Prayer: Psalms 42 and 43
This talk was given by Paul Wintle on as part of our worship service at Main Street Community Church and on the Internet. The talk is long.
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[Hazel:] Psalm 42. As the deer longs with streams of water, so I long for you, O God. I thirst for God, the living God. When can I go and stand before him? Day and night I have only tears for food, while my enemies continually taunt me saying, “Where is this God of yours?” My heart is breaking as I remember how it used to be: I walked among the crowds of worshipers, leading a great procession to the house of God, singing for joy and giving thanks amid the sound of a great celebration.
Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad? I will put my hope in God. I will praise him again, my savior and my God. Now I am deeply discouraged, but I will remember you, even from distant Mount Herman, the source of the Jordan, from the land of Mount Mizar. I hear the tumult of the raging seas as your waves and surging tides sweep over me. But each day the Lord pours his unfailing love upon me, and through each night I sing his songs, praying to God who gives me life.
“O God, my rock,” I cry, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I wander around in grief, oppressed by my enemies?” Their taunts break my bones. They scoff, “Where is this God of yours?” Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad? I will put my hope in God. I will praise him again, my savior and my God. (NLT)
Psalm 43. Declare me innocent, O God. Defend to me against these ungodly people. Rescue me from these unjust liars. For you are God, my only safe haven. Why have you tossed me aside? Why must I wander around in grief, oppressed by my enemies? Send out your light and your truth; let them guide me. Let them lead me to your holy mountain, to the place where you live. There I will go to the altar of God, to God, the source of all my joy. I will praise you with my harp, O God, my God. Why am I so discouraged? Why is my heart so sad? I will put my hope in God. I will praise him again, my savior and my God. (NLT)
Paul: Hazel, thank you. I’ll just [adjust] that for a minute. I was clearing out a cupboard at the church recently, and I came across some poems in a scrapbook that I think dear Sue Whittingham had collected to share with the Friday Friendship Group. I also discovered a framed poem that Ruth Priestley-Yates’ had made, I think a couple of years ago, about the group itself.
I’m still learning how important non-pros words, such as songs and poems and other reflections are. That said, I’m learning that there’s something quite honest about poetry. Before I came to Main Street, I think my last meaningful flirtation with poetry was probably the rather depressing Thomas Hardy during A-level English.
Now, I’m realizing that true appreciation of poetry is, in its raw honesty, in the power of the words well-chosen. The putting together of phrases of truth so that the world stops to take notice and ponder its depths. Similarly, in our Bible studies recently, I’m learning that words aren’t everything, and so we’re presently appreciating some form of art and words from the Bible, and what it might say to us, on Tuesday mornings and evenings.
To my uneducated mind, in terms of art and poetry at least, the art form of poetry is produced in the heart often using personal experience that can be gut-wrenchingly painful, or beautifully heavenly. When the poems are read or performed, it can be as if one heart is speaking directly to another.
So many Psalms in the Old Testament can be read as prayers, often addressed directly to God, and often in the form of honest, raw words, so often wonderfully crafted, such as Psalms 139. I dare you to read that one afresh, or inspiring Psalms like Psalms 8, to make you feel tiny, yet loved in the hugeness of eternity, or sad hurting Psalms, where it seems that God is either silent or non-existent.
I’ve been sitting out in the porch on Monday mornings for a little while now, if it’s too cold to sit on the bench outside. It’s been a real honour to get to know some folk under the auspices of mental health first aid or check-in. I’ve had the privilege to chat to anyone who passes by, to offer a listening ear, a cup of tea, to pass the time of today.
Even a wave or a smile through the window can be of perhaps more help than I can ever know or imagine in. I’m encouraged that according to a recent survey in Christianity magazine, people are now 26 times more likely to trust a vicar than in pre-pandemic times. A word in season or in ear can be of unknown help to someone.
Never before have people been open to receiving such love as they are now as we continue to emerge from being kept away from each other for many months. As Martin reminded me this week, “Well, COVID comes to an end this week, doesn’t it?” Taking opportunities to listen and talk and share God by being Jesus to one another, making the community liveable here, is why we exist. We never know what state somebody is in unless we get to take time with them, to get to know them, or to feel perhaps able to help them.
