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Praying the Blues: In the Depths (Part 2)

[SERIES: Part 2 of 3]

When the shrapnel of a broken world knocks the wind out of us, and we feel like we can barely breathe—let alone pray—how do we keep praying? When life transitions to a minor key, we take a note from the Psalms once again. We need to pray the blues.

And there is one lament that spans two psalms—Psalm 42 and 43—that is just the one to help us figure it out. Previously we learned how to pray our longing in the drought. Now we learn how to pray the blues in the depths.

THE DEPTHS

Returning to the Psalms, we discover that as the psalmist pours out his prayers, he fights to remind himself of God even though he can’t feel Him, and it’s anything but a walk in the park. Look at verses 6 & 7:

 My soul is cast down within me;
                therefore I remember You
        from the land of Jordan and of Hermon,
                from Mount Mizar.
        Deep calls to deep
                at the roar of your waterfalls;
        all your breakers and your waves
                have gone over me. (Psalm 42:6-7 ESV)

The irony is that his thirsty soul panting for the flowing streams of God’s presence is now an image of him surrounded by waterfalls and raging waves that threaten to drown him in the depths. What happened? Here’s what happened: the rush of memories of who God is made the pain of God’s absence all the more acute.

It would be like a child remembering how her father used to take her out to a coffee shop every Saturday morning, and then suddenly he stopped showing up. In one sense, the memories are sweet, but it makes the pain of no longer being together all the more intense.

And before his thoughts can go any further, the psalmist stops himself in verse 8. “Yes. God you are my life. My rock!” And then he returns to lamenting again in verses 9-10, “but why have you forgotten me?! Where are you?!” He’s trying with everything he can muster to hold on, and the result is this back and forth tug of lament on his heart. Don’t miss this. It’s so rare we get a window into the authentic wrestling of the soul.

What’s he wrestling with?

The psalmist believes something radical. He believes God is actually present in His world. If God burns bushes and they aren’t consumed, parts waters, rains bread from heaven, crumbles walls, and on and on, then God will fulfill His promises to His people – even to the psalmist himself. He believes it down to his bones. But then he also feels the real oppression of the enemy. He hears the taunts and mocking of his adversaries, the success of the unjust, and he’s trying to reconcile the two.

When the psalmist laments, it’s not just because there is injustice in the world, but rather, he’s terrified that God is nowhere to be found, that God has forgotten about him. And that is like a deadly wound down to his bones. The injustice around him emphasizes the gap between the just God he loves and whom he believes is engaged in his life everyday, and the pain and despair the psalmist is wading through. Where are you, God?! Are you going to stand by and watch me drown?

You know what’s astounding though? When the psalmist wrestles with his doubts and fears, when he feels like God has abandoned him, he brings it all to God, even his harshest accusations.

And so we discover another reason in this psalm why we need to learn to pray the blues: not only do our souls need to be poured out, they need to specifically be poured out to God, which has two amazing implications.

First, this means praying the blues has room for strugglers. You can be wrestling with God and still pray to Him. Did you know that when you compare the laments in the psalms to all other discovered Ancient Near Eastern literature of the time period, it is the most brash language from a human being to their deity. No other literature is this intense. In God’s orchestration of His holy word, we find an invitation for all who are wrestling with God to bring it up with Him. Lament has room for strugglers. I know I’ve been there, and maybe you’re there today.

But this also means praying the blues has no room for complainers. Ok. What’s the difference? One commentator helps show the distinction between lament and complaining when he writes:

“It is crucial to comprehend a lament is as far from complaining or grumbling as a search is from aimless wandering. A grumbler has already reached a conclusion, shut down all desire and postures with questions that are barely concealed accusations…A person who laments may sound like a grumbler – both vocalize anguish, anger, and confusion. But a lament involves even deeper emotion because a lament is truly asking, seeking, and knocking to comprehend the heart of God. A lament involves the energy to search, not to shut down the quest for truth. It is passion to ask, rather than to rant and rave with already reached conclusions. A lament uses the language of pain, anger, and confusion and moves toward God” (Dan Allender, Mars Hill Review).

I’ve heard it once said that complaining is whining to someone else about God whereas lament is bringing our case to God. Do you see how that’s a sign of faith? The psalmist goes from drought to drowning, and he keeps talking to a God that feels absent.

Do you know who is an unlikely story of lament? Mother Teresa. No, let me say it this way: The Mother Teresa. That’s how we think of her, right? But, did you know that she had a deep crisis of faith that lasted for 40 years? As they were perusing her letters after her death, they found a series of correspondence that began nearly around the time she arrived to start her work in Calcutta. In one of those letters, this is how she expressed her lament:

“Lord, my God, you have thrown [me] away as unwanted – unloved. I call, I cling, I want, and there is no one to answer, no, no one. Alone. Where is my faith? even deep down right in there is nothing. I have no faith. I dare not utter the words and thoughts that crowd in my heart. I am told God loves me, and yet the reality of the darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.”

Mother Teresa knew how to pray the blues. While she fought to never complain, her life was wrought with struggle, and if this is you, I think it’s safe to say you’re in good company.

Praying the Blues

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[SERIES: Part 1 of 3]

At some off-the-map place, on September 16, 1925, in a plantation down around the Mississippi Delta, Riley B. King was born. We know him by his legendary stage name: B.B. King. This man—the man behind Lucille, his black Gibson guitar—was shaped by the care of his mother, Nora Ella King, who made sure King was refined by Elkhorn Primitive Baptist Church and the preaching of Luther Henson. He was taught the church songbook full of gospels and spirituals.

