The Word Of Prayer
God gave us laments, so we can have a way to talk to God when we’re mad and pissed off. And to do so without feeling guilty or ashamed.
Yesterday I had a wonderful talk with a total stranger. Something I’ve missed doing since this pandemic masked us up and has kept us separated. We talked about all sorts of stuff. And if you know me, you know we eventually got talking about our faith. It seems she lost hers recently. But not completely.
She’s been struggling to make sense of all that’s going on in the world. And wondering where God is. Like so many of us these days, she told me she felt abandoned by God. This is what hurt her to the core. I confessed to her that I was having some trouble too, not with faith per se. But connecting with God.
The truth is, I’ve been having trouble lately praying. I can muster one up if called to do so. That’s not the kind of prayer I’m talking about. I’m talking the ones that come from the depths of the soul, down deep where past pain and hurt have been stuffed away. It’s in that storage closet of sorts that my conversations with God get personal, and powerful.
I can see why Jesus said don’t pray in public. Instead, he instructs us go be alone with our thoughts. Go someplace where you can talk honestly with God. But recently I just don’t feel like talking. It’s like the words just aren’t there. Yes, even Jesus gave us a prayer to help us in times like this. The Lord’s Prayer is a good, corporate prayer that focuses on the basics of life...God, Food, Forgiveness, Protection.
But sometimes it’s not enough to get me to that place where I need to be. That place where all my secrets, anxieties, fears and pains hide. The place where I need God the most. I told the woman I was talking to that it’s in these times, that I turn to the Psalms.
I had a great professor in seminary who said, “If we want to learn to express ourselves before God in praise and prayer, there is no better place in the Bible than the Psalms. They don’t teach us how to worship, they show us how.”
If you are not familiar with the psalms, they are poetic songs and prayers found in the Old Testament. There are 150 to choose from; covering a wide spectrum of emotions and situations you might be facing today. Best of all, the psalms use a language that’s authentic and real. Whether they’re psalms of praise or protest, each one reveals God’s greatness while providing us with a way to express ourselves to God honestly.
So, when I found myself lacking the words to pray this week, I sat down with this psalm...Psalm 25. I read the verses slowly until a particular word or phrase spoke to my heart. And freed me to speak to God’s heart. READ: Psalm 25:1-10
Suffice it to say, Psalm 25 is an unusual beast. It’s one of three alphabet psalms, meaning each verse begins with the successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Now these are difficult psalms to write. As you might have noticed, they often lack any clear, logical structure. By comparison to others, this one’s all over the place – much like my thoughts when I try to pray.
But here’s the thing. Personal prayers often lack structure. They are more stream of consciousness versus a set pattern. That’s what makes them uniquely yours.
There’s a good example of this in the movie The Apostle, starring Robert Duval who plays Sonny Dewey, a womanizing Pentecostal preacher with a violent temper. Having lost his wife and his church, Sonny’s life spins out of control. There’s a great scene in the film where he’s pacing the floor of his attic and what might seem to some like the ramblings of a madman, Sonny shouts out this prayer:
“God, I'm confused. I'm mad. I love you, Lord. I love you, but I'm mad at you. I am mad at you! So, deliver me tonight, Lord. What should I do? Now tell me. Should I lay hands on myself? I know I'm a sinner and once in a while a womanizer, but I'm your servant! Ever since I was a little boy and you brought me back from the dead, I'm your servant! What should I do? Tell me. I've always called you Jesus, you've always called me Sonny. What should I do Jesus? This is Sonny talking now.”
Like most of us Sonny has a complex relationship with God, but his prayers are always full of honesty and raw emotion. Even though they are scripted, his words feel real because he speaks to God through his fears, anxieties and hope. The very essence of Psalm 25. Despite it being all over the place, this psalm, like all the others, give us a hope-filled language to speak from our heart, whether it’s in joy or in pain.