Psalm 42 and 43 is a glimpse of emotional turmoil in which possibly king David finds himself. At first glance, it looks purely like some form of spiritual difficulty, but we might quickly lead to that conclusion. The Psalm seems to be as much about being far away from God’s temple, literally, physically, as it does feeling far away from God himself.
As a prayer Psalm, it’s less about praising God. This particular Psalm or pair of Psalms, if you like, Psalms 42 and 43, is less about praising God. This particular Psalm is a very bewildering cry, “Where are you, God?” It addresses God as my God. It has the elements of little pep talks as it goes along. Whilst I might feel down or because my enemies are attacking me so that I’m experiencing this dark night of the soul, yet I put my hope in you God, for I will yet praise him, my saviour and my God.
Or to Brueggemann, an Old Testament scholar, suggests this of the Psalmist. He says, “The poet yearns to be surrounded by the believing and the worshipping community, to participate in the worship service of the temple and to celebrate, with the people, the presence of God in their midst. It’s a prayer of an isolated, anxious God follower, who perhaps experiences maybe even some mental health difficulties because of past or present life trials.”
It’s not just him who experiences those trials either. As we emerge from a pandemic, life continues for us. It continues, but perhaps differently to how it did two years ago. How do we want to participate in the worship of God? How has Zoom impacted our togetherness now that we can choose to be on-site or online?
What about those relationships that were formulated primarily here in the church on Sundays? Where are they? Where do we want them to go? How do we feel about being all together again? Is that possible? Are there natural anxieties about being together in a room of people that we’ve known for years, but we don’t know where they’ve been or what they might have caught to pass on?
If I was honest, it has not been an easy time to pastor a church that’s both gathered and scattered, but that’s always been so, hasn’t it? The church has always been gathered and scattered.
Yet, somehow, it’s been different for me as a pastor of a church. Zoom is wonderful, and it allows us to worship from home and especially if we can’t get here physically, emotionally, or if we are isolating. I’m sure there’s some elements of missing the together bits of worship too, the in-person bits. Yet it’s that balance of keeping safe from COVID whilst we learn to live with it. In passing, I want to say that I think we are as safe as we are going to get right now with windows open and with the medical air purifier thing going on. I’m grateful that those here are wearing their masks, and I thank you for that.
There’s something important and perhaps intangible about not being totally together. It’s why we missed family hugs and being together during lock-downs one, and two, and three; the tangibility of humanness is unnatural, isn’t it? The longing to be in one another’s company is so strong. It’s precisely this that the Psalmist is lamenting, I think, in Psalms 42 and 43, he misses worshipping God where he knows he can find God, in the temple; the place of worship, where he knows that God dwells.
He misses the congregational worship that somehow encourages and engages that sense of belonging. That sense of community. It seems the psalmist is nowhere near the Holy City, as he writes this lament of Psalms; feeling a long way from a familiar, a long way from God. A literal far-cry from the gathering that gave so much pleasure from worshipping as a larger, greater community. Those opening words, “As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after you, God.”
A parched animal comes to a familiar stream to lap some water, only to find a riverbed of sand. The life-giving water of our relationship with God seems to just be gone. The anguished cry of the animal for water urges through the echoes through the glen. I know that this wasn’t Scotland. With the psalm writer, the need for God is urgent. The need for community, for God’s presence, is foremost importance in the psalm writer’s mind.
What do you need from God in this moment? The psalmist reminds us, who remembers how joyful he was, full of praise amongst the festive throne. Being brought up suddenly as he realizes, this is no longer a possibility. God’s presence has disappeared. There’s no way even to go to the familiar worship space and sense God there. Whether it’s an issue of physical geography that he can’t go to Jerusalem. There’s this inference in Psalms 52 that he’s writing in the Northern most reaches of Israel near the area of Hermon, about as far away as you can get from the Holy City and the temple
Or If it’s more spiritual deprivation of God’s spiritual that causes such anguish. Or that people are taunting him and saying, “Well, where’s your God, anyway? Where is your God?” Or whether as I imagine, perhaps it’s a mixture of the lot. The psalmist is overwhelmed with a desire to find God in the spiritual silence.