And like every black man in Mississippi, B.B. King grew up knowing another king in the south: King Cotton, a slogan thrown around by pre-civil war politicians to highlight the importance of the cotton trade in the south’s economy. Even though more than 50 years had passed since the end of the Civil War, B.B. King was mentored in the blues first and foremost by the voices of African American men and women singing those church songs with large sacks hung over their shoulders, going through rows and rows of cotton.

It was heat, cotton, family, racial injustice, and, lest we forget, the church that formed this man. Beauty and chaos that formed his songs. And though, on May 14, 2015, at 89 years of age, he passed away, he keeps on teaching us to sing songs and to pray prayers that we have far too often forgotten.

Like most blues songs, King’s music forces the pain and brokenness we know all too well into the light. They bring a realism to how the past impacts the present. Old relationships leave scars. Social injustices still prevail. And while King was brilliant in bringing this pain to bear, he wasn’t all that original. What King and others have called the blues, Scripture has always called lament.

While we may not all sing with King Everyday I Have the Blues, we all know the feeling when King sings The Thrill Is Gone. We’ve felt a righteous dissatisfaction with the way things are in the valleys of the shadow of death. A holy discontent. But is it ok to sing the blues just because we chalk the word “holy” onto the uncomfortable word “discontent”? Because it kind of feels like complaining at times, and who wants to be a whiner?

What do we do? When the shrapnel of a broken world knocks the wind out of us, and we feel like we can barely breathe—let alone pray—how do we keep praying? When life transitions to a minor key, we take a note from the Psalms once again. We need to pray the blues. But how?

There is one lament—which spans two psalms, Psalm 42 and 43—that is just the one to help us figure it out. The psalmist is going to guide us a little further in the landscape of prayer: what it looks like to pray our longing in the drought, in the depths, and in the dwelling.

THE DROUGHT

The psalmist begins his prayer in verse 1 with the image of a deer in the midst of drought, searching for water. The word used to describe the deer is “panting.” A sort of shortness of breath that comes as a result of frantically running from this place to that. In desperation, its tongue is sticking to the roof of its mouth, hoping water is just around the corner.

But he’s not looking for literal water. Listen again to Psalm 42:1-3:

As a deer pants for flowing streams,
so pants my soul for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and appear before God?
My tears have been my food
day and night,
while they say to me all the day long,
“Where is your God?”

The psalmist’s whole life is unraveling, and he’s desperately looking for God. Yet it’s as if God is nowhere to be found. Feeling alone in the mess, the psalmist isn’t sleeping, and he isn’t eating. Disillusioned  and broken tears are the only thing he’s eating, and to top it off, with every new sunrise, instead of the rooster crowing, he hears from those around him: “God still hasn’t showed up yet, huh?”

Have you ever been there?

It’s in these moments that if our only authentic option is to pray the blues, we’d rather just stay quiet and keep to ourselves. Why? Because we convince ourselves that it’s all our fault. We believe the blues could have been avoided if we would have just done the right things.

But that’s not what we find here. Instead, at the heart of being a child of God comes the freedom to lament. We are free to admit that there are certain things broken in the world that I didn’t break, and there are certain things in life that I can’t do anything to fix. And when you are your most thirsty, that’s when your soul needs to be poured out in prayer. Sounds counter-intuitive, right? But when you are your most thirsty, that’s when your soul needs to be poured out in prayer.

Why? Because keeping quiet makes it worse. There is an article in The Onion, a mockumentary news site, titled, “Study: Pretending Everything’s Okay Works.”

CAMBRIDGE, MA—A study released Thursday by researchers at Harvard University’s Department of Psychology has found that the simple act of pretending one’s life is not in complete shambles threatening to collapse at any moment…works. “Even when everything is coming apart at the seams and disaster is almost certainly imminent, putting up a good front for friends and loved ones makes everything better,” said Professor Christine Wanamaker, who explained that smiling a lot and evasive answers were usually enough to get by. “Tell everyone that things are fine, and they will be fine. Just don’t over-think it.” When asked about her study’s methodology, Wanamaker said the research was rock-solid, had been looked over by a bunch of scientists, and definitely wasn’t anything to worry about.

We can laugh at this, because it sounds ridiculous when you put it that way. But the reality is that many times in our own lives we actually live like that, and sometimes we can even treat church like that too. I’ve heard from folks before how they didn’t want to come to church on a particular Sunday because they couldn’t put on a smile when they walked through the doors. “Everyone else seems to have it together, and I just don’t want to be a burden.”

You can’t live like that. It seems like you’re expected to have it together in our culture. But we all know that no matter how big the smile is on the outside, we don’t have it together. None of us do. There are times we feel miserable. There are times when we just feel far from God. When injustice rocks our world and we can barely stand. There’s a reason that a majority of the 150 psalms in Scripture are prayers of laments, and as the church, we are called to be a lamenting community. A safe place. A people where those who are struggling with depression, loss, death, disease, frustration with injustice—you name it—can come and pour out their souls.

We need to pray the blues. When you are most thirsty, that’s when your soul needs to be poured out in prayer. Let it ring out.

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Continue to read in PARTs 2 & 3 of this series as we talk more about what it looks like to pray our longing in the drought, in the depths, and in the dwelling.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]