Teach Us To Pray – Study #10: Four Kinds of People

Introduction:

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.”

Study #10: Four Kinds of People

Read: Psalm 94

Who rises up for me against the wicked? (v. 16, NRSV)

A brave young refugee from Darfur named Abubakar once reflected on Psalm 94. He started off by saying that there are four kinds of people. Working backwards, he identified Group Four as the “evildoers” (v. 16). Group Three, he said, is comprised of refugees—vulnerable victims who have no one to protect them from those who have driven them from their homes. Group Two is made up of people who are doing well and rarely take the time to think about those who aren’t. Finally, Group One includes the people who work with God for justice.

Sometimes we need someone like Abubakar to help us appreciate a prayer like Psalm 94. Like the comfortable members of Group Three, we’re too self-centered to be bothered by the suffering of others. Yet, when Abubakar invites us to see the world through his eyes, we suddenly understand this psalm’s cry for justice. Only when we’re standing beside him can we pray these words, urging God to “give to the proud what they deserve!” (v.2). Only then can we join those in Group One who work for God’s justice.

I heard about Abubakar from a young student of mine named Chuck Breen. Chuck died of cancer before he could finish seminary, but not before he could join Group One. His witness—and Abubakar’s wisdom—call us all to examine our lives and to join them as committed members of Group One.

Prayer: Give us eyes to see, ears to hear, and the will to work for your justice, O God.

Teach Us To Pray – Study #9: Counting our Days

Introduction:

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.”

Study #9: Counting our Days

Read: Psalm 90:9-17

So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart. (v.12, NRSV)

My New Testament professor, Dr. Oudersluys, died just two days shy of his 104th birthday. I don’t think he ever let one of those days go to waste. Ask his grandchildren, who bought him a computer for his 90th birthday. Ask his students—especially the ones who took the last class he taught—at age 90. Ask his daughter, who testifies to the fact that her dad read his Greek New Testament every day until he was 102.

Previously, I told the story of reading Psalm 90 with Dr. O. just a few days before his death. What I didn’t describe was how eyes sparkled when we got to the part about how “the days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong” (v.10). I asked him if reading the New Testament in Greek was his secret!

But then we got to the prayer at the end of the psalm which begs God to “prosper the work of our hands.” As I read, my own eyes began to sparkle—not with laughter, but with tears of gratitude. With those words, I realized that I was praying for myself—myself and the thousands of students Dr. O. had taught in over the decades. In a very real sense, we are the work of that man’s hands.

So often we live as if we had all the time in the world. Dr. Oudersluys had more time than most. Yet, part of what I think we can learn from him is to make every day count for the work of God’s kingdom. After that, we can end our lives with the prayer that God will prosper the work of our hands.

Prayer: Teach us to use every day wisely and well. Then, prosper the work of our hands.

Teach Us To Pray – Study #8: Frail Children of Dust

Introduction:

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.”

 

Study #8: Frail Children of Dust

Read: Psalm 90:1-6

You turn us back to dust…. (v.3, NRSV)

Shortly before his death, I paid a visit to my teacher, Richard Oudersluys. When I entered his hospice room I was struck by the small sign on the foot of his bed. “Richard” it said simply. There was a little red heart-shaped sticker beside his name. The simplicity of that sign caught at my heart, but I didn’t fully appreciate why until we’d finished reading Psalm 90 together.

“You turn us back to dust,” the psalm says, alluding to the creation of Adam and to the fact that all mortals return to the ground from which we were formed. Somehow, reading this psalm at my teacher’s bedside helped me to hear it in a fresh way. It was all summed up in that sign at the end of his bed. Here was a great man—a man who had taught generations of fledgling ministers how to read and interpret the New Testament. And yet, at the end of his life, the sign did not say: “The Rev. Dr. Richard C. Oudersluys,” but simply “Richard.” At the end, we go to our God carrying nothing but our Christian names—and the promise that God in Christ will welcome us home.

Perhaps that is what the heart sticker was all about.

Prayer:

Frail children of dust, and feeble as frail,

In Thee do we trust, nor find Thee to fail.

Thy mercies how tender, how firm to the end.

Our maker, defender, redeemer, and friend.

(From “O Worship the King,” by Robert Grant, 1833)

Teach Us To Pray – Study #7: Sealed With a Kiss

Introduction:

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.”

Study #7: Sealed With a Kiss

Read Psalm 85

Righteousness and peace will kiss each other. (v. 10b, NRSV)

Sometimes it’s hard to imagine a couple in conflict getting back together. Perhaps their fights are dramatic and explosive. Maybe they bicker like the constant drip of a leaky faucet. Or sometimes it just that they’ve drifted quietly apart. But no matter what the symptoms of their estrangement, it’s obvious that they’re not about to kiss and make up.

