These are troubled times for us all, for sure. The Coronvirus pandemic is sweeping the world and normal life is impossible as we self-isolate, keep our social distance, wash our hands, and try and keep ourselves and each other safe.
Suddenly we’re in a situation in which we feel out of control. For those of us in the wealthy parts of the world, life has never been so good – healthcare, nutrition, peaceable times, leisure and the ability to spend on non-necessities, overall are better than they’ve ever been in the history of the world. Apart from the small matter of the despoiled planet, which to many people still seems personally unthreatening, life is pretty good for most of us. But here we are, suddenly feeling vulnerable. We’re suddenly beginning to understand, just a little bit of the uncertainty that people in poverty in the two-thirds world face, who are threatened by the global pandemic of tuberculosis – it kills 4,000 people a day – or by malaria, which causes more than three hundred million acute illnesses and kills at least one million people every year – nearly 3,000 a day – or the hundreds of thousands displaced, injured or killed because of conflict.
For sure we need to take the warnings about this pandemic seriously for ourselves and others, but how do we cope with the fear and anxiety that can take root? Keb’ Mo’ comes to mind here – “get on your knees and pray.”
Which is clearly what Blind Willie Johnson did in the influenza pandemic of 1918-19, which killed 50 million people worldwide. In his God Don’t Never Change, Johnson looks back to his experience of God in those times:
God in the time of sickness
God in the doctor too
In the time of the influenza
He truly was a God to you
Well he’s God, God don’t never change
He’s God, always will be God.
Here’s great version by Ashley Cleveland:
Prayer crops up a surprising amount in the blues – perhaps not surprising given its roots in the hardship and suffering of black communities. For people whose life choices are limited, who face hardship and troubles, often there is no option but to pray for help. Even Robert Johnson, often (mistakenly) more associated with the devil because of the crossroads myth, appeals to God in his song Cross Road Blues, “Asked the Lord above to have mercy; save poor Bob if you please.” Muddy Waters who, like many blues artists had grown up in the church, doesn’t seem to have lost at least some of what he learned at a young age, and knew where to turn when things got bad – “I be’s troubled, Lord, I’m troubled, I’m all worried in my mind”, he sings in I Be’s Troubled.
Son House in his Preachin’ Blues says he “went into my room, I bowed down to pray”. Problem was, “the blues come along and they blowed my spirit away”, presumably the “old worried heart disease.” as he later referred to the blues. Same thing happens again for Son House in Death Letter Blues, where he’s in his room praying when he gets the terrible news that the woman he loved had died.
B B King, in the bluesy Servant’s Prayer, prays to the Lord to:
Keep me safe from hurt and harm
When I’m burdened or I’m lonely
Comfort me within Your arms.
Trixie Smith’s Praying Blues from the early 1920s, catches this note of needing to turn to prayer when trouble comes:
Hope you don’t know half the trouble I’ve seen…
Nobody knows but the good Lord and me,
Lordy, lord, won’t you hear my plea
We find Lightnin’ Hopkins in Prayin’ Ground Blues, also praying in a situation of some desperation:
Well, I went down to my prayin’ ground
Wooo, fell down on my bended knees
Now mama we ain’t got no home
Oh, the poor children runnin’ cryin’
Now mama we ain’t got no home
Take heed to Mother fair, trust in the Maker your Lord.
We get anxious, not only about ourselves, but about those we love. Bob Dylan’s Protect My Child expresses the prayer of every parent. More than ourselves we wish good things for our children. Here’s a great version by Susan Tedeschi:
Sometimes praying doesn’t seem to come easy, even when we want to – you remember Jesus’s disciples kept falling asleep on him when they should have been praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. Eric Bibb has a great version of the Rev Gary Davis song, I Heard the Angels Singing, where the singer is opposed by the devil:
What you reckon the devil said
I heard the angels singing
He said that heaven’s door is closed, go home don’t pray.
But, “I heard the angels singing,” and he presses on to the valley to pray, Bibb’s animated performance accompanying the victorious pray-er.
Then there’s Kelly Joe Phelps’s Down to the Praying Ground from his excellent Brother Sinner and the Whale album, where Phelps’s prayer is for forgiveness and mercy, a cry from a man who has exhausted his own resources.
The cry of distress to the Lord, the anxieties that disturb the mind, are all, of course, familiar to readers of the Psalms – Israel’s blues book.
In Psalm 6.6, we get “I am weary with my moaning; Every night I flood my bed with tears”. Psalm 38.17 says, “For I am ready to fall; And my pain is ever with me”. The Psalmist’s response to the injustice of life and the calamities that befall him and his people is to cry out to God, “O Lord; attend to my cry! Give ear to my prayer (Psalm 17:1); In my distress I called upon the Lord, And cried to my God for help (Psalm 18:6).
At such times in life, it seems the only thing to do, even for those of us who rarely pray or admit our need of God. The God of the Bible of course is the God of the needy, the oppressed, the afflicted, those with that “old worried heart disease”. As the Psalms writer says confidently in Psalm 120.1, “I call on the Lord in my distress, and he answers me”.
How God answers prayer, of course is a mysterious business. In fact, the whole business of prayer defies explanation. Why does God seem to answer our prayers sometimes and not to hear at other times? Why should God answer our prayers in the midst of the current pandemic when there’s a whole world of suffering out there?
One of the best approaches to this that I’ve seen comes from a song by Canadian blues singer, Colin Linden (and talented music producer, music director and songwriter). It’s called God Will Always Remember Your Prayers and is on his superb 2009 album From the Water.
Linden asserts “God will always remember your prayers”. This even “though it seems like he ain’t even there”. How many of us can identify with that? But Linden goes on:
“Just get on your knees and pray,
He might not answer right away
But God will always remember your prayers”
Linden notes what we’ve just been talking about, “We all pray our deepest prayer when trouble comes.” Ain’t that the truth? But insightfully, Linden suggests that God “only longs to hear us pray his will be done.” Our prayers are made from the limited perspective of our own circumstances and difficulties. Maybe God sees the bigger picture of our lives and we need to come to a place of trust. The song goes on:
“In this world understand that he might have a better plan
But he will always remember your prayers
God will always remember your prayers”
Not only might God not seem to answer your prayers, suggests Linden, he might actually leave you for a while “stranded”, not able to “find a way”, not able to “tell the darkness from the day”. Says Linden,
“He might leave you on your own
And let you find your way back home.”
So where does that leave us? The song’s last verse gets to the heart of things – when things are at their darkest and “you think your words can’t reach so far above”, well, maybe “all that you can give him is your love” – at this point, at an end of our own resources,
“The answer you’ve been waiting for
Is the peace down in your heart”
God will always remember your prayers”
There’s a serenity, Linden seems to suggest, that comes, after doing all we can do and all we’re supposed to do, from surrender to God’s “better plan” and a trust in God’s loving care that brings peace, even in the darkest of days. This, then, the song suggests, is what prayer is about – not about simply asking God to come and make things better (that’s our immediate inclination, and there’s nothing wrong with that) but getting ourselves to a point of trust in a God who loves, cares and who sees the end from the beginning. Linden’s chorus sums it up:
“I’m calling you Lord, I’m calling you Lord
I’m calling you Lord, Lord, Lord, calling you Lord
I’m waitin’ on you, I’m waitin’ on you
And I can’t do nothin’ till you come”
The last word, we’ll leave to Eric Bibb: I Want Jesus to Walk with Me.