“How long will you assault me? Would all of you throw me down? I am but a wall leaning already— a tottering fence— it will not take much to push me over. You fully intend to bring me down. You take delight in lies. Oh, you bless me with your words, but in your hearts, you curse me.”
These words immediately preceded the scripture we just heard. Words of an ancient songwriter, now numbered Psalm 62 for us, reveal much angst and vulnerability. Stress threatens to topple the psalmist as others attack his honor.
The psalmist is in crisis. We can relate. We’ve been under attack. A target of gossip at school, a betrayal from someone we trusted, a put down from someone who we thought was a friend, a co-worker who stabbed us in the back, a lover who found someone new, a zealous group carrying hate-filled posters, institutional words of exclusion that strike at our core… Whether what harasses us is individual or communal, most of us, like the psalmist, know what it is to feel vulnerable— teetering on the verge of collapse. Measuring up the force of our enemy and wondering how long we can hold out against our opponent who is seeking to destroy us.
Even if we have been so fortunate as to have not found ourselves in extreme crisis or facing a deadly enemy, most of us have feared being so. Our minds are capable of spinning out endless fantasies of possible disasters. We can “awfulize” any situation— your physician says more tests are needed and you wonder how much longer you have to live; your spouse or child is late returning home and you think you hear sirens in the distance; your employer announces a change is coming and you wonder if you can find a new job; people are talking in the break room and you are sure you are the focus of their words. We perceive a threat and the ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys’ spin.
Real or imagined, stress alters our lives. When we experience a moment of anxiety, a short stint of acute stress, our body recovers. It is the state of chronic stress that threatens our wholeness. It is a perception of helplessness and an inability to control stress rather than the stressor itself, that is most damaging to our bodies and spirits.1
What wisdom does the psalmist offer when he is feeling stress and fears his opponents have both the desire and ability to defeat him?
The beating heart of Psalm 62 is its affirmation of God’s reliability, of God’s incomparable strength. His opponents may be strong and the psalmist himself may feel week, but Psalm 62 suggest that God’s strength is a source of strength for the poet. God is his “fortress” and “rock.” Those are not descriptions of God’s strength for God’s self-protection or statements about God’s arbitrary transcendent identity. The Divine— in whom we live and move and have our being— The Creator who made us in God’s own image— is a foundation, fortress, rock of strength for our wholeness and survival. God is someone in whom the poet can find rest and protection from those who and that which harasses. As a result, the psalmist believes that he doesn’t have to lash out or fight back against his assailants. He can find his rest in God alone.
When the psalmist compares his initial assessment of his opponents’ overwhelming strength— to the genuine strength of God, the psalmist can relax and breathe freeing the inner physician for his own healing then teaching this wisdom to the people around him.
Perhaps he fashions himself a songwriter turned wisdom teacher, sitting crossed legged in flowing robes under a fig tree. Perhaps he writes his song to hit the top 10 charts and go on tour earning a spot on Oprah or a syndicated show of his own. Perhaps he writes his song for the worshipping community to remember, for he offers his simple lesson when faced with fear, panic, uncertainty, defeat:
First he reminded himself, “wait quietly for God, O my soul, remember, my help comes from God. God’s strength is greater than my enemy.” Then he reminds others, “trust in God, O people, pour out your hearts before God.”
Psalm 62 is teaching prayer in the face of trouble. In the face of gossip, and bullying and attacks, it may be our instinct to attack back, to run and solicit others to help us attack back. It may be our instinct to ‘what if’ and ‘if only’ as we awfulize the situation before us. It may be our instinct to fight or to flight or to retaliate in like manner. The palmist does none of these. He reminds himself, wait quietly, pause, breathe, remember God. Listen. Then he says, pour out your hearts before God. The sitting and listening for God is prayer. The pouring out our hearts to God— that’s prayer too.
Prayer is relational. Prayer is about growing closer to the Divine— the wisdom of the Divine within and the strength of the Divine as refuge. Relationship with Divine or any, has to be built on trust, vulnerability, honesty— pour out your hearts whatever is within them.
St Teresa of Avila, a sixteenth century mystic felt so close to God that she was willing to share all her thoughts and feelings with her God. One dark night, she was traveling through northern Spain to establish a new monastery. A fierce storm came upon her and her traveling companions. The wheels of her wagon got stuck in the mud, halting all progress. Teresa climbed down from her perch into the pouring rain, raised her face and her fist to God and shouted, “if this is the way you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few!” Teresa talked to God boldly— as did the psalmist— trusting she could say anything that would push God away from her.
Some say they don’t know how to pray— how to pour out their hearts. After quieting our stressed spirits and easing our disturbed souls into a space of listening for God, then we begin pouring out— naming our fears and stress and what ifs and enemies attacking— and if we don’t know how, that’s where we begin. We begin by naming what we feel, and if we don’t know how, we name that. “God I want to pray. I don’t know where to begin. Help me start.” “God I want to share my soul, but I don’t even know myself what I’m feeling. Help me know.” When you pray what you think/ feel/ or just name the questions or uncertainties— you have started praying.
Anne Lamont claims to know two prayers: ‘Thank you Thank you Thank you.’ and, ‘Help me, Help me. Help me.’ Her prayers are not copywrited. If you are searching for words to pray, Pray thank you, or help me, and you have started praying.
Some may say they don’t know what to pray for. That’s perhaps the best place from which to pray. Jane Vennard tells of Anne who was praying for peace in the Middle East. Anne had studied the problems there and felt strongly about how the situation should be resolved. She began praying knowing exactly for what she was praying. She prayed earnestly. She prayed diligently. She prayed faithfully. She prayed without ceasing. She told God the problem, identified the enemy, determined the solution, and was demanding that God follow her solution. She realized what she was doing and said, “God had simply become an instrument of my will.”2 Sure we might name what we think we would like, what we think would be best, but Jesus taught us the last line of those prayers of his heart poured out for deliverance “but not my will, but thine.” Ultimately, pouring out our hearts, opening them up, naming what we want, eventually, allows us to let it go and relinquish our will to God’s.
Elias Chacour prays. Elias is a Palestinian Arab Christian Israeli, Archbishop of Galilee. Yes, you heard that correctly. I had the great opportunity to hear him speak at the Great Plains Annual Conference this week in Topeka. He calls himself a ‘walking contradiction’ which he did not choose. He is nonetheless. Palestinian, Arab, Christian, Israeli. He works for peace between Arabs and Jews and has been nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize. He advocates nonviolence. He learned to pray from his father after Israeli soldiers destroyed his livelihood and removed them from their home in Palestine. Night after night, Elias would hear the words of his father regarding those soldiers who had invaded their home, “Forgive them, O God, heal their pain. Remove their bitterness. Let us show them your peace.” Elias father taught him, “Children, if someone hurts you, you have to ask the Lord to bless the man who makes himself your enemy. And do you know what will happen? The Lord will bless you with inner peace…”3
The thing about prayer— we don’t have to have the answer to try and get God to do our will. We can pray for healing— in whatever form that needs to be— and trust God as our refuge. We can pray for peace— in whatever way that may come— and trust God as our source of strength. We can pray for our anger, our confusion, our hurt, our anxiety— and trust that the God we worship is able to transform our sorrow into joy, our brokenness into wholeness, and each of us into brilliant images of Love that cannot be shaken.
May it be so.
1 Joan Borysenko. Minding the Body, Mending the Mind.
2 Jane Vennard. Embracing the World Praying for Justice and Peace.