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The 5th Sunday of Easter; Psalm 4

O God, defender of my cause, Have mercy, hear my plea. You set me free when most hard pressed; I call, O answer me.

So begins Psalm 4. This is a night song. It presents itself as a prayer for help from someone who is having difficulty sleeping. We know this because at the very end of the psalm, the poet not only expresses confidence in God but indicates that they can now fall asleep in peace.
Probably many of you here can relate to the experience of lying awake at night as your mind races with worry. As we try to get to sleep, our concerns can swell into seemingly insurmountable undertakings. As one author I was reading pointed out, even something as small as making a dozen muffins can take on disproportionate dimensions when one is tossing and turning, trying to sleep. Anxiety expands in the dark of night when one is alone with swirling thoughts. In the morning, those worries may not disappear, but often one gains a little more perspective as the sun comes up.

In Psalm 4, the speaker calls out to God, but acknowledges God’s benevolence. A more literal translation of the 3rd line could read: “You gave me room when I was in distress.” This is an image of roominess or space, which one can apply to the spiritual and emotional experience. Feelings of anguish, inhibition and stress are relieved by an expanded heart or a larger perspective; like light slowing flooding a room. Perhaps part of the reason for the preservation of so many psalms is that they have this ability to connect to this very basic experience of confinement, and the need for more space, both physical and spiritual.

The psalmist then addresses others, both those who have sought to slander and dishonor the speaker, and those who are dispirited, and exhorts them to offer right sacrifices and put trust in the Lord, which could interpreted as stop, reflect, and have faith in God (v. 5). The poet then continues addressing God, declaring that the company of God is so much more gratifying and reassuring than a rich harvest. The poem ends with an expression of trust in God as evident in the statement that the poet can lie down and sleep in peace, in safety. The psalmist will not suffer from insomnia or nightmares; a peaceful rest will provide the strength needed to engage with the challenges that will arrive in the morning.

Interpreters of this psalm note that the dominant mood in this poem is confidence in God, despite the distress and hostility that the speaker must face. It is a short prayer – but it is a reminder – as many of the psalms are – that one can cry out to God; indeed one must cry out, in the midst of affliction. It could be that a response from God is not immediately evident, but the psalmist wants to assure the listeners that the Lord does hear. God is not disinterested or preoccupied with others things. God is there.

Yet, I do not want to give the impression that for the psalmist, the answer to anxiety and worry is simply to say, “it is in God’s hands.” Humans have a responsibility, and the psalmist indicates as much when the poem states, “sin not, but stand in fear.” We must cry out to God, but we must also recognize our own responsibility.

Sometimes, it is artists and poets, like this poet, who are able to best combine a kind of existential cry to God with a call for less sin and indeed, for more compassion, towards others. On the cover of your bulletin today is an image [at left] by the German artist, Käthe Kollwitz. Kollwitz lived in the late 19th century up until a few months before the end of World War II. Most of her life was in Berlin, where she drew, sculpted, and created woodcuts, such as this one. Her art is heavy, often focused, as you see, on human misery. In this image, called “Parents,” we see the anguish of a couple who have probably lost a child, as Kollwitz herself did. I think that images such as this can prompt a deep, visceral reaction. We can feel the suffering of these people as we gaze at the mother’s bent frame; the father’s beautiful hand, clasping his face in grief.

Although the German Kaiser did not approve of Kollwitz’s art – he called it “gutter art” – her work was highly regarded prior to the rise of the Nazis, and she received awards and honours throughout Germany and Europe. She focused upon the lives and struggles of the working poor, especially in Berlin. Industrialization had devastating effects upon many, and Kollwitz does not shy away from confronting the viewer with the poverty, misery, and seeming hopelessness of the people she observed around her. Her art was a protest against the injustices and pernicious economic and social forces that wreaked havoc on the vulnerable.

Kollwitz told her students, “art should grip, even shatter, the human heart.” She thought that the people she drew were beautiful. She admired them, and her compassion and care for her subjects comes across clearly in her work.

Rarely did Kollwitz depict biblical stories, and she claimed that her art was not religious. Yet, in her willingness to confront the viewer with the sorrow and indeed, the horrors, of human experience in a manner that arouses our compassion and indignation, she captures something sacred. These images express a hope in the ultimate dignity and value of human beings. Interestingly, theologian Michael Stoeber thinks that her art functions a visual Psalm. He says that it enables and supports the practice “of lament – the cathartic howling and weeping in rage, grief, and sorrow in the face of utterly destructive sorrows.” In presenting the viewer with anguished subjects in a deeply sympathetic manner, Kollwitz prompts us to pay attention, perhaps to cry out too; or at least, to think about how we can seek greater justice in our own contexts; how we can love others, as First John repeatedly exhorts us to do. Kollwitz does not try to defend God – and it could be that she could not identify with some of the prevalent theologies of her day, which stressed individual pietism, sin, and punishment – but she does defend the beauty and nobility of the human spirit.

Like our poet in Psalm 4, Kollwitz calls to God through her work. Such calls indicate a trust that someone may be listening. Stoeber provides an example of the opposite. He recounts the experience of Jean Vanier, the founder of l’Arche community, who visited a psychiatric hospital in which there were hundreds of children with severe disabilities. Vanier observed, “There was deadly silence. Not one of [the children] was crying. When they realize that nobody cares, that nobody will answer them, children no longer cry. It takes too much energy. We cry out only when there is hope that someone may hear us.”

The psalms reminds us of the need to call out to God. They insist upon God’s reliability, although that reliability may obscure and not at all obvious, especially in light of such events as the carnage that took place in Toronto less than a week ago. It reminds me of a haunting description I read not too long ago, of another famous German, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As you are likely aware, the theologian and pastor was arrested by the Nazis because of his association with a group that was involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler. The extent of Bonhoeffer’s participation is not clear, but he was imprisoned, and eventually executed in 1945.

An onlooker to Bonhoeffer’s execution described his final moment: “I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer (the man said) … he was kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”

We cannot know exactly what was going through Bonhoeffer’s mind in these final moments of his life. But he was praying; he was calling out to God even when there was little, if any, hope of survival. He had endured through a long period of imprisonment, ministering to his fellow inmates, and now, facing death, he endures. It is very humbling for me to think about this, and I feel a bit sheepish about my own doubts and struggles with faith. But what is comforting, as we read the psalms, gaze upon the work of Kollwitz, imagine Bonhoeffer, on his knees, facing death, or struggle with our own anxieties in the dark of night, is that we are not alone when we cry out against the injustices of the world; or when we call out to God and wonder where God is. This does not mean that we can passively “sit and wait for God to fix things.” But in the midst of our efforts to pursue justice and peace for the world; and to resist the temptation to complacency, these voices, some from long ago and some from a not too distant past, remind us that we need to keep asking for God’s help, whatever the situation may be. And we are not alone.

Copyright ©2018 by Alicia Batten.