[SERIES: Part 1 of 3]
At some off-the-map place, on September 16, 1925, in a plantation down around the Mississippi Delta, Riley B. King was born. We know him by his legendary stage name: B.B. King. This man—the man behind Lucille, his black Gibson guitar—was shaped by the care of his mother, Nora Ella King, who made sure King was refined by Elkhorn Primitive Baptist Church and the preaching of Luther Henson. He was taught the church songbook full of gospels and spirituals.
And like every black man in Mississippi, B.B. King grew up knowing another king in the south: King Cotton, a slogan thrown around by pre-civil war politicians to highlight the importance of the cotton trade in the south’s economy. Even though more than 50 years had passed since the end of the Civil War, B.B. King was mentored in the blues first and foremost by the voices of African American men and women singing those church songs with large sacks hung over their shoulders, going through rows and rows of cotton.
It was heat, cotton, family, racial injustice, and, lest we forget, the church that formed this man. Beauty and chaos that formed his songs. And though, on May 14, 2015, at 89 years of age, he passed away, he keeps on teaching us to sing songs and to pray prayers that we have far too often forgotten.
Like most blues songs, King’s music forces the pain and brokenness we know all too well into the light. They bring a realism to how the past impacts the present. Old relationships leave scars. Social injustices still prevail. And while King was brilliant in bringing this pain to bear, he wasn’t all that original. What King and others have called the blues, Scripture has always called lament.
While we may not all sing with King Everyday I Have the Blues, we all know the feeling when King sings The Thrill Is Gone. We’ve felt a righteous dissatisfaction with the way things are in the valleys of the shadow of death. A holy discontent. But is it ok to sing the blues just because we chalk the word “holy” onto the uncomfortable word “discontent”? Because it kind of feels like complaining at times, and who wants to be a whiner?
What do we do? When the shrapnel of a broken world knocks the wind out of us, and we feel like we can barely breathe—let alone pray—how do we keep praying? When life transitions to a minor key, we take a note from the Psalms once again. We need to pray the blues. But how?
There is one lament—which spans two psalms, Psalm 42 and 43—that is just the one to help us figure it out. The psalmist is going to guide us a little further in the landscape of prayer: what it looks like to pray our longing in the drought, in the depths, and in the dwelling.
The psalmist begins his prayer in verse 1 with the image of a deer in the midst of drought, searching for water. The word used to describe the deer is “panting.” A sort of shortness of breath that comes as a result of frantically running from this place to that. In desperation, its tongue is sticking to the roof of its mouth, hoping water is just around the corner.
But he’s not looking for literal water. Listen again to Psalm 42:1-3:
As a deer pants for flowing streams,
so pants my soul for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and appear before God?
My tears have been my food
day and night,
while they say to me all the day long,
“Where is your God?”
The psalmist’s whole life is unraveling, and he’s desperately looking for God. Yet it’s as if God is nowhere to be found. Feeling alone in the mess, the psalmist isn’t sleeping, and he isn’t eating. Disillusioned and broken tears are the only thing he’s eating, and to top it off, with every new sunrise, instead of the rooster crowing, he hears from those around him: “God still hasn’t showed up yet, huh?”
Have you ever been there?
It’s in these moments that if our only authentic option is to pray the blues, we’d rather just stay quiet and keep to ourselves. Why? Because we convince ourselves that it’s all our fault. We believe the blues could have been avoided if we would have just done the right things.
But that’s not what we find here. Instead, at the heart of being a child of God comes the freedom to lament. We are free to admit that there are certain things broken in the world that I didn’t break, and there are certain things in life that I can’t do anything to fix. And when you are your most thirsty, that’s when your soul needs to be poured out in prayer. Sounds counter-intuitive, right? But when you are your most thirsty, that’s when your soul needs to be poured out in prayer.
Why? Because keeping quiet makes it worse. There is an article in The Onion, a mockumentary news site, titled, “Study: Pretending Everything’s Okay Works.”
CAMBRIDGE, MA—A study released Thursday by researchers at Harvard University’s Department of Psychology has found that the simple act of pretending one’s life is not in complete shambles threatening to collapse at any moment…works. “Even when everything is coming apart at the seams and disaster is almost certainly imminent, putting up a good front for friends and loved ones makes everything better,” said Professor Christine Wanamaker, who explained that smiling a lot and evasive answers were usually enough to get by. “Tell everyone that things are fine, and they will be fine. Just don’t over-think it.” When asked about her study’s methodology, Wanamaker said the research was rock-solid, had been looked over by a bunch of scientists, and definitely wasn’t anything to worry about.
We can laugh at this, because it sounds ridiculous when you put it that way. But the reality is that many times in our own lives we actually live like that, and sometimes we can even treat church like that too. I’ve heard from folks before how they didn’t want to come to church on a particular Sunday because they couldn’t put on a smile when they walked through the doors. “Everyone else seems to have it together, and I just don’t want to be a burden.”
You can’t live like that. It seems like you’re expected to have it together in our culture. But we all know that no matter how big the smile is on the outside, we don’t have it together. None of us do. There are times we feel miserable. There are times when we just feel far from God. When injustice rocks our world and we can barely stand. There’s a reason that a majority of the 150 psalms in Scripture are prayers of laments, and as the church, we are called to be a lamenting community. A safe place. A people where those who are struggling with depression, loss, death, disease, frustration with injustice—you name it—can come and pour out their souls.
We need to pray the blues. When you are most thirsty, that’s when your soul needs to be poured out in prayer. Let it ring out.