Faith In Real Life Blog
“Pray with Your Whole Self”
Rev. Vernon Gramling
Decatur Presbyterian Church
May 3, 2023
O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
2 So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.
3 Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.
4 So I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name.
But I, O Lord, cry out to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you.
14 O Lord, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me?
15 Wretched and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am desperate.
16 Your wrath has swept over me; your dread assaults destroy me.
17 They surround me like a flood all day long; from all sides they close in on me.
18 You have caused friend and neighbour to shun me; my companions are in darkness.
15 My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret,intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me,
Today we have three snippets of ancient conversations with God. The Psalms are all songs to God and they express a wide variety of human engagement with the holy. Taken together, we can begin to grasp what it means to bring our whole selves to God.
My very first reaction to this title, ‘Pray With Your Whole Self’ was that it felt very similar to the first of this series on prayer—’Pray Honestly’. Whenever we withhold part of ourselves before God, our actions betray our uncertainty about God’s willingness to receive us. We should not turn that into a judgment. All of us need to be seen and heard and all of us are afraid to allow such transparency. Authenticity sounds great but it is risky and frightening. We all have self-judgments about what is acceptable and in real life many of those judgments are justified. Our society is full of distinctions, rankings, and prejudices. If we want to fit in, there are many aspects of our lives that are best left unsaid. That reality makes it difficult to trust others with our whole selves.
No matter how much someone loves you, there are pockets of ourselves we are afraid to share–-and, of course, that does not include the parts of ourselves that are unknown even to ourselves. Relationships with each other and with God are built on the slow revealing of ourselves and the slow learning about the other. In ordinary life, and with God, the process doubles back upon itself. As we are heard, seen and accepted, a little more light shines upon what we do not know—and slowly we learn more about who we really are. Ultimately, this process leads to deep peace. As we approach wholeness with each other, the human experience gives us a taste of what God’s love means.
Our first scripture passage speaks to the awe and hunger such a taste evokes. Verse 3 reads: “Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.” Our most basic faith claim is that there is absolutely nothing better in life than to experience such deep, abiding, steadfast love. Such love is the essence of God. And, as the Psalmist says, it is better than life. Those moments are rare in real life, but they are unforgettable. Once experienced, we yearn with our whole being for such living water—” I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.”
There is a physicality to the passage that is important to notice. The need for such love is as visceral as our need for water. This is not simply a powerful metaphor. For humans, love has to be concrete. It is the reason ‘God became flesh and dwelt among us.’ The idea, even the promise of love is not sufficient. Humans need touch to grow. Without it, we suffer. Babies literally ‘fail to thrive’ without it. One of the many unexpected losses that aging brings is the loss of touch. Aging people often comment how rarely they are touched, much less hugged. Though my mother now lives in another decade and mostly does not recognize me, she lights up every time I hug her. It is a language that nourishes both of us.
Implicit here is the knowledge that prayer is not limited to words. There are many postures of prayer, often we bow our heads, fold our hands and/or kneel. Others pray standing with arms upraised. And others, kneel and prostrate themselves. Each physical position will change your experience of prayer. If you try one of these that are not part of your usual mode of prayer, you may feel discomfort but if you can get past that, you will have a different experience of prayer. You can hardly escape feeling humbled when you are on your knees. You can hardly fail to be more receptive when you stand opening your arms and reaching beyond yourself. There is great diversity in the ways we open ourselves to God. We need to be aware that there are dimensions of experience beyond what we are familiar with.
The second scripture is perhaps the most trusting of the three. It is filled with desperation, anger, blame and abandonment. “Wretched and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am desperate. Your wrath has swept over me; your dread assaults destroy me. They surround me like a flood all day long; from all sides they close in on me. You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my companions are in darkness.”
These are not the words or attitudes we usually associate with faithfulness. Paradoxically, sharing our distrust and anger is perhaps one of the most trusting things we can do. We have all kinds of rules about what is acceptable to God but most of them are projections based upon our upbringing. Withholding these so-called negative feelings is often considered virtuous. “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” And expressing them often brings recrimination and punishment. I remember all too well the rule my father enforced in the house. If we raised our voice to our mother, no matter how ‘right’ we were, we were wrong, and the conversation was over. Both ‘rules for living’ have merit but neither can be universally applied in real life and certainly not with God. We have a whole book of the bible, called Lamentations, for a reason. The Psalms have many calls for revenge and the destruction of people who have hurt us. They also include many desperate, angry calls to a ‘deaf’ God. God does not praise us for articulate, polite speech—or does God punish our desperate blaming. Even as we feel desperate and abandoned—even as we feel betrayed and unheard, voicing that piece of our humanity is wholly acceptable to God. A God is not strong enough to receive our anger at others and anger at God is not a God who is strong enough to support us through bitter hardship. A two-year-old throwing a tantrum needs to be held—to be contained and to support. They need a safe place to be out of control without losing the people who protect them. It turns out that when we share such raw feelings with someone who can be present with us, we are better equipped to move through them. It is how God loves. God provides us the love which allows us to be whole.
The third scripture is about confidence, intimacy and surrender. If we have been fortunate enough to have had the experience of God’s love, it is easier to surrender. There is nothing we cannot share with God. Nothing is insignificant or too small for God. There is no grading system. If it matters to us, it is worth sharing and worth hearing. “My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.” Such knowledge is deeply intimate. Recognizing such intimacy gives us refuge and strength. When couples learn that they have promised, within their abilities, to regard and support their partner through life, they form a bond which sustains them through whatever life brings to them. That is how God loves. We have a home base. We have a steadfast partner.
In real life, that confidence is difficult to maintain. In real life, partners die and our foundation is threatened. After years of building such intimacy and trust, it is hard to imagine going on. It is what makes grieving so difficult. This last scripture reminds us that God’s love never ends. We need that reminder when the human love we have yearned for and depended upon loses earthly form. But hopefully, when we remember God’s presence before our births, during the limited number of days we have, we can surrender our present and our future to such a God. Our foundation in life is a God that loves us after our earthly form is dust.
Give us the courage to see ourselves as we are. Give us the words to share our whole selves with God. Let it be so.
The following is a quote Mary Lynn Darden sent me. It certainly fits.
It’s a risky thing to pray and the danger is that our very prayers get between God and us. The great thing in prayer is not to pray, but to go directly to God… The fact is, though, that if you descend into the depths of your own spirit and arrive somewhere near the center of what you are, you are confronted with the inescapable truth that, at the very root of your existence, you are in constant and immediate contact with the infinite power of God.”
– Thomas Merton
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life (FIRL) gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.