Sunday, April 30, 2023 | Trey Comstock
A Quiet Place
(At open, a teacher and a student ride together in a small car. The atmosphere is convivial but currently, no one is talking. Faint music emanates from the car’s speakers. The teacher is in his mid-20s. The student is 11, short and thin for his age, full of spastic energy, wearing a look of intense concentration. After a beat, the student breaks the silence.)
Student: Mr. Comstock
Teacher: Yes, Demonte
Student: Do you live in a quiet place?
Teacher: (Pauses for a beat to consider) Yes, Demonte, I guess I do.
Student: (With sadness and longing) I want to live in a quiet place.
I taught Demonte for the 2010-2011 school year. He landed in my class the way that most folks did – by being a behavior challenge to such a degree that they declared it a disability. He may have been the shortest person in my class, but his ability to run his mouth more than made up for it. My grandfather was fond of saying, “It’s not how big you are. It’s how tight your wound,” and Demonte was wound about as tight as they come - full of energy, words, and bluster. He needed to survive somehow, and that combination got him through. His eleven years on the planet hadn’t done him many favors. He lived in Washington, DC’s Navy Yard District back, when it was known more for crime than a baseball stadium. His family contained many of what is affectionately known as “Street Pharmacists,” and Demonte had witnessed his uncle being murdered just outside his window.
Like many of my other students who I taught during the day, Demonte joined my afterschool theatre program. He served on the tech team, and often needed a ride home. Usually, as we drove, he would talk about school or whatever, but one day, deep into the school year, he asked about quiet places. Certainly, his existence knew little, if any, quiet. Folks survive in such settings by putting up fronts of toughness or indifference. In the car that day, I witnessed a rare moment of vulnerability and candor. Over a decade later, it still breaks my heart. I can still hear that, for once, small voice uttering a desire for a quiet place as if he’s speaking a prayer.
The Book of Psalms lives somewhere in the space between hymnal, worship guide and prayer book. It gives you words to think about God, petition God, celebrate God, and find your way back to God. A pastor friend of mine messaged me last week, “Why can’t a pray for God to attack my enemies like they do is Psalms?” You can. Certainly, the author of Psalm 109 did.
They say, ‘Appoint a wicked man against him;
let an accuser stand on his right.
When he is tried, let him be found guilty;
let his prayer be counted as sin.
May his days be few;
may another seize his position.
May his children be orphans,
and his wife a widow.
May his children wander about and beg;
may they be driven out of the ruins they inhabit.
May the creditor seize all that he has;
may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil.
May there be no one to do him a kindness,
nor anyone to pity his orphaned children.
May his posterity be cut off;
may his name be blotted out in the second generation.
May the iniquity of his father be remembered before the Lord,
and do not let the sin of his mother be blotted out.
Let them be before the Lord continually,
and may his memory be cut off from the earth.
(Psalm 109:6-15 NRSV)
God may not answer this prayer by blotting out your unfortunate neighbor to the second generation, but as a corpus, Psalms show the breadth of how we can talk to God. We read the neat and tidy ones, but we don’t need to be so prim with the Divine.
Psalm 23 expresses confidence. It uses definite phrases. “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” “I fear no evil.” It paints a picture of abiding faith. Even when the world pressures in around us, we have unshakable belief in the goodness of God. Right?
Immediately before Psalm 23, Psalm 22 has to go on a journey to get there. It begins in lament.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.
(Psalm 22:1-2 NRSV)
Having recently been through Holy Week, these opening words should sound familiar to our ears. Jesus speaks them at the moment of his death. The Psalm opens on the dark night of the soul. Only then, does it shift to a kind of confidence.
Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our ancestors trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried, and were saved;
in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.
(Psalm 22:3-5 NRSV)
From this journey to confidence, the folks arranging the Psalm then transition into a firm declaration of confidence with Psalm 23. We don’t know if Psalm 22 and Psalm 23 were written together as a pair, but they get paired at some point showing the process of faith – swinging from uncertainty to certainty (and perhaps back again). The Psalms model for us avenues for prayer.
Psalm 23 can feel overly definitive, when you don’t feel the still waters lapping at your feet, when you can’t seem to find the table and only see enemies, and when you feel no shepherd’s crook guiding you through death’s valley. When life knows no quiet, it can seem hard to be so confident in God’s presence and peace. In those times, we can use Psalm 23 as our prayer for a quiet place, as our plaintiff and vulnerable request for a different world. We can use someone else’s definitive strength until it can become our own.
I hope that Demonte’s prayer got answered. I pray that he found peace and safety. I have that same prayer for all those who suffer, particularly in those prolonged and seemingly unescapable ways. Even when you’re not the one suffering, simply viewing the depth of suffering present in the world can make it hard to speak with confidence about green pastures, still waters, anointing oils, and tables. So, we pray, and maybe, in time, that confidence will be our reality.