I Only Pray When I'm in Trouble, but I'm in Trouble All the Time
Tue, 02/03/2015 - 9:30pm
Psalm 13, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, February 1, 2015
A journalist assigned to the Jerusalem bureau has an apartment overlooking the Western Wall. Every day when she looks out she sees an old bearded Jewish man praying vigorously. Certain he would be a good interview subject, the journalist goes down to the Wall and introduces herself to the old man.
She says, "You come every day to the Wall. Sir, how long have you done that and what are you praying for?"
The old man replies, "I have come here to pray every day for 25 years. In the morning I pray for world peace and for the brotherhood of man. I go home have a cup of tea, and I come back and pray for the eradication of illness and disease from the earth. And very, very important, I pray for peace and understanding between the Israelis and Palestinians."
The journalist is impressed. "How does it make you feel to come here every day for 25 years and pray for these wonderful things?" she asks.
The old man replies, "It’s like I'm talking to a wall."
[Repeated in ON NOT LOSING HEART, sermon preached by the Rev. Scott Dalgarno on October 20, 2013]
That could be a cynic’s joke or faithful man’s complaint. I’ve certainly had experiences of talking to God and feeling I was talking to a wall, or to no one at all. There are prayers we pray that do not appear to be answered, and there are times when we cannot feel God’s presence. That is the situation of the person praying in Psalm 13—and that is the reason this prayer is included in the Bible. It’s here as a model: this is how you pray during those times.
“How long will you forget me? Forever?” That’s what we think sometimes and we are urged to say it. I rarely get sick, but Becca can tell you that when I do I am prone to catastrophic thinking. When I get laryngitis, I imagine that I will never preach again. When I got chicken pox at age 38, I thought I would just continue to itch until I went mad or died. This state that we are in of feeling that God has forgotten us will not last forever. This too shall pass. But when we begin a prayer like this, we forget that, even as we think God forgets us.
It gets worse before it gets better. At first I think that God has forgotten me, but no, it’s worse than that. God has turned away from me intentionally. God is angry at me. If that’s true, my question becomes how long I have to “wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart” (NIV). For some of us, that’s what prayer is: wrestling with our own thoughts and living with sorrow. The rather melancholy Christian writer Frederick Buechner has said that in essence prayer is “the breaking of silence…Prayer is the sound made by our deepest aloneness.”
We prepare our hearts to receive the bread and the cup as tokens of Christ’s presence with us, but sometimes it’s just bread and juice. We want to feel his presence, but there’s nothing there. What Psalm 13 models for us is not moving past the sense of absence to the happy place—although the happy place is part of this psalm, too. What it models for us is saying to God “Where are you? I feel like you’ve turned your face away from me. I miss the sunshine of your love. Look at me! Don’t leave me here to die without you.”
This prayer has three distinct parts, as you probably noticed. It begins on this note of complaint, then moves to pleading with God for rescue from enemies and death, then moves to an expression of trust and praise. But I don’t want you to think of them as three stages of the spiritual life, and we should all move to stage three. The truth is that we never get away from stage one or stage two. We are always asking where God is and we are always begging for him to save us. The title I gave to this sermon comes from the Nobel-prize winning Jewish storyteller Isaac Bashevis Singer: “I only pray when I’m in trouble, but I’m in trouble all the time.” I just love that. I know it fits with the perception that some of you have of your pastor: in trouble all the time. But I’ll fess up: sure, I’m in trouble all the time. But as Job says, “Man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7). I’m in trouble all the time, so I pray all the time.
There are not necessarily three time periods reflected in this prayer: questioning time, begging time, and trusting time. There are certainly not three different people. I want you to think about the possibility that this is not a prayer that we pray once and then are done with it, because we have resolved our issues with God and met our needs, and we can simply trust and praise. I want you to think about the possibility that you need to pray this prayer every day—or something like it. It is an exercise of honesty in a real relationship with a living God that we say to God: “Where the heck did you go? I’ve lost you again!” but also “I still need you. Rescue me. Protect me from my enemies. Don’t let me fall into darkness or death” but also “Nevertheless I trust you. I know your history and your history with me. I believe in your steadfast love. I’m going to sing about that, because I know in spite of all I fear that you are good to me.”
