In seminary, an Old Testament professor encouraged us to read one psalm every day, which I thought was a great discipline , but one I didn’t begin doing until some years later. Today, I use the psalms as part of my daily examen, the part of the day when I intentionally take 15 to 30 minutes and look back over the last 24 hours, seeing God at work or where God needs to work in me. The Psalms continue to give voice to a variety of moods and experiences.
There is one type of insight from my daily examens that I’d like us to focus on more acutely, with the Psalms as our backdrop. Looking through my electronic journal entries from last year, I see patterns and common questions. Quite often, my sentiments are something like, “Where, God, are you in all of this?”
Where are you, God? It’s a legit question, I think, and there are striking and startling examples, where every day events give rise to a sincere curiosity of where God is at work in our lives. Earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, disasters of all kinds. War, famine, disease. And those are the ones on the news – the easy ones. What about closer to home? Those common threads that join us together, the ones we share during the prayers of the people. Members or their family members or friends have been diagnosed with or are battling cancer. There are those who care for spouses, parents or siblings who are sick and infirmed, and the sufferers are growing steadily more ill. And then there’s the everyday stuff we all have with relationships – marriage, children, friendships, schools, jobs. Load it all up, and “Why?” is not an unreasonable question. Wasn’t that Jesus’ question on the cross?
A few months ago, I wrote the following in my electronic journal: “I have no words this day—there is no prayer within me, all that is there is hurt and deep sadness. What am I to do? I can’t even find the words to pray.” Yes, I really wrote that, and I’m not alone.
In reflection, I remembered an article from Time Magazine about Mother Theresa of Calcutta, India. Most of us who know of her probably think that Mother Theresa lived life on earth with a profound and deep-seated faith, knowing great joy while tending to the poor. Yet even she knew those dark times, when prayer was a sincere struggle – where she too felt alone, unable to know the presence of God. Times when she was afraid, or hurting, or distressed about the state of the world, and simply could not pray. Times when she tried to pray, but it felt like no-one was listening.
None of us is alone in feeling beaten up, a little or a lot. You may have thought to pray, or try to pray, but instead came up empty. We have all been there, even if for a mere moment.
In such moments, here’s my question — why doesn’t God just fix it? I want it to be better, so just fix it. I don’t need to give voice to my feelings, just fix it now, Lord, and move on to the next soul. That’s how we pray most of the time, isn’t it? Life throws a curve, and we just want our “old life” back – no confusion, no difficulties. The words escape us, and they really don’t matter. Or what if they do matter, and the fact that we can’t conjure them is evidence that my faith is lacking.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I find it reassuring that others are not alone in their moments of doubt and despair. I find it reassuring to know that I’m not the only person who finds herself in such places. Mother Theresa for me, is a Psalmist, giving a voice to my personal struggle. In the rawness of the moment when I wrote those words, it was reassuring to know the Psalms of Lament give voice to the ache and hurt which I cannot express while a few Psalms over I find the hope and reassurance that I hungry to hear. The Psalms are truly a gift—able to be with us there in the dark moments of our lives while also reminding us that in spite of the apparent darkness, there is still light somewhere – the famous line of “I will fear no evil” because of the light at the end that we call “God.”
Dr. Larry Dossey, an M.D. who has conducted a number of scientific studies on prayer shares the following story. One of his patients was near death from lung cancer. The day before his death, Dossey went to visit him. He sat amongst the man’s wife and children at his bedside. The man knew he didn’t have much time left. He was nearly spent, and so he chose his words very carefully, speaking in a hoarse whisper. Even though he wasn’t a religious person, he told Dossey that in recent weeks he prayed frequently.
Since this was obviously important to him, Dossey asked him what he prayed for. The man responded, “I don’t pray for anything. How would I know what to pray for?” Dossey was a little surprised. It seemed pretty obvious that given his condition, he surely could think of some request. So Dossey pushed him a little, asking, “If prayer is not for asking, what is it for?” The dying man responded, “It isn’t for anything. It mainly reminds me I am not alone.”
The Psalms remind us of this in so many ways, evening out our despair and our joy. If we are too high, we are reminded that God is ruler of our lives. If we are too low, we are reminded that God is our faithful companion, the light of our life. Just like the baby bunny who can not hide from his mother, so is God’s eye constantly upon us. “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.” These 11 words are words that I failed to find within myself, but God gave them to me – to all of us — through the Psalms.
Indeed, prayer, in whatever form we engage it – whether a Psalm or a prayer of our unique invention — reminds us that we are not alone.