“Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me,” our psalmist begins. (Tradition credits King David as the author, but this is not likely.) “For I am poor and needy. Preserve my life, for I am devoted to you; save your servant who loves you.”
I wonder what was happening in the psalmist’s life. What prompted this heartfelt prayer? Was it something sudden, something shocking or scary, or overwhelming? A difficult diagnosis, perhaps? A sudden death? A deep disappointment?
Or was this perhaps the prayer of someone living with a chronic issue now turned acute? Did a troubled relationship at last crumble and fall? Did one more year of drought finally ruin the psalmist’s livelihood? Maybe a straw broke his camel’s back, causing a burden of longstanding to become too much to bear.
Whatever the psalmist’s concern, whatever led him to cry out, he found himself completely betwixt and between. He couldn’t return to the way things had been and couldn’t go forward, not on his own steam anyway.
His only recourse, his only hope, was to call out to the Holy One.
I have no idea what kinds of prayers Rev. Dr. Anthony Scott prayed following his unjust and abrupt termination last November. Given the circumstances, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Anthony shared that he had turned to Psalm 86 for help; his feelings and needs and those of the psalmist are painfully similar.
The same could be said of the good people of Ukraine. If we distributed today’s psalm to people there, they might assume that what they read was written by a Ukrainian auntie or neighbor just a month or two into the Russian invasion.
The pain of uncertainty, the agony of being midway through the trouble of one kind or another, is so often our undoing, spiritually and emotionally speaking.
Even as we do our best to endure, all too often, we find ourselves reaching a breaking point when the future is murky, when there’s no end in sight. That’s when we cry out to God, earnest and honest and exhausted.
Think about our protracted experience with the pandemic. Although, at first, we presumed we would only need to isolate for a few weeks, maybe a month, this wasn’t the case. We found ourselves painfully betwixt and between, just like the psalmist was. And just like the psalmist, all we could do was turn to God and humbly, urgently set our needs at God’s feet.
I don’t know the first time you decided to turn to God like this—nor do I know the last time you did—but I doubt any of us have been spared the need to pray with fervor and urgency that God would act. This could even be where you find yourself this morning.
We have company. Even Jesus found himself in this place, likely more than once.
The prolific spiritual writer Anne Lamott has certainly been here. Her books often touch on her struggles with addiction and mental health issues. It’s from this challenging journey that Anne has come to the conclusion that there are really just two prayers: “Help me, help me, help me,” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Help, our psalmist prays. “Incline your ear, answer me, preserve my life, gladden my soul, listen to my cry.” Help!
We can relate. We’ve been there too. Or perhaps are there right now.
God, of course, already knows your need and mine. Not only does God meet us in our cries for help, the God who is perpetually present to us anticipates our cries for help.
But what God doesn’t anticipate are those moments when in the midst of our pleas, we are genuinely moved to offer thanks and words of praise.
That’s certainly what happened for the psalmist. Well before he sensed a saving response from God, he sang God’s praises.
After articulating his urgent need, he lifted up these words: “You, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you… There is none like you among the gods, O Lord, nor are there any works like yours. For you are great and do wondrous things; you alone are God.”
This dance, this alternating between petition and praise, is both unexpected and moving. And it has me wondering what might happen if instead of thanking God after the fact, after the help, after the miracle, like the psalmist, I was moved to praise God ahead of time.
Let’s think about this together. Even as bad as things are for the psalmist, even as dire as they seem, even as poor and needy as the psalmist feels himself to be, he has not lost hope, he has not lost his faith in the God who will come to his aid, the God who can and will liberate him from whatever is presently unbearable, whatever is currently pressing down on him. And this certitude, this confidence, inspires him to praise God in the midst of his prayers for relief, for help.
Now, to be honest, I don’t always come to God this way, inwardly assured of God’s desire and capacity to help me. This might be true for you, as well.
Sometimes my need is naked, unadorned. And not always am I sure God will hear or respond. When this is the case, when I feel raw and ragged and overwhelmed, I may even be tempted to think that it falls to me to convince God to care and to inspire God to act.
Maybe that happens to you sometimes. Aware of this or not, a good number of us approach God a little like Dorothy standing before the Great Oz, feeling that we have to advocate for ourselves, that we somehow need to convince God to take action.
But here’s good news for anyone who might be inclined to think this way: we don’t need to talk God into acting on our behalf. Nor do we need to offer God flowery praise in order to receive God’s undivided attention. Our fawning is not the lubrication that enables God to hear and respond to our pleas for help.
Long before we can even name our need, well before we even decide to come to God as the psalmist did, God is already keenly, mercifully aware of and present to our circumstances and feelings. And is moving on our behalf.
This is why we are free to praise God midstream. Before the answer, before the help. Before the mercy rains down, cool and welcome. We can praise God even before we are restored and made whole again, because God knows, understands, and is laboring unseen on our behalf.
When we grasp this, when we take this truth into ourselves, we can see something we might have missed before. That there aren’t two distinctly different kinds of prayer—help me, help me one day, and thank you, thank you another.
But rather, these prayers are two peas in a pod, they sit together. They’re like two hands folded in prayer: help me, help me on the left, and thank you, thank you on the right.
But let’s be clear. We are not thanking God for the trouble we’re in, the difficulty we’re facing. No. We are thanking God, just as the psalmist did, for being God, for meeting us in the middle of our challenge, and for being utterly reliable and perpetually present.
Or, as the psalmist puts it, we can thank God for being good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to any and all who call on God, for being the God who is great and who does wondrous things, and who alone is God.
Later in worship, after we have prayed aloud together, we can try this out for ourselves when we turn to God in silent prayer. We can explore what it’s like to follow our pleas and prayers with a word or felt sense of genuine thanks.
Christian contemplatives like Richard Rohr, Thomas Keating, and Cynthia Bourgeau all teach and encourage this way of prayer that so beautifully resembles what we hear the psalmist doing this morning.
They call this “welcoming prayer,” and it’s not rocket science.
All we need do is come into God’s presence and open ourselves to whatever arises, resisting and amplifying nothing, simply noticing who and what has our prayerful attention, and then offering what we’re aware of to God. And then, rather than elaborate on or linger with our need, we inwardly offer God our thanks.
Again, this isn’t offering thanks for the issue or challenge itself, but rather thanks for God’s desire and capacity to be present and actively engaged in our lives in the unfinished, unresolved aspects of our lives.
Forcing nothing but instead allowing ourselves to sense and be open to the God who meets us in each challenge, each place of brokenness and hurt, our earnest thanks may naturally call us into the same realization that washed over our psalmist: You, O God are great and do wondrous things, you alone are God.
Let us pray: O God, as our siblings in the Episcopal Church, so often say, your will for all people is health and salvation. You do not cause our troubles, you do not delight in them because you aim to test us or teach us something. Instead, in love, you meet us in the midst of our complicated lives; you hear our cries, and indeed long before we know you are at work, you are laboring on our behalf. Let us ever trust that we can turn to you when circumstances overwhelm us and, in our communing with you, be helped to discover, yet again, how worthy you are of lavish praise. Amen.