Free to pray
Bewildered, dispossessed, mocked, the homeless foreigners gazed hopelessly at the smoothly flowing canal waters, so different from their beloved Jordan. Dreams of the past–dreams of a glorious temple situated high on Zion’s hill, dreams of the community of God, made them even more conscious of their desolation, and they wept. Their hate-filled prayers for vengeance battered the gates of heaven–and they knew that God heard, and would answer (see Psalm 137). God heard, and answered, in his own time, and in his own way, not theirs.
A talented young musician and soldier, forced into the life of a fugitive by the irrational, jealous ragings of his king, called out in desperation to God, (Psalm 57) and his private petitions are proclaimed publicly from pulpits the world over, poetry of such intense beauty and meaning that after nearly three millennia they still have the power to stir the soul.
An itinerant preacher responded to the pleadings of his followers, and taught them how to pray (Matthew 6:6-13).
Dare I confess? Though I have been a Christian for going on half a century, and find joy and strength and consolation in being at conversation with God, I have never enjoyed praying out loud. Sounds like some sort of heresy, doesn’t it? But it’s true–when it’s just God and me, the words flow easily, but when others are listening to the conversation “my tang gets all tungled and the merds wixed up!” I feel inhibited, because I am not always sure that the deep feelings, the questions, the confusion, the unruly outpourings that I would share with my Father are appropriate to share also with my fellow worshippers. My prayers just don’t fit the patterns people keep laying out for me–you know, like A.C.T.S. (adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and whatever the “S” stands for; I can’t think of it at the moment). In public prayer one person represents the congregation before the Lord, and I only know how to speak for myself. Petitions and intercession for others, yes, of course–but to try to speak for others, no way. I tend to speak with my Lord about the things that are on my mind, not just the things that should be on my mind. I want to tell him what I’m feeling, not what I ought to be feeling. If I am confused, I want to talk it through with him, to see him begin to unravel the tangled thoughts, and reweave them into a comprehensible pattern. It seems as if public prayer is not the place for that. And yet…
And yet…I wonder.
The Hebrews by the waters of Babylon came boldly before the Lord, spewing the kind of hatred and lust for vengeance that I don’t believe I would ever have the courage to admit, even to myself; but God did not chide or rebuke them. They were his children. He loved them and understood them better than they understood themselves. He rescued them from their own dark thoughts, and taught them to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.
David turned his private prayers for safety, for forgiveness, for consolation, for victory into psalms that are balm to the wounded soul and a stimulant to the questing spirit. His prayers have become a feast for the soul–and no one minds that in creating them he didn’t follow the recipe.
And Jesus? Jesus prayed, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” and it was. He was raised up on the cross, and in his most public prayer of all, Jesus prayed his most private prayers of all: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
Lord Jesus, you were honest with me.
You let yourself be vulnerable, instead of
concealing your pain,
And you prayed the prayers I needed to hear
Instead of the soothing stuff I wanted to hear.
Please, Lord, give me that kind of freedom
as I share in prayer.
Help me to risk, and not to falter,
To feel, and not to worry about the lump
in my throat,
Or about gulping down an occasional tear.
Help me to be real, and not to hesitate to pray
From my own heart, in my own way.
Lord, teach me how to pray.