Psalm 38 - praying a Psalm

Context - One day I provoked the chairman of my dissertation committee. I complained that in restricting me to ten pages a submission per week, this was too slow. I indicated I was 80+ pages ahead of him!  Exasperated by myself and others he told me to "go and find another chairman." As far as he was concerned he was through with me. Before I left his office I asked he pray. I went home devastated. He knew and I knew that this was the end of the road for me. If he maintained that attitude there would be no doctorate. I would leave in disgrace - a broken person.

At lunch time my wife and I were praying a Psalm. Some days we prayed alternate paragraphs. At other times, we would pray the whole Psalm. Today the Psalm was Psalm 38. I was to pray the whole Psalm.

Praying/Interacting and Reflection

I had shared the crushing events of the morning with my wife. I felt alone, betrayed, cheated, fearful, afraid of what this meant and how it would be interpreted "down under."  I began to pray.

At first the opening words seemed an affront. Was the professor God's instrument of discipline?  Surely not?  (vv1-2). Verse 3 caused me to reflect on my sin of impatience, irritableness, placing demands on an overworked professor. Verse 4 forced me to own my guilt - a guilt that crushed me. How stupid I was (v 5). How I hated myself for the part I had played in creating this crisis (v 6). As I spoke verses 6-8 this was me, my experience, my anguish, my pain, my grief, my sorrow. My tears freely flowed.

Suddenly, instead of the sense of abandonment, acute loneliness, helplessness and brokenness, verse 9 transformed how I perceived these events. All my longings and sighing God knew. He was there with me. I was not alone, abandoned. Sure my heart was pounding, I felt so weak, impotent, I could not see any light at the end of the tunnel, my dissertation light was snuffed out.

I could not hear any voice of hope, I had nothing more to say (v 13), but I would wait for the Lord to answer, He was my Lord, my God (v 15). I was about to fall (vv 16-17), I confessed my own sinfulness in this saga. God you have brought me so far - do not walk out on me now (v 21). Come quickly, help me, please, O Lord, my Saviour.

Peace filled my own being. God knew. God was there. He had heard. He was my Saviour. Together my wife and I agreed to wait for two weeks before acting.

Later that day the professor's secretary phoned asking me to bring in the eighty plus pages I had completed but not handed in!

That night I prayed a part of Psalm 39.

Psalm 39 Tonight this is my prayer. God help me to keep my mouth shut. Make me sensitive to the impact of my words on others. What a fool I was to tell a professor he was slacking (v 1).

If I must speak let me speak to you. The events of today highlight how brief, how fragile, life is. Preserve me from pursuing vain goals that contribute nothing to eternity (vv 4-6). Truely, my life is in you. Deliver me from being so thoughtless and self centred, Lord, do not destroy me through your discipline. Refine me, yes, but do not consume me (vv 9-11).

Hear my prayer tonight, my cry for help, do not ignore my brokenness, my tears, my heartbreak (v 12). I am an alien here in the USA, a stranger. Do not let me perish here. Fill my heart/life again with joy before I leave this place. Amen.

I slept, feeling heard, embraced by God's love.

Joy in the morning!

We did not need to wait two weeks. I would pray. "Come quickly to help me" Ps 38:22. Next morning the professor asked his secretary to phone me asking that I come to see him.

I went.

Fearful, a bit. But assured by Psalm 38 that God was with me.

As he asked me into his office, the professor said, "Keith, I must say I am sorry for yesterday."  Weeping, I replied, (calling him by his first name), I must say how sorry I am for provoking your response, being insensitive to you and your agenda, for being so self centred. Forgive me."

Then the professor said, "Keith, I never slept last night - here are those 80 pages."  There was no malice in his voice or action. Just heartfelt sorrow for how we had hurt each other. I was humbled! 

That morning the professor and myself confessed our sins to each other, cried together, hugged, prayed, forgave each other, and agreed that yesterday's events did not need to impede our working together. That morning we agreed that if we "forgave each other from the heart" yesterday's events should not affect our future working together in all the cut and thrust that completing the dissertation would involve. We enjoyed a very healthy relationship after that incident. Yes, I graduated three and a half months later!

I've often reflected since what would have eventuated if I'd not turned Psalm 38 and then later Psalm 39 into a personal prayer? Would the outcome have been so positive? I don't know. What I do know is that God ministered to me through those Psalms so that I felt embraced by him.

Dr Keith Graham

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