How Long, O Lord? Psalms of Lament

1754097a4078c11f07e42c45f1dc4824If you were to take a look in your hymnal right now, smack in the middle, you would find that there are songs that are associated with Psalms. Part of the reason for this is because, in our tradition at least, for most of our history the songs we have sung have been the psalms set to music. John Calvin wrote of the Psalms that it was important for the people to sing these prayers as their own, so that we, in turn, might be able to pray similar prayers and songs of praise to God on our own.

In other words, singing the Psalms was a way of making God’s Word our own words, so that we might begin to connect our human experiences in the world to the reality of God.

As we have learned already, there are psalms that Praise God enthusiastically, and there are Psalms that express an unwavering trust in God.   But there is one category of Psalms that overshadows them all, one expression of the human condition that finds itself absent from the canon of psalms which we sing.

“By the waters the waters of Babylon we lay down and wept and wept for thee Zion, Please remember me, remember me remember me Zion.”

lament-davidsweeney-224x300Of all of the psalms, the psalms of lament are both the most common, and perhaps the most perplexing. How can prayers of despair and of hopelessness, or even prayers doubting God’s presence in the world, be considered faithful? They seem so dark—and so we tend to skip them and favor the lighter, more joyous Psalms found elsewhere.

But what if the Psalms of lament are necessary? For who hasn’t experienced deep grief in their own lives, or sorrowed over the daily parade of bad news? Who doesn’t cry out to God in a world where schoolchildren and churchgoers are gunned down, where young women are bought and sold into sexual slavery on a daily basis, and strangers blow up mosques and shopping centers with jarring frequency.

Walter Brueggeman observes that the psalms of lament, which he calls the psalms of darkness, are an act of bold faith, albeit a transformed faith. It is an act of bold faith on the one hand, because it insists that the world must be experienced as it really is and not in some pretended way. On the other hand, it is bold because it insists that all such experiences of disorder are a proper subject for discourse with God. There is nothing out of bounds, nothing precluded or inappropriate.

That doesn’t mean that lament is formless.  Rather, the psalms of lament tend to follow a very specific structure, one that recognizes that there is a process, or a pathway, out of pain and into the heart of God.  Take a look at Psalm 13, for example:

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
    and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!
    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”;
    my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.

But I trusted in your steadfast love;
    my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
    because he has dealt bountifully with me.

Psalm 13 follows a particular pattern, and by exploring that pattern, we can begin to understand how lament can be both incredibly faithful and useful for thinking about the struggles of our daily life:

  • The call: From the very beginning, the psalmist acknowledges God. Nothing in the troubles of life and the experience of the absence of God cancels the privilege of faith to speak directly to God in confidence of being heard.
  • Overview of the problem: In verses 2-3, the psalmist describes what is wrong in a tone of protest. The agenda of distress is threefold: this person has suffered trouble with God (God as absent), with self (pain in the soul), and with others (an enemy “exalted above me”). In the experience of the one who cries out, God does not help; there is no evidence God is present. The three problems are distinct but inseparable. Helplessness causes anxiety and anxiety protests to God. This is not simple trouble. This is real trouble.
  • Petition: In verses 3-4, the psalmist begs God both to “Hear me!” and to “Help me!”  Biblical theologian James Mays observes that “when we sense God hears us, it renews the strength of our hope; when we sense God is working to help us, our trust is revived.” These petitions seek the revival of life. Without the salvation of God there will be death. Life is at STAKE. This is the prayer of one who sincerely believes that the lives of those who belong to God matter to God. And so s/he waits for God to answer.
  • Trust and hope: By verses 5-6, the psalmist has been restored to trust and faith in God’s hesed. The goal of the lament is to move towards the promise and hope found in God. Lament, therefore, is fruitful: it is a crying out not for the sake of crying, but with the expectation that doing so will help us reach our telos in healing and restoration through the power of God. The psalm leads those who read and pray it from protest and petition to praise: it holds all three together as if to teach that they cohere in the unity of prayer. The psalm’s composition is guided by the radical knowledge of faith that cannot separate God from any experience of life and perseveres in construing all, including life’s worst, in terms of a relation to God. Lament puts flesh on the reality we experience, not to hold ourselves in that place of pain, but to move us closer to where God is working out reconciliation.

Lament can be powerful.  Returning to the words of James Mays, “the psalm teaches us how to pray, but it also shows us who we are when we pray. Agony and adoration hung together by a cry for life—that is the truth about us as people of faith. We are simultaneously the anxious, fearful, dying, historical person who cannot find God where we want God to be, and the elect with a second history, a salvation history, a life hid with Christ in God.”

