How to Pray in the Rough Times
Every once in a while a new book comes along that reaffirms and helps me in my prayer life. I was particularly moved by Richard Lischer’s book Stations of the Heart: Parting With a Son.
Lischer is a professor at Duke Divinity School, where he has taught for more than 30 years, and so I expected something that was high-minded and literary. What I got was a story about faith and prayer in the trenches of life.
Richard went through one of those trials that no parent ever wants to face: the death of his 30-something-old son, Adam, from cancer. Adam had just gotten married, was looking forward to a promising career as a lawyer, and his wife was newly pregnant when he got the painful, devastating diagnosis that his melanoma had returned. Suddenly the tables of parenting were turned. Adam became the spiritual mentor for the father. Adam reached out and dug deep in prayer. Adam showed his father how.
Richard quotes Thomas Merton: “Souls are like athletes that need opponents worthy of them, if they are to be tried and extended and pushed to the full use of their powers,” and explains how Adam had discovered an opponent that would push him to the full use of his powers. “Two distinct paths opened before him: one would take him through the maze of chemo and radiation to an uncertain end. The other, originating in his baptism and nurtured by the rituals of his newfound community, would lead him through the labyrinth to his true destination.”
Adam and his wife, Jenny, made ritual of praying the psalms at night, and Richard points out how appropriate the psalms are for these times of trial: “The psalms are filled with the complexities of rage and so was Adam. It is never pure anger at work in any of us, and it wasn’t in him, but anger in the disguise and permutations of fear, suffering, sadness and bafflement. The psalms are filled with questions; they ask ‘why?’ and ‘how long?’ Sometimes they address God disrespectfully in a manner that good religious people find offensive. But they also offer more than the usual, therapeutic alternatives of suppressing the rage or projecting it onto others.”
As someone who regularly prays the psalms, those words resonated with me. “They invite the believer,” Richard goes on, “to lay the whole mess before God. The psalms treat God as a partner in suffering and in doing so they open a narrow path from lament to a grudging acknowledgment of God’s love. In the psalms Adam and Jenny found a script for moving from their worst fears to a powerful affirmation of trust.”
In this Easter season when we recently recalled how Jesus prayed from the cross the words of a psalm—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—to Easter Sunday itself when we sang more “Alleluias” “Hallelujahs” than one psalm can contain, it was helpful for this reminder that for thousands of years, from Old Testament times to today, the psalms have provided words of prayer for those times when you’re not even sure what to say to God.
May they help you find just the right words, as they helped Adam Lischer and his father, Richard, at one of the toughest times imaginable, “to lay the whole mess before God.”
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