using Psalm 143 as a guide
Even before he really began to form words, we began trying to teach our son, who is now almost three, to say “please.” He was still not forming many consonants correctly, which was normal for his age, but he tried to imitate us the best he could. It first came out as “beef.” He’d motion for something, or grunt for it, and we’d ask, “What do you say?” and he’d say, “Beef.” That was well over a year ago. Now he’s pretty conversant and able to express himself very well, but he still reverts to saying “Beef” when he wants something. We’ll say something like, “Do you want more chicken?” and he’ll say, “Beef.” But we know what he means. It’s an ongoing process.
Whether it comes out “beef” or “please,” what he’s learning is supplication. Supplication isn’t one of those words people use very often, but in a way they do, because it comes from the same Latin root word as “please.” Both words relate to asking for something from someone and being pleased or soothed by the receipt of it. So if last week’s Lenten worship emphasis was on saying “Thank you” for what God has done for us, then this week we take a closer look at saying “please” for whatever we might want God to do for us.
I would say that if we’re honest, we all arrive at supplication at some point when we’re talking about our relationship with God. In fact, “please” is probably our most instinctual prayer, a place where a great many of us go when we pray, especially when things aren’t going our way. You may have heard the saying that there are no atheists in foxholes, and I’m sure that’s not entirely true, but it is a way of acknowledging that even those who may not normally express any kind of belief in a Creator or a Higher Being often find themselves on their knees asking for help or guidance when things get really tense.
Jesus, in his final hour, offered prayers of supplication. In the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross he prays for forgiveness for those who kill him, for a drink of wine, for the cup of suffering to pass from his lips. We, too, come before our God in our times of need. And just as a parent teaches a child to say “please” or “May I?” even though that parent would still give her child whatever he needs without it, it stands to reason that God might give us ways to offer our supplications that could deepen our relationship with him and may help us grow.
Psalm 143 is one of many psalms that gives us language for how to say please to God. In it we hear the psalmist asking for protection from some kind of enemy, although that enemy is never named or described fully. Perhaps it’s a military enemy or a personal enemy who is threatening recrimination of some sort. This foe has chased him and crushed his life to the ground, his heart within him is desolate. That may be all we need to know in order to envision any enemy we face in the words of this prayer, whether it be a diagnosis we’re fighting, that sciatic nerve pain, a tough life situation that won’t leave us alone, or even lingering consequences from a decision we’ve made. Regret and shame can feel like enemies, can’t they? They can leave our hearts desolate within us. Naming those emotions within us and the threats from outside is a good first step to coming before God in supplication.
The psalmist then continues by acknowledging how broken he is standing in God’s righteousness. He asks for God not to judge him and instead to listen to his prayer with God’s own faithfulness in mind. We may not always come to God feeling broken or torn down, but it is good to remember that God is faithful and abounding in steadfast love, and that God acts justly but with compassion. We make our appeals to God not only on the basis of how we are feeling or what our condition is, but on how wonderful and gracious God is.
It is helpful to remember that God has a track record with us of being gracious, which is where the psalm takes us next. “I remember the days of old,” he sings, “I think about all your deeds, I meditate on the works of your hands.” Saying “please,” then, could start with naming our need, re-stating God’s goodness and the things God has done in the past. This is good for us, too, a way of calling to mind even the seemingly little things we might have forgotten that have been like manna in the wilderness for us. I know that when I am broken down nowadays, I still recall the random phone call from a camp counselor co-worker that lifted me out of a dark time in my young adult years, or the email that a high school teacher didn’t have to send me but did that cleared up a lot of questions I was struggling with right after high school. God provides in ways that are often only clear to us in hindsight because the cloudiness of the current moment is too overwhelming.
But there is still the issue of what we need and how to ask God for it, and, of course, we can form our prayers however they come to our lips and God hears even things we don’t say, but it is interesting to notice the particular way the psalmist words his requests for help and deliverance. “Show me the road I must walk,” he says, and later: “lead me on level ground.” Those requests are both precise and open-ended. They paint the picture of a God who is committed to walking with us, who is not just a wish-granter, but someone who comes alongside of us for the long haul.
At another point the psalmist says, “Teach me to do what pleases you,” which suddenly lifts him into a new kind of relationship. It is not just God who is expected to please me, but there is this suggestion that I have a part to play, too, that this dialogue is not one-sided. Theologian and writer C.S. Lewis says at one point, “What we do when we weed a field is not quite different from what we do when we pray for a good harvest.” That is to say, asking God for something—either for ourselves or someone else—invites us further into action, and that action leads to growth, which is really what God is about to begin with—growth in faith, growth in love towards our neighbor, growth in wisdom and understanding.
I see that a new version of Disney’s Aladdin is coming out in the theaters again this spring, and I can’t wait to see it, but based on what we hear in Psalm 143, and what we see in the life of Jesus as he prays, too, I doubt God wants to be turned into our genie, a being that we call on just to grant us favors whenever we find ourselves in a pinch. The message is that our overall relationship with God is more important than our specific request in any given moment—it’s about the whole road, not the momentary vista—as hard as that may be to stomach sometimes. That is, God’s overarching goodness to us and fatherly care of us and God’s desire that we grow until our final moment is the reality that shapes our supplications.
It is no accident that when Jesus’ disciples ask him about how to pray, Jesus gives them a prayer that focuses on the things they will ever truly need: daily bread, forgiveness and relationships of reconciliation with others, help in times of trial and temptation, and deliverance in that final hour of ours. So, when we pray for what we need, when we find ourselves chased down by enemies and crushed to the ground, all is framed by God’s graciousness to us in Jesus’ cross. We can trust we have a God who is walking the road with us, who is just, and we can use language like, “teach me,” “lead me,” and “remind me of how good you are” and then prepare ourselves to weed the field.
For me, one of the most helpful teachers of prayer is a woman I’ve never met who has been a guest at our HHOPE pantry over the past several years. Since its beginning almost 10 years ago, HHOPE has placed a small box for prayer requests on the table with the food, so that clients who come for distribution can also leave their prayer requests anonymously, if they’d like. They write them on little yellow Post-It notes and the HHOPE volunteers read them aloud as they circle up for prayers at the end of the distribution. Afterwards they place those Post-It notes in my box so I can pray them, too.
This one client is a single mother of a teenage son who has special needs due to an autism diagnosis. She shows up just about every distribution, often with some new challenge or obstacle they’re dealing with, whether it’s finding good living arrangements or proper care for her son. She spreads out her hands, soul gasping like a thirsty land, and for ten years this woman’s request has been the same, scribbled in pencil:
“God, please make a way out of no way for me and my family.”
“God, please make a way out of no way for me and my family.”
What a witness to see her faith that God will walk and teach and make that way—and to see that God’s good Spirit has led her on level ground, time after time!
Lord, “beef,” oh, “beef,” teach me to trust you like that. After all, it’s an ongoing process.
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.
 God in the Dock, C.S. Lewis