August 25, 2013
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
ALL PRAYED OUT
Back when boxing was a respectable sport, one of the great stories in boxing was the story of Jim Braddock. He was a rising star when he broke his hand. He had to quit boxing and go to work to support his family. Then he staged his comeback. In one of the great upsets in boxing history, he defeated Max Baer in 1935 to win the world heavyweight championship. He defended his title against a young Joe Louis. He knocked Joe Louis down but lost the fight. Lewis said he was the bravest man he ever fought.
A movie was made about Jim Braddock. It was called “Cinderella Man”. It was kind of like all those Rocky movies, except this one was true. When Jim had to quit boxing before staging his famous comeback, it was a very difficult time for him and his family. This was during the Great Depression. He wasn’t able to find regular work.
In one scene in the movie, his family had no money, the kids were sick, electricity had been cut off to their little apartment, and they were almost out of food. Jim came home late after another day of unsuccessfully looking for work. The kids were in bed coughing, the apartment was freezing cold, their only light came from a candle. Jim was sitting at the table with his wife to share a meager bite of dinner. They always prayed before their meals. They were devout Catholics. But this time Jim wasn’t joining in his wife’s prayer. She said, “What’s wrong? Why aren’t you praying with me?” Jim Braddock looked at her silently. Then he said, “I’m all prayed out.”
Have you ever been there? I think we all have. We’ve prayed and prayed, but nothing changes. It feels like an exercise in futility. Our lives are still a mess. It’s not getting better. It’s getting worse. We thought God might help. But now we wonder if God is even there. If you’ve ever felt that way, you are in pretty good company.
After years of praying for a child with no results, Abraham and Sarah felt all prayed out. Frustrated with the people he was leading through the wilderness, Moses felt all prayed out. With one calamity after another, Job felt all prayed out. (By the way, we start a series on Job in two weeks.) Hiding from his enemies in a desert cave, David felt all prayed out. Crying out to God in anger and anguish, Jeremiah felt all prayed out. With doubts stronger than his faith, Thomas felt all prayed out. After praying for healing again and again, Paul felt all prayed out. Even our Lord felt all prayed out at least twice. In the Garden of Gethsemane he prayed for his life to be spared. And then on the cross, as he was dying, he prayed, “God, why have you forsaken me?”
When we’re all prayed out, we’re not even sure prayer does any good. We’ve tried it. It didn’t get us anywhere. Time to try something else. Or maybe we’re past that point. It just feels like there’s nothing left to do but give up.
I’ve been there. I’m guessing you have, too. As we’ve seen, we’re in good company. But how did we get there? And how do we get out of there?
One clue might be found in the second verse of this morning’s text. “In the day of my trouble, I seek the Lord” (Psalm 77:2). Sometimes we seek the Lord only when we are in trouble. When life is good, we don’t bother. We save our prayers for when life is bad. We pray out of desperation. Kind of like kids at college who only call home when they need money. Our relationship with God can be like that. God is there to bail us out when we find ourselves in a tough spot.
There’s nothing wrong with praying to God when we are in trouble. But if we pray to God only when we are in trouble, it shouldn’t surprise us when our prayers feel empty and pointless.
Anne Lamott has a new book out. It’s called Help, Thanks, and Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. She says it’s perfectly appropriate to pray a prayer to God that is really little more than a cry for help. God wants to help us and wants us to ask for help. But there are two other prayers we need to be praying regularly as well. One is to say “thank you”. Often we’re negligent here. We don’t thank God for what God has given us and done for us. The other essential prayer is simply to say, “Wow!” That’s a prayer of praise. That’s just letting God know that we are not untouched by the wonder and the beauty of this amazing creation. We noticed. And there are no words. Except one. Wow!
If your prayer life isn’t very deep, maybe it’s because you aren’t praying all three of these prayers on a regular basis. Just like plants need sun, water, and soil in order to grow and one out of three or even two out of three isn’t good enough, so too we need all three of these prayer essentials to grow in our relationship with God: help, thanks, and wow.
When we feel all prayed out, it could be as simple as that. A steady diet of praying only when we need help robs prayer of its power. That could have been the problem with the Psalmist. When he says, “In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord”, it gives us a clue.
Or maybe we’re reading way too much into that single verse. The Psalmist seeks the Lord in the day of his trouble, but he also seeks the Lord on those days when life is great. Maybe the Psalmist has a strong, healthy, growing relationship with God. And still he finds himself in a spiritual pit. How could that be?
Maybe you’ve had that same experience. Maybe you’re in the middle of that kind of an experience right now. It’s not your fault. It’s offensive for me to suggest that it is. It’s not as easy as reading the right book or praying the right prayer or doing anything at all. The more you do, the worse it gets. God just feels real distant right now. And you just feel real miserable.
I think of my roommate my first year at seminary. I don’t ever remember seeing him smile. He was not a very happy person. What I remember specifically was his spiritual autobiography. It was an assignment in one of our classes. He let me read his. He wrote that life for him felt like a torture chamber. That’s the way he experienced life. No wonder I never saw him smile. I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back it’s pretty clear I had a roommate who was clinically depressed.
Psalm 77 sounds like it may have been written from a torture chamber. It may have been written by someone who was clinically depressed. Mental health professionals have a checklist they use to diagnose depression. We can read through Psalm 77 and check them off one by one.
