The Psalm Sparrow

Yea, the sparrow hath found her an house,
and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young,
even thine altars, O Lord of Hosts.
—Psalm 84, Book of Common Prayer

I don’t know how you can be a parish pastor and not say daily prayer. I don’t mean that critically. I mean it like I don’t know how to throw a curve ball or keep my mouth shut at a meeting. For the first 10 years of my ministry, I did without daily prayer. My seminary did not teach it, and none of my professors modeled it. But I was driven to it by the desperation of my incompetence and fear. I had avoided the Book of Common Prayer because I felt guilty of being a closet Anglican, but then I said the hell with it and paid the Episcopalians $125 to get the beautiful Contemporary Office Book. It’s become my vade mecum, my prayer manual. I can’t leave home without it. It’s weak on intercessions, but I love it for all the scripture readings printed out in full, right there, one after the other, for the psalms and for the collects.

It takes me two months to pray the whole psalter. I’m not a prayer warrior. I don’t look for answers to prayer. My mind wanders, and I often lose track. I just need to enter that space every day. And I need specific spaces to be at rest. At home in Brooklyn, I pray next to the window that looks out over Prospect Park. At our cottage on Bobs Lake, Ontario, I built a “prayer deck” down on the rocks by the water. Before I get there in the mornings, the Venite is already running in my head. Just before dawn, a song-sparrow comes out of her bower in the bushes, pecks a bit on the rocks, and then rises to a branch to sing her welcome to the sunlight.

I don’t know how you can be a Reformed pastor and not pray the psalms every day. I do mean that critically. You can preach and teach and debate the sovereignty of God, but don’t you really have to argue it through with God? It’s in the psalms that you work through the mystery of God’s election and the loss and grief—and joy—of God’s people. You hold it up to God: “Will the Lord cast me o forever? / God is faithful in all his ways. / O God, the heathen have come into your inheritance; … they have made Jerusalem a heap of rubble. / God is in her citadels; he is known to be her sure refuge.” I think what it means to be Reformed is not to have proven predestination or God’s sovereignty but to keep holding up the contradictions of election and freedom, of faithfulness and failure, of grace and loss. I have to keep talking that through with God in order to keep at my ministry, and we have that talk within the space made by the psalms.

When you pray the psalms every day, it’s not just the specific words you are getting, it’s the larger space they o er that you enter into—a mood, a mind, a mind-set, a worldview, a workshop, into which you bring yourself and your concerns and your doubts and your debates. I guess you enter the mind of Christ, which is not your own and which does not require much of your own thinking but gives you room to rest and work. You build your nest in it, and you lay your eggs and raise your young and listen to all the songs around you.