Just listen again to all the ways our Psalmist this morning describes what God means to him—hope, rock, mighty rock, salvation, fortress, deliverance, honor, refuge.
And listen to how human beings are described—a breath (if you're poor), a delusion (if you are rich), and because together we are lighter than air itself, we aren’t even able to weigh down our side of the scales.
We the vulnerable have one recourse and one only in this earthly life, not crime nor violence nor riches, none of which will add to our security or happiness. It was a world where life was uncertain and wellbeing a sometime thing—that’s certainly not what we grew up believing in middle class American households.
Today for the first time for all of us, life is reverting to what had once been a normal baseline for planetary existence for millennia—what we are calling the “new normal” was really the old normal before there were bank accounts, retirement savings, health insurance, mega-hospitals, a pharmacopeia of 20,000 drugs on the market, jet air travel, paved roads, seat belts, lighted streets, sewage and sanitation systems, etc. All of which had the effect over the last 70 years of adding 10 years to American life expectancy.
So the notion of absolute dependence upon God for all things, as professed by the Psalmist, is foreign to us.
Even so, we do make known what needs we may have through the prayers we say when we lay our heads on the pillow at night, or those we have said for us at church. Practiced the way we commonly see them done, these petitions are rather utilitarian. They are as such not invalid, but they do not bring us much satisfaction either. Because as prayed, such prayers are haunted by age-old speculations on whether prayer gets answered, and why some prayers get answered and others do not, and whether it makes a difference to God if we enlist many other people in praying for what we need, and is it right for God to answer my prayer and not somebody else’s, and if I ask for the rain my garden needs, will I be ruining somebody’s parade?
These questions never get answered because they have no answer, given the mistaken assumption upon which they are based about a mechanistic God sitting at a cosmic telephone switchboard. So, surrounded as we are by a bevy of uncertainties, we pray but we don’t always raise very confident prayers—or some people just give up praying for that matter.
And so, listen again to the exhortation of the Psalmist, who enjoins us to “pour out our hearts before God.” Just take a cursory glance at any two or three or four psalms, and you can see that’s exactly what the Psalmist does over and over again—he pours out his heart before God. The Psalmist, in fact, models for us the very life of prayer which he urges upon us when he says, “pour out your hearts before God”—because his prayers are expostulations, explosions of feeling, eruptions of felt emotion originating in the depths of his being.
The Psalmist’s prayers are not so much petitions asking for solutions to problems or relief from exigency, but rather are acts of pure expression—what we call emotional honesty, a good example of which comes from Jesus himself when he prayed in Gethsemane, “Let this cup pass from me,” in other words, I am deathly afraid.
True prayer—the kind of prayer we need in this pandemic—amounts to moments of honesty before our God, which is not so easy when we are not even honest with ourselves and shy about doing so in front of our friends.
The spiritual goal is elusive—prayer is a gradual process of increasing honesty, of self-clarification. Ultimately, prayer will bring me to see myself as God sees me and lead me out of my paralysis, my fears, my quandaries about what the heck to do next. This kind of prayer rises from the spiritual depths, the words coming from a deeper place than asking for favors, or solutions, or anything of that sort.
So, what we call prayer is really not at base an activity at all; prayer is a state of being which occasionally makes its difficult way gradually into words or tears or sighs (remember St. Paul’s sighs too deep for words?), or into physical gestures like the use of worry beads or rosaries, the lighting of candles, the kneeling, or the standing, or the davening at Orthodox Jewish Shabbat.
Prayer starts somewhere before words but which eventually releases an infinite variety of moods, depths, dimensions, shapes, sounds, words, and smells—yes even smells, as when in the Book of Revelation, John of Patmos sees “the smoke of the incense from the angel’s hand go up before God with his people’s prayers” (Revelation 8:4), an image which draws from the smoke of Israelite sacrifices which were pleasing to God and also anticipates the incense of traditional Christian practice at Holy Communion.
Before even finding such words or gestures, prayer is the state of being in which I am open and responsive to that creative process which is God, a process that will transform me as I cannot transform myself, which is why the Psalmist calls God his rock, his salvation, his fortress, and refuge, but not for the purpose of mere rescue.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great Jewish theologian who taught at Jewish Theological Seminary in NYC and walked with King in the civil rights marches, and who died in 1972, wrote about prayer in this way:
“The essence of religion does not lie in the satisfaction of a human need.” Prayer serves us principally to express “our sense of the ineffable,” our wonder at the sheer fact of being, and thanks for the inexplicable facts of daily life which are mistakenly called “miracles” but really are.
In sum, religion is not to be viewed as an expedient, and prayer is not to be construed as the petitioning of God off the top of our heads to give us this day our daily wishes.
So I believe the title of Anne Lamott’s book on prayer has the right ingredients, just in the wrong order—it shouldn’t be HELP THANKS WOW, it should be the reverse: WOW THANKS HELP—first praise, next gratitude, and then succor redefined. Maybe Lamott addresses this in her book, which I haven’t actually read, but I use her schematic to help put our prayer life on a more secure footing—not misunderstanding prayer as a strictly or even remotely utilitarian affair it is commonly taken to be—we need to, we must be, praying more powerfully.
Worldwide and national circumstances today have us falling back on our religion, and it will only help us mightily if we get the depth of prayer right.
Yes, prayer works—you hear people say that, and it’s true. Funny thing about it is, though, it’s a mystery. Nobody understands how it works, because prayer is not the words, it’s the source of the words coming from our spiritual core, our foundation.
Of course, we would naturally want to know: how do I situate myself in that state, how do I place my feet on prayer’s true foundation?
Another great Jewish theologian, the mystic and philosopher, Martin Buber, who died in 1965, wrote, “Religion is essentially the act of holding fast to God.” The foundations of prayer are simply what Buber called “holding fast,” embracing the Other—the God beyond God, the creative spirit which is divinely infused into all matter and all manner of being, whose nature is, again the Psalmist’s human terms, everlasting mercy and lovingkindness,.
Religion, Buber wrote, is not the “massive body of statements, concepts, and activities including liturgical prayers that one customarily describes by the name of religion and that [men and women] seem to long for more than God,” with all its instructions how to worship, how to pray, how to be saved. Rather, just hold fast to God.
This is perhaps the place, in conclusion, to say a word about the prayers I offer here or at meetings or at bedsides or in my church office. With me, the distance between my own personal depths and the surface where my words break forth is very great (due to being in my head so much!), and so it helps me sometimes to take recourse to the written prayers, or the liturgical prayers, or the famous prayers (Lord’s Prayer, St. Francis, the Serenity Prayer), which is what we all do in public worship in our tradition.
At other times, the depths are closer to the surface and an emotional honesty spontaneously breaks through. I never reach the pitch achieved in the black store-front churches where I worshiped in Chicago, I suppose because of my training, class and race and the inhibitions that come with that—although I can write such prayers, and do. When we say, “Let us pray…”, we are trying to break through the surface, the best our poor spirits can, to pour out our hearts to God.
As a minister, I see my function and vocation as being to proclaim the gospel in such a way that you may find your own way to prayer’s depths, for you to experience, not communication, as if “talking” to God, but real communion with God.
And that’s what I want for you to do—to hold fast to God, and every day to say, WOW, THANKS, HELP.