How does one praise when God doesn’t turn up? What does one do with that? Perhaps you’ve got your own examples and experiences of what happens when God is silent, and yet the psalmist here says that God is not gone. Three times in the Psalms, we have these wonderful encouragement of the man who is spiritually down in the dumps. He’s done everything, he thinks, on his side to sense God, and yet nothing, just as we might recall the hollowness of the words of Jesus on the cross, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”
The sorrowful call of the psalmist here, “Why my soul, are you so downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God. For I will yet praise him, my saviour and my God.” This refrain is central. It happens three times in these two psalms. It’s what brings them together as one psalm. A sense of even if I don’t find you in the desert, even if there’s no possibility of me actually going to the temple to worship, and isolation from God is not my fault. I’m going to give myself a little pep talk. I’m going to almost hope against hope, believe that there is a God.
The present fears and sorrows and terrors and loneliness and mental health situations, I will yet praise God because God is God. Not about the situation, but because God is God. Not just any God, but my God. I’ll admit that I’m not much of a God-feeler. I don’t sense that God lives or moves in me in a physical sense. I don’t feel God often in me. That’s not that God isn’t living in me, but I don’t often have that a sense of day-to-day, “Oh, God loves me, hurray,” feeling much of the time in me, if I was honest, instead for me, and it’s probably a different experience for every one of us.
When I have the privilege of sending someone a text or have an opportunity of lending a listening ear or offering to pray, perhaps that’s when my spiritual senses come alive in me a bit more. My opportunity to have God come alive in me is when I can do something to help make life perhaps a bit better for somebody. For you, it might be a regular time with a friend or writing a poem, busying yourself in the kitchen, having regular times withdrawing from the world. Going for a walk up a mountain, going for a long drive, and speeding on the motorway.
There are thousands of ways in which you can connect. We can connect with God using the skills and abilities, the senses God has given us. As someone who’s fully human, I become excited when I can help someone. That’s when I sense God’s presence more, when my spirit becomes more involved with what God’s already doing in the world, and I join in with it. That’s when I get that yes and amen feeling as the Bible puts it. So British, “Yes, and amen.”
Maybe I need to learn to be patient with God and the way that he works with me. Maybe I need to learn that God works in other people in ways that are different to the ways in which I know he works in me. None of this prevents me from knowing that God is my God. Even the absence of sensing God’s presence, doesn’t mean that God is not there. God is always there. God is always here.
This isn’t a sermon. You might have guessed about David was looking for God and still managed to find spiritual passion throughout his ordeal. It’s not even a message about seeking God because it’s our spiritual duty to do so until we feel God again. It’s a simple message that sometimes we feel closer to God than we do at other times. It’s life. In the words found on the Center for Action and Contemplation website, the organization run by a contemplative priest and writer, Richard Rohr. This is what’s said, “All that we’re looking for in life, all the happiness, contentment and peace of mind is right here in this present moment. Our very own awareness of itself is fundamentally good and pure.”
The only problem is that we get so caught up in the ups and downs of life that we don’t take the time to pause and notice what we already have. It says, “Don’t forget to make space in your life to recognize the richness of your basic nature, to see the purity of your being, and let its innate qualities of love and compassion and wisdom naturally emerge.” Nurture this recognition as you would a small seedling. Allow it to grow and flourish. Keep this teaching at the heart of your practice wherever you are and whatever you are doing, pause from time to time. Relax your mind.
You don’t have to change anything about your experience. You can let thoughts and feelings come and go freely. Leave your sense as wide open. Make friends with your experience and see if you can notice the spacious awareness that is with you all the time. Everything you ever wanted is right and here in this moment of awareness.
I think Richard Rohr, is also the person that said something like, “Well, it’s not about that God’s not here, it’s our awareness of God’s presence.” As I wrap up this morning, I think what we’ve done today in a little bit is, touch a little bit more about what Gill helped us think about a couple of weeks ago, contemplative prayer. The psalmist wrote about his experience, about not finding God, and yet still running after God until he found God again.
We often forget so much about having this very moment, to be present. We often think about what we need to be doing, or perhaps something happened earlier today. We don’t often take this moment to make it holy. It’s maybe not about asking God for stuff, or even about experiencing God through a feeling. Though these can be really important and helpful to our ongoing relationship with God. It’s about recognizing that God is always here.
References and sources
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Scripture quotations marked NIVUK or NIV UK on this page and in the audio are from the Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Scripture quotations marked NIV on this page and in the audio are from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.