The other day a friend asked me to be praying for her family—her father is in hospice and it’s probably only a matter of days until they lose him. Another friend’s mother is also in hospice. Her fight with cancer has been long and painful. I’m praying for all of them, but right now my prayers are running along the lines of “Lord, I don’t know how to pray for them. I don’t have the words . . . so much death. So much pain. Please comfort them. Please give them strength and a sense of your presence.”
My husband and I have lost 3 people in 3 months. Two in the last 10 days. More loss is coming. These people are our friends and extended family members. They aren’t our spouses, parents, children, or best friends, but while not overwhelming, the sense of loss still lingers. And when I hear about yet another imminent loss, I don’t even know how to pray any more.
Human words, Divine words
While the Spirit intercedes for us when we don’t know how to pray (Rom 8:26–27), Scripture also gives us words for times like these, especially in the Psalter. The psalms are human words to God. They were composed by His people to address a multitude of experiences and occasions. But they are also God’s word to us. He inspired the composers. The psalms give us words to express our joy and sorrow, but they also teach us about God, who He is and how He works.
Through the centuries, believers have often turned to the laments to express their grief. Interestingly, though, over the last few days God hasn’t been bringing me to the laments. He keeps taking me to the hymns.
LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth . . . What is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?Ps 8:1, 4, NIV
Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures through all generations. The LORD is trustworthy in all he promises and faithful in all he does. The LORD upholds all who fall and lifts up all who are bowed down.Ps 145:13–14, NIV
These particular verses come from psalms that Walter Brueggemann has called “psalms of orientation.” His description highlights the “situatedness” of our words to God. Our prayers, our expectations, and our understanding of God can all change and grow based on our experiences and the situations in which we find ourselves. In this case, Brueggemann suggests that the psalms of orientation come from a place where people find God to be trustworthy. Our worlds make sense and life, if not what we expected, can be described as settled, if not good.
I’m not really in that kind of place, though. So why does God keep bringing me back to these songs? Why not the laments? I think He’s teaching me that while these psalms of orientation often praise God based on our sense of God’s goodness and reliability, He can use them in our lives a in a variety of times and ways. Here, I’d like to suggest three:
- Praise: Praise is the most obvious. Here, when we as individuals or as part of a community experience God’s goodness, we can use these psalms to praise our Father. We join generations of those who have worshiped Him in times of joy and sorrow.
But what about when we are hurting?
- Reminder: Sometimes in our darkest moments, we need a reminder of God’s larger plan. Here, these hymns have been pointing me to the ultimate hope that we can have: a future where everyone experiences God’s goodness, justice, and rest. These hymns point to our hope for the new heavens, the new earth, and the resurrection.
- Prayer: Prayer ties back to the reminder that these psalms give us. Here, whether we are experiencing God’s goodness or are struggling, we can pray that God’s reign will come, bringing the new creation that reflects God’s intended world. We can pray for that experience not only for ourselves, but for our friends, family, communities, and for all of humanity.
Today, God is reminding me that our lost, hurt, and broken world isn’t the final word. Today, as I’m praying for those friends, God is also teaching me to pray in a new way for His kingdom to come and His will to be done.