Praying the Psalms in Detention

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Every morning, when I do my morning devotions, I read from the Psalms.  About every two months I work my way through all the Psalms at least once.

Psalms are prayers, so when I say I read through, I am actually trying to pray my way through them.  I say I am trying because many of the Psalms have little or nothing to do with my own situation. I have a hard time relating to many of them, especially the Psalms that pertain to God destroying our enemies. Like most people, I don’t have a lot of enemies, and the few I do have, don’t need to be struck down. Or the Psalms where the psalmist cries out it deep despair. I have better and worse days, but nothing like what I see in some of the Psalms.

But one morning I did something different. Instead of praying the Psalms for myself, I wondered, “Who could pray this Psalm? If these words are not relevant for me, who could relate to them?” The answer came quicker than the question–migrants in detention centers.

I imaged I was a typical person in a one of the centers.

I have fled my native country because I had no other option. I am a widow, my husband killed by paramilitary police. Gangs are running my city, and if I stay, I will be raped, and/or murdered. The gangs have threatened my children. My oldest is 12, and the gangs want to make him an involuntary recruit for their brutal activities. There are few jobs in my village, and I have no hope of keeping my family fed. It is a hard decision to make, but I decided to make the long trek to the United States, to apply for asylum.

Now I am sitting in a holding cell, along with more than 80 other women, a cell that was designed for only 41 people. There is a shortage of drinking water. I have to sleep with a thin rescue blanket on a cold, hard floor. The food is spares, bologna sandwiches three times a day. They are making me sick. The guards taunt me and the others in my cell. Worst of all, they have taken my children from me. I have not had a shower in weeks.

I have no idea how long I will be held here–perhaps another three days, another three weeks, another three months, or maybe another three years. I am surrounded by the sounds of other women crying for their children, by the stink of unwashed bodies, and by the despair of our situation.

I prayed with this woman, as I read through, as I prayed through Psalm 10. Maybe she did not have the words to pray, and as I thought about her, I know that I did not, but the Psalm did.

As I prayed the words of Psalm 10, they suddenly made sense. It was a prayer I could resonate with now.

1 Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?

    Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?

I prayed them as if I were that woman locked up, as if I were the one feeling the absence of God. As if I were locked in, and God was locked out.

In arrogance the wicked persecute the poor–

I knew who the Psalmist was referring to when he talked about the wicked—those who have put me in this dreadful circumstance. Maybe they are not my enemies, as I pray this from the safety of my bedroom, but they were for the person I was praying with. And now this is her prayer, not mine.

And as much as I wanted to love her enemies, because, you now…Jesus, the next words flowed easily from my lips.

    …let them be caught in the schemes they have devised.

Why would we cage people like this? If we are going to detain would-be asylum seekers, why would we not do so in a humane way? The simple answer is that we have other priorities for our resources. We cannot afford to treat humanely because the desires of our hearts go in a different direction. We are not concerned for her well-being. The desires of our hearts have nothing to do with human dignity, for the “least of these.”

3 For the wicked boast of the desires of their heart,

    those greedy for gain curse and renounce the Lord.

But there is a deeper issue. How could one human treat another human being like this? How could they laugh and mock at detainees? How could people get on TV and act as if they were proud of what we are doing? How could they see the degradation of people on their TVs, feel a small tinge of pity, and then go eat a full dinner? How can we as a nation do this, and not feel the slightest sense of guilt?

4 The wicked are so proud that they care not for God; *

    their only thought is, “God does not matter.”

They say in their heart, “I shall not be shaken; *

    no harm shall happen to me ever.”

11 They think in their heart, “God has forgotten,

    he has hidden his face, he will never see it.”

As I am praying this, I see myself in the cage with this unidentified woman, I see the world from her perspective, and the words of the psalm continue to form the prayer I am praying with her. I see the world from her point of view, and the psalm leads me to some really uncomfortable places–uncomfortable for me at least, but if were really the woman in the cage, these words might flow easily from my lips. She may be praying about the gangs in her homeland, or the people who have locked her up, and taken her children away.

7 Their mouth is full of cursing, deceit, and oppression; *

    under their tongue are mischief and wrong.

 8 They lurk in ambush in public squares

and in secret places they murder the innocent; *

    they spy out the helpless.

 9 They lie in wait, like a lion in a covert;

they lie in wait to seize upon the lowly;

    they seize the lowly and drag them away in their net.

10 The innocent are broken and humbled before them;

    the helpless fall before their power.

Who could blame her for such a prayer? Who could blame her for looking at the people who put her there, and taking these words of the psalm to heart? She is helpless, and she came pleading for help, pleading for an escape from the hell she has endured, and instead of finding help from the hands of the most powerful nation on earth, they have thrust her into a new hell.

But the prayer does not end with her in despair. She, and I, continues to look to God as our savior.

12 Rise up, O LORD;

lift up your hand, O God; *

    do not forget the afflicted.

 13 Why should the wicked revile God? *

    why should they say in their heart, “You do not care”?

14 Surely, you behold trouble and misery; *

    you see it and take it into your own hand.

I have never had to pray these words for myself. Any afflictions I have suffered were small, and manageable. I have never been in the kind of trouble that I could not get my own self out of. In other words, I have never felt the blunt oppression she feels. But when I pray this with and for her, the words have new meaning for me.

There is a sense that in prayer, we are supposed to get out of our own heads, and somehow enter the heart of God. I have religiously prayed the Psalms, but this is the first time I have ever prayed them for another person like this. There have been Psalms that touched me personally, at times when I did have troubles, or at times when I felt remarkable close to God, but this was different. I have probably prayed this Psalm more than 50 times, but never as I prayed it that morning. I realize now that I am not praying these just for myself, but others as well. As I continue to pray through the Psalms, a new cast of characters will join me. I am no longer praying just for myself. I am now praying for the world. Psalms that I used to utter mindlessly will take on a new meaning for me, and I hope and pray, through God’s Spirit, that these prayers will bring me closer to God, and to all of God’s children.

And it makes real convictions that are in my heart, but only in theory. So now I pray the final words of the Psalm with new hope, because I know more about who I am praying with now.

17 The LORD is King for ever and ever; *

    the ungodly shall perish from his land.

 18 The LORD will hear the desire of the humble; *

    you will strengthen their heart and your ears shall hear;

 19      To give justice to the orphan and oppressed, *

    so that mere mortals may strike terror no more.


About tmrichmond3

I am the pastor at the First Presbyterian Church in Medford, Oregon. I believe that faith should be able to sustain us, not oppress us.
This entry was posted in Compassion, Current Events, Devotional, Evil, Immigration, Lament, Mission, Old Testament, Prayer, Psalms, religion and politics, Social Justice, Social Ministry, Spiritual Growth, spirituality, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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