Reflections by Jerry Webber

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

I Think I Recognize This Prayer!!

May our sons be like plants well nurtured from their youth,
and our daughters like sculptured corners of a palace.

May our barns be filled to overflowing with all manner of crops;
may the flocks in our pastures increase by thousands and tens of thousands;
may our cattle be fat and sleek.

May there be no breaching of the walls, no going into exile,
no wailing in the public squares.

Happy are the people of whom this is so!
happy are the people whose God is the Lord!
(Psalm 144:13 - 16)

I've been with this psalm for two days now. It first caught my attention yesterday morning, specifically verse 15:

"May there be no breaching of the walls, no going into exile,
no wailing in the public squares."

For some other reasons, I've been drawn to the image of "exile" lately, so in meditating on Psalm 144 I immediately noticed this prayer that there be no going into exile.

In fact, if you look at the entire prayer, it is a cry that God would provide good things, blessings in abundance, and that health and well-being would be assured. The person offering this prayer is to be commended for his or her honesty, I suppose, but could there be a more self-interested prayer? Well, I suppose the famous/infamous "prayer of Jabez" -- the one that shot into the popular consciousness several years ago -- might be just as self-referenced, but this prayer from Psalm 144 doesn't lack its own self-concern.

It is a prayer for life to be straight and clean, with no resistance, no obstacles, no difficulties. It sounds like a contemporary prayer . . . frankly, I'm glad to know this kind of insular, egocentric prayer has ancient roots . . . so it's not simply a result of 21st century Western entitlement!

"God, fill my storehouses.
Don't let me ever have to go without.
Give me lots of sons and daughters, and make them beautiful people I can be proud of.
Don't let anyone invade my space.
May I always stay at home in comfort.
May I never have to grieve in front of others.
May life turn out perfect.
Don't put obstacles in my path.
May I face no opposition, or if I do, let me 'win' every time.
When conflict arises, I want to get my way.
Let my life turn out the way I'd like it to turn out.
May I be perpetually healthy and have plenty, my storehouse full of only good things.
Let me be always on the side of right and may all those who are wrong be cast aside.
May everything I touch turn out the way I envision."

I'm not intending parody with this essay, only reporting where I went with the prayer this morning; but as I read what I've written above, it does sound like parody. Yet, for many of us, this passes for prayer.

On the one hand, I think this is an honest prayer. Bless the person who first prayed it for putting his/her self-centeredness out there before God and everybody!

But on the other hand, the prayer feels dishonest to me because it denies the way life is and the way God is. I'm not saying that we don't all have some desire for this kind of smooth, well-ordered existence; however, for me life does not work that way. I spent the first half of my life trying to make life work like this prayer, but when the real stuff of my life began to fall apart, I was forced to be much more honest about God and life.

My life is not this clean and unobstructed. Maybe that's just me. Maybe I'm alone in having to come honestly to prayer out of the chaos and mess, but I don't think so. Honest prayer comes at life out of the jumbled mess of the journey, not in how well all the externals around me line up.

Most of all, the prayer has a "what's-in-it-for-me" quality about it. It doesn't approach God as expansive. The prayer makes life as small as my little world. It denies that most of us need darkness or difficulty or mystery to push us toward transformation and life-change.

In fact, most of us don't know what we need for transformation . . . which is exactly why transformation is God's work, not ours!

So here is the poem I wrote this morning about this prayer in Psalm 144. In the poem I don't quote the psalm, but you will find clear reference to it . . . just my attempt to enter into the spirit of this difficult prayer that has invited my wrestling-reflection for a couple of days.

Read the ancient prayers,
the ones about smooth roads
and unending increase,
where everything turns out
cozy in the end
after a few well-spoken
words and maybe a
simple genuflect
or two,
prosperity measured out
in bushels of harvest
and quivers-full
of sons and daughters
preparing to take over the
business of running the farm.

Who doesn’t want this


Who wouldn’t sell her
soul for a few days
of well-being – or maybe
a life – and

Who among us is exempt
from begging of the gods
the very things
that leave us
as we are.

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