Lent ends soon. Lent–six weeks between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, not counting Sundays. Many say Lent’s 42 days mesh with Jesus’ 40 days of desert temptation by the devil. He was sustained by praying. Lent is still a time for praying.
When do you pray?
Isaac Bashevis Singer, Nobel Prize winning novelist, was once asked when he prayed. Singer famously answered, “"I only pray when I'm in trouble. But I'm in trouble all the time, so I always pray."
Singer’s response sounds like King David’s would if someone asked, “When do you pray?” Seventy-three of the Bible’s 150 psalms are David’s prayers. I’m sure he prayed so much because he was always in trouble: valleys of shadows of death, bloodthirsty, deceitful, lying enemies.
From Psalms 23 and 5 we know that David prayed every morning and probably all day when he was herding sheep, hunting water and pasture for them in that dry and thirsty land.
I don’t know if I’ll ever learn what Paul instructs in 1 Thessalonians 5—to “pray without ceasing.” But I could not preach one sermon, make one hospital visit or teach one class if I did not pray a lot.
When I was a boy, Mom and Dad taught me a prayer I still sing to myself occasionally: “Jesus, tender shepherd, hear me. Bless thy little lamb tonight. Through the darkness be thou near me. Keep me safe till morning light.”
Thinking about this column, it struck me that I have been kept safe through nights and some danger-filled days, on four continents in many nations for more than 63 years. I’ve been seriously ill. I’ve been in trouble. I’ve caused trouble. I’ve been hopeful, happy, doubtful and depressed. God answers prayer.
Next, what do you pray?
Tragic-comic novelist Anne Lamott says the two best prayers are: “Help me. Help me. Help me” and “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” Maybe they’re not the best prayers ever, but they are honest.
Though Psalms 23 and 5 differ greatly, their themes notably converge. In both, David prays for righteousness for his shepherd’s name’s sake. He prays for righteousness because of enemies. He acknowledges that he is in God’s presence only because God is merciful.
Praying for righteousness may be the best, though hardest prayer. David was and we are in trouble because no one always does good. David scandalously committed adultery with Bathsheba and unrighteously had her good husband and faithful soldier Uriah killed.
Yet David also suffered at the hands of those who were ironically also God’s people. King Saul tried to kill him for years. Son Absalom rebelled against him. David prayed to be righteous and because unrighteous people endangered him.
Sound familiar? David’s life holds a mirror to our lives–unrighteousness suffered and committed. Who has led a fully blameless life?
As a young father, several times I needlessly or excessively punished my children or blamed them for something they didn’t do. I’m not proud of that unrighteousness. What sad unrighteousness have you committed?
The unrighteousness David suffered also mirrors our experiences. Who hasn’t been betrayed by someone you trusted? Hurt terribly by death or illness–your own or of a loved one? Unrighteousness suffered.
We pray for our righteous Shepherd to end unrighteousness we or others commit and suffer. Righteousness is hard to pray for because it’s natural to pray against our enemies. We are tempted to plead for vengeance–not justice.
Yet David’s prayers for righteousness stay on track. He knows enemies cannot be trusted. But he does not pray for vengeance; he has been unrighteous himself and doesn’t want what he deserves. So he places himself and enemies in the righteous, yet merciful hands of the Lord, his Shepherd.
That’s how we should pray all the time because we’re always in trouble: “Lord, YOU handle our and others’ unrighteousness rightly and justly. Help us. Thank you, tender Shepherd Jesus. Amen.”