Praying a turbulent Psalm for a friend

Some of you will know of the battle Gerald Folkerts is currently fighting, as he struggles against an aggressive brain tumour, and some may even be following the “Gravel Road” blog that his family has been posting for him.  What follows here is a call to prayer, a lament, an affirmation of the need to tell the truth… but ultimately it is one friend trying to make sense of what another friend is going through.


ay by day remind yourself that you are going to die,” writes St Benedict in his instructions to his monks (Rule of St Benedict, 4:47), which is pretty sobering advice even if one is in good health.  I’ve been thinking about that bit of counsel a fair bit lately, as I’ve watched my friend Gerald walk ever closer to the edge of his own death.

In early September, the doctors discovered that Gerald had a brain tumour, and within days of that diagnosis he was on the operating table.  I was away from the city when that all took place, and so it wasn’t until early October that I was able to go to his home to talk with him about how he was managing.  It was a cool and rainy autumn day, but we still walked the block up his street to the local coffee spot; “I’m a B.C. boy,” he said, “and this is great weather.”  Over a cup of coffee he spoke with great openness about his fears, hopes, and struggles, and then we wandered back up the street in what was now a deluge of rain.  “Great weather,” he remarked, as I climbed into my car.

It was early November when I headed over for my next visit, where I found that while his taste for the coffee shop had not diminished, his ability to make the walk had.  This time we drove up the block, and while our conversation was again marked by that same striking openness – truthfulness, really – this time the pauses were longer, the sighs deeper, the smiles more poignant.

Two days ago, I went again to see my friend.  This time the coffee shop was not even close to being an option.  This time, the walk from the kitchen to the hospital bed lodged in the study was more than he could easily manage.  This time conversation could only come in short pieces, punctuated by ever lengthening pauses and ever deeper breaths.  Yet when he spoke, it was no less open, searching, truthful. Together we told the truth; he in the bits of conversation he could manage, and me in the words of the psalms I read aloud to him.  Whatever else I might have managed to say, it had nothing on those psalms.

Over these months, I’ve tried to stay in touch with Calvin Seerveld, a mutual friend of Gerald and mine.  In fact, it is thanks to Gerald that I have come to know Cal, for when he was in Winnipeg last autumn to speak at the opening of the Invisible Dignity art exhibit, Gerald decided that the two of us would enjoy getting to know each other.  We did, and that contact has been kept up in a series of e-mail messages.  My messages lately have been sent in part because I really do want to keep Cal aware of how things are going for our friend, but frankly it is really more on account of the wisdom contained in the brief bits of e-mail counsel which he sends me.

Cal sent me to the psalms.  I would have gone to them eventually, but there was something in one particular comment that took me there with a sort of urgency.  “My favourite psalm #39,” he wrote, “lets me chew God out in faith.”  That it does.  I went to Cal’s own translation of the psalm, where I found the sort of words polite Christians hardly dare to say in prayer; words of prayer Cal calls “a turbulent, daring argument with God for better treatment in our very short lives.”   Think of what our friend Gerald is up against, and try these words on for size:

So I said:  LORD God!  LORD God… tell me … about the
            outcome, the end of the affair of me;
and tell me how many days I still have so that I may realize
            what a perishable thing I am.
Yes, you made the span of my days about as broad as a
            man’s hand,
and my lifetime is like nothing to you –
a little hot air, that’s all a man can make himself out to be,
he walks along like a shadow, getting steamed up about nothing,
he tries to get everything stacked up under control and doesn’t
            even know who will take it over after him…
(Psalm 39:4-6, “Voicing God’s Psalms”)
Hear my prayer, LORD.  Listen to my cry for help!
Do not be unmoved, because I am crying.
Remember, I am a stranger here, a guest, just a sojourner
like all my fathers and mothers before me, you guest, LORD.
Don’t look at me that way!
Let me become a little more cheerful before I sink away and
            am no more…
(Psalm 39:12-13, “Voicing God’s Psalms”)

Is it even responsible to read aloud such words to someone hard up against his own life and his own death?  Would it not be better to voice something more hopeful, upbeat, or even comforting?  And in Advent yet, with Christmas just around the corner?Well, a few things.  First off, I did read other psalms (40, 121, 131) as well as a series of excerpts from the 3rd chapter of Lamentations, each of which voice other pieces of the whole truth.  And even when I read aloud these verses form Psalm 39, it was from a more conventional and tidy church version, as I hadn’t thought to bring Cal’s translation with me.And yes, it is responsible, and maybe especially in Advent.  Contrary to what we often think, Advent is not narrowly about getting prepared for Christmas.  Advent is a time in which what are called “the last things” are to be contemplated, which include the promised return of Christ, but also the very shape of our own lives and the prospect of our own deaths.  It is not a time to begin to pretend that all is well, so that by Christmas Eve everyone will be getting along after the manner of the highly idealized version of the season conveyed by the likes of Norman Rockwell or the film It’s a Wonderful Life.Christian hope, you see, is much bigger than being merely hopeful about a particular outcome.  This is what Paul is trying to get at when he writes, “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” (Romans 14:8)  As Robert Farrar Capon would phrase it, our lives and our deaths are hid safe in the death of Jesus.But like the quote from Benedict that I started out with, such things are much easier said in theory, in abstraction from the prospect of my own death or that of a friend.  That’s why after commending to me Psalm 39, Cal added that, “one does feel helpless before the evil of brain tumour to a 50 year old.”  He then counseled “hope for God’s good surprises” and prayers for a “saintly communion” to hold up and support Gerald, his wife Arlis and their family during such hard times.

But not a cover-up.  Never a cover-up of what is going on; what is being faced, feared, experienced, suffered through, or hoped for.

I invite your prayers for my friend Gerald and for his family.  Do pray for “God’s good surprises,” and for the gift of that circle of friends who are so needed right now.  And then maybe pull out your bible, flip to Psalm 39 and pray it for all of us, your own self included.  Pray it in Advent – this season of deep expectation and watchfulness – and pray it with stubbornness, with openness, and with expectation.

Amen.  May it be done.

The excerpts from Psalm 39 are ©Calvin Seerveld, and are used here by permission.  Voicing God’s Psalms is published by Wm B. Eerdmann’s Publishing, 2004.

Please be sure to visit Unfinished Business, the site detailing an exciting new exhibit of Gerald’s work.

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