I have had the experience lately, especially on Zoom calls, of not being able to answer the basic question, “How are you doing?” It feels like I’m being asked to enter the foggy bottom of my mind, where the perceived threats are sequestered, and retrieve a coherent thought. This has translated into my prayer life. What do I pray for anymore that I haven’t prayed in these last seven months?
We have apparently come to the end of our Netflix watch list. Ice cream is ubiquitous in our house now, so it has lost its attraction. I deeply love my husband, Stuart, but we seem to use up all of our words by sundown. The list of things I miss grows longer. I miss hugs, handshakes and high fives. I miss seeing a person’s whole face. At the outdoor service at our farm last weekend, I couldn’t tell who 1/3 of the congregation was because of masks and hats. How am I doing? I haven’t found the words yet—or maybe I lost them in the whirlwind of words swirling about us. I don’t know what I want or need—but I do crave something.
Verse 11 in Psalm 106 says that the people literally “craved a craving.” That really hits home. My pre-pandemic life was filled to the brim with cravings that I could readily satisfy—for company, for entertainment, for food, for exercise, for travel—but as the shut-down continues, my cravings have fewer objects. I crave a craving.
Our Psalm today makes it very clear that this is the way humans operate. In our quest to satisfy ourselves, we hurt ourselves and others. If Psalm 106 were a song, it would certainly be a country song from God’s point of view. Willie Nelson’s ‘You Done Me Wrong” comes to mind, “If I could look inside your heart, I would know the reason you‘re leaving me all alone. You know it’s not so, when you say I’ve done you wrong.” As a friend of mine says, we’ve got some explaining to do!
The Psalmist tells us that right after God performed one of the most astounding miracles in known history, the insecure and restless Israelites created their own idol to soothe themselves, wanting something tangible that they could see, not the intangibility of God and his rules. They rebelled. I understand that. We love our “Pseudo salvations,” like our job, our children, sports, other people, substances, rules or ideologies. It’s not wrong to love those things, but if we put them above our love of God, we lose our identity. We feel lost, confused and rudderless. We don’t know how we’re doing because when something like a pandemic strips us of our pseudo salvations, our sense of meaning and purpose goes with them. The text says, “they exchanged their glory for the glory of God their Savior.” We put ourselves and our solutions at the center of our lives, instead of God.
When describing Psalm 106, Tim Keller wrote, “Human beings fail at living as they should, with God and their neighbors. No matter how many things God does for them, it doesn’t change their hearts—their ingratitude (v 13), their endless craving (v 14), their sense of superiority to God (v14) or their envy and selfishness (v 16). We need something to be done in us to save and transform us, because we can’t do it ourselves. Psalm 106 is the confession of our infidelity to God who has never ‘done us wrong,’ no matter what our complaint. Unlike Willie Nelson, however, God has seen into our hearts and knows why we are attracted to quick fixes and concrete ideologies, and in his mercy sent Jesus Christ to be our real salvation.
I have been working with our three fellows, Ashley, Ellie and Lizzy, on our bible studies of the Psalms for the past two months.( You can join us by checking out the website☺) Ashley found a Psalm 106 illustration in the 1955 movie, “Rebel Without a Cause.” James Dean plays a young man named Jim who is rebelling without a discernable cause, and the adults around him are reacting. He finds the way his mother criticizes his father intolerable—she represents the law, always judging and finding fault. He sees his father as weak because he is loving and generous—and the means of grace in the film. Jim shares the cause of his rebellion with a police officer, saying, “Boy, if I had one day when I didn’t have to be all confused, and didn’t have to feel that I was ashamed of everything I felt, that I belong someplace, you know.”
He is not without a cause. Jim is a rebel like all of us. He rebels against his need for God, while he is craving the love and forgiveness only Christ can provide. Unlike most of us, however, Jim lets us hear what’s going on in his mind and heart. Like Jim, our inner playlist is a fearful, rebellious refrain, while our outer self projects a song of self-righteousness and self-sufficiency.
Our hearts are at war within us—rebelling against the law while feeling ashamed of seeing love as weak. We usually hide our internal dialogue so that we appear strong and without fault, but God knows the root of our suffering and makes the inner life known through the Psalms. We want to be strong on our own, not dependent on God or others. But God has willed to make God’s-self known to us, despite our rebellion and inequity, because of his covenant to be faithful.
Luther said that, “Our hearts are like ships on a troubled ocean, driven by the winds from every corner of the earth.” These are the same hearts that we try to squeeze prayer out of as they are buffeted about by the world. Our inwardly focused eyes can only see how God has done us wrong by not making our lives easier, and yet Psalm 106 asks us to confess that we have not experienced this through the constantly forgiving and eternal eyes of God.
No wonder we can feel dry and searching for words. Thomas Merton wrote, “To find the way to God and to speak with Him, whether the heart is full or empty, no man can do that by himself. He needs Jesus Christ…it can be very painful to want to speak to God but be unable to.” The Psalms are a Jesus Shaped prayer life because they are the prayers that Jesus prayed. For 2,000 years, God’s people have learned how to hear from God and how to talk to God by praying the Psalms. If we believe prayer is only an outpouring of the heart, we miss the deep healing that praying the words of the Psalms brings. As a parent teaches a child to talk by talking to her, God has spoken to us through the Psalms.
Going back to the Psalm 106, we see the history of our unfaithfulness and the faithfulness of God. Verse 21 reads, “They forgot their very own Savior, who turned things around in Egypt.” How many times a day do we forget our very own Savior, who turned things around for us on the cross? Despite our forgetfulness, Christ accepts us back over and over again with open arms and deep forgiveness so that the barrier of our shame is broken and we are free to be loved and to love. Our Savior may not provide a new Netflix show, a job or a quick end to the pandemic, but God did self-sacrifice on the cross so that our craving and craven hearts would be saved eternally.
Psalm 106 is a confessional prayer that God has taught us to pray, and prays through us, so that our hearts remember this eternal truth—that God is faithful, we can give thanks for he is good and his mercies last forever, even if we forget what He has done through Christ while we are still rebels without a cause.
How am I doing? I have discovered words to locate Christ in the landscape of our seemingly endless chaos by seeing the history of our relationship with God in Psalm 106, giving thanks for Christ’s great sacrifice for me.
Prayer as offered by Pastor Keller in his book of Psalms:
Lord, I thank you for my routine mercies. I thank you for sustaining my life daily, for being endlessly patient with me, for shielding me from so many consequences of my foolish behavior, for the ways you have walked with me in trials and for all my answered prayers. Amen