Paul Birch Petersen is Danish born (1952) and has, since his youth, worked as a minister in Denmark. A diligent writer, he has written several books in his mother tongue. Studying first at the University of Copenhagen, he recently defended his doctoral dissertation on the prayers of Daniel for the Old Testament Department at Andrews Theological Seminary in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Paul Birch Petersen is married, has two boys, and presently serves as the president for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Denmark.
Shabbat Shalom: What is prayer for you?
Petersen: To me, prayer has at least two sides. On the one hand, it is the outpouring of your heart as to a friend, expressing your longings and your emotions. But it is also the emptying of oneself, an opening of the mind that prepares you for listening to and understanding the Word of God as He reveals Himself.
Shabbat Shalom: When, how, and why do you pray?
Petersen: In private, morning and evening prayers feel natural, whether the daily schedule makes room for longer or shorter times in prayer and meditation. As it did for David in Psalms 3 and 4, the awakening to life, protected through the night by God (3:6), and the ability to go to sleep in the peace and safety provided by Him, independent of external circumstances (4:8-9), inspire gratefulness.
Another great moment of my prayer life is the prayers of the Sabbath, both private prayers, as the Sabbath rest provides precious time for communicating with God, and public prayers in the fellowship of the believing community.
First and foremost, prayer is for me part of a communication with God. For that reason, praying and reading the Holy Scriptures go hand in hand. Opening my mind in prayer means to listen to what God has revealed through the Writings.
Shabbat Shalom: Do you practice the recitation of some prayers?
If yes, what is the value? Petersen: I grew up in a very secular society; and from my childhood, liturgical prayers or the recitation of prayers was not a part of my life. But there is one kind of recitation of prayers to which I have become accustomed, that is, the prayers expressed in music.
As a lover of music, I practice many prayers by singing, whether these prayers belong to some of the great texts of history, or whether they stem directly from the Bible, such as the prayer by Jesus in Matthew 6:9-13 or Psalms like 19, 23, 46, or 96. It may be simple hymns or praises, or it may be profound musical compositions such as, for instance, the Ten Biblical Songs with texts from the Psalms by Dvórak. At times, I have made feeble attempts for myself to translate the mood and structure of a specific biblical prayer into music—but mainly in private.
Through music, the emotional experience of the beauty of the biblical prayers may be enhanced, while the intellectual content is maintained.
Shabbat Shalom: The Bible contains many prayers, especially in the Psalms and in the Book of Daniel; the latter was even the topic of your doctoral dissertation. Which prayer do you prefer, and why?
Petersen: This is a difficult question. The biblical prayers are as varied as the human existence, and for exactly that reason any experience of life may find its counterpart and its support in a biblical prayer that reflects the particular mood of the situation.
But let me point to two biblical prayers that have been and still are very significant for my personal experience. One is Psalm 130, which expresses the longing and the waiting for God’s intervention, and yet, in complete confidence, confesses that God is a God of forgiveness. Another prayer is found in Psalm 32. It combines reflections of wisdom with a concluding appeal for praise and thanksgiving. Before that, it contains both an intense, emotional, personal experience with God and a profound theological lesson on the nature of confession and of divine forgiveness. Playing on the verb ksh—meaning “cover, hide” as well as “forgive”— this prayer reveals that my sins will be forgiven and hidden by God (Psalm 32:2) the moment I am willing to admit, confess, and stop hiding them myself (Psalm 32:5).
Shabbat Shalom: We live in special times and many events affect the balance of the world. Do these events affect your prayers?
Petersen: Prayer is not simply a psychological technique, intended to enhance my emotional well-being or supply me with the means to escape the troubles of the world. The God of the Bible is interested in and engaged in the world. Praying to Him makes me concerned about the conditions of the world that He has created. In prayer, I also learn from God to look beyond myself, to cry for His kingdom to come, and to ask for divine help to do what I can do to make the world a better place.
Shabbat Shalom: What is the situation for prayer in a secular world?
Petersen: The secular world is characterized by the lack of a sense of the presence of God. As humans are losing any concept of a personal God, they stop praying, even the most simple cries for help in need.
The ritual formulation of prayer may, however, continue– though at times just as a shallow form. What I experience in parts of the modern society—at least in northern Europe—reminds me of the development in ancient India in which the prayers of the vedas, the holy books, were continuously performed by the priests though the language (Sanskrit) was no longer understood. In the end, the religious significance of these prayers was maintained, but their content became irrelevant. Their performance was sustained, whether understood as having a magical effect, or as a means to affect one’s inner, spiritual being, so as to establish a mysterious unity with the cosmos.
Obviously, biblical prayers are completely different, addressed to a personal God outside outside of one’s self, stressing the communication with Him in words, and presupposing His revelation to man in Scripture. But this development within secular society may explain the success of New Age phenomena and the influence of Hinduistic forms of meditation on our culture.
S h a b b a t Shalom: Elie Wiesel said that after Auschwitz one cannot speak of God anymore, one can only speak to God. Does that mean that after Auschwitz prayer has replaced theology?
Petersen: If we understand “theology” as “speaking about God,” the human experience in this century certainly should caution us against becoming all too sure of any analytical philosophy about the nature of God, at least the triumphalistic concept of God that, nevertheless, seems quite popular in some parts of the religious community in today’s world.
On the other hand, “theology” may also be understood as “the word spoken by God.” Taking theology in that sense, the tragic nature of the history of the 20th century rather compels us to stop and listen, even when the sound of God at the present is not heard. God’s seeming silence may also be part of His communication to man. The continuous prayer response in the presence of God’s silence is in a paradoxical way also a testimony to the belief that He has spoken. Coming to God in prayer, we presuppose His existence, we trust His self-revelation in His Word, and we confide in His willingness to listen to our cry.
Shabbat Shalom: Could you tell us one personal experience of prayer which has affected your spiritual life and eventually your life as a believer?
Petersen: Praying as a father far surpasses any other spiritual experience I have had. I still remember most details from the day, more than 20 years ago, when my first son was born. The joy of that moment completely took me by surprise; and combined with the awe for the new life and the responsibility bestowed upon me as a father, a deep feeling of thanksgiving and gratitude overpowered me and almost forced me to praise my God.
While this, in a sense, was a one-time experience, the prayers of fatherhood since that day have had a deep impact on my life. Praying as a father for my children, and also praying as a son together with my sons to our common heavenly Father has helped me far better to understand God’s patience, God’s mercy, and God’s silence.