Righteousness and peace might seem like that kind of a couple.

It certainly must have seemed that way to my great uncle, Army Chaplain, Ralph Bielema. He was among the troops that came upon the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald in April of 1945. Peace was getting easier to imagine at that point in the war. But righteousness—or justice, as the Hebrew word is sometimes translated—seemed harder and harder to fathom. In the letter he wrote to his sister after that harrowing time, my normally gentle uncle longed for the last judgment. Someone, he cried, must be made to pay for the atrocities they’d discovered there. Peace may have been within the world’s grasp, but justice seemed impossibly distant.

The author of Psalm 85 is straining his eyes toward the day when we peace and justice will reunite and seal their love with a kiss. It is impossible for us as humans to imagine how this will happen. Yet, in God’s time, we have faith that it will. We live in confidence that God “will wipe away every tear” (Rev. 7:17). In the meantime, our job is to join in the work God is already doing to bring this bickering couple back together.

Prayer: Help us, O God, to work and wait for both justice and peace.

Teach Us To Pray – Study #6: In God We Trust

Introduction:

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.”

Study #6: In God We Trust

Read: Psalm 56

 In God I trust; I am not afraid. (v. 11, NRSV)

All this talk about “enemies” makes this psalm sound a little paranoid. But as someone once said, “You’re not paranoid if you really do have enemies!”

Although not all of the psalms are attributed to David, this one could well have been written by him. Goodness knows, David did have his share of enemies. If anyone had reason complain about enemies trampling him all day long (v. 1), David surely did. Yet, does that mean that this prayer is off limits to anyone who isn’t literally surrounded by stalkers?

Threats come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes danger comes disguised as cancer cells or false friends. Yet, sometimes we see the enemy and “it is us.” We are enslaved by addictions, seduced by temptations, or on our knees before the altar of some false god. But make no mistake; these enemies are no less dangerous than David’s. Whether our enemies are literal or metaphorical, they are a real and present danger.

When we find ourselves surrounded by enemies, it does no good to deny the danger. David didn’t. Instead, he faced up to the threat, taking comfort in God’s presence and power. Though there is good reason to be afraid, he isn’t—because he trusts in God (v. 11). As he said in another psalm: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me” (Ps. 23:4, KJV).

Prayer: Deliver my soul from death, and my feet from falling, that I may walk before you in the light of life.

Teach Us To Pray – Study #5: God’s Grading System

Introduction:

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.”

Study #5: God’s Grading System

Read: Psalm 51

 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love. (v. 1, NRSV)

Even students who aren’t particularly good at math learn to appreciate what happens when the teacher grades on a curve. As if by magic, failing grades get transformed into passing grades. The students don’t get any more answers right, it’s just that the teacher has calculated the scores differently.

Psalm 51 is the prayer of a failing student whose is pleading with his Teacher to score his test using a radically gracious grading system. And this system is even better than the “curve.” This system simply substitutes God’s “steadfast love” for the psalmist’s sins (v. 1), transforming an “F” into an “A.”

As a teacher, I can’t help feeling like this student has a lot of nerve. But as a sinner, I’m right there beside him, standing in front of the Teacher’s desk, knowing that I, too, have failed the test.

Traditionally, this prayer of repentance is linked to 2 Samuel 11’s sordid story of David’s murder of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah. If that’s true, then David was asking a lot when he begged God to blot out his transgressions (v. 1). Still, it’s encouraging to know that even someone who sins on that scale can pray this prayer. It invites us as believers to pray this prayer, too, filling in the blanks with our own sins. After all, when we stand before the Teacher’s desk, it’s not David’s sins that “are ever before us” (v. 3), but our own.

Prayer: Create in me a clean heart, O God.

Teach Us To Pray – Study #4: Running on Empty

Introduction:

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.”

Study #4: Running on Empty

Read: Psalm 42

As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. (v. 1, NRSV)

Earthquake survivor, Evan Muncie, could be considered the world’s foremost authority on thirst. Rescuers pulled Muncie from the rubble in Haiti almost four weeks after the earthquake of 2010. He was suffering from severe malnutrition and dehydration. He told his mystified doctors that someone had visited him under the rubble and given him water. Authorities concluded he was hallucinating.

“I’m thirsty.” These are words that we’ve all said. Thirst is a basic, powerful sensation that can drive us to acts of utter desperation. It is also a built-in alarm bell. With bodies that are roughly 60% water, there’s no such thing as “running on empty.”