James Luther Mays, a prominent Old Testament scholar, wrote a wonderful little article about this psalm in 1980. He described Psalm 13 as “agony and adoration hung together by a cry for life.” “Agony and adoration hung together by a cry for life.” That is almost a description of our life, isn’t it? Mays says that we would like to think that we can begin at one end of this prayer and come out at the other. But nothing in the careers of the prophets and the letters of the apostles and the life of Jesus suggests that it works that way. It all happens at once. We are being led like lambs to the slaughter, but I am convinced that nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8). “Why have you forsaken me?” but “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” Here’s what Mays says: “We do not begin at one end and come out at the other. The agony and the ecstasy belong together as the secret of our identity” [“Expository Article on Psalm 13,” Interpretation 34, July 1980].
Coming to the Lord’s Table we are reminded that we are followers of a crucified Lord and of a God who revealed himself in suffering and even in abandonment. The path to salvation involves taking up your cross and following him. The experience of joy in trusting God does not come from escaping suffering but from going through it with God, learning to trust God through it all.
We cry out to God as needy children to their Father. That’s the stuff of verses 3 and 4, the middle passage of the psalm. “Look at me, Daddy! Don’t ignore me!” You who have turned your face away from me as far as I can tell, please turn it back toward me. Lift up your countenance upon me and give me peace. A literal translation of verse 3 would be “Light up my eyes, lest I sleep death” [Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms]. Don’t let me go dark, and don’t give my enemies reason to gloat. Daddy, protect me from the bullies on this island and don’t let them hoot over my failures, which reflect on you. You whom I cannot see, I need you.
In verse 5 there is a decision to trust God. This would be good as a personal motto as opposed to the national motto “In God We Trust.” This version is “But I trust in your unfailing love” (NIV). The key word, to me, is the first: But. In spite of everything that has happened, in spite of my fears and my lack of feelings of your presence, I choose to trust in the one thing I know for sure about you: that you are love, that your covenant love is faithful and true and never fails. Martin Luther said that Psalm 13 is said in “the state in which hope despairs, and yet despair hopes at the same time.”
This table reminds us as well of the hope which comes from despair, the salvation and eternal life that comes from defeat on the cross. This table too reminds us of the one thing we know for sure about God: God so loved us that he sent his Son to die for us. That’s the unfailing love we trust in. That reminder is what moves us, once again, to rejoice in God’s saving act. That reality is what moves us to sing to the Lord, knowing—against evidence to the contrary—that God is good to us.
I found a hymn version of Psalm 13 by an 18th century English Baptist named Anne Steele, who was popular for a few decades but no longer appears in hymnals. Anne Steele’s mother died when she was 3; she became disabled at 19 after a hip injury; she was engaged to be married at 21 but her fiancé drowned on the day of the wedding. She never married but assisted her father who was a lumber merchant and a Baptist preacher on the side. She wrote a book of poems that reflected her continued trust in God. Here’s the one called “Psalm 13:”
How long wilt thou, O God of grace,
Forget thy wonted love?
How long conceal thy shining face,
Nor bid the cloud remove?
How long shall my dejected soul,
Thus pondering o'er her woes,
In vain endeavour to controul
The power of inward foes?
Lord, hear my prayer, and heal my woes,
Arise with cheering light;
Or soon these wretched eyes will close
In everlasting night.
The powers of darkness will rejoice
To see my life decay,
And triumph with insulting voice
Around their trembling prey.
But, Lord, thy mercy hitherto
Has been my only trust;
Let mercy now my joys renew,
And raise me from the dust.
Then shall my heart and tongue proclaim
The bounties of my God,
My songs with grateful rapture flame,
And spread thy praise abroad.