A Psalm From Death Row | Sojourners

A Psalm From Death Row

Psalm 142

I cry aloud to the Lord;
    I lift up my voice to the Lord for mercy.
I pour out before him my complaint;
    before him I tell my trouble.

When my spirit grows faint within me,
    it is you who watch over my way.
In the path where I walk
    people have hidden a snare for me.
Look and see, there is no one at my right hand;
    no one is concerned for me.
I have no refuge;
    no one cares for my life.

I cry to you, Lord;
    I say, “You are my refuge,
    my portion in the land of the living.”

Listen to my cry,
    for I am in desperate need;
rescue me from those who pursue me,
    for they are too strong for me.
Set me free from my prison,
    that I may praise your name.
Then the righteous will gather about me
    because of your goodness to me.

One of my friends on death row told me that Psalm 142 was his daily prayer. He shared this at the end of our time together so we rushed to read the words of this Psalm. I was distracted as we waited for the correctional officer to walk into our room at any minute to handcuff and shackle my friend. So the depth of the Psalm didn’t sink into my spirit right then and there, but I felt the weight of the Psalm on my spirit. I kept repeating in my mind “Psalm 142, Psalm 142, Psalm 142” to remind myself to reread the Psalm when I had time to soak it in.

When I read it days later, tears instantly formed and I lost my breath. I was unable to let the words of the psalmist (and now the words of my friend on the row), sink into my soul. The words are too real. The words are too true. The words are too searing.

The phrases, “no one is concerned for me…” and “no one cares for my life…,” make my heart stop. The sad reality is that for my friends on the row they have had one abandonment after another. As the execution date closes in, some people scatter like the four winds. As appeals are won, these same people want back in their life. My friends can’t trust the shifting sands of the relationships that they hold dear even though they try to hold onto them with every fiber of their being. Hope sometimes can be dangerous. If my friends choose to be vulnerable and hope for relationships that they can trust, they can feel shattered when those relationships die an early death. It is easier for most of them to trust nothing and hope for nothing.

As I continued to read the psalm it says: “Listen to my cry, for I am in desperate need.” My friends on the row do need someone to “listen” to their cries. Screaming alone in their cells will not do. They need someone to hear their complaint, to hear their sorrow, to hear how life went so very wrong. And so I sit and I listen intently to every word that they utter. I reflect back for them what they are saying in order for them to clearly hear themselves speak.

My friends on the row want to end up like our psalmist. They need to be set free from the prison that they are in — the prison in their minds which holds them captive and will not let them go. A lot of my friends have had traumatic childhoods, leading them to be hypervigilant. They have trained their brains to listen for every little sound in order to keep themselves safe. That same hypervigilance is pure torture inside a prison where the cacophony of sounds demands their ongoing attention. They deal with the replaying of scenes in their lives that were painful. Therefore their minds do not know what it means to be at peace. They desperately need to be free from the prison in their mind.

And yet, my friend still holds to his faith that God will be a “refuge” for him. He believes with the psalmist that God will watch over his way, even with his path being on the row. He hasn’t heard a word from God in years but that doesn’t diminish his faith in an all-merciful, all-loving, and all-compassionate God who listens to his cries for help. He will continue to pray. He will continue to read Scripture. He will continue to live a life of love. He will continue to stay as faithful to God as he can. He will continue to be a light when the darkness is trying so hard to win. Despite his circumstances and his feelings, he will hold onto an unshakeable faith. And I end up thanking God for this friend and all of my friends that I get to journey with and show up for.

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