How Long, O God: Psalms of Lament

June 28, 2020
Psalm 13; Psalm 58

I love our heady, intellectual congregation, – and I love that there is room for the criers, as they call themselves, the people that admit to getting emotional in church. This series on the Psalms is a great opportunity for all of us to get a little more in touch with the other side of rational, the poetic, ourselves.

I often think of psalms as joyful. Ephesians 5 instructs: Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody in your hearts. Colossians 3 says: With gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. It all sounds so cheerful.

The reality is that at least one third of the Psalms in the bible are not joyful songs but laments of anguish and pain, of anger and disorientation. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says, “Lament is our human way of summoning God… Change happens when we get God to pay attention.”

Psalms of lament speak to the human condition that we all know but sometimes would rather not admit, especially in church. The surprise in these all too honest biblical laments of pain and injustice is that they almost always include gratitude or at least an acknowledgment that God is in charge, that God is good.

In these days when rationality seems in short supply, when the multiple, outsized calamities would be scoffed at if you tried to publish it as a novel, when injustice is newly apparent every day in politics and religion, in the healthcare system and policing and housing and education – maybe what we need are some Psalms of lament. Maybe we need to hear the anguished cries of ancient voices.

Hear this lament from Psalm 13. As you listen to Melanie read, you might imagine who laments like this today, where do we hear laments like this? 

How long, Adonai? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my anguish,
and wallow in despair all day long?
How long will my enemy win over me? 

Look at me! Answer me, Adonai my God.
Give light to my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed,”
lest my foes rejoice when I fall.

 I trust in your love;
my heart rejoices in the deliverances you bring.
I will sing to you Adonai,
for being so good to me.

The anguish here sounds like the psalm Jesus utters from the cross: “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?“ And there is that abrupt switch from accusation and appeal to “I trust you.” The text doesn’t include instructions on how long the pause should be, how long the time is, between “Where are you God?” and “I will sing to you.” The writer, David by tradition, may have taken minutes, hours, days, to move from the feeling of abandonment to trusting that there is more love somewhere. I wonder how that happens, that shift from despair to a glimmer of hope and trust.

Some of the lament Psalms are the voice of an individual, like the one we just heard. Other laments give voice to the struggles of the whole community. Listen as Rodges reads from Psalm 58.

Do you really make just decisions, you leaders?
Do you judge everyone fairly?
No! You think only of the injustice you will do;
you commit crimes of violence in the land.
You’ve done wrong all your lives;
and lied from the day you were born.
You are full of poison, like snakes;
you stop up your ears like a deaf cobra
that doesn’t hear the voice of the snake charmer
or the incantation of the fakir.

Break their teeth, YHWH!
Tear out the fangs of these fierce lions.
Let them disappear like water draining away;
let them be crushed like weeds on the path.
Let them be like snails that dissolve into slime;
let them be like one untimely born
that never sees the light.
The just will be glad when they see the corrupt punished;
they will wade through the blood of the wicked.
People will say: “The just really are rewarded;
there is indeed a God who judges the world.”

Whoa! This kind of graphic violence is in the bible? So much for all our efforts for peace. But does this sound unfamiliar? We all get angry. Well, I get angry. I probably shouldn’t admit – but sometimes I wish for horrible things to happen to certain people. So in a strange way, it is a comfort, to know that there is lament like this in the bible. What do we do with a psalm like this? Is it to be used for personal catharsis? Or for shouting on street corners? Is it a prayer or a curse?

Thursday evening I participated in a webinar put on by Mennonite Church USA called “Race, Church and Change.” At one point, one of the panelists began to talk about lament. I perked up since I was preparing this sermon about Psalms of lament. The comment was something like, I don’t get lament, I don’t even know what it means. White Mennonites seem to love to stop and lament. Let’s just get to work and do justice already. Later another panelist said – I have to agree with you on lament. I don’t care if you feel bad as a white person, if you feel guilty. I am not worried about your personal feelings. I just want the system to change, I want my family to be safe.

I was taken aback. Is lament really a white thing? Indigenous people and Black people don’t need lament, or don’t have lament in their culture? Just hearing this made me start to lament.

Then a third panelist spoke up and said, I disagree. I think we do need lament. We need to do some truthtelling. We need to know and honor our own stories so that then we are open to hearing and learning the stories of other people from across the church. We need to tell not just the dominant Mennonite martyr narrative but the whole story, how Mennonites have been the oppressor and how we have been part of good stuff too.

There is so much truth in all of this, in the calls to get over lament – as well as the call to lament and listen.

If lament is only the first part of Psalm 13 – will you forget me forever – or is only complaining and cursing like Psalm 58 … If we get stuck in the lament and it doesn’t change us, then yes, it is not helpful. White people lamenting and not changing is not helpful. That’s probably true for anyone, not just white people. Lamenting and complaining – and getting stuck there – not helpful.

But if lament is truth telling about the pain of our lives, if lament is grief that we move through then lament is a good thing. Because hopefully on the other side of lament is connection with other people  and working together to bring change – and as the psalmist says singing and new trust.

If we truly have something to lament, to grieve, if we truly are in spiritual and emotional pain and we ignore it, that is not healthy or even safe. Covering up the grief and pain in order to appear strong can be dangerous. If we don’t acknowledge and deal with our own “stuff” the tendency is to turn that pain and trauma outward and wound others with our own woundedness. Alternatively, we can hold the trauma and pain within ourselves and rewound ourselves with depression or addictions or other health issues.

I was reminded of this when I read Lisa Sharon Harper’s piece in the July issue of Sojourners. She writes about the intensity of being at Charlottesville in Aug 2017, standing with the clergy, I stood with her, in the midst of angry white supremacists and militia. Lisa Sharon says that after that deadly weekend she “cried for a week, then (I) got on with life.” A year later she had gained 30 pounds and suddenly became incapacitated by sciatica. If we don’t pay attention to the ways that the lament and fear and anger are present in our bodies, we will pay a price. Lisa Sharon writes, “Our bodies hold our trauma. If we listen they will tell us where God wants to heal our souls.”

We must lament. And the contemporary reality is that it is all too easy to get stuck in perpetual lament, especially on social media. We can click and post and repost to show our horror and call out the injustice. But if we don’t find ways to participate in changing the injustice, in ending the injustice then yeah, lament is a waste. Our guilt is not really all that helpful.

There must be a medium, not a happy medium but a ‘lamenting’ medium, where we name the truth of our pain and listen to the painful truth of others. And then respond, then act. The Psalms of lament can be part of that medium.

As humans, we need lament. We need to lament if we want to stay in touch with our humanity, stay connected to ourselves and our neighbors. With the Psalmist, let’s find ways to lament, lament deeply and truthfully. But let’s not stay there, in lament. From that truthful lament, let’s take the next steps toward healing, toward connection, toward action, toward justice, toward fullness of life.

The biblical psalms of lament are a place to start but we don’t have to stop there. Lament is all around us, to prick the conscience, to inform, to motivate. Donna Britt writes on the front page of the Post today about her brother, who was killed by police 40 years ago. Religious feminists from across the globe are crying out about the unjust treatment of Sister Mary John Mananzan by the government in the Philippines. As an interlude, let’s listen to Javon Johnson, college professor and poet. His spoken word poem, his lament, “When the Cancer Comes,” draws connections between cancer in the body of his stepfather and the gentrification that eats away at the body of the black community. Take a listen.