Do you remember Ray Charles’ “Hard Times”?
My mother told me, ‘fore she passed away
Said son when I’m gone
don’t forget to pray
‘Cause there’ll be hard times,
hard times, oh yeah
Who knows better than I?
We do not have nearly enough Ray Charles songs in our hymnals.
Who hasn’t felt like singing this line from W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues”?
If I’m feelin’ tomorrow like I feel today
I’ll pack my trunk and make my getaway.
Everyone has felt the urge to pack their trunk.
In our lowest moments, we understand Charlie Daniels’ “Can’t You See”:
I’m gonna climb a mountain,
the highest mountain,
I’m gonna jump off,
and nobody’s gonna know
I’m gonna find me a hole in the wall,
I’m gonna crawl inside and die.
We want to get away. We want to crawl inside a hole in the wall. When we come to church feeling broken, we ought to be able to sing the blues.
If the book of Psalms had a topical index, the largest heading would be the blues. In 52 of the 150 psalms, worshippers cry out to God and pray for deliverance. These psalms should be read with a wailing harmonica. When we are hurting, we need to pray the blues.
A Sunday school teacher got in late on Saturday night and is not prepared, so she hopes the prayer concerns will take awhile: “What prayer concerns do you have?”
The class responds as they do each Sunday:
“My cousin is having an operation on his left pinky finger. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but he says it really hurts.”
“My chiropractor is having some back trouble.”
“Be in prayer for my daughter. She’s trying to find the right school for my granddaughter — who is a genius. Getting into the right preschool is so important.”
“My husband just received a big promotion. It’s a lot more money, but it’s also a great deal of responsibility for such a young man, so pray for us.”
“We won’t be at church next Sunday because my son is in a big karate competition. We’re praying that he gets his yellow belt.”
In the middle of news masquerading as prayer concerns, someone says something that doesn’t fit.
“Six months ago I took painkillers after my surgery. I haven’t been able to stop taking them. I don’t want to stop, but I need to pray to stop.”
The room becomes quiet. No one is sure how to respond.
A woman who seldom speaks says, “My husband died five years ago and people don’t talk to me about him anymore. I’ve started to forget things about him that I used to know, and it makes me cry. You’re not supposed to be crying five years after someone dies.”
The woman seated next to her says, “Thank you for saying what you’re really praying for and not just what sounds like a normal prayer request. I’m always praying for my sick friends, my family and my problems. That can’t be enough. Shouldn’t we pray about the problems in the world?”
The teacher is taken aback at her class becoming an episode of Desperate Prayer Lives. She asks a question that is not in her notes: “What should we be praying about?”
“We need to pray for the earth. We’re not leaving it in good shape for our grandchildren.”
“We need to pray for Christians around the world. The church is too timid.”
“We need to pray for people who are lonely. It’s hard to be by yourself.”
“We need to pray about hunger. When I hear the statistics — 25,000 a day dying — I don’t want to believe it’s true, because then I’d have to do something.”
“I’ve stopped praying about wars. I can’t keep straight who’s killing who, but I should keep praying about it.”
We are not used to praying about the pain that fills the world. Though it may be more than we can imagine, it is not more than we can pray about. NJF
—Brett Younger is associate professor of preaching at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology.