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Sun, Oct 21, 2018

Someone Who Knows How I Feel

Duration:14 mins 40 secs

“Someone Who Knows How I Feel”

Sermon on Psalm 6

            Once a young chaplain doing her hospital internship was trying to communicate with a patient, an older man who was seriously ill and somewhat depressed. She tried reading Scripture to him, offering prayers and just talking with him, but all he did was turn his back to her, silently telling her to go away. She was conscientious about her duties, though, so she kept going back. One day she opened her Bible to Psalm 6, or a similar “psalm of lament,” and began to read aloud. The man turned over to face her and look her in the eyes. “Finally,” he said. “Someone who knows how I feel.”[i]

          If you were to search the lectionary, the three-year cycle of Bible readings appointed for Christian worship services, you would not find Psalm 6. You cannot find a musical setting for it in most hymnals, including ours – yet poetic prayers like this one are more numerous than any other kind in the Bible.

          Why don’t we hear these more often then? Maybe the language is just too emotional, the feelings too raw and exposed. It seems that somewhere along the line the people who put together the lectionary decided that Psalm 6 was just over the top. We will put up with just so much suffering and complaint in our worship services, and no more.

          The Bible is full of this kind of stuff, though. Whoever wrote Psalm 6 was suffering in a deep way, in body, mind, and spirit. He is sick, he is frightened, he believes he is beset by enemies, and God seems to have turned away from him. Beyond that, we really don’t know anything specific about his situation. We don’t know what kind of illness he has, or who these “enemies” are. We don’t know why he thinks God would be mad at him, only that that he cannot imagine any other cause for his distress. The circumstances are vague, but the feeling is real, immediate, and precise. It’s something everyone can relate to, at some time in their lives. If you're in the right mood, a prayer like Psalm 6 can come as a gift.

          But is it really OK to pray this way? There’s something about the language of this psalm that goes against the grain of what we think prayer ought to be. First of all, the psalmist seems very self-absorbed – everything is about “me” – my trouble, my pain, my needs. Second, the psalmist is almost threatening God; at a minimum, his tone is disrespectful. “If I die, who is going to sing your praises?” he asks, sarcastically. And third, it’s clear that this psalmist is devoutly wishing for the ruin of his enemies. It all sounds kind of…unchristian, doesn’t it?

          One thing I will say about it, though: it is an honest prayer, and that can’t be a bad thing. The psalmist is speaking to God out of his most urgent need, and it is no time to pretty things up for the sake of “proper” devotion. God knows what is in his heart anyway, so why not express it? Through this anguished prayer, the psalmist is keeping open the lines of communication between him and his Creator. Eight times in the poem, he names God as the sole focus of his hope. And in the matter of the enemies, in committing his case to God the psalmist refuses to take retribution into his own hands. He is not at the point of praying for his enemies, as Jesus tells us to do, but he isn’t going to avenge himself on them, either. 

          The psalmist also knows that if there is to be any help, it must come from God. He doesn’t try to mask the reality of his need by assuming a positive attitude. He knows he is in a place where a “can do” attitude will not help him. It takes humility to admit that, to give in to being a creature, and to know that there is no shame in it.

          The assumption behind this psalm is a simple one: “God cares that I am in pain.” God is not indifferent to human suffering, and that makes all the difference. If God did not care, we would not pray, either for ourselves or for other people. The psalmist is so confident that God hears and responds to his prayer that something interesting happens in the last few verses: the psalmist's complaints and petitions turn into a declaration that God has heard and accepted his prayer. In the very act of praying, something has happened to him. In the act of praying, he can see the possibility of a change for the better in his situation. A door has opened, and let in some light.

            A few years ago I heard about a musical group from Finland that called itself “The Helsinki Complaints Choir.” This choir literally turns lamentation into song. They actually solicit complaints from their audience – which range from the serious to the silly – and set them to music. The Helsinki Complaints Choir is a tongue-in-cheek enterprise, of course, but there is something to the idea that formalizing a complaint, turning it into a song or a poem, makes the pain easier to endure.

          Years ago the acclaimed Russian poet Anna Akhmatova wrote about an incident she remembered from the worst years of the Stalinist regime. She herself narrowly escaped arrest during those years, but her son was imprisoned for his political activities. She remembered standing outside the prison with a long line of other people, waiting for hours to deliver food packages to their loved ones.

“One day someone in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from cold…Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper…’Can you describe this?’ And I said, ‘I can.’ Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.”

Akhmatova later wrote that “one hundred million voices shout[ed]” through the “tortured mouth” of her poems.

Psalm 6 and other formalized laments like it are a resource for our own prayers of supplication. We can pray this very psalm when we have troubles of our own, and we can pray it on behalf of someone else. Do you know someone who has lost his job? He is probably feeling like this psalmist. Do you have a friend whose husband has walked out on her? The language of this psalm probably reflects her mood. Do you know a young person who can’t seem to fit in anywhere, who thinks the world is against him? Psalm 6 may speak for him, too. Have you ever been unjustly accused? Psalm 6 can give you a voice for your sense of outrage. “Finally, someone knows how I feel.” 

That is the gift this psalm gives us, the gift of language for the feelings we want to express to God, but are afraid might not be acceptable. We have this idea that we have to come before God all cleaned-up and brave and pious, but this psalm says we can come as we are. As Kathleen Norris said, “The psalms defeat our tendency to try to be holy without being human first.”

Psalm 6 and others like it give witness to the reality of suffering in the world. The psalm does not say that faithful people do not suffer, and it does not say that faithful people never feel abandoned by God. The psalm lets us know that pain and turmoil are just as much a part of the life of faith as joy and peace are.

When we pray the psalms we are using the words of someone who has been here before us, someone who knows how we sometimes feel. At the same time, we are addressing those prayers to someone who knows how we feel – someone who came from the realms of heaven to live a human life: someone who has known loss and sorrow and anger and pain and even death, but who was not defeated by it. He is our refuge and help in times of trouble, for he is God with us, now and forever. 

Lisa Kenkeremath

Manassas Presbyterian Church

October 21, 2018


[i] Related by Ellen F. Davis at Virginia Theological Seminary in 1996.

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