A lurking restlessness sat in- fight, flight, or freeze. My Breathing accelerated under my mask fogging my readers. It is hard to focus on a book in the emergency room. Should I have gone at all? Who will preach tomorrow? What if my symptoms are some novel presentation of Coronavirus? Is that coughing woman Covid positive? Maybe my mask reminded me of Pastor Heather’s favorite word “breathe”? Mother Teresa spoke, “Listen in silence, for without silence one can not hear from God. Not even God can fill what is already full.” I decided to try to be in the place where I was. I saw tattered blue masking tape placed in small right angles on the floor. Breathe empty and yourself so God can fill your heart. Bring all that anxiety to God in prayer; bring “everything to God in prayer.” (Philippians 4) Breathe.
While in prison the Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Colossae: “Keep on praying and guard your prayers with thanksgiving. Pray for us also. Pray that God would open a door for the word so we can preach Christ—which is why I’m in chains. (Col. 4:2) Did Paul long for a literal prison door to open? Paul names the struggle, “I want you to know how much I struggle for you… I pray that your hearts will be encouraged and you will be united together in love through the rich assurance of knowing Christ… (and know this) even though I am absent physically, I’m with you in spirit.” (Col. 2:1-5) God’s love bonds us together even when we wait alone in prison or the Emergency Room.
Guard your prayers with thanksgiving? Was I thankful sitting in the ER for 7 hours? Maybe not. Did my inner journey begin with me cursing as I left the house? Perhaps. Maybe before anything approaching thanksgiving could arrive, I needed to curse and become aware of my breathing: my restlessness. How can we pray without first becoming aware of where we are? . In the eighth grade, our youth director, Greg Northcut, who seemed to live like Jesus, challenged us to practice quiet time with God each day. I have practised solitude and prayer each morning for 41 years. I was grateful for the spiritual muscle memory last Saturday as my anxiety climbed.
Breathe. Look around. Look within. Was the blue tape on the floor there to remind the custodians how to safely place chairs or to remind me that others cared about my safety? I saw small yellow squares reflecting the fluorescent lights as if in puddles. The clean tile floor forth thanksgiving for the custodians. Looking around, I eavesdropped as a polite black police officer absorbed the rudeness of a worried white visitor, meeting her anxiety with the skill of a hospital chaplain. A bearded injured construction worker politely asked where he might throw his bloody safety. I thought that Mary might give birth to Jesus in a time and place like this. A worried Joseph chatting quietly over the phone about how to pay for her care. Sympathetic shepherds unable to physically touch the Christ child. Immanuel means “God with us.” God is with us.
Maybe all honest prayer moves us away from our concerns inviting us to embrace the world. We weep with those who suffer. We give thanks for those cleaning floors, prescribing antibiotics, keeping the peace, and searching for vaccines. Prayer invites “God’s Will be done on earth as in heaven.” So we pray with the Psalmist, “God make your light to shine on and through us so we might all be saved.” During Advent, we search for God’s light during this season of long nights.
Psalm 80 is a prayer from a season as terrible as this 2020 pandemic. The nation was reeling, separated, conquered, divided, and struggling to understand. The palace, the temple, the city walls are piles of rubble. The college students and promising young leaders are hundreds of miles away serving as slaves in King Nebuchadnezzar’s civil service. Psalm 80 is a communal prayer; the congregation has united in a class-action lament. The Bible’s prayers do not ask for one family’s daily bread, peace for some, justice for one, or healing for a single grandmother. Biblical prayers share collective longings for justice, hope, and love: “Your kin-dom come on earth as in heaven.”
Psalm 80 is not a hymn of thanksgiving. The prophet and poet comes at God like a gifted litigator, lodging the people’s complaint against the Almighty God Judge. Where I grew up we did not dare accuse God of anything. Our leaders frowned on hard questions. But, do we believe in God’ love and grace enough to hurl our anger, accusations, anxiety, or blame at God? Do we dare pray right where we are? Hear the accusation!
Shepherd of Israel, listen! (Do we dare demand the Creator to listen?)
Show yourself; wake up your power! ( Do we bark to God:wake up-simply show up?)
Come to save us! Restore us, God! (Where are you God?)
Make your face shine so that we can be saved! (We long, press, search for light?)
How long will you fume against your people’s prayer?
