A great Jewish teacher from the 1700’s was leading a prayer service. A simple shepherd boy, who could barely read, stood outside the synagogue for a bit and then, drawn by the beautiful sounds of the voices, he went inside. He was so moved by what he heard that he wanted to pray, too, but he didn’t know the words to the prayers. So instead, he offered what he did know. He began to recite the letters of the alphabet. He said, “Oh God, I don’t know the words of the prayers; I only know all these letters. Please, God, take these letters and arrange them into the right order to make the right words.”
Sometimes, we are like that little shepherd boy. We’re afraid that we don’t know how to pray. We think our prayers aren’t fancy enough, or we’re afraid that there’s a special formula we might mess up. We find ourselves in situations where we’re not sure what the right words are. Maybe we are filled with such awe that none of the words we come up with seem sufficient. Or, we are so sad or afraid, or our pain is so great, that we can’t begin to describe how we’re feeling. We may be so burdened with worry and care that coming up any kind of prayer just seems to require more energy than we can muster. Sometimes we have feelings we think have no place in prayer—things like anger and frustration or a desire for revenge against someone who’s hurt us, things we want to bury deep inside us and hide from the sight of our most holy God.
Fortunately, when we can’t come up with the right words to pray, we can rely on the prayers of others. We find these prayers in many places. Some are new and contemporary. Some are ancient, dating back to the earliest days of the Church. We can find them in the United Methodist Hymnal and the Book of Common Prayer, on web sites and, of course, in Scripture.
All through Scripture we find encouragement to pray. God’s people start praying in Genesis and just keep it up all the way through the Revelation of John. Jesus, of course, modeled prayer of many kinds—prayer alone, prayer in a group; prayers of gratitude, intercession, and even despair. He taught his disciples how to pray—with his example of a good prayer, which we now call the Lord’s prayer, and also in his parables, like the one we heard today about the persistent widow.
The widow’s plea to the hard-hearted judge was a simple plea for justice. No fancy words here, just a demand: “Grant me justice against my opponent.” And she wasn’t about to be deterred by the judge’s initial refusal. Or his next refusal, or the one after that, or the one after that. We don’t know how many times this widow showed up. Jesus just says that she “kept coming,” and that it took a while for the judge to figure out that she wasn’t going to give up easily.
The judge says, in our translation, that the widow was “bothering” him. Luke’s Greek words actually mean that she kept bringing him trouble of some kind. The trouble she was bringing could have been simple pestering as she repeatedly demanded that he do his job, or she could have been beating her breast with intense grief and sorrow. But, however she presented herself before this judge, he decided to grant her justice, not because she deserved it, but simply to shut her up and get her out of his hair.
“Think of it,” Jesus says to his disciples. “A hard-hearted guy like that—a guy who completely ignores his God-given responsibility to hear out the pleas of both rich and poor, a guy who has no fear of God and no respect for his fellow human beings, eventually gives in to this powerless, friendless woman. Now think how different God is from that heartless judge. God hears the cries of the powerless as clearly as the words of the powerful. God is the source and model of the justice and love and compassion that human judges are to emulate. It is inconceivable that our God would not hear and respond to you when you pray.”
In this parable, Jesus doesn’t suggest any appropriate words for prayer, as he did when he taught the disciples how to pray. He doesn’t teach about what condition our heart should be in when we pray, as he will in the parable after ours. Instead, he helps to shape our expectations of prayer. A life of prayer, according to Jesus, isn’t a sprint. It’s a marathon. Prayer is the currency of a long-term relationship with God—an on-going conversation that continues in and through all that happens in our lives, good and bad. Jesus encourages us to stay in conversation with God over the long haul, and not fall into the trap of thinking God isn’t listening when things aren’t going our way.
If we did ask Jesus for some help on what to say in these conversations, my guess is that he would point us toward the Psalms. The Psalms were the prayers of Jesus’ Jewish faith, and he quoted them often, even from the cross. Paul relied heavily on them, and our brothers and sisters in the early church used them, too. The psalms are our prayer book, handed down to us over thousands of years—the prayers of the people of God, as they lived lives that were very different from ours in the details but exactly like ours in how they made them feel about themselves, about others, and about God.
Because their lives were like ours, they give us the words we need for just about any situation we find ourselves in. There are prayers of appreciation of God’s creative power, made visible in creation—prayers of such soaring beauty that they make our hearts and spirits soar, too. There are prayers of assurance—prayers that give us a sense of safety and security when everything seems to be just as it ought to be, expressed in simple statements about an orderly world, like the psalm we read as our call to worship today. The great scholar of the Psalms, Walter Brueggemann, called these “psalms of orientation.” They’re the prayers of people who feel like they are firmly situated in a world that all that it should be.
