Praying at Epiphany

adoration of the magi

Ernest Hemingway’s advice to writers – “write hard and clear about what hurts” – could probably apply to those of us who pray as well.

A dear friend who had been through a particularly tough year wrote to me not long ago and asked for scripture to guide her thinking and praying.

Without thinking too much about it, a reflex more than anything, I suggested that she read the psalms.  “Not all the way through,” I wrote. “Just dip in, here and there.”

A few days later she wrote back to say: “I had no idea how dark the psalms are.”  The tone of her email suggested that they might have been too dark.

For every “make a joyful noise” in the psalms, there are several more: “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

The psalms teach us to pray.

Religious professionals – by which I mean people like me, the people for whom Jesus reserved his harshest words of condemnation – tend to think that people want to feel better about themselves.  We reason that when they come to church they want to feel better when they leave than when they arrived.

One church member told me recently that he comes to church to “get really pumped up about Jesus.”

And so, consciously or not, we tend to plan worship along those lines – more uplift than reflection on what hurts.  After all, you can’t drag people down and then expect to send around the offering plate.

But the history of spiritual writing suggests something different.  More people, it turns out, should pray “hard and clear about what hurts.”

Over the last year I’ve prayed quite a few Ernest Hemingway-style prayers.  Weighed down by worry and anxiety, I didn’t get all that “pumped up about Jesus,” but I did sense that my spiritual life was deepening and expanding in a way that it never had before – or that it hadn’t in a long, long time. I was praying honestly and transparently, hard and clear, about where I was in my life.

It wasn’t easy.  It never is.  But with the light of the season approaching – Epiphany – I find my spirit slowly and surely being restored.

From one of my favorite hymns at this time of year…

Stars, keep the watch. When night is dim
One more light the bowl shall brim,
Shining beyond the frosty weather,
Bright as sun and moon together.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the star, is on the way.

(Art credit: He, Qi. Adoration of the Magi, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.)

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

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2 Responses to Praying at Epiphany

  1. Norm Samuelson January 9, 2014 at 9:39 pm #

    Hi Doug,

    Congratulations on receiving the call to the church in Zurich. It must be exciting. I think of you often, especially when I have to get botox for my vocal chords. I think of your knees. This might be a good time to switch from running to hiking. Switzerland, the Tirol in western Austria and southern Germany are truly inspiring. For me hiking in the mountains is a spiritual experience. One the most beautiful sites that I have ever seen is the valley overlooking Interlaken. You have to get there fairly early in the morning (for me that means 9:00 a.m.) in order to get the cable car to take you to the top where there is ( or used to be 45 years ago when I was there) a restaurant and to give you time to hike around God’s green earth.

    To get to the top you have to take a gondola, maybe two. Anyway, I am always glad to see how things are going for you.

    Your lunch buddy,

    Norm Samuelson

    • Doug January 10, 2014 at 5:12 am #

      It’s good to hear from you, Norm. I hope you’re well! Just so you know, living in Florida these last few years has all but cured me of running. Am looking forward to the hiking in Switzerland. Not sure about the skiing, but could be talked into some of that too. Thanks for the tip about your favorite spot.

      Come and visit, and we’ll have lunch again.

      Doug

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