What Wrestling with a Psalm Taught Me about Prayer

Cary Umhau, a frequent participant in conferences and workshops through The Allender Center and a fellow in the Leadership in the New Parish Certificate program, has recently published a spiritual memoir, Burning Down the Fireproof Hotel: An Invitation to the Beautiful Life. In this excerpt from the book, Cary writes about how an emotional conversation with a Psalm taught her about prayer. Read more about Burning Down the Fireproof Hotel here, and check out two previous excerpts about pursuing a unique faith rather than cookie-cutter Christianity and finding intimacy that goes beyond Valentine’s Day and romance.


On a particular day a few years back, I had a problem. I have zero idea now what it was, and the details don’t matter anyway because it’s always something for us discontent humans, or for me anyway.

I felt sure that if I could just call a friend, then everything would be okay. She or he would say the right thing, comfort me, and my anxiety would dissipate in the magic of our connection. Deep down I realized that any one friend’s counsel would leave me needing more and that I’d end up banging on every door and dialing the phone number of everybody I knew.

In the midst of my apprehension I heard a little voice in my head suggesting that I didn’t need to call a friend; instead I should just pray. And I immediately got on my knees.

No, that’s a lie.

I decided instead that the ideal solution would be to go to the drugstore and buy and eat a lot of chocolate.

In two seconds I knew that that too was an inadequate plan.

And then Psalm 16 popped out of my head, right where I’d put it. Being a rule-following, legalistic sort of girl during those fireproof years, I’d been memorizing scripture somewhat regularly, a habit that served me well and helped me learn that it actually does have power.

I started sort of whining and talking all at once, using this psalm as counterpoint to my ramblings. I’d go back and forth in my head between what I was really feeling and what the psalm said was reality. I confess that I had this conversation in a moving vehicle, that there were not a few tears involved, and that I don’t know where I drove in the 20 minutes that passed.

I’ll let you in on my conversation, the best I remember it:

God, help. Help, help, help, help. Now.

Okay, your word says,Keep me safe, O God, for in you I take refuge.

I’m not safe; how can you say that, God? I’m paralyzed and shaky.

I said to the Lord, ‘You are my LORD; apart from you I have no good thing.’

I don’t feel that way; I wonder if you’re even good. If I’m honest, I want everything else more than I want you today. You’re actually barely on my list.

As for the saints who are in the land; they are the glorious ones in whom is all my delight.

Yes, God, I do like your people . . . where are they all right now by the way? Why do I always feel so alone?

The sorrows of those will increase who run after other gods.

Yep, I’m running after friends and food like usual.

I will not take up their names on my lips nor pour out their libations of blood.”

I don’t want to obsess over something besides you; help me stop.

Lord you have assigned my portion and my cup; you have made my lot secure.”

I have to admit that in spite of my current problem, my life is pretty sweet. I’m not starving in a refugee camp; I live in freedom and safety. And beyond that, I have a good life . . . even if I can’t always feel it. I’ll admit that. Grudgingly.

FireproofThe boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.

Okay, I do acknowledge that. To not do that would be really bratty because I do have everything I need—and more. Even though I’m upset, this is all objectively true.

Surely I have a delightful inheritance.

I’m trying to remember, God, that the life I have with you—on my worst days—trumps everything else in my life including these current problems. I know that you delight in me, that you look at me and love me, and you don’t hold it against me that I’m having a rough time claiming all your promises and experiencing joy.

Honestly the thrill of life with you isn’t floating my boat right now, but I will acknowledge that sometimes it does.

I will praise the Lord who counsels me.

Who am I that you would talk to me personally? Is it really okay to rant and argue with you? You’re not going to strike me dead, are you?

Even at night my heart instructs me.

I realize I’m calming down a little, like I do after my husband comforts me when I wake him up to say I’ve had a nightmare.

I have set the Lord always before me.

Well no, I haven’t. Sorry I forget so often.

Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.

Without you I’m kind of antsy and broken; with you I do feel steadier.

Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices. My body also will rest secure.

God, I know my emotions will come around; my courage will come back. I’ll calm down. My equilibrium isn’t gone forever. And I’ll see my problem in perspective.

You will not abandon me to the grave; nor will you let your Holy One see decay.

I believe Jesus’ resurrection happened and that it applies to me. Pick me up from my own ash heap.

Lord, you have made known to me the path of life.

I want to be on that trajectory where dead things come back to life; I’m desperate for it in fact.

You fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

I’m trying to remember to stick close. Help me. Thanks. Amen!

And with that “Amen!” I rolled into the driveway, wrung out though peaceful and with my issue settled. I’d moved—as the psalmist describes—from being a “brute beast” to being a “weaned child,” something in me moving from chaotic to settled, from crazed to content.

Dan Allender, one of my favorite authors, wrote in To Be Told that “prayer is wrestling with God until we surrender to his goodness.”

I was waving my white flag.

Cary Umhau, a fellow in the Leadership in the New Parish certificate program, is the author of Burning Down the Fireproof Hotel, a spiritual memoir born out of her time at The Seattle School and The Allender Center. You can learn more about Cary, and read more of her writing, at spacious.org.

Send this to friend