Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplications!
If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you,
so that you may be revered.
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the Lord!
For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with him is great power to redeem.
It is he who will redeem Israel
from all its iniquities. — Psalm 130
Jerome Creach, a professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, tells about the time he visited Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem while on a study tour of the Middle East. The chapel in this hospital has beautiful stained glass windows by one of my favorite artists, Marc Chagall. The windows are set up high, and visitors crane their necks to get a good look at the incredible artistry.
But the architectural feature that struck Creach was something much humbler. Someone in his group noticed that the floor was not flat; rather, a few small steps took you down to a platform in the middle that was below ground level. This sunken space in the center of the floor piqued their curiosity, and they asked a hospital representative about it. She replied, “The floor beneath the windows was made this way because we believe all prayer should be offered ‘out of the depths.’”
Where are you when you pray? I don’t just mean physically, although that is part of the question. Where are you emotionally and spiritually when you pray?
Especially when I was in high school, I heard a lot of talk about “911 prayers.” 911 prayers, as you might guess, are emergency prayers. Normally when church folk talk about 911 prayers, they are referring to a habit many Christians have of only praying when they are in trouble. As a teenager, my youth group leaders encouraged us not to wait until an emergency to reach out for God, but to make prayer a habit, something you did whether things were going well or poorly.
I sometimes like to think of prayer as a conversation you have with God as you would with a close friend. If you only called a friend when you needed something from them, that wouldn’t be much of a relationship. Prayer is about deepening your connection with God and developing a relationship of love and trust. God wants us to remember and seek his presence whether we are in trouble or not.
Where are you when you pray? Where is God when we pray?
The way we understand and approach prayer can tell us a lot about how we understand God. If we pray only 911 prayers, then God is sort of our emergency contact—that person whose name you put down on a form but whom you hope no one will ever have to call.
Or maybe God is a vending machine, dispensing answers to our 11th hour petitions. Earlier today, I heard another preacher ask if we were treating God like a Burger King—“Have it your way,” all from the comfort of the drive-through.
But God wants more than to be our emergency contact, more than our 911 prayers, and God has much more in store for us than our way.
At the same time, God does want our 911 prayers, our desperate cries for help. Psalm 130 says, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.” The Psalms can teach us a great deal about prayer—and, in fact, they are themselves prayers.
The Psalms vary greatly in tone. There are Psalms both of celebration and of lament. Strangely, the two go hand-in-hand. Many Psalms include both. The church is often too quick to provide answers to the hard questions that come with being human, but the celebratory Psalms do not cancel out those that lament. Joy and sorrow stand in tension.
I have never been to Hadassah Hospital, but in my last semester of seminary, I spent a lot of time at another hospital when I served as a chaplain intern. I was assigned to the pediatric unit at a major hospital. Every day, I saw very sick children whose futures were uncertain. I saw parents pray out of the depths of fear for the life of their child.
I spent some time at the beginning of my internship shadowing a much more experienced chaplain. I watched how she engaged both the children and the parents. She operated on two different levels, going back and forth between playing with the child and having serious conversation with the family. If the family came from a Christian background, she would ask to sing “Jesus Loves Me” with the child, but I noticed right away that she had made a slight change to the words:
Jesus loves me, this I know
For the Bible tells me so
Little ones to him belong
They are blessed, and he is strong
I was not a fan at first. The words are “They are weak, but he is strong.” I thought, we shouldn’t gloss over our weakness, especially when God responds with God’s strength!
But the other chaplain explained to me: Here in this hospital, weakness is painfully obvious. No one needs to tell a toddler with a breathing tube that she is weak.
In a pediatric hospital, weakness slaps you in the face. Every tiny body wracked with infirmity is itself a prayer of lament.
Where are you when you pray? Where is God when we pray?
Prayer does not just show how we understand God, it actually shapes how we understand God. If we go to God for prayers only in times of trouble or only in times of happiness or only on a superficial level, then we will come to believe that God is only an emergency contact or only a yes man or only an acquaintance.
But if we pray out of the depths, we step out in faith. If we offer God honest lament, we exercise trust. And the more we do that, the more we come to see that God is not just emergency contact or a yes man or an acquaintance.
Where is God when we pray?
Working at the hospital, there were times when it was easy to see God. I got to watch nurses blow bubbles and cheer as a 7-month-old left the hospital for the first time in her life. I got to split popsicles with a sweet toddler who asked for her treat like this: “pop-ee-kul?” I got to see the social workers consulting with doctors, nurses, parents, and myself in a tireless effort to ensure the absolute best care for the children. And I got to be present with two families when the anxiety of waiting for heart transplants for their babies ended in a bittersweet gift of new life.
But of course, it wasn’t all that easy. I spent time with a teenager with a severe lung disease that would take his life before he became an adult. I met children with cancers that they knew had little chance of being cured. And I stood by while a mother wept over her dead 8-month-old baby.
The prayers were many—prayers of thanksgiving, prayers for healing, prayers that consisted of a desperate “Why?”, and prayers that were nothing more than the lamenting helplessness of a sick little body.
Where was God?
The only answer I have is this: God was in the depths. Prayers uttered from places of deep sorrow and pain do not have to travel far to reach listening ears. Joy and lament can mingle like light and dark at daybreak. And whether our prayers seem to be answered or not, the sun still rises.
“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.” (Psalm 130:5-6)
Sarah S. Howell