Entering into the Big Story in prayer

There are some stories other people have told me that are so vivid in my imagination, it’s as if I was there, as if those things happened to me.

My wife tells a story about a time she burned a piece of paper, only to discover how quickly the flames had gotten out of hand, reaching up to lick her hand. So, she hastily dropped the burning paper into her trash can. But it was full of other paper. And soon, she had a flaming bin to deal with. So, she scooped up the trash can and rushed to the bathroom in her college dorm, where she doused out the fire.

However, the smoke from the mini conflagration set off the fire alarm. Embarrassed, she dumped the smoldering papers into the trash chute. This, of course, endangered the entire dorm building. Fortunately, the fire was completely out, but not this story.

Not long afterward, she noticed how painful her fingers felt — she had second degree burns on all of her fingertips from carrying the hot metal trash can to the bathroom. A visit from a fireman, who smirked at her story and told her to use scissors instead of fire next time, only made the episode that much more embarrassing … as did wearing Bandaids on her fingertips for the next two weeks.

There are more details, but that’s the basic story. And I can see every step of it being played out in my imagination. In fact, sometimes, when my wife tells the story, she’ll leave out my favorite details and I’ll correct her.

Did you catch that? I’ll correct my wife when she’s telling her story! It’s become my story in my imagination to such a degree that I can tell when she’s getting it wrong.

Harry Potter fans have corrected J.K. Rowling about characters in the books she wrote. And one of my favorite authors, Wendell Berry, made some changes to books of his because fans pointed out mistakes in the timeline in his collection of books and short stories.

We humans have the unique ability to inhabit stories that are not our own.

Sometimes, the stories told of different times and places become our stories, here and now. Sometimes, what happened to other people becomes the story of what happened to me.

And this happens to those of us who immerse ourselves in the Scriptures. This ancient millennia-spanning story becomes our own personal story.

This is why I hate almost every movie or TV version of the biblical story. The writers inevitably tinker with the story, changing it so it’s no longer my story. They get it wrong, like when my wife tells the fire story and leaves out details which have become important to me.

But this is also why I love it whenever anyone verbally reads or tells a biblical story. Because I’m immediately transported into it. They can tell the stories sparsely and I’ll fill in the details from my years of reading the Bible. The simple act of receiving communion does this for me, too.

Psalm 66 is one of a number of psalms where the psalmist tells the story of the Exodus and then makes that ancient story his own.

It begins with a general call to worship that extends beyond the psalmist himself and the people of Israel, including “all the earth” in its summons to sing God’s glory.

Shout for joy to God, all the earth!
    Sing the glory of his name;
    make his praise glorious.
Say to God, “How awesome are your deeds!
    So great is your power
    that your enemies cringe before you.
All the earth bows down to you;
    they sing praise to you,
    they sing the praises of your name.” (Ps. 66:1-4)

God’s power cuts two ways. It makes those who love him worship, but it causes those who stand against him to cringe. This is seen particularly in the Exodus, where the power which saves the Hebrews is the same power that afflicts the Egyptians.

Come and see what God has done,
    his awesome deeds for mankind!
He turned the sea into dry land,
    they passed through the waters on foot —
    come, let us rejoice in him.
He rules forever by his power,
    his eyes watch the nations —
    let not the rebellious rise up against him (Ps. 66:5-7).

The image above is of the Hebrews walking through the sea on dry land to safety, while the Egyptian army is swept under the waves to their death. Because of this, it is wise to keep an eye on the Watcher of Nations, because no rebellion against him escapes his gaze, just as no peril to his people escapes his gaze.

The Exodus story is continued through the hardships and testings in the desert wanderings — where God is compared with the taskmasters of Egypt, as he lays burdens on the backs of his people — and through to the entrance into the Promise Land, a place of abundance.

Praise our God, all peoples,
    let the sound of his praise be heard;
he has preserved our lives
    and kept our feet from slipping.
For you, God, tested us;
    you refined us like silver.
You brought us into prison
    and laid burdens on our backs.
You let people ride over our heads;
    we went through fire and water,
    but you brought us to a place of abundance (Ps. 66:8-12).

This is the big, world-shaping story of the Old Testament. With Passover retellings and other reminders, this story of deliverance sank deep roots into the Hebrew imagination.

When Moses reaffirmed the covenant between Yahweh and the Hebrew people at the end of their 40-year wandering, he was speaking to a different generation than the ones who received the initial words of the covenant. And yet, he says this:

It was not with our ancestors that the LORD made this covenant, but with us, with all of us who are alive here today (Deut. 5:3).

The covenant is new and fresh, because the story is new and fresh, since it inhabits every person who makes it their own. This covenant was made with me, because this story is my story.

And so, the psalmist, having recounted the Exodus story appropriates it as his own. Shifting from plural “us” language, he continues in the last half of the psalm speaking personally.

Why? He’s done the typical thing of those who get into trouble: He’s made a deal with God.

I will come to your temple with burnt offerings
    and fulfill my vows to you—
vows my lips promised and my mouth spoke
    when I was in trouble.
I will sacrifice fat animals to you
    and an offering of rams;
    I will offer bulls and goats (Ps. 66:13-15).

He’d vowed sacrifices, and here he is to getting ready to make good on those promises. After recounting the mighty deeds of God, he’s wise enough to not ignore his promises to God.

Too often, I pray pleadingly with God and then simply move on when my answer comes, forgetting to make much of what he’s done for me. This is because I rarely place my prayers in the larger context of God’s massive acts of salvation and so don’t have a sense of the vastness of the power I’m calling on to deal with my personal problems.

But not only does the psalmist offer sacrifices, he offers witness.

Come and hear, all you who fear God;
    let me tell you what he has done for me (Ps. 66:16).

There can be no silence about salvation. If I’ve truly been saved, I am compelled to tell the story.

If I’ve entered into a bigger story, the telling of my story might be the doorway for others to enter into it as well.

And the story the psalmist tells is of how he went from petition to praise. How he didn’t hold onto his sin like a cherished child, but let it go and turned toward God instead — it’s hard to hear someone whose back is turned toward you.

I cried out to him with my mouth;
    his praise was on my tongue.
If I had cherished sin in my heart,
    the Lord would not have listened;
but God has surely listened
    and has heard my prayer.
Praise be to God,
    who has not rejected my prayer
    or withheld his love from me! (Ps. 66:17-20)

And just as God turned his attention to the Hebrew slaves in their affliction and abuse under Egyptian slavery, so God has turned toward the psalmist. Just as he didn’t reject their prayers and withhold his covenant love from them, so he doesn’t with any of us who turn toward him in prayer.

Coopting old Hebrew stories is the essence of biblical faith. Making them our own is how we enter into God’s vast and glorious Story and find that it is completely personal, having room for me in it, too.

Every big act of salvation in the pages of Scripture can be prayed and lived out in miniature in my own life.