On Prayer: 1 Peter 5:5-7

This is probably the first year since I could hold a pen that I didn’t make New Year’s Resolutions. After recently taking the enneagram and discovering myself to be the “Reformer” (wing “Achiever”) this is rather surprising. I love goals and lists and plans and I work, practice, study, and exercise consistently. However, while I did not set any specific goals and am continuing along more or less as usual, I did realize a few areas in which I need greater consistency.

The first of these is prayer.

My morning devotions center on the reading and rereading of scripture. (I highly recommend picking an epistle or passage and reading it daily for a month.) Although I love digging into the Word and pondering its truth, I fear I sometimes err on the side of intellect rather than faith. Recently, I was accepted to pursue a master’s in “Theology and the Arts” at St. Andrew’s in Scotland, so I am thankful for my ability to read scripture as an academic. However, as I enter the final semester of my undergrad, new friendships and relationships, and look to a future that’s both terrifying and exciting, I’m confronted with things that go beyond academic analysis.

A week ago, as I tossed and turned at that dreaded hour (see “Three o’Clock in the Morning”), I realized that what I needed was (and is) prayer and, being at a loss for the words to properly express myself, I turned to the Psalms: the most honest, broken, beautiful, truth-bound poetry ever written.

I am not the best at expressing my emotions; as a generally happy person, I try to avoid showing any other side of myself. When I pray aloud with others and even in private prayer, I find myself trying to reason myself to happiness. While I am quick to worry within my own mind and heart, I am slow to present these anxieties to the One who will listen and heal. In reading the Psalms, it became so obvious that prayer, while so often comprised of and resolving in praise, is also manifested in lament.

Lamentation is a concept I’ve been turning over in my mind for several years, but ultimately it’s something that cannot be solely rationalized. It’s a deep expression of incomprehensible emotions, yet it is not all chaos. As an artist, the psalmist begins with broken materials but eventually shapes them into order through poetic exploration. Wrestling with terror and enemies and uncertainty, psalms of lamentation reorient to faith and praise, for they and their writer are upheld by truth.

Why, then, should I be afraid to pour forth even the most confusing feelings of my heart? After all, Romans 8:26 assures us that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” Expressing emotion is not separate from studying and living truth; when even the most anxious of feelings are anchored in truth, they may be safely explored when in conversation with God.

Recently, I purchased a new journal (see “New Year, New Journal…But how to choose?”) and am finding it the perfect place to express and explore in prayer. Immediately upon writing and praying over the words (some of which made very little sense at all when put down) I felt a rush of relief. Worries are overwhelming when swarming in a sleep-deprived brain, but often once they are written in bright-colored ink, they seem silly. And they seem even tinier when presented before a sovereign God who promises to hear and help.

Before I set to journalling, one verse presided in my thoughts, but I feared I was misapplying it like some cliché cross-stitch pillow. But when I looked it up, I was struck to find it more applicable to my situation than I could have imagined:

“Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him because he cares for you.”

– 1 Peter 5:5-7 (ESV)

“You who are younger.” 

Hey, that’s me! I’m 22 and I have to admit that Taylor Swift had it just about right when she sang that “we’re happy free, confused and lonely at the same time / it’s miserable and magical.” But here in 1 Peter are words written not only to capture how it feels to be young, but to hold my hand through it. Indeed, it promises that the might hand of God will uphold me and provide in his perfect timing.

“Humble yourselves.” 

I do not know everything. Part of my problem with prayer is that it requires me to admit this. It requires me to beg, to acknowledge that from God all blessings flow and that I can do nothing to earn them. As I journaled through this passage of scripture, I used this command to humility to write out my uncertainties and admit my limited vision in submission to the omniscience of God. It’s amazing how kneeling relieves one’s burdens. 

“The mighty hand of God.” 

Remember his providence. I love journaling because it allows me to read back through the arc of my life. Worries that once seemed insurmountable are now laughable. Hopes I once exalted were disappointed and replaced with much better things. Reader and Friend, praise God for his faithfulness. Admit your anxieties, but never forget that an authentic prayer is not only honest to your situation, but to that of a God who is constant and caring. Prayers without acknowledgement of God’s worthiness and faithfulness are sorely one-sided. The lament Psalms decry man’s state, but ever return to the power of the Lord’s hand.

“Casting all your anxieties on him.” 

I made a list as I contemplated this line. I dumped ever single “what-if-worry” that flapped about in my brain like moths. It was a bit like a game of “Worst-case scenario” where my hypothetical fears got progressively more and more ridiculous, but by the time I was finished, I was laughing instead of worrying. With my Savior carrying my burden, I felt able again to “laugh without fear of the future” (Proverbs 31:25).

“He cares for you.” 

This. This is blessed assurance. I’m a logical person and need to be rationally convinced of most things. I’m not sure how to respond to compliments sometimes because of this, let alone respond to a letter that speaks so plainly of God’s providential love for me. I am overwhelmed, no longer with fear, but with awe. 

What amazing, never-failing grace. How can I keep from praying?

