“Stripped to a scream, undressed to a cry of pain, he sobbed his anger at God in hoarse words that hurt his throat. He asked for nothing now, nor did he wonder if he’d been bad or good. Such concepts were all part of the joke he’d just discovered. He cursed God directly for the savage joke that had been played on him. And in that cursing Mellas for the first time really talked with his God. Then he cried, tears and snot mixing together as they streamed down his face, but his cries were the rage and hurt of a newborn child, at last, however roughly, being taken from the womb.” (from Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes)
A friend emailed last week to ask about crying out to God. She said I made it sound simple, but she felt intimidated by the prospect. As I thought through this with her it occurred to me that many of us probably feel scared or awkward about crying out to God. I wondered why this should be. If God isn’t the great comforter then what is He? If we can’t run to him in our sorrow, where can we go? And then it struck me; we do run to him, we do cry out to him, we do expect him to comfort us, but we also expect him to keep us from needing comfort! Isn’t he supposed to protect us??? Isn’t he supposed to stop the pain dead in its tracks??? How can we run to a God and cry to a God who didn’t keep us safe and didn’t guard our hearts? If we let ourselves rest upon this idea for a moment I think we might discover that instead of crying out to God for comfort, what we’d really like to do is to cry at God in pain. We’d like to ventilate our anger at not being protected. And that is scary for a lot of reasons. Is it ok to be angry at God? Is our theology big enough to allow for this? Is our morality in the way? Religion leaves no room for God-anger, it only lets us account for self-anger or others-anger. Either we messed up and we are getting what we deserve or someone else (the bad people) are doing what bad people do and God will get them eventually. But we do not blame God for our mistakes or for bad people being bad. God stays lilly white. He stays above reproach.
This is not Christianity. Christianity is a God who gets dirty. The gospel is a God who, while remaining fully God, allows himself to become reproachable; who, while remaining completely faultless, accepts the blame for every fault. If we look upon the cross long enough we will not find the answer to our suffering. We will not see why our tears fall, or why we were not protected. But we will see this – we will see that the real God did not run away from our anger or the anger of God the Father. We will see that the wrath of men and God were not great enough to destroy Jesus Christ. And we will see that the one thing we know about suffering is that God willingly participates in it with us. He doesn’t stay lilly white. He becomes darkness itself. Jesus was not protected. Jesus was not comforted. Jesus cried out and was unanswered. My heart can sometimes not contain itself when I look on this, even in my own suffering. I know I cannot accuse my God, the real God, of apathy toward my low estate. The cross contradicts me. Perhaps we do not begin to speak with God until we cry in pain and anger at him. Surely he is not afraid of it, just as I was not afraid to hear my children cry themselves to sleep when they were infants, knowing I’d provided all they needed and that they were safe and secure in my house only needing the crying in order to sleep well.
“This, then, is how you should pray: “Our Father in heaven”” (Matthew 6:9)
I’m old enough that when I played high school sports our team would actually pray together before games. All of us, agnostics, atheists, Jews and Gentiles and who-knows-what-else in a huddle reciting the words together in a huddle. Psalm 23 was popular. It usually started slow and low, got loud and fast by the “shadow of death” part and then worked into a disjointed war cry by the end. We also did the “Lord’s Prayer” or model prayer. This felt more like a magic incantation mumbled by pimply priests ready to enter the basketball, football, or baseball sanctuary. We knew the words. Someone said “our father” and everyone jumped in, marching in rhythm to the never ending end: “forever and ever amen.”
I don’t know when I learned the words, but I know it was long before I knew them. I still don’t know them. I still fall into one word and swim until I admit I can’t find the bottom of it. So I guess my title is more than a little presumptuous. I don’t really know how to pray the Lord’s prayer, I just know more than I used to know, and I know that what I know is wonderful. And I’m not a guy who uses “wonderful” to describe much. It is wonderful. It is wonderful. It is wonderful. It is so wonderful that I’m going to have to write just a little at a time. Do this with me; pray the Lord’s prayer every day out loud and let it be whatever it is to you. Out loud is important. Form the words with your mouth not just your heart or mind. Lesson one is that Christianity is not spiritual or supernatural. Christianity is Jesus; a real man with a real body and a real mouth making real words. The earth is his and everything in it. All things belong to him. Christians or those who want to know the real God do not need to retreat from the physical in order to find him. Everything is spiritual and supernatural. Either God made your mouth or he didn’t. If he did, it is a miracle and every word miraculous. Speech itself. Rhythm. Resonance. Feel it. Try to explain it without God if you’d like, but as for me, I’m going to let the sound itself declare the glory of God.
Father awaken me in the moment through which I am passing.
Oh God of the North wind, God of earth and sky, God of seasons and trees. Please send your strong winds upon my yard. Blow all day with your breath hard enough to push all the leaves into my neighbors yard, but gentle enough not to disturb the freshly sown grass seed. I will give you glory and honor as I watch others rake their yards. I will rejoice in your goodness and mercy that saves me from another three hours worth of reaping a harvest of dead brown things from my pitiful looking yard. I thank you in advance for all you will do and have done. And yes Lord, I am serious (maybe not the part about blowing them all into my neighbor’s yard…)
The Psalms are the prayer book of the Bible. The Psalms are poetry, full of images intended to stand out of the text and in our minds like structures in pop-up books. Towers and birds and trees and rivers. Grasp these images and let your mind hold them all day long. Meditate over them. Meditation is a word best described as what a lion does over its prey. It is a deep growling, chewing, grasping.
If you want to learn to pray the first thing you should do is pray. The Christian story of the world is clear: God is fully invested in knowing us and talking to us before we ever think about talking to him. The gospel shows us how far God is willing to go to have a relationship with us. Conversations with God are not, cannot, be happening because we get in the right posture or say the perfect words or perform enough deeds. Eugene Peterson, author of The Message, wrote one of the best books on prayer: Answering God. The premise of the book is that God always speaks first and we are always answering him. Peterson uses the metaphor of teaching babies to talk. Parents lean over the crib and speak incomprehensible words to an infant and this is how the infant learns to make sounds and eventually words. The best thing we can do in prayer is remember we are infants. Stop trying to make prayers that seem “well done.” Make sounds to God. Cry out. Ask for needs to be met. Laugh upwards in joy. Reach for Help.
Two poems that help me pray:
Thou art coming to a King
Large petitions to Him bring
for His love and grace are such
none can ever ask too much
Lord thou hast bid me seek thy face
And shall I seek in vain?
And shall the ear of sovereign grace
Be deaf when I complain?
Sandra Bullock in Gravity: please pray for me…I’ve never prayed once in my life. No one ever taught me. No one ever taught me.
What would it be like to feel the need to pray; to reach out for God and not be able to? To think it impossible? That is gravity with no hope of escaping its pull.