I’m sat before Him, poised, ready to speak. I feel a tiny bit proud of myself, I mean, this is what I should be doing, this is what Christians do isn’t it? I open my mouth expectantly, knowing that after this I should feel better, at least that’s what I’ve heard. I go to speak, longing to find some kind of higher spiritual ground above the mess I find myself in right now. I take a breath, expecting the words to simply flow from me, for His spirit to take over, but nothing comes out. Silence. My mute posture before Him fails to reflect the storm raging inside me. I know I should talk to Him, but I’m afraid the words I’ll use are too raw. I’m not going to thank Him for this, I’m not going to ask for Him to use me to help others, I’m not going to praise Him for the hope of heaven, I’m not going to ask Him to give me more faith. I don’t want to. I’m too angry. So what do I say?
I’ve sat like this so many times, a complete disconnect between what I know I ‘should’ do and what I actually want to do. Knowing, in my darkest moments, I should find the faith to pray, a small jewel of hope within me still believing I might feel better after it, accompanied by a generous helping of Christian guilt reminding me of what I should be doing and how those with more faith would have been on their knees for hours by now. You may all be silently judging me right now, but I’m okay with that, I guess I’m confessing that my first thoughts in the face of pain are not the kinds of phrases you see printed on a poster with a fluffy kitten or a rainbow behind them.
The other week I watched a fantastic video with Eugene Peterson and Bono talking about the psalms and it reminded me about what they’d taught me about prayer over the years of loss and heartache, summarised perfectly in one sentence by Eugene Peterson, ‘praying isn’t being nice before God.’
‘praying isn’t being nice before God.’
I remember the first time the psalms helped me to pray. I was at a prayer meeting run by Spice, the spouses group at Ridley Hall, where my husband Dave was training to be a vicar. We’d just moved to Cambridge but I already wanted to leave. I’d arrived there desperate to be a mum, having already had three miscarriages followed by two years of not being able to conceive and suddenly found myself surrounded by the women I’d been successfully trying to avoid – mothers. They were everywhere, pregnant, holding children, feeding them, talking about them, I was completely out of my depth, their confidence and joy in their role whispering over me my greatest fears, that I didn’t belong here, that my life had no meaning. I’d left my job in Chester as part of the move and was struggling to find another one, my husband’s joy at being given the opportunity to study and explore his calling made me resent our new life even more. I didn’t want to pray that night, I hadn’t actually prayed for a while, it didn’t seem to make much difference. But when I read the sheet of paper handed to me that night, I saw something I connected with. It was a psalm, I didn’t read all of it, just the beginning. It was angry and I loved it so I copied those sentences into my notebook and felt a bit better. Picking up my the Bible next to me, I found the psalms and searched them for angry words, copying them down. I became frantic, searching, copying and moving on to the next chapter. That night I returned home a little bit smug, believing I’d managed a whole prayer meeting without praying. But now I realise I was wrong. Praying isn’t about being nice before God, it’s about being honest.
Now the psalms aren’t just angry poetry, there’s more of a balance to them than the way I prayed that night with a room full of super-fertile future vicar’s wives. The psalms are more of a dialogue, an utterly real conversation that insists on two things – being completely honest about the feeling of abandonment and not losing sight of the facts about God you know are true. Now, I don’t know about you but when disaster strikes my prayers don’t normally feature both sides of the conversation, I’m either trying to fake the heavenly glow of peace to fit in with those around me or I’m ready to throw the whole faith in God thing down a very deep hole, along with the dungarees I could never pull off and every photo that ever existed of me with short hair – I got mistaken for a boy, it was a difficult time for me.
The Message translation of the Bible began with a psalm. Eugene Peterson, translated a psalm into everyday modern language and gave it to someone in his congregation who was going through a really difficult time because he wanted to help them to learn how to pray in the midst of their suffering, explaining ‘this psalms aren’t pretty, or smooth, or nice, but they’re honest and I think we’re trying for honesty, which is very hard in our culture.’ He then went on to say, ‘we need to find a way of cussing without cussing and the psalms do that.’ I personally have found that sometimes ‘cussing’ or ‘swearing’ as we say over the pond can also be helpful to really make sure God has grasped the reality of the situation, but that’s just my personal opinion.
‘this psalms aren’t pretty, or smooth, or nice, but they’re honest and I think we’re trying for honesty, which is very hard in our culture.’
I could go on and on about the need to be honest before God and how He’s big enough to take it because I think it’s something we’re really bad at and without honesty our faith and worship can lack reality, but that would only be one side of the conversation. The psalms are a dialogue and somehow in the midst of the mess we need to find truths to cling on to. Walter Brueggermann, describes the psalms of lament as psalms of disorientation and the dialogue that occurs in them, as a process of orientation, of reminding ourselves of God’s order, of His faithfulness, His power and His promises. I imagine these truths as tiny lights, flickering in the darkness, guiding me out of the pit. Reorientation can take on different forms for everyone, for me it was a mix remembering God’s faithfulness and provision in the past, resting in the love and care of those surrounding me and putting my hope in the truth of redemption – that nothing, no experience, no matter how bad, is irredeemable. Now this reorientation isn’t easy, it doesn’t necessarily come naturally, it requires grit and determination that your heart will not turn bitter from your present situation and faith in God’s saving activity.
‘we need to find a way of cussing without cussing and the psalms do that
Church can be good at reorientation, reminding us of truths about God, worship songs can help too but in order for our worship to be genuine, I believe we also need to make space for lament. But you can’t just jump from one to the other, our hearts don’t work that way, they take time to heal. Besides I don’t think worship was ever meant to be an escape from reality, but the opportunity to connect God in the midst of where we’re at.