But, there are also psalms that are not so lovely. Sometimes they’re called “psalms of lament.” Brueggemann calls them “psalms of disorientation.” They’re cries of the heart from people who have been jolted out of their belief that the world was perfect. They are the prayers of people whose lives are falling apart, who have been betrayed by their friends or their bodies, and who fear that even God may have abandoned them. There are prayers of anger and frustration and a desire for revenge—psalms that express a rage we may feel ourselves but, because we think of ourselves as nice people, we won’t admit to, let alone express out loud, and even less express to God in prayer.
But, along with those unlovely prayers come prayers for when we find ourselves on the other side of the storm—“psalms of reorientation,” as Brueggemann calls them. These are psalms of celebration—deep and heartfelt gratitude for new life that comes as a gift from God. This new life is not simply a reinstatement of the old ways, but a new way of being that grows out of the ashes of the past. Recognition of the pure grace that offers this new life gives rise to psalms of celebration.
When we are not sure how to pray as we ought—when we are at a loss for words—the words of the psalmists are waiting for us to use as our own prayers. But, there are other reasons for praying the psalms besides just finding better words than the ones we can come up with on our own.
One is that they connect us with God’s people through the ages. What a marvelous thing it is to pray the same prayers that the Hebrew people prayed in exile in Babylon or when they ascended the steps to worship in the temple in Jerusalem. What a marvelous thing it is to pray the same prayers that Paul prayed, or James or Peter, or even Jesus. What a marvelous thing it is to pray the same prayers as those who shaped our faith over the course of centuries—the early martyrs, Saints Augustine and Francis and Julian of Norwich, Wesley and Otterbein and Asbury, Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King.
How connected we can feel, when we observe the mountains and sunrises and all the marvels of nature, and know that we share our awe with people who lived thousands of years ago. How much less alone we feel, when the prayers of the psalmists express our own feelings, even though we are separated by millennia. Using the shared prayer book of the psalms emphasizes our place within the vast people of God, across the world and across time.
Secondly, praying the psalms gives us permission to fully express ourselves to God. We know that all our thoughts and deeds are known to God. The United Methodist Hymnal affirms that fact in a prayer that begins, “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hidden.” That prayer echoes the words of several psalm prayers. But even though God knows what is in our hearts, God also wants us to own up to what we’re thinking and feeling. The psalm prayers do this in a no-holds-barred way, and in so doing, they say to us, “You can do this, too.” Whatever you are experiencing, God wants to hear it from you, even when we are embarrassed or ashamed of what we’re feeling. The prayers of the psalms give us permission to be fully open with God.
Finally, the psalms give us language to speak of both what we see in the world around us and the unseen things we believe to be true, even when those two things seem to be at odds with each other. The renowned preacher Barbara Brown Taylor calls this the language of beholding and the language of believing. When the psalmists describe either the beauty or the sadness they are experiencing, they use the language of “beholding.” They put into words what they are seeing and feeling, without any emotional or spiritual photo-shopping to make the world prettier or tamer than it is.
But they also use the language of believing. In their prayers, they speak of their trust in a God who is just and righteous and compassionate, even in those times when it is hard to see in the world. They speak of their belief in a God who is the source of all that is good. In the prayers of the psalms, both beholding and believing have their place, and they help us express both what we see in the world as it is and our faith in how God is present and active in the world and in our lives.
Jesus used the same ideas of beholding and believing in his parable. Through his story, he called the disciples with words of beholding. He called them to look at the reality of the world around them, a world where the powerless had to struggle to get what should have been theirs by right, a world where the powerful had forgotten where their power came from and how they were supposed to use it. But, he also called them with words of belief—belief in a God of compassion and justice, a God who doesn’t need to be begged to listen and respond, a God who longs for sustained and honest conversation with us, belief in the same God whom the psalmists prayed to.
Wherever life leads us, the psalmists have gotten there ahead of us. When we don’t know how to pray, they take our jumbled alphabet letters and put them into the words of prayer. Using the language of beholding and believing, they provide us with a toolbox that helps us remain constant in prayer, as Jesus encourages us to be. For the next few weeks, we’ll be taking a deep dive into the prayers of the Psalms—the joyful ones, the lamenting ones, the grateful ones, and even the disturbing ones. As we do, we’ll join our voices with the cloud of witnesses who have prayed them before us, including Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young