Re-Learning Our First Language

psalmsWhen we think of prayer, we most commonly think of an exercise in words. But in what way should our prayer-words function? What kind of words ought we to use when we speak with God? My original source is lost to me, but I have written and taught in the past about the three languages we speak, and how the language of prayer is specific in its nature and purpose. The first language is that of intimacy. Indeed it is our first language -- for even before we are able to articulate any words at all, we communicate a lot about ourselves. A child will squeal with delight, cry out their anguish, and make those happy sounds of contentment. A mother will especially know what such sounds mean, even if no known human language is being spoken. What is happening here but that children communicate though the most unfiltered of means: they let us know exactly how they feel at the moment. Intimacy is the language of children and lovers. And inevitably of pray-ers as well.

We grow into the language of information. Here every thing is named. We learn to categorize and explain the world, and this helps us connect to the reality that is before us. This is essential of course, because the world we live in is more than our feelings, more than our experience. And so we need the language of information to get along, to learn and understand, to build and create. Is this prayer, informing God of what he doesn’t know?

And then there is the language of motivation. As we develop our abilities with language we discover not only what to say but how to say it. We find that the way words are put together matter, and that we can shape outcomes by the tone, force, and inflection of our words. So we learn to use language to get what we want, to motivate and to sell, to manipulate and to intimidate. We find that language is a force. Is this prayer? Trying to motivate God?

Our most practiced languages are information and motivation, important to our normal everyday lives, but not when we talk to God. Perhaps this is why we tend to pray as poorly as we do. We often resort to informing God as if he simply did not know what was going on, or motivating God as if he were reluctant to hear and help us. So we need help, and this is where the Psalms come in.  What we find in the Psalms is the practice of deep personal-ness, the language of intimacy, the putting into words of our most commonly felt human experiences: our hopes, our pains, our fears, our desires. Little is filtered here (nor should it be), but everything is presented to God for his attendance and help. I know of nothing more healing, no language quite as beautiful.

I think this is why I have grown to particularly fond of this part of my Bible, and why I am almost always in the Psalms when I pray. I have learned that staying with the psalms for a long time, paying attention to the way they function, their tone of voice, their intimate way of addressing God, trains us in the language of intimacy. We learn to be children again, but not childish. We learn to be dependent and open, wondering and receptive. We learn to be our truest selves, and lovers of God.

And now my invitation.  The Westside community has made it an annual tradition to begin each New Year with days set aside for prayer. This is a sacred time we share together, a time to break from the busyness of life in order to seek quietness and space to be with God. We desire to listen to what God says, and answer back from our truest selves.

Every year we construct a prayer walk to help focus our prayers and thoughts. This year we have themed our prayer walk “Pray Where You Are: The Psalms as Our Guide to Prayer.” There are seven stations in this year’s prayer journey with each station focused on a context of life that we inevitably encounter. Each station connects that context to words in the Psalms and in the life and prayers of Jesus.

We hope that you will be able to join us anytime Monday through Wednesday, January 7-9, 9 am to 9 pm. I will be in the Bistro nightly at 7 pm if you would like to ask questions about aspects of the prayer walk, or the life of prayer in general.

May God grant you a blessed new year.

Bob Osborne