When the psalmist compares himself to a thirsty deer, he is admitting that to a certain level of desperation. This is a matter of spiritual life and death, not just, “Gee, I think I’d like something to drink.”

If you’ve ever felt like the author of this psalm, you know the pain that gave birth to this ancient prayer. But there is comfort here, too. The thing that keeps this psalmist alive “under the rubble” is the memory of God’s steadfast love, which rushes over him like a waterfall (v. 7). Like that thirsty dear, he lifts his head at the scent of water and finds the strength to live another day.

What memories of God’s steadfast love give your thirsty soul the scent of water?

Prayer: Our hope is in you, O God, even when we’re running on empty.

Teach Us To Pray – Study #3: No Contest

Introduction:

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.”

 

Study #3: No Contest

Read: Psalm 36

 All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings. (v. 7, NRSV)

On the face of it, David was no match for Goliath. It didn’t take a military expert to see that a shepherd boy with a sling didn’t stand a chance against a fully armed Philistine giant. If anyone had given odds on this contest, Goliath would have been favored one hundred to one. Yet, those odds would have failed to account for David’s secret weapon: God’s steadfast love.

Psalm 36 has something to say about situations like this. It starts with a daunting description of the wicked, lying awake at night dreaming up “mischief and deceit” (v. 3). They act like they’re not accountable to anyone. They are sure they can get away with murder. Like, Goliath, however, they forget to factor in “the God thing.”  And suddenly, the arrogance of the wicked, which seemed so gigantic, is dwarfed by a love that “extends to the heavens” (v.5).

It’s easy to get discouraged when evil seems to be getting the upper hand. It looks as if we’re up against impossible odds. And if we’re relying on our own strength, we are. But that’s the good news: we don’t have to face the giants on our own. God is the secret weapon of the righteous. And when we factor in God, it’s no contest.

I wonder if David was thinking about his battle with Goliath when he wrote Psalm 36. I wonder if it might help us to think about it, too.

Prayer: How precious is your steadfast love, O God!

Teach Us To Pray – Study #2: Praying Our Pain

Introduction:

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.”

 

Study #2: Praying Our Pain

Read: Psalm 13

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? (v. 1, NRSV)

Miriam was a 4-year-old pixie with a sparkle in her eye when I met her. She sat on my lap and tried hard to teach me her favorite song. I was a slow learner, and she rolled her eyes to express her frustration. I was frustrated too, but not with the song. By the end of my music lesson, my heart was breaking. Miriam was an AIDS orphan. She lived in a settlement near Cape Town, South Africa. I write of her in the past tense because by now I’m almost certain she is dead. She had the disease that had killed her both her parents and has orphaned millions of children in South Africa alone.

So we pray, “How long, O Lord?” The words of this ancient lament are so abrupt, they seem almost rude. Yet, this agonized cry from the heart of darkness has helped believers of every age bring their most painful prayers before God’s throne of grace. Whether those prayers are intensely private or of epidemic proportions, they still make their way into the midst of God’s mercy.

It’s interesting that this wrenching psalm ends with a song. “I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation” (v. 5) There’s a lesson in that, I think. Even before the psalmist knows whether God has answered his prayer, he takes the time to sing a song about God’s steadfast love. I think Miriam would have liked that.

Prayer: Hear our prayers, O Lord—especially for children who are suffering. Help us to know how to help them.

Teach Us To Pray – Study #1: Sound Asleep

Introduction:

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.”

Study #1: Sound Asleep

Read: Psalm 3

I lie down and sleep; I wake again, for the Lord sustains me. (v. 5, NRSV)

Many of us grew up reciting the “Now I lay me down to sleep” prayer. I suspect many of us were at least a little troubled by that prayer’s references to the possibility that we might never wake up! (“If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”) Yet, that prayer dates to a day when people often didn’t live past childhood—a day before vaccines and emergency rooms. So, what seems morbid to us was, in its day, a deeply comforting prayer. It was a child’s own version of Paul’s “whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:8).

The author of Psalm 3 prayed his own version of this prayer. Part of what makes his prayer so impressive is that it’s said, not in the absence of threat, but right in the midst of it. This psalmist is surrounded by enemies. But in the face of what seems like certain death, this psalmist lies down and has a good night’s sleep. The only reason this is possible is because of his trust in God.

If we wait for all our troubles to disappear, it’s likely we won’t be very well rested.  If, on the other hand, we “lay us down to sleep,” in the comfort of God’s protective presence, we will sleep as soundly as David did in the midst of his enemies.

Prayer: Help us to trust you, O God, even when we’re surrounded by worries.