Jesus taught his disciples to pray. But there’s a very real sense in which the psalms taught Jesus to pray. In this series, we’re going to sit with Jesus at the feet of the Bible’s lament psalms to see what they can teach us about prayer.
Why the laments? One of my students once observed that reading the laments made her feel like the Holy Spirit had been reading her diary. Generations of the faithful have testified to these psalms’ peculiar ability to help us express our most private and sometimes painful thoughts. Yet, the laments also teach us that, even when our prayers are full of anger or anguish, they are still “praise in a minor key.”
Over Again We Go
Read: Psalm 22
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (v. 1, NRSV)
Have you ever thought about what it would be like to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel?
Poet Christian Wiman has. Diagnosed with an incurable cancer of the blood on his 39th birthday, Wiman calls prayer “my quiet Niagara of unnamable things.” “Over again I go,” he says, “in my barrel of prayer.”
Wiman and the author of Psalm 22 are separated by at least 20 centuries, but I think they would have understood each other. The person who began his prayer with “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” must have been hurtling toward his own “quiet Niagara.”
Why is it quiet? my students wondered when we read Wiman’s poem in class. Isn’t the roar of Niagara Falls deafening?
Of course it is. But Wiman may be calling our attention to the fact that other people can’t necessarily hear the roar within his own spirit. It is, after all his Niagara. The sense of utter isolation is part of what makes the experience so terrifying. It is the sound that novelist George Eliot describes as “the roar that lies on the other side of silence.”
The author of Psalm 22 knew all about that roar…knew all about the isolation…knew all about the terror.
So, is it any wonder that Jesus quoted this verse from the cross? The words are so abrupt that they hardly even seem appropriate as prayer. They are an accusation—hurled into the mist just before the barrel goes over the falls.
And yet…the fact that they are uttered at all speaks volumes. There is still a relationship that is grasped like a life-line: “My God, my God….”
As we hear this anguished prayer again in the context of Holy Week, may it give us courage to climb into our own barrel of prayer with all our “unnamable things” remembering that we are “not our own, but belong—body and soul—to our faithful savior, Jesus Christ.”
Prayer: Over again we go in our barrel of prayer, O God. Give us grace to trust ourselves to you.
 From Once in the West (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010) p. 73.
 Middlemarch (Penguin Classics, p. 226) The full quote is: “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”
 See Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34.
 Question & Answer #1 of the Heidelberg Catechism.