Why are you bent over, O my soul? Why are you moaning within me? Put your hope in God, for I am still going to offer praise, my help and my God…By day the Lord directs his love, at night her song is with me—a prayer to the God of my life. (Psalm 42:5, 8)
The psalms are prayers, and Psalm 42 is one of the clear ones. Psalm 42 opens the second book of the Psalter, tagged with a heading to alert readers, “Hey! New chapter! Let’s start back with our basic premise, everyone—here are some ancient prayers to God.”
And what a prayer. It’s pretty agonizing. At best, Psalm 42 is a break up song, all—verse 3—“my soul thirsts for you” and “where can I go to meet you?” Or—verse 4—“tears have been my food day and night” and “I remember how I used to go to your house” and “I was full of joy there with you.” This is the deep felt heartache of adolescence, of true love snatched away while you are left on the playground with the taunts of your enemies chanting, “Where is your love? Where is your God?” (42:3, 10) It even has a repeated chorus.
And if a break-up song is its best, at worst Psalm 42 is a plea in the face of starvation, and a starvation of thirst, a death which takes a lot longer. We are not talking about hunger or the wasting of the body. Instead we are talking about organs dying off one by one as cell walls dry up, shrivel, and shrink. Food we can do without for a while; thirst is no joke.
Whatever the circumstances (we are not told what they are), the psalmist is in great distress. A crisis is afoot, and the psalmist is overwhelmed. The prayer’s stanzas describe what it is like to be in crisis with vivid images. A deer pants, standing desperate before a dried up stream. A person is forced to live on tears, the only water around day or night. Later, there is water everywhere, but of the chaotic, uncontrollable kind—waves and breakers, waterfalls crashing on your shoulders.
The chorus comes back a couple of times. “Why are you bent over, O my soul? Why are you moaning within me? Put your hope in God, for I am still going to offer praise, my help and my God” (42:5,11).
It is a conversation, a call and response with the self. “Why are you bent over, soul?” The conversation is not an imaginative, floaty cry to a disembodied sprit—the word “soul” means “self,” or “person.” This is a “peopled-soul,” the essence of the breath-in-dirt reality of a human created by God. That human is talking himself down, telling herself to hold on, and questioning the finality of crisis. And in the conversation, the human tells the soul to pray.
The Psalm doesn’t make light of the crisis, doesn’t question difficulty. If anything, it gives license to a little melodrama, gives the soul free reign to name what is happening. But it also doesn’t let the soul off the hook; the psalmist tells the soul to remember, to “put your hope in God, for I am still going to offer praise.” And the Psalm claims God too, name’s God as “mine,” despite all the turmoil and seeming distance.
Later in the Psalm something else happens, a pivot towards hope. In verse 8, right on the heels of the raging waterfalls knocking everything about, and right before the confession of “bones suffering mortal agony,” right in the middle the psalmist drops a hinge.
We should have come to expect it by now if we are reading our Bibles closely and paying attention to God. With God the hinge is always “love.”
Verse 8: “By day the Lord directs his love, at night her song is with me—a prayer to the God of my life” (42:8)
The word “love” here is a big, soft, brassy word in Hebrew for the love of God—the big God, the Creator-all-knowing-all-seeing-all-powerful-holding-everything-together-with-unwavering-devotion kind of love—love that cannot and will not fail, love that never ceases, love that is tender and powerful. “Steadfast love” is the way we sometimes translate it, to give it some heft and distinguish it from regular old Hallmark love, of the kind of love we often get from other people, which can be rather fickle.
“Steadfast love,” is not fickle. God is not fickle (though it doesn’t always feel that way…) God’s love is strong and stout and doesn’t move. Like a rock, like a mountain.
But let’s not rabbit trail too much, Psalm 42 isn’t about love, I don’t think. It doesn’t go into much detail about love, doesn’t grapple with it. It just names love, drops love in the middle of crisis. In the middle of everything, God sends love.
And when God sends love to God’s people, prayer is the response. “God sends [love] and the [people respond] with prayer, like the rhythm of day and night, which sustains a glimmer of confidence.”
God sends love and the people respond with prayer, prayer like the rhythm of day and night, which sustains a glimmer of confidence.
Listen again to verse 8, really listen: “By day the Lord directs his love, at night her song is with me.”
And that rhythm of love and song results in one thing, the psalmist continues, “a prayer to the God of my life.”
I have been noticing lately that I keep stumbling into conversations about prayer. Frequently those conversations are with you, with people from our church. Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising. Prayer is something people in churches talk about, right?
