Anne LaMotte writes, “My mind is a bad neighborhood I shouldn’t go into alone. It’s too often 4:00 AM in one’s mind, the hour of the black dogs, and there are so many muggers and drive-by shootings and piles of dog [doo] you step in just when you’re starting to feel better about things.” (Operating Instructions, p. 145)
Most of us have probably experienced the irresistible downward spiral of our personal mental bad neighborhood combined with emotional baggage and difficult circumstances. “Sometimes you just gotta cry,” I tell little kids when life is unfair and they’re about to burst into tears anyway. “It’s just one of those days.” But I’m really saying it to reassure myself as an adult, because sometimes, in spite of our best efforts, we end up in a terrible place. And tears are completely appropriate.
The Psalmist agrees with me:
“My tears have been my food day and night,
while people say to me continually,
‘Where is your God?’” (Ps. 42:3).
“Day and night…” that’s tough. There is no relief in sight—not even sleep helps. Just this one poetic sentence describes long, drawn out hardship, strong emotion, taunting by others and abandonment by God. Now that’s “a-bad-neighborhood-at-night-falling-into-a-pit-and-never-getting-out” kind of low.
But there’s another ‘day and night’ verse just a few lines further:
By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,
and at night his song is with me,
a prayer to the God of my life.” (Ps. 42:8)
This day and night is the polar opposite of the previous one. We can almost visualize God authorizing his steadfast, never-failing love to march out with the break of dawn, enveloping his beloved child as long as it is day, surrounding us with reassurance and mercy. And when it gets dark, we are not in a scary place; instead we are safely home, where the Lord sings over us. Because I’ve so enjoyed spending some hours with a newborn baby this week, I imagine God tucking us in bed and singing lullabies. But I wouldn’t mind it one bit if God were to sing over me as an adult. Music soothes the soul. Music expresses what words alone cannot. God’s song flows over the soul much as his steadfast love does, meeting us at the point of our deepest needs.
It’s in this verse of hope and promise that prayer naturally flows as a response to the God who is “my life.” In prayer we recognize that God is as necessary to life as air is necessary to breathing.
I would very much like my prayers to be as natural as breathing; so in tune with God’s song that I could harmonize along with him; so aware of his surrounding steadfast love that I could tumble from life’s troubles into his safety net of love. God’s got me, I know this for sure in times of strong faith. But then it gets dark, and I get stuck in the wrong neighborhood, and my prayers take on a different tone.
Again the Psalmist agrees with me, for this is the very next verse, immediately after that trusting, thankful prayer to the God of my life:
“I say to God, my rock,
‘Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I walk about mournfully
because the enemy oppresses me?’” (Psalm 42:9)
And I’m back in the same place I started.
Our bright verse is sandwiched between catastrophe on the one side (verse 7) and abandonment on the other (verse 9). In fact, the whole Psalm is a ping-pong match, back and forth between lament and hope, while the reader wonders which side will win. Such opposite prayers, side by side. How very much like my prayers.
This is my conclusion: It doesn’t matter what I pray, it just matters that I pray. I can be perfectly honest about my emotional or mental or spiritual state, even when I’ve spiraled downward. I can express abandonment with one breath and trust with the next. Prayer is where I battle over the place I find myself, and the place I need to be in faith. Prayer is where I try to shift my attention away from what is seen to what is unseen, sometimes more successfully than others. Prayer is where I take my hands off my circumstances and give direction over to God. Ping pong. Back and forth. Up and down. Who will win? In honest praying, I am in relationship with God, and that is why the end of the match is not in question. I may lose a point here and there, but in the end God always wins. As Anne LaMotte says, “one’s heart is the only safe place to be. There’s light there, there’s company, and quiet.”
We have called the church to prayer this week (here’s the week’s PDF prayer guide), encouraging the whole congregation to come into the Lord’s presence together every day, praying for the church, for each other, and for whatever else is on our mind. We can pray in the morning, or at night, or any time in between. We’re not focusing so much on what we pray, but that we pray. Maybe our hearts and our minds will battle it out this week. But in prayer, we expect to meet God, so we will have light, company and quiet. And when we meet together for worship on Sunday, we expect that we will have something to tell each other about what happened when we met God this week.
— Pastor Connie Larson DeVaughn