I will fail (over and over and over again) to go to my knees. However, I have a God who cares for me so personally and perfectly, that I am responding to that love by committing to more regular prayer. It’s difficult: I have to humble myself, admitting that I am not always in control, not always perfectly happy, and don’t always know what’s going to happen. But, as my choir director so often says, “practice doesn’t make perfect, but it does make permanent.” 

That said, I am committing to practicing prayer, using study and scripture as a guide for expressing that which cannot be put into prose and turning it to praise.

#WriterGoals by Homer, Odysseus, and Ryanne

Yes, my title is a hashtag. Sometimes I like to break the trend of ordinary prose. Sorry not sorry. Ironically, however, this post is based on writing standards set waaaaaaaay back in the days of Homer. In reading through The Odyssey for my university’s honors institute, I realized two things: First, listening to Chopin’s nocturnes whilst reading makes even the most boring of passages intensely moving. For real, I felt tears coming when Odysseus’ men were turned into pigs. Thanks, Chopin. Secondly, although Homer (whether of not you believe in him or think he was a group of poets or whatever new conspiracy is floating around in the literary community) does tend to be a bit- well- wordy in his accounts of first the Trojan War and then the homecoming journey of Odysseus, he is a master at his craft and the fact that philosophers and students alike have been studying his epics for thousands of years ought to be proof of that. Further evidence for this mastery is in his recognition of the key components of good writing/story-telling: truth, reason, and beauty.

He says in Book XI lines 363-369:

“‘Odysseus, we as we look upon you do not imagine

that you are a deceptive or thievish man, the sort that the black earth

breeds in great numbers, people who wander widely, making up

lying stories, from which no one could learn anything. You have

a grace upon your words, and there is sound sense within them,

and expertly, as a singer would do, you have told the story

of the dismal sorrows befallen yourself and all of the Argives.'”

In this instance, a king is praising the eloquence and clarity of Odysseus’ account of his journey, but more significantly, Homer is, through this character, identifying the essential components of writing worthy of enduring esteem. Such writing, first of all, must feature truth. When Odysseus concludes his tale, the first remark that the king makes is regarding the verity of Odysseus’ words; they are not fantasy, at least in the context of this epic, and thus deserving of serious consideration. But does all writing need to be true then in order to be great? The Harry Potter geek within me screams “NO!” in answer to this and, actually, the fangirl part of me is correct. C.S. Lewis believed strongly in fiction because of its seemingly paradoxical ability to convey truth. Take his most famous series, The Chronicles of Narnia, for instance. In any given library, these would be shelved with other works of fiction and probably even among children’s fiction. However, it is impossible to read these wonderful books without coming away having learned from them lessons of sacrifice, morality, family, forgiveness, and, consequently, truth. Good fiction always centers on truth.  Whether this truth is found in the form of a universal theme such as what it means to be a man or even a real event such as the an ancient war, if you dig deep enough as a reader or write well enough as an author, some aspect of truth will always be found at the core of a truly great piece of literature.

Continuing on, the king praises the sensible nature of Odysseus’ words; he does not use more than necessary. Bored readers might argue that Homer is not exactly concise, but when one considers the vast amount of mythology, culture, character descriptions, interactions, geographical courses, and rituals that are woven together to create the intricate tapestry of this epic, it becomes a wonder that such a magnificent story could be consolidated into a mere twenty-four book poem. This often unappreciated conciseness is vital to truly great writing. Of course, as the saying goes, “even Homer nods”, and some passages, such as the listings of over 600 Achaian ships in The Iliad are arguably a bit much, but considering the wealth of information and the overall complexity, this is certainly excusable.

Finally, Odysseus’ (and Homer’s) words are revered as beautiful. Being originally poetry sung by roaming bards, it is probably a no-brainer that The Iliad and The Odyssey are considered among the most beautiful pieces of literature. In this passage, great writing is described as having “a grace” and being crafted “expertly, as a singer would do.” Both poetry and prose must have a flow, a grace like the one here described. In music performed by a singer, every note, every inflection of the voice, every tiny breathe and consonant must be purposefully employed in order to convey the message of the song. In the same manner, a great writer must choose his or her words with purpose; not a “jot or tittle” is thrown in carelessly in attempt to meet a word count or appear more intelligent to the ignorant reader, but rather, each phrase is composed like a line of music, thus appealing to the reader’s deepest sense of beauty. Of course, one might debate that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” but regardless of personal opinions of individual readers, by combining intentionality with artistry, a level of universal beauty, such as that achieved by the enduring works of literature, can be achieved.

To summarize: Many truths. Very clear. Much beauty. (Sorry, breaking the flow of my prose again. At least it was not a hashtag this time.) This passage in The Odyssey was one of those passages that make me gasp “Ah-ha!” aloud in the middle of the library. It made me race to the nearest computer to jot down my thoughts and publish them to my blog in the unlikely case that one of my readers may find inspiration in them as I did. This passage made me take a step back and reevaluate myself as a writer, but it also gave me a renewed passion as it guided me toward the path of truly great writing, that which is truth-centered, focused, and beautiful.