Have you ever been faced with a scary or confusing situation and didn’t have the words to deal with it? There was one evening when the girls were very young that their Mimi babysat. When I picked them up to go home, I noticed that the television was set to The Exorcist. Shame on me for not asking the girls how they felt about what they might have seen, but kudos to Megan who at the wise-old age of four had the courage to open up the conversation. Her simple question exposed her confusion and fright, “Mommy, do devils eat little girls?” My response came too quickly to have been my own, as I blurted, “Not if you have Jesus in your heart.” That evening, we modified the words of our bedtime prayer from “deliver us from evil” to “deliver us from the devil.”
Prayer is easy when times are rosy and situations are sunny. When our days are light, prayers of praise and thanks float off our hearts. Where are the prayers for times of distress? Did I skip class that day? Where are the prickly prayers?
When life is coming at us quickly and we are under enemy attack, words rarely keep pace. Our main line of communication with God, prayer, feels cut off. I was raised in a tradition where we were taught prayers rather than being taught how to pray. Even now, when times are difficult, I tend to fall back on the rote words that I learned in my elementary years. Our Father who art in heaven. . . Hail Mary full of grace . . . Forgive me Father for I have sinned. . . Now, I lay me down to sleep. I just need some words. It doesn’t matter if the words fit the situation – except sometimes it does matter.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that prayers must be in the form of words. There are times when we are too weak to pray with words. God simply collects our tears unlocking the prayer that each one contains. And, the prayers of others are extremely powerful in those times. Where I most often struggle to find prayerful words is that place where tears have dried up but I am still working my way through the Valley.
Too often, this is the place where we abandon our communication with God. We are sent off course by anger and building resentment for our circumstances. Perhaps, we want to share our true feelings with God, but don’t how or doubt that God can handle our ugly prayers. After all, no one talks much about those prayers. Having that memory bank of rote prayers is like a life preserver. It’s great to have something to keep us afloat as the waves crash down until we reach land. Once we are back on dry land, however, people tend to look askance when we stroll through the coffee shop in a bright orange life vest. This is where the difference between having a prayer and knowing how to pray makes a difference.
My Catholic-school nuns overlooked a critical point in their lesson plans way back when. God wants to hear my cantankerous prayers of anger, sorrow, and loss. Prayers of anger, sorrow, and loss? The Bible is filled with them. In fact, these types of prayers are so special that they warrant their own name– prayers of lament. Second only to a pure belly laugh, I’m convinced that the prayer of lament may be the deepest form of worship our souls can ever experience this side of heaven. This is when we pour out our injustice, loss, pain and suffering. This is when we get up close and personal with God. This is when we stop trying to hide our hearts and turn it all over to Him.
I wish that someone had told me this sooner.
Perhaps, you’ve heard of Pastor Rick Warren. He is the author of The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth am I Here For? and several spin-offs of that title. What I didn’t know until recently, and maybe you too did not know, is that several years ago, he and his wife, Kay, lost a son to suicide. After that gut-wrenching loss, they gave a sermon series in which Pastor Warren set out the pattern for a prayer of lament. Using a catchy acronym – CARE – it goes as follows: Complain, Appeal (to God’s nature), Recall (God’s promise), Express (trust in God’s wisdom).
First, you complain. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me! Let it rip! Shout! Scream! Jump up and down! If you are like me, complaining shouldn’t be much of a challenge. This is the easy part of praying in times of trouble. And, when – like I’ve done so many times – our prayers end at this point, we are left feeling loss. Stopping short in the prayer of lament might just be the reason why we careen off track in the Valley. It’s the other three pieces of this prayer puzzle that humble our bellyaching into supplication. And, supplication – humble prayer – is the key to keeping us close to God. (If you are feeling a little convicted about now, come sit beside me. I’ll keep you company.)
So, what the heck is Pastor Warren talking about? How do we appeal to God in lament? Recall what promises? What does it look like to express trust in God’s wisdom?
Appeal to God’s nature – God, you are good, kind, loving, and merciful. Say out loud the characteristics of God’s personality that we know to be true when we are singing praise and giving thanks but tend to forget when times are tough.
Recall God’s promises – God, you promise to prosper me, to give me hope and a future. Make a list of promises. Include those promises in your prayer as a reminder to you and to God of what he has promised.
Express trust in God’s wisdom.
Last week, I acknowledged in the post “In Too Deep – Part 2” that this is where I so often fail. I want control. I want answers. I want it fixed. I want it fixed now. I want it fixed my way. Does that sound familiar? (Please, say yes.) My heart struggles to soften into God’s sovereignty. I resist admitting that God knows what he is doing. So, I hope that rounding out my prayers of lament with a simple I don’t understand might suffice for now. Maybe one day, I will be strong enough to proclaim – Thy will be done.
Do devils eat little girls? – Yes, and the rest of us, too. And, Satan knows exactly when the dinner bell tolls. He shows up at the potluck picnic with a hot dish of doubt. When we are low, he nibbles at our aching hearts. While prayers of lament fall bitter on the devil’s tongue, know that our Lord savors the sweet taste of our prickly prayers.