Rev. Drew Stockstill
Pleading with God
Answer me when I call, O God of my right! You gave me room when I was in distress. Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer.
2 How long, you people, shall my honor suffer shame? How long will you love vain words, and seek after lies? Selah 3 But know that the Lord has set apart the faithful for himself; the Lord hears when I call to him.
4 When you are disturbed, do not sin; ponder it on your beds, and be silent. Selah 5 Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the Lord.
6 There are many who say, “O that we might see some good! Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord!” 7 You have put gladness in my heart more than when their grain and wine abound.
8 I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety.
There are many benefits to Christian faith. Probably the most popular is heaven when we die. It’s the mystery behind door number one. Plenty of folks sign up for that reward alone. The community of faith, the church, is the bonus prize that often comes to mean the most for Christians. Maybe you came for the afterlife but end up caring much more about the people you meet along the journey of faith and life, and Christ who walks with us here.
But the real bread and butter of Christian life, the major selling point is, well, God, namely the accessibility of God. God is always with us, God loves us, and we are taught that we can talk to God whenever we want, that we should pray to God and God will hear us. That’s a pretty amazing gift that gives us comfort and hope. But it’s also the aspect of faith where believers can also feel…let down.
I think it’s safe to say, we’ve all prayed hard for things that didn’t work out the way we wanted, or needed them to. Even Jesus prayed for a change in circumstances, “let this cup pass from me.” We are told to bring it all to God in prayer, to ask, seek, and knock, but sometimes – many times – it can feel like we are just knocking, knocking, knocking, and either no one is home, or they’re sleeping, or worse, they are just standing on the other side of the door wishing we’d go home already so they can get back to binge-watching Netflix.
If I’ve been praying for something, and nothing is happening, it feels like either I’m doing something wrong or somebody sold me a bill of goods. When God feels absent, when we are praying and met with silence, when we need God and if feels like God is not there, that distress is one of the major earthquakes in faith.
“Answer me, when I call, you, God,” declares the psalmist. It’s never a good feeling to keep calling someone who won’t pick up the phone. Answer me when I call. The desire for God’s attention and the feeling of God’s absence, is a common theme in the psalms, because it’s a common theme in our human relationship with God. And the psalmist here calls that feeling what it is: distress. She says, “You gave me room when I was in distress,” by which she means, you gave me space. Perhaps, too much space. “I was in distress and I needed you close, not space.”
I said last week that there is really no emotion that is off limits to God, rarely a feeling that isn’t expressed in the psalms, and here those emotions are exasperation and distress. When we’re fed-up, when we are at the end of our rope, what comes out is straight from the heart. The psalmist begins her prayer from that point: “Answer me, you’ve left me too much room in my distress.” No polite, “Dear God, how are you today? By the way, if you’re not too busy, I could use your help, but if not, no worries. Your will be done.” Sometimes we get to pray the way Jesus taught, and sometimes like the psalmist: “Answer me, O God…Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer.”
A pastor friend of mine recently sent us a children’s book called, “The Rabbit Listened,” about a little boy named Taylor who experienced a sudden, unexpected loss out of nowhere: the castle he had been building out of blocks came crashing down. Taylor was very sad. One by one, he was visited by various animals all with ideas to help him feel better. The chicken really wanted him to talk about. He didn’t want to talk about it. The bear said he should shout about it. The elephant wanted to fix it. The ostrich, to bury her head in the sand and pretend it never happened. The snake thought he should knock down someone else’s blocks. Taylor didn’t want any of that. Finally, the rabbit came in so quietly Taylor didn’t notice. It moved closer and closer, “until Taylor could feel its warm body. Together they sat in silence until Taylor said, “Please stay with me.” Eventually, Taylor started to talk and the rabbit listened. “The rabbit listened as Taylor shouted,” and as Taylor felt all kinds of various emotions, distress. “Through it all the rabbit never left. And when the time was right, the rabbit listened to Taylor’s plan to build again.”
“Answer me when I call, O God!” rages the psalmist, distraught in feeling alone, suffering shame, listening to the vain words of other people. And through it all, God listened. And after all that raging, the psalmist takes a deep breath and says, “But, I know the Lord has set apart the faithful for himself; the Lord hears when I call to him.” Sometimes, the silence we feel is not God’s absence, but God’s listening. God moves closer and closer to us, like the rabbit to Taylor until we can feel God’s warmth.
The psalmist begins in a place of great pain and distress, which is a difficult place to begin to rebuild. There are plenty of people willing to give us suggestions, opinions and options to feel better, but precious is the friend who’s willing to simply give us space, and not advice. To be with us in our distress, to be willing to be most helpful in helplessness. God gives us that space, and often that is hard for us. It doesn’t mean God is not there.
The psalmist of Psalm 4 moves from distress, to understanding, “God hears me when I call.” And then moves to wisdom, teaching us from her experience, “When you are disturbed, do not sin; ponder it on your beds, and be silent.” In the place of distress, this is not helpful advice, but in time, with acceptance, what causes us to be disturbed can take on a new shape, or we look at it with new insight, from a different perspective. From that place of distress, be careful not to turn to unhelpful or hurtful behaviors, don’t be too quick to fix it, or rage, or lash out at others, but take that space that God has given and sit with the discomfort, and perhaps peace may in time, emerge.
In my previous church a young couple experienced an unspeakable loss. When I heard what happened, I went to their home. I knocked on the door and the young woman opened it. Seeing me, she collapsed quite immediately into my arms, groaning into me, “Help me. Help me.” I noticed through the glass door out back, her husband, in a trance, sweeping a perfectly clean back deck. I’ve truly never felt more needed than by this broken mother begging for help, and more completely incapable of helping with what she needed. We sat and I listened. I felt her begging me for an answer from God I could not give, demanding a reason when there was none. All I had to offer was my presence, fighting every urge to say meaningless things to help me feel better about how helpless I was in the face of such anguish. “Be silent,” says the psalmist, “and put your trust in the Lord.”
Finally, the psalmist moves to a place of healing. She began her prayer lost in the distress, feeling isolated and unheard, “Answer me.” But look where she ends up. She says, you know, “there are many who say, ‘O that we might see some good!” Which may be to say, I am not alone after all. There are many others who are longing to see some good, needing some good news, some hope. My situation was or is rough, but I am not alone, there are many who have walked this way before, gone through something like this. The psalmist’s focus on her own need expands to a generous prayer, “Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord.” She moves from, “Answer me in my distress,” “be gracious to me and hear my prayer,” to, “Let your light shine on us,” hear us.
It’s no surprise that Jesus called hurting people into a community of mutuality, because not only could people find healing in communities of love, they find healing in noticing all the other people who come to Jesus, each with their own struggles. They find healing in compassion for the experiences of others. That young couple in Atlanta, moved ever so slowly down the road of healing, first by listening to the pain of others. Eventually, a big part of their healing came from channeling their grief into an enormous effort to help others in their suffering.
In the end of this short psalm, the psalmist, in a sense, realizes the way she feels has been transformed. We don’t know if God, “answered her prayer,” but we know what she says, “[God,] you have put gladness in my heart... I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety.”
When I was a student of theatre, my professor would often tell me, in the midst of my struggle with a character or scene to, be patient, trust the process. “Answer me when I call, O God,” to which God does not so much reply, and yet, mysteriously, the process works: silence becomes community, distress becomes light, anguish becomes gladness, and we may trust that there will come a time we may lie down and sleep in peace. Thanks be to God.