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 like I don’t know how to throw a curve ball, or keep my mouth shut at a meeting. I did without daily prayer for the first ten years of my ministry. 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. The forms for daily prayer in the Dutch Reformed tradition are weak and haphazard. So I tried “devotions” but that made me feel worse, especially when I used Oswald Chambers — I had no utmost for His Highest. Eventually I spent a week with the Carmelites and learned the rhythms of the Roman Daily Office. I learned to ride that vehicle, just following the book, not being creative, not even thinking, just letting the Office carry me to God’s face. I was deeply appreciative that even in my solitude I was not praying alone: I was in the unseen company of thousands and millions of other believers who were saying the very same prayers.

I was driven to daily prayer by the desperation of my incompetence and fear.

Eventually I tired of the constant interruptions of the Roman calendar and the Apocrypha, the leaden prose of the New American Bible, and the bowdlerizing of the Psalms. 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 a beautiful Contemporary Office Book. It’s become my “vade mecum.” I can’t leave home without it. It’s weak on intercessions, but I love it for all the readings 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. (I don’t pray so well at airports.) At home in Brooklyn I pray next to the window that looks out over Prospect Park. At our cottage on Bobs Lake I built a “prayer deck” down on the rocks by the water. The Venite is already running in my head before I get there. 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 off forever? / God is faithful in all his ways. / O God, the heathen have come into your inheritance; …  they have made Jerusalem is 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 contradiction 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.

Sometimes I’ll sing the psalm from the music in my head. I learned the Genevan tunes in Dutch from my family and in Hungarian from my first parish. Psalm 84 is especially lovely. “Zelfs vindt de mus een huis, O Heer, de zwaluw legt haar jonskens neer in ‘t kunstig huis bij uw altaren.” The Genevan tunes have power, and once you learn them they sing themselves, but the translations are not always tight.

The Anglican Chant tradition keeps it closer to the text, and I love these too, like for 84 (Parry’s Quam dilecta), and 114, and 104, but they are harder to sing — they want choirs.  The Scottish Psalter is pragmatic, and that’s about it, unless, I guess, you’ve grown up with it. I haven’t experienced the Gelineau or Grail psalters. We’ve pretty much lost the psalms as the center of our song and the spine of our devotion, though efforts are made to recover them, in a great variety of styles, as with the wonderful Psalms for All Seasons from the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship.

But for real devotional life, when using the psalms as prayers, I don’t think it works so well to mix and match the musical genres, psalm by psalm. I think you have to stay within a genre, accepting its liabilities with its gifts. The Genevan Psalter, like Gregorian or Anglican chant, is a corpus, a body, greater than the sum of its parts. It creates a space, a room with a specific architecture, for better or worse, like the Book of Psalms itself. When you pray the psalms every day, it’s not just the specific words you are getting, it’s the larger space they offer that you enter into, a mood, a mind, a mindset, 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. My wife tells me my daily prayer has changed my life.

Daniel Meeter is pastor of Old First Reformed Church, Brooklyn, New York, where he steadfastly denies being a closet Episcopalian.

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