You feed us tears (“Shepherd” means “one who feeds sheep”! Where is our manna?)
You’ve put us at odds with our neighbors
Restore us, make your face shine so that we can be saved!
(We name our searching, struggling, longing for God’s light?)
In the middle section, the poet prosecutor weaves a beautiful national parable about how God planted the nation as a vine out of Egypt, clearing the ground and scattering rival nations. Israel grew up and stretched out all the way to Babylon and the sea. Now the prosecutor rails against God instead of Babylon’s king who actually tore down Jerusalem’s walls. Some prophets blame Israel for unfaithfulness to God’s covenant. The Psalmist blames God: “God, wake up and see that wild boars trample fruit planted by King David and almonds that once grew around the temple! Listen! Wake up! Show up! Lay off the fire and brimstone you hurl on us. Make your face shine on us, so that we might be saved.”
I am glad that some ancient editor or frowning choirmaster did not add a few verses to the Psalm to gloss over the ugly theological rant with happy praise. There is an honest nakedness in Psalm 80 that always fits Advent’s searching for the light. Advent is always a struggle to find our way to Christ’ manger. It is even more keen in this pandemic season. So rejoice, you disgruntled descenters, our prayers may begin with cursing, accusations or blame. The church did not edit away the struggle from our sacred history! “Spirit and truth” is what God requires. (John 4) Shout, “Lord, shine on us so that we might be saved!”
Please come back, God of heavenly forces!
Look down from heaven and perceive it!
Attend to this vine, this root that you planted with your strong hand,
this child whom you secured as your very own,
then we will not turn away from you! (This time, we promise, this time!)
Revive us so that we can call on your name.
Restore us, Lord God of heavenly forces!
Make your face shine so that we can be saved!
A few weeks ago as Connie and I self-quarantined from each other, I awoke at 4am. Everything felt strange and wrong. Groggy, I searched for the light of my phone’s screen. It was not to my left but my right. It was not on my night stand but an unfamiliar dresser. This Covid pandemic has put us in places less familiar than our guest bedrooms. George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have opened our eyes. We could blame God, each other, or Nebuchadnezzar, or we might name our lack of light. We might shout out at the Midnight suffering, “Make your face shine upon us so that we all can be saved!”
I am not crazy about the Psalmist’s theology, but I love their practice. The accusation reminds us that nothing can separate us from God. There is nothing so ugly inside you that you can’t begin your prayer with that cussing, cursing, or sobbing. We may not get our words just right, but love looks past the words to see the heart’s deep longing. God honors any honest prayer. The spirit is with us in our weakness with inaudible groans and empathic pain. Jesus said, “When you pray, don’t pour out a flood of empty words, because your heavenly Mother knows what you need before you ask…what parent would give a child a stone when they really wanted bread, or hand them a snake because they mispronounced “fish”? God longs to bring us good things, go ahead and ask… Look at the birds in the sky. They don’t sow seeds or gather crops into barns. Yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you worth much more than they are? Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life? Oh beloved, desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, (and it will in due season come about).” (adapted Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount) So come and name it, even if you get a few things wrong in prayer. Like a wise and loving parent, God listens to our rants, hoping we find a redemptive ribbon and is happy we have taken the time to chat.
Paul asked, “Who will separate us from Christ’s love? Will we be separated by trouble, or distress, or harassment, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? Listen friends, we are seeing death all day long… But in all these things we win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us. I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels nor rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created. Nothing can separate us.” (Romans 8) Do we believe in that kind of love? Do we trust God’s love enough to come at God with our fears, anger, anxiety, or blame?
Do we know the story of Christ’s birth? Was not the Christ child laid in a goat’s feedbox and called Immanuel (God is with us)? Was God not with us as Mary courageously labored to deliver Jesus in a strange city, in a stable, in violation of Levitical laws? Did not God walk with the Holy family as they fled King Herod and became refugees in Egypt? Was God not with the Magi, who did not give up on the heavenly light when no one in the palace or temple knew anything about a new king toddling around Bethlehem? On the cross, did God abandon Jesus when Christ called out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” No, God was there on the cross. Nothing can separate us from the love of God: no question, no accusation…
In this holy Advent season let us name the struggle as we search for the light. Accuse God if we must. Curse our division and injustice. Call out to God from wherever we are, “Lord, make your face shine upon us so that we all together might be saved.” Amen.