Now this particular psalm as a lament – a passionate complaint or cry for help. When read in its entirety, Psalm 25 plumbs the depths of loneliness and affliction. It then swerves upward in praise of God before descending into fear again. Heck, it even tries to manipulate God into forgetting any past wrongdoings. Imagine having permission to change God’s mind. Like a child trying to get out of trouble by making stuff up to see what sticks, Psalm 25 meanders all over the place as if the writer knew everything sticks with God.
You see, God doesn’t care what we say or how we say it. God just wants us to show up and start talking. God is relational, always there for us. And even gives us a language to use for whatever we are feeling in that moment.
I believe that’s why God gave us laments, so we can have a way to talk to God when we’re mad and pissed off. And to do so without feeling guilty or ashamed. Walter Brueggemann made the commented that “it’s an act of profound faith to entrust one’s most precious hatreds to God, knowing they will be taken seriously.”
Whether it’s prayer or praise or just an avenue to voice your anger, the psalms free us to relate to God as real people. We can go to the extremes. Be vulnerable and authentic, knowing and believing God is big enough to handle our pain and suffering. Given what we’re going through today, we need psalms like this. Psalms that say, “I’m mad at you God” or “Where are you Lord? Don’t leave me hanging out on a limb for you.”
Maybe you’re like Sonny. Maybe your life is unraveling, and you don’t know what to do. If so, then psalm is for you. Maybe your life isn’t as dramatic as that, but maybe you’ve hit a wall with your faith or lost direction of your life’s purpose. If so, this psalm is for you.
Maybe something happened a long time ago that has left you feeling alone, ashamed, or afraid. Perhaps some underlying anger or deep resentment that is causing you to react in a way that is well, not very Christ-like. If so, then this psalm is for you. Given to you by God for this purpose – to draw you closer to the very source of life so you can find your peace and salvation.
But as you leave today, remember this: When you’re hurting inside because someone hurt you or you hurt someone there’s a psalm to calm our pain. And to give you a voice to forgive.
When the racial injustice in our country has caused our cities to erupt in violence and your temper to boil over there’s a psalm to calm our rage and to lead you to righteousness.
When you’re suffering from the emotional, physical and spiritual pain caused by this pandemic, there’s a psalm to calm you fears and anxieties that draw you closer to God’s healing love.
When the ugliness of our human condition causes you to clinch your fist and scream there is a way to say to God exactly how you feel.
Trust me, there’s nothing you can say that God hasn’t heard before. When you’re feeling directionless, or even faithless, the psalms lead us back to the open arms of God who is mindful of our needs and merciful in love, always generous with grace. Ours is a God who is always looking out for us. Who always knows where we are and what we’re feeling, because this God is always with us, always beside us, in us, and all around us just waiting for us to show up.
So, let me say it one last time. No matter what you’re feeling or what challenges you are facing right now, God is here inviting you to seek salvation from the ugliness of the world. You don’t need the perfect prayer or even the perfect words.
Nothing is required for you to show up. Just show up. As you are. In whatever mood you’re in. Speaking whatever language you need to get your point across.
God can handle it. Dare I say, God even loves it. Why? Because you trusted God with your most intimate and most vulnerable self. I can’t think of a better way to pray or more holy act than that.
Lord God, though sometimes words fail us ... you do not. You are always faithful even when we lose faith, you stay with us. Your presence in our lives not only save us from ourselves, but empower us to live in your right ways. You have given us the words and language to speak to you. And so we offer these words of prayer and petitions for this church, and the needs of those who are a part of it. Lord God, we pray to you knowing that you receive us in your heart. As we move into the world today, empower us with your Holy Spirit to walk in the ways of Christ Jesus, to be visible presence of your love for the glory of your name. Amen.
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word Year A Vol. 4. Louisville, Westminster John Knox, 2011 pp. 104-109.
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has been blogging under the name: Jesus not Jesús: Looking for Christ in the face of strangers. You can read his posts and browse his archives by clicking here.
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