He can’t sleep. “Thou dost hold my eyelids from closing” (vs 4). While lying awake at night, he is tormented by a brain working overtime. “I commune with my heart in the night” (vs 6). He bears his pain silently. “I am so troubled that I cannot speak” (vs 4). And yet the chapter opens with him shouting at God. “I cry aloud to God, aloud to God, that he might hear me” (vs 1). So we see signs of mood swings, of a manic/depressive condition. In his despair it is impossible for him to believe that things will ever get better. “Will the Lord spurn me for ever, and never again be favorable?” (vs 7) The future looks so bleak, he finds comfort by living in the past. “I consider the days of old, I remember the years long ago” (vs 5). And when it comes to God, God is not exactly a source of solace. “I think of God, and I moan; I meditate and my spirit faints” (vs 3).
“All prayed out” sounds like a pretty good description of this man’s spiritual state. What did he do to bring it on? Probably nothing. It’s probably not his fault. It’s not necessarily a case of reaching out to God only when he is in trouble. We don’t know enough to say that. What we do know is that faithful Christians who love God and who have a strong relationship with Jesus Christ are not always up. Sometimes they are down. Sometimes they can be down so low it is frightening.
Where did we ever get the idea that Christians are always up and never down? Or that Christians aren’t supposed to have any problems or challenges in life? Or that Christians are guaranteed health and happiness and prosperity? So that if you don’t have a perfect life, something must be wrong with you and with your faith? We didn’t get it from the Bible. The Bible is very realistic about life. Psalm 77 certainly is. Here is a description, long before anybody knew anything about psychology, of someone who is clinically depressed. Not just feeling a little down and a little blue. This is someone who needs medical as well as spiritual care.
I’m been thinking about my seminary roommate this week. I realized that we live in a world where it’s not that hard to track someone down. So I got on the internet. To tell you the truth, I wasn’t sure I wanted to find out what I might find out. Depressed people can do desperate things to escape their depression. But he’s fine. He’s a pastor. He’s been at it not quite as long as I have. He stayed in school to get multiple degrees. I couldn’t wait to get out of school. He recently got married for the first time. He has a 2 1/2 year old daughter. He sounded so much more positive and happy than he did 35 years ago, even on his good days.
I didn’t want to pry. I didn’t ask personal questions about his mental health history. I suspect he got the help he needed. My guess is that he had been depressed most of his life and didn’t even realize there could be another way to experience life. He probably just thought that was the way life was supposed to be. A torture chamber. People like my roommate have the best chance of being helped through a combination of medication and counseling. I’m guessing he got that kind of help. I hope so. He sounded really good on the phone.
I doubt if whoever wrote Psalm 77 had access to either medication or counseling. And yet as you read this Psalm, as you read it all the way to the end, it is clear that somehow he got the help he needed. It’s a Psalm that begins on a low note and ends on a high note. It begins with “crying out loud” to God. It ends with praising God. It begins in a valley of despair. It ends on a mountaintop of glory. How did he make the journey from the one to the other? How did he climb out of that deep, dark hole?
In our modern world, we are quick to refer depressed people to specialists. I think that’s a good thing. There are resources that can help. We should use them. But this Psalm reminds us that faith is a resource, too. As Christians, we should insist at least on a balanced approach, using both the resources that come from science and the resources that come from faith.
Being “all prayed out” does not have to be a permanent condition. I want to just close this morning by pointing out a few markers in this scripture that might help the next time you are there.
First, remember that part of the depression was this overwhelming feeling that nothing will ever get better? “Will the Lord spurn me for ever, and never again be favorable?” One simple step is just to keep telling yourself that this is not going to last forever. Even if don’t believe it, keep telling yourself that. Keep giving yourself hope.
Second, get the focus off yourself and your misery. Depressed people are self-absorbed people. They can’t help it. It hurts too bad to not think about how bad it hurts. But a sure sign of progress is when you’re no longer just stuck in your own misery. The first step can be as simple as getting outside to breathe some fresh air, go for a walk, and notice the beauty of God’s creation. Read through Psalm 77, from beginning to end, and you can’t help but notice that it starts out with a focus on self and it ends up with a focus on God.
Finally, remind yourself that you haven’t always been as miserable as you are right now. Remind yourself of how good God has been to you in the past. It’s interesting that the Psalmist strolls down memory lane more than once. The first time, it’s not particularly helpful. “I consider the days of old, I remember the years long ago.” This is right in the middle of the “pity party” section. Thoughts of the past just serve as reminders of how miserable you are now. The focus is still on “poor me”. It’s later, from verse 11 on, that we find memory used in a more positive way.
I will call to mind the deeds of the LORD; yea, I will remember thy wonders of old. I will meditate on all thy work, and muse on thy mighty deeds. Thy way, O God, is holy. What god is great like our God? Thou art the God who works wonders, who has manifested thy might among the peoples. We’re no longer thinking of the past to remind us of how miserable we are now. We are now thinking of the past to remind us of how great God is always. The God who works wonders.
Do you see the shift? It’s no longer a “help me” prayer. It’s now a “wow” prayer. And it’s a “thank you” prayer. A ray of sunshine has broken through. This God who works wonders just might work the wonder of sustaining me even through this dark and difficult time when I feel “all prayed out”.
Life can be difficult, dear God. We’ve all been there. We will all be there. And we’ve certainly felt the pain of seeing others who we love who are really struggling. We are grateful that you are big enough to not be offended when it hurts so bad that we turn away from you. And we are grateful most of all that, even though it might not feel that way at the time, you are also big enough to help us through whatever it is that we must face. In Jesus’ name we lift to you those three essential prayers: help, thanks, and wow! Amen.