Earlier this week, our own President put words to the lament of our country as he laid the Reverend Clementa Pickney to rest. In speaking of the tragedy that claimed his life, our President reflected that “The darkness we lament seeks to incite fear and recrimination, violence and suspicion. It seeks to deepen divisions between people and God. But God works in mysterious ways. God has different ideas.”Charleston Cover

Lament is the prayer of those who will not accept a world in which darkness has the last word. Lament sees the darkness, and will not sweep it under the rug. Lament lifts up our pain, our suffering, our human condition, and refuses to let it be ignored. And Lament demands that God be present there, that God show up as we stumble in the dark, that Grace prevail over it, until we again can join our voices to the song of the faithful, and once again affirm the grace that God has visited upon us.

A Lament for Peace on World Communion Sunday

1 By the rivers of Babylon—

there we sat down and there we wept

when we remembered Zion.

2 On the willows there

we hung up our harps.

3 For there our captors

asked us for songs,

and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,

“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

4 How could we sing the Lord’s song

in a foreign land?

5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,

let my right hand wither!

6 Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,

if I do not remember you,

if I do not set Jerusalem

above my highest joy.

7 Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites

the day of Jerusalem’s fall,

how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down!

Down to its foundations!”

8 O daughter Babylon, you devastator!

Happy shall they be who pay you back

what you have done to us!

9 Happy shall they be who take your little ones

and dash them against the rock!

-Psalm 137

A disclaimer to those of you who imagine peace through John Lennon’s rose-colored lenses—today’s scripture shatters the illusion that the work—and it is work—of peacemaking is something pretty to look at, or rational in practice or idealistic in scope.  Contrary to the prose of some of great pop songs out there on the subject, the practice of truly making peace is downright messy.  It is profoundly realistic about the evil that exists in the world, and is only “peaceful” in light of the storm of violence and rage that all too often precedes a lasting peace.  Peacemaking is full of emotion, is never detached from the world around it and always aware of the dangers that threaten it.  And in a twist that may seem awfully contradictory for us peaceniks, the truth of the matter is that to make peace is, in a sense, to wage war against all of that which resists it.

To think otherwise is to live in a land of unreality.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at Psalm 137.  Now, many of us feel uncomfortable when we hear this Psalm—it manages to describe images that we know ought never to go together—songs sung by victims for the merriment of tormentors, babies’ heads and sharp rocks, enslavement and suffering of the faithful people of God.  The sometimes violent imagery of this psalm describes for us that which seems furthest from what we think of when we speak about peace.

Perhaps this is because, for many of us, this Psalm sounds less like a promise to fight even and more like a white flag on a barren landscape. For instead of prayers of hope for a promised future secure and free in God, we encounter lament.  Instead of nonviolent resistance, we encounter hostility and angry, violent words.  And perhaps, we may think, instead of faith in God, we encounter despair.  We encounter chaos in the heart of God’s people.

And so it becomes tempting to skip over the difficulties of this Word.  It becomes tempting to pat this sad little psalm on the head and move on to a Word from God that sounds more like the peace we imagine—strong, and vital, tranquil and still, harmonious and ultimately unthreatening.

But to do that is to make a grave mistake.  To deny that this Word can speak of peace is to ignore the very voice of those who most desperately are in need of peace.  The voice of Psalm 137 is the voice of the peace-less, the voice of those who cry out from the darkness for a real and an urgent and a raging peace in this world right now.

Psalm 137 is the lament of the oppressed who weep for freedom from the forces of Empire which enslave, limit, destroy, and murder.

It is the cry of people who have experienced and witnessed violence against themselves and their community—those whose babies HAVE been dashed against the rocks, or who have been sexually victimized, flayed by bullets and machetes, silenced by oppressors whose brute power over them is total.

It is the wail of the more than 1 billion people in this world for whom peace is impossible because they are literally starving for want of adequate food and water.

It is the moan of those rendered invisible by the social and economic forces of a markt whose ethics and morals are sold to the highest bidder, and to whom the powerless are expendable commodities.

To speak of peace without these voices is unfaithful, for these voices are the very reason that we dream of peace in this world.  And to ignore the real and present pain and suffering of the peace-less is neither honest nor particularly helpful—for in truth, to ignore their voices or read past them is to once again do violence to those who most need to be heard, for it is to render them invisