As I was working on a sermon about praying when we’re uncertain, a story came to mind. It involves a friend who died recently and whose birthday would have been next week.
On the day I began work at the congregation where Paul was the church administrator, he and another staff member took me to lunch. As soon as the server brought our meals, Paul looked at me and asked, “Would you like to pray?”
While I typically don’t say grace in restaurants, I did that day. Later I questioned Paul why he’d asked me to pray. “Well, you’re a pastor, so I thought maybe you’d want to,” he responded. My reply came perhaps a bit too quickly: “Don’t ever ask me to do that again.”
That experience became a running joke between Paul and me. Whenever we were together, something in a conversation might well prompt Paul to lean over and—with a big smile on his face—ask, “Would you like to pray?”
Would you like to pray?
It’s not that I don’t want to pray. It’s just that sometimes I’m uncertain about the when and where and even the how of praying. Or maybe it’s that I’m uncomfortable about the certainty with which some people seem to pray.
One of my spiritual mentors is a member of a Benedictine community in southern Indiana. Sister Barbara was my first spiritual director, and I loved visiting her at the monastery for evening prayer and dinner.
Prayer is one of the defining characteristics of Benedictine communities. Members spend significant time in private prayer. But perhaps more importantly, they gather a set number of times each day to pray together. At the heart of these times of communal prayer are the psalms. Members of the community sing or speak psalms as prayers each time they gather.
Sister Barbara shared that praying the psalms is meaningful for her, in part, because it reminds her that other people may be experiencing something very different than she is at any given time. On a day when everything has gone right and she’s feeling on top of the world, joining in the words of a psalm of lament reminds Sister Barbara that the person sitting next to her—or someone on the other side of the world—might be feeling the lowest of lows. And when she’s hurting or facing a deep struggle, singing or speaking the words of a psalm of thanksgiving or celebration reminds her of the possibility of a different reality.
During these uncertain times, I find myself drawn to that approach to prayer. An approach that doesn’t require us to be—or even try to sound—certain when we pray. One that allows us to acknowledge, to sit with, even to embrace our uncertainties. One that not only allows but also encourages us to voice our uncertainties to God.
As I worked on my sermon, I revisited Walter Bruggemann’s work on what he calls psalms of disorientation. Psalms that admit life isn’t as simple as a Sunday-school faith may pretend. Psalms that acknowledge that life can be messy and hard and uncertain. Psalms that don’t pretend everything is or soon will be fine.
For me, these psalms—which others refer to as psalms of lament—are especially helpful during the disorienting time in which we find ourselves.
These psalms help me find ways to pray when I’m most uncertain. They provide words when it feels like the bottom is dropping out or the pain is too intense or the future is too bleak.
They also remind me that no matter how disoriented I may feel, there’s absolutely nothing I can’t say to God. My prayers can give voice to my pain, anger, questions, and doubts. I even can complain to or challenge God.
Praying in this way may feel uncomfortable. In fact, Brueggemann contends it’s countercultural. We live in a culture that’s committed to the avoidance of pain and suffering and loss. A culture that values the pursuit of individual happiness above almost everything else.
Unfortunately, the church sometimes follows in the same steps. Whether we intend to or not, we encourage people to strive for upbeat, happy lives—even when they’re in a place of disorientation. We somehow try to avoid or ignore the reality of a broken world and broken lives.
But Walter Brueggemann contends that a church that goes on singing “happy songs” in the face of raw reality is doing something very different from what the Bible itself does.
So I ended my sermon with an invitation that I’ll also extend here.
I invite you to think of something about which you’re feeling uncertain. It might be something big or something small. Anything that makes you feel a bit—or a lot—disoriented.
And now think of something you’d really like to tell God about how you’re feeling about this uncertainty. It could be that you’re thankful God is with you during this season. It might be that you’re worried or scared. Or maybe that you’re frustrated or angry.
Once you identify a specific feeling or emotion that reflects this time of disorientation, take time to share it with God. You might speak it in a prayer. You might write it in a journal. You might sing it through the words of a favorite hymn or find a psalm that reflects how you’re feeling.
Would you like to pray?
I invite you to respond to my friend Paul’s question by sharing with God how you’re really feeling during this uncertain time. I think that would really have made him smile.