I continue to look at prayers that pull me through, inspired by my wordless time a short time at the unexpected loss of my wife, Katharine, in which I found space for prayer through the words of others, the words of the church and holy people through the ages, many of which are found in Scripture.
Some of the prayers I am going to look at are ones very personally helpful in my life, and some are ones I use regularly in my own ministry as a pastor and hospice chaplain.
My recent experience of loss bolsters a feeling I have that in America our faith is far too individualistic and atomistic. There were days I could not see God or feel God on my own, even with all the talk of personal relationship with God I grew up with, including a history of profound mystical experiences in my life. But then I would look up and hear another’s voice speaking friendship in my ear and comfort. I would find a friend’s embrace, my brother or sister at my side, helping me stand up when every atom of my body wished to collapse in pain. I would look up into those other eyes of love and know: this is enough. This right here. They were the face of God, hands of God, voice of God, when the grief was too great to open up.
And so I find great value in my spirituality now not just being a personal walk with God, like I grew up hearing it described in the following song:
It is important to have that personal connection with God. But God places us into community, as vexing and frustrating and hair-pullingly annoying as communities can be so that we can lean on each other in life, in struggle, and in death.
And so many of the prayers I am sharing are from my community’s prayer book, the Book of Worship of the United Church of Christ, many of which I use regularly in my ministry as chaplain and pastor.
Today’s reading is just such a one. It was not one I prayed a lot in my recent loss, but it reflects the disorientation grief and trauma give us, as well as blessed reorientation the labor pains of a spiritual journey help create.
Adapted from Psalm 27, the Book of Worship provides the following prayer:
Hear, O Holy One, when I cry aloud,
Be gracious to me and answer me!
You have said:
“Seek my face.”
My heart says to you,
“Your face, dear God, do I seek.”
Hide not your face from me.
Turn not your servant away in anger,
You who have been my help.
Cast me not off,
Forsake me not,
O God of my salvation!
Even if my father and mother forsake me,
You will take me up.
Teach me your way, O God;
And lead me on a level path because of my enemies.
Give me not up to the will of my adversaries;
For false witnesses have risen against me,
And they breathe out violence.
I believe that I shall see the goodness of God in the land of the living!
I wait for you,
And give courage to my heart.
Yes, God, I will wait for you.
This psalm so poignantly hits on the tension in our times of waiting and of grief.
Personally I do not think God ever turns God’s face away from us, or turns an angry eye of judgment upon us. I believe in judgment as a way of talking about the process through which, by love, God works to transform us into the fullest expressions of who we are at core, refining us like gold through a flame or clothes through soap and bleach.
But we bring all of our insecurities into our relationship with God. We all have felt abandonment, rejection, at times we need it most. I think I have shared before realizing through recent losses – not just my late wife’s passing, but also the three years I stood by and helplessly watched her die, and the many friends who have passed with nothing I could do to keep them. Going through those times it has been painfully difficult to let myself open up and trust friends around me who say “I will be here for you. You can call. I will listen. You do not have to walk alone”. For me the reason why are times, such as when I left the denomination I first served as a minister over its treatment of queer people and women, that I had almost everyone who had said that to me drop me and run, or worse yet tell me how my honesty about what I believed meant I was turning my back on God. Such heartbreaking experiences have made it easy to really believe that around the corner is rejection, loss, and pain. They lead me to really feel that if I trust anyone they will trample that trust underfoot and reject me.
I don’t bring that so much anymore into my relationship with God, but early on in my journey faith I did. It is easy for all of us to believe that to open up, to be vulnerable, with others – let alone the Creator of life who holds our hearts, our futures, our very souls in Her hands — is to put one’s self at risk. No wonder the Psalmist fears the Creator Spirit will abandon.
Yet in the midst of the Psalm, what do they discover? The Psalmist discovers the living truth: God does not abandon. Yes there are those who turn on us, and it is heart-breaking. Yes, even father and mother can betray and, if not betray, no longer embrace us with acceptance. But there is a love that can carry us all our days, which is as steady as summer rain, as constant as the spin of earth on its axis, and as all-embracing as the air which fills our lungs while surrounding us in life-giving embrace.
The truth is this love is always, ever there.
Recently someone asked me to sum up my theology, I think in need of pinning me down for some reason. Since it was someone who knew me in my conservative evangelical days, I fear they might be worried about my soul. I’m fine, though I appreciate their genuine concern.
I found though I could sum it up with one of two confessions which seem to flow so easily from this prayer. “In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us”. And then, “From love we come, and to love we will return. And your love, O Living One, is what lets us stand in the midst of joy so full it causes knees to buckle and crushing pain and loss. And when we cannot stand, it is your love that carries us.” That’s it. Everything else, however beautiful or ugly, doesn’t really matter much when the chips are down.
This abiding love in which we can find ourselves at home in our world, is so beautifully pictured by this song:
Whatever loss, rejection, and pain you face, may you this day experience that love. May it be for you as it is for me, a healing presence that enables you to lay aside your fears, embrace those around you, and know that just as God’s love is consistent and unending, so the love others have for you can be found to be true.
Your progressive redneck preacher,