Here are some of the ways my conversations about prayer have gone about in the past, in other churches: Prayer is bandied about as requirement, burden, or taxing obligation—something I better work on, learn to do well and often, perfect. It’s surprising, when I think about it, community of overachievers that we are that we don’t talk this way about prayer. I mean, really, Triangle people, we are movers and shakers. We do things, and we do them well. We are here to serve Major Institutions and Acquire Knowledge and Establish Careers. How easy would it be for us to approach prayer as another category we need to master, a task involving research, quantification, books—‘cause we are really good at all that? How easy would it be to make prayer another item on our Important To Do lists—things to get done and do well and accomplish? We could talk about prayer that way.
Or, here’s another way of conversation: Prayer is a pious discipline, a method of spirituality and connection with the divine which will bring peace, transformation, and healing to ourselves, others, and the cosmos. When we find our practice and our piety (often couched as finding the right practice and piety), our relationship with God will go well and we will be well. That sounds good, but that’s not the kind of conversation I find myself having with you all about prayer either.
Neither of those are inherently terrible conversations, though they have their pitfalls. The pitfalls, I fear, are the reasons we tend not to talk about prayer. Too many of us have been burned by prayer.
When we do talk, the conversations we have—or I have had lately—sound different. They are surprising, unexpected. They sound more:
Hesitant. Cautious. People speaking in whispers, shy, tucking our heads down a little sheepishly. Eyes that dart to the side like we are a tad embarrassed to be voicing something so—uncouth? Like we are young adolescents, all knees and elbows and our bodies just grew a couple inches overnight, and we aren’t sure yet how we to navigate our physical world—we keep bumping into cabinets and catching our hips on furniture that jumps out at us from nowhere—when did the world shrink on us? It’s like we are trying to talk about sex—there’s all this mystery and it’s really important and we have no idea what we are supposed to do. It’s like we are saying, “is it really OK to bring up—prayer?”
“Is it OK to pray?”
“And if it is, how do I pray?”
There’s something so beautiful in all these conversations—a chance for newness. A chance for our gangly, beautiful, some-days-slightly-awkward adolescent church body and step forward and respond to God’s love.
So what, other than reading a Psalm, does prayer look like? Try this:
Prayer looks like lighting candles when you are in a space of life where you’ve run out of words. Prayer looks like touching people you love. Prayer looks like sitting at the end of the hall outside a hospital room when you can’t touch the people you love, just to be a little closer. Prayer looks like protest. Prayer looks like baseball. Prayer looks like song.
Prayer looks like sitting quietly while other people pray, when you don’t know how to anymore (or if you ever did) and you aren’t sure that God is listening, but you still sit there with your friends and hold the space anyway. Prayer looks like bone broth and chopping vegetables and sawhorses and putting hands in dirt and parties and fixing farm trailers that fall out on the side of the road. Prayer looks like dancing. (Prayer really, really looks like dancing—let’s just acknowledge there’s a whole other sermon in that…).
Sure, any of these things can be a distraction, an avoidance of life unfolding in us, a pulling away. We use them that way all the time.
But they can also be our point of contact, of settling into life with God who made us and our hands and our minds and our thirsts. We can do these things, and we can also name them—call them what they are. Boldly declare to God and each to one another, when my body and my spirit—the “person-ed soul” who God made—when that body walks through the world, our steps are our prayers.
In the last few weeks I have seen you do all these things—the chopping and the crouching and the sitting, the baseball and the candles. And want to tell you—it’s not just like prayer: it is prayer.
And there are other ways to pray. There are as many ways to pray and as there are to move. There are so many things we can name as prayer. There are so many things we can hold and intend and do. I hope that we can learn to name them together, to share, even if in our spiritual adolescence we feel awkward and shy.
For me, prayer more and more often looks like sitting on the cheap red plastic chair on my porch drinking coffee and trying without trying to watch the squirrels and the brown-eyed Susans.
Which, in all honesty, feels really inadequate. Not often moments of great revelation or deep healing or transformation. Not often anything that feels productive. Mostly the squirrels keep anxiously looking for food, while the flowers keep drooping or growing or turning to face the sun, depending on the weather.
And yet over time, by doing what I know day after day, and paying attention to the gifts God has given and placed in my hands—a smooth ceramic mug, the rich, bitter tinge of coffee, the wispy softness of a squirrel’s rat-like tail, the determined, open glory of flowers struggling to bloom—I find myself a little more settled and at peace with the terrible wildness of the world. And a little more aware that, indeed, “by day the Lord directs his steadfast love, at night her song is with me” (Psalm 42:8). I can see that love and hear that song just a little more. Not much, maybe. But enough to give birth to “a prayer to the God of my life” (42:8).
“Why are you bent over, O my soul? Why are you moaning within me? Put your hope in God, for I am still going to offer praise, my help and my God” (42:5,11)
May we all know and receive the love God offers to us. And may we all find our ways of response, our prayers to the God of our life.