Rough Draft Prayers
Years ago I took a unit of CPE, Clinical Pastoral Education, and I worked in the NICU, the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, of a local hospital. It was often heartbreaking work. And I still remember a conversation with one family, whose newborn was fighting for his life. I remember them talking to me about praying to God and that they wanted to just pray for God to save their baby, heal their baby, but...they wouldn’t let themselves pray for that. They didn’t think they could ask God for that, but that they could only pray for God’s will to be done, even if “God’s will” turned out to be that their child would die. I was still learning how to best listen and how to respond when people are inviting you to share in their pain in such profound ways. Their willingness to talk to a 23 year-old chaplain intern about their ailing infant was a sacred gift to me that I didn’t take lightly. I was learning, trying very hard not to tell people what to do and how to feel in a misguided attempt to “fix” things for people. But I really did want to let them know that they didn’t have to edit their prayer for God. They could pray to God exactly what was on their hearts, even if they thought it was somehow selfish. They could cry out: God, please, please, please, spare my child. That would be ok. In fact, I believed - believe - God wants that. Our raw, rough draft, edit-free prayers. The real stuff we’re thinking. Our broken hearts. These are the simple prayers: Help me. Save me. Save them. I love you. I hate you. Where are you? Did you forget about me? Thank you.
Sometimes the Psalms strike me as prayers like that. They read almost like they’re coming from the moment of crisis, or from seconds after the worst of something has passed. They’re written from the trenches of war and violence, from the depths of grief, from the heights of joy, from the moment of the realization of great love, from our loneliest moments. The Psalm we’re looking at today gives me that sense. I read in it a profound sense of relief, immediately after a danger has passed. Wow - God - if you hadn’t been on our side, we wouldn’t have survived. God, without you on our side, we’d be dead right now! We were attacked, about to be eaten up, about to be drowned in the flood waters, the strength of our enemies. My animal studies ears perk up at the imagery and meanings here: God, we were almost prey to the teeth of our hungry enemies, predators. God, we were birds caught in a trap, struggling, struggling, but because of you we broke free! God - you, you, were our helper, you who made everything that is. Thank God. Phew. Utter relief, survival against the odds, and abundant gratitude - we’re still living. We’re still breathing. We’ve made it. Can you resonate with the psalmist? Have you ever felt such profound relief from danger? Have you ever felt with such clarity: If God hadn’t been with me through that, I’d be lost right now?
But, as much as I might imagine the “gut response” nature of this psalm, the authentic thanksgiving after surviving some kind of life-threatening attack, I can’t help but cringe a bit at the opening lines. “If it had not been the Lord who was on our side.” Indeed, the psalmist implores all Israel to make this claim - “if it wasn’t for the Lord being on our side against the attack of our enemies…” The idea of God taking sides - taking the side of one over the other, against the other - there aren’t many situations where that holds up to thoughtful theological scrutiny. As Pastor James Howell writes, “Some of the thinnest, most atrocious theology we overhear in our culture is about God being on the side of … the white people, or the [pure] people, or the people of a certain religious inclination, or those who are straight, or think the Bible is literally true” and so on. (1) Being sure that God is on your side, supporting your actions - well, as a private prayer describing your relief at having a survived a life or death situation - it makes sense. But this psalm is one of a collection of Songs of Ascents - Psalms meant for corporate worship, words said by people together, over and over, usually disconnected from immediate urgency, no longer the hurried response of a people just surviving attack. It’s a gut respond, rough draft prayer that becomes codified, until everyone knows: “God is on our side.” And I can’t help but imagine different peoples and regimes using this psalm, casting themselves in the role of a victim, and all others as the enemy, and God as on our side: “If it had not been for God being on our side, let America now say” for example. The implications give me chills. The words sound dangerous. Arrogant.
What do we do then, with a Psalm like this, a perhaps earnest prayer written in desperation that is said and said and said again, prayed not by the oppressed but by the oppressor, used not by the prey but by the predator, said not by the weak but by the strong and powerful, said not in the heat of the moment, in the midst of gut-deep relief, but with careful planning?
We’re perhaps in a perfect context to consider such a question. We are, physically, virtually, at a Theological School. Students are busy, busy, busy, reading and writing and submitting assignments. Sometimes, of course, what my professors get from me is my too-hurried response, an assignment left till the last minute, my hurried, unedited thoughts that contain myriad typos and worse, rushed claims and conclusions that don’t hold up to scrutiny. But hopefully and thankfully usually, what we turn in isn’t just or ultimately a first draft. We have “delete” buttons that allow us to rewrite clunky sentences. We have friends and family and tutors that read our first drafts and give feedback. We submit paper proposals and listen to the wise questions from our professors that help us refine our thesis. We get grades and feedback that help us on our next attempt. Our first draft is worth something, but it also isn’t our final draft, thanks be to God!
I think scripture can feel to us like a final draft. It’s been published, after all. What chance is there to amend now? And maybe we don’t want to amend the heartfelt gut-reaction texts, even though we are now very much not in the heat of the moment. But I think our process of engaging the text - as individuals and as communities of faith, can be like an ongoing revision of our theological first drafts. Together, we can figure out whether God is on our side, or whether we are on God’s side, or how God is even on the side of our enemies, or whether we’d rather really be side by side. Wrestling, we can refine an understanding of God’s preference for being on the side of the poor and marginalized, and where our place is in relation to God and God’s people. We can edit our placement, deciding whether it is best to plop down a Psalm or any text into any setting, or if there’s a best time and a best place to set a text to build up community instead of creating divisions. To see a prayer or a text isn’t to devalue. Instead, it’s meant to leave room for more learning, room for wisdom - our own and others, room for feedback, room for the perspective we gain over time.
I’m thankful for our rough draft prayers, muttered to God on the spot in our times of deep need, because I believe God welcomes every word from our heart. And I’m thankful that we have the opportunity to go back, examine our claims about God and faith, and submit some revisions. And then do it again and again. Amen.