The refuge of prayer

“Hear my cry, O God; listen to my prayer.”

Reading Psalm 61 has been so good for me because I am not the best at prayer. I forget to regularly tune out the world and turn my thoughts and my heart up to God. When I do remember, it’s usually while I am driving, or walking somewhere, or going somewhere important and I squeeze out a quick prayer request. (Like into an interview: Please God, let this go well…)

But that’s not what the Lord’s Prayer or Psalm 61 teaches. Both start out by acknowledging that God is the one in charge:

“Our Father”
“Hear my cry O God; listen to my prayer.”

By approaching God reverently as Our Father and as someone from whom we need to ask permission to be heard, we’re recognizing His sovereignty and our need to respect that.

We also acknowledge His holiness:

“Hallowed be thy name”
“I call as my heart grows faint,
Lead me to the Rock that is higher than I.”

Gap of Dunloe (43)

David wrote this, and despite his military prowess and position as king, David still knew that God was really in charge, and the source of his success on the battlefield and in Israel. David had a fairly solid foundation upon which he built his kingdom, but he recognized that God provided an even more solid foundation through faith and following His laws.

Then, both the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm 61 profess the speaker’s love for God and their desire to grow closer to Him, and to live out His commands:

“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.”
“I long to dwell in your tent forever, and take refuge in the shelter of your wings.”

Only after these three steps: acknowledge God as father, leader, boss; recognize His holiness; declare our love for Him; only after these steps does the pattern segue into specific requests by the individual praying: requests for daily sustenance, long life, favor, forgiveness, patience, help staying on track, help avoiding temptation.

That’s the pattern I should be following: Recognize His sovereignty, praise Him, confess my love for Him, then ask for intercession. A quick, “oh please don’t let the stuff hit the fan” is not what God is looking for, not only because that one-liner is selfish, but because God isn’t hoping to just give us one or two things. He wants to give us life in every aspect. Asking for His kingdom to come means letting yourself “be enthroned in God’s presence forever” and letting Him see and work and love in every part of your life.

Maybe that’s one reason I’m not the best at praying: I struggle sometimes with asking God in everywhere. Not because I don’t trust Him to do what is right and best and timely – I mentioned on our walk that I’ve never been truly angry at God, or mistrustful – but because I don’t always believe He can change something about my situation. Or alter a trait as simple as my inability to be a morning person. Or I think that I can take care of an issue myself, and subconsciously I am thinking I don’t need to pray about it. Why I don’t pray about my husband growing in faith more is beyond me.

I get that the imagery of a strong tower or shelter illustrates that we CAN’T take care of business every time. We can’t always defend ourselves flawlessly in the face of those who want to take us down. So we retreat, and it’s nice how this is not written as a negative in the Psalm. Here’s David, this great military hero, and even he writes that “You have been my refuge, a strong tower against the foe.” Many Biblical scholars think David suffered bouts of depression, as evidenced in part by his desperate cry for help:

“From the ends of the earth I call to you, I call as my heart grows faint; Lead me to the Rock that is higher than I.” – Psalm 61:2

That may be true, but also: He was simply human, and war wears a person down over time. Even David needed a place to retreat regularly. Refuge for him meant treating his entry into God’s presence as if it were a shelter or tower. I imagine the times I did focus on prayer, and presenting my requests to God, and when I do, the world falls away. I think only of how great God is, and how insignificant my current problems are in the long run, and how God will take care of things one way or another.

Since I am not a military leader, and I (thankfully) don’t live in a war zone where a physical tower would be convenient and needed to feel safe, but instead in a country and a class where stress and busyness are often my enemy, I think of my ideal refuge as a tranquil place like a quiet, comfy room or a beautiful park. This was my favorite place to go and talk to God when I lived in Florida:

Haile Village

It’s a tiny pond and park area about 50 yards from my house. The buildings in the background are offices and shops that are part of the village center in my neighborhood. I would sit on that bench, often after a walk because those DO help clear my mind and help me start thinking rationally again, and let my thoughts turn to God and what is bothering me. After sitting still for awhile and watching lizards and ducks, other people walking by, and listening to cars (a main road is right where the person taking this photo would have stood), my thoughts would often morph into praise for all He has done for me. Because how can you stay flustered or angry in a setting like this?

I also think of a modern strong tower as familiar objects or places. We give security blankets to kids to help them be brave and calm. We go on vacations to the same places year after year to retreat into a bit of comfort. I watched an episode of “Tiny House Nation” recently about a couple who were building a tiny house because their former home was destroyed by fire. The wife happened to be home when the fire started and had time to save a few items before she had to evacuate. She grabbed a framed photo of herself, her husband and some friends, a tool, and a pair of fuzzy slippers. No joke: the fleecy, light blue bootie kind that people buy but never wear outside the house. When the host asked why she saved slippers, of all things, she replied that in her haste, she still had the presence of mind to grab something soft and comforting, because she knew the road ahead of them was going to be rough. Her source of rejuvenation, and her place of retreat, was any moment when her feet donned those slippers.

The psalm also mentions taking refuge in the shelter of God’s wings. If you look up similar verbiage in other places in the Bible, you find many cross-references from Ruth, other Psalms, Proverbs, and Isaiah. What is really cool are the variants on the phrase “shelter of God’s wings” and the benefit of staying there. Goodness, love, beauty, love, hope, protection like a shield and rampart, forgiveness, and riches are all mentioned as benefits of hanging out under God’s protective wing. Isaiah 40:31, one of my favorite verses, takes a slightly different approach to wings; he says that those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength and rise UP on wings like eagles. There’s not just one or two reasons to stay under God’s will; there are many.

Asking for God’s kingdom to come is asking Him into your life, and asking Him to rule over your life. This is tough to do, especially when you don’t see results right away. I’d like for my marriage to look like one straight out of wedded bliss heaven. But that’s taking time. I’d like for God to rule over my husband’s family, but that’s not in my control or my timing either. Maybe that’s why, like David,  we must ask to be enthroned in God’s presence forever. Taking charge of your behavior, and attitude and motivations, and aligning them with God, is easier when you are solidly in His presence than when you are not. Temptation sneaks in so much more easily when your focus is off God and His loving, mighty power. To be in God’s presence is to be protected by His breath and His embrace.

A final note about Psalm 61: David begins with his petition to be heard, proceeds to acknowledge God’s holiness, affirms his love for or God, and makes his requests. Then, at the end, he offers more praise:

Increase the days of the king’s life, his years for many generations.
May he be enthroned in God’s presence forever; appoint your love and faithfulness to protect him.
Then I will ever sing in praise of Your name and fulfill my vows day after day. – Psalm 61:7-8

What a role model for prayer. Approach with humility, make your requests known, and then offer praise to the One who you know will make things happen in His perfect timing. Rest easy in His presence knowing that the fullness of His love and mercy will fulfill your request beyond what you can imagine, and that stillness and peace will rule your heart that is hidden under His wings. God’s kingdom isn’t a tower or a pond, but a state of mind accessible only by complete trust and belief that the God who made the earth and heavens will make a way for us as well.

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