reflects the basic structure of the Bible psalms, which tend to repeat thoughts rather than sounds to make a lyric. Lots of people have written about how they work. Here’s a little article. Robert Alter wrote his great work on the Psalms; I have poured over it to good end. Walter Brueggemann wrote one of my favorite books about how the Bible psalms work. But Teresa Blythe is not suggesting a prayer pursuit that feels like what scholars do. She just wants us to practice getting our heart and soul through the blockade of our minds and expressed with our strength. Writing a psalm is good practice for a life full of that love. She says “It doesn’t matter whether you think of yourself as a writer or not. This is heartfelt communication, not an exercise in pretty writing.”
The Bible’s collection of Psalms reflects the thoughts of the collectors at the time. There were undoubtedly more psalms and there is demonstrably more poetry in the Bible that might qualify as a psalm. All of it can serve as inspiration for your psalm, if you need some. Blythe made a list of psalms you can go to if you feel a certain way and want to express it, or need to be seen as feeling a certain way and are looking for a response. Of course, no psalm was written topically, like “I am going to write a psalm about joy.” They are all pretty organic, not abstract. But many are well known for the parts of them that always resonate. I edited Blythe’s list a bit for you:
I feel or want this positive experience. “I’m happy.”
- Joy – 11, 18, 23, 27, 33, 84, 87, 103, 112, 122, 150
- Peace, — 23, 63, 103
- Love – 33, 62, 99, 103, 104, 139, 145
- Gratitude – 30, 32 65, 75, 77, 103, 118, 136
I feel or want relief from this negative experience. “I’m needy.”
- Fear – 86, 130, 131
- Anger – 55, 58, 94
- Threatened – 17, 26, 35, 69, 141
- Distressed – 29, 42, 44, 71, 88, 109, 113
- Sick – 22, 37, 72
- Uncertain – 25, 37, 72
- Oppressed – 26, 52, 114
- Guilty – 39, 51
You could take one of these Psalms and use it as a form for yours. It may have been based on something else, itself! You could re-write it in your own words and tilt it towards your own purpose. I’ve done this many times and it is always a good exercise – as long as it doesn’t turn into to a poem critique like in English class! Using a well-known psalm as a base is a good way for me not to worry about form and content and let a person guide me to my own expression.
You could sit back and let your greatest desire, feeling or conundrum (as of today) rise up and come into focus and then write a psalm that expresses it.
- I want to feel_____.
- I want help with ________.
- I think of myself as (ungrateful, over-certain, flawed, etc.).
- I appreciate this about my relationship with God
- I am puzzled or distressed about this in my relationship with God.
Those are just suggestions. Let it flow and see where you end up. God is with you as you use your strength to be with God.
When you are done you could put your psalm in your drawer or notebook for future reference. You might pass this way again! You may not want your stuff laying around, so you might not keep it at all. Maybe you want to share your psalm – but that is hardly required. Think of all the people who wrote psalms, just like King David (St. Patrick, too), sitting out on a rock with the sheep, and never got one of them into the Bible or a blog post! They were just doing it.
The main challenge with any kind of development, is to overcome our resistance and do something. When we get out of ourselves and enter the space between us and God, the Lord meets us in many ways. As simple an act as writing a psalm — getting the feeling and thought out of our hearts and minds and onto the paper, is one of many ways to move into the space between. It is a good way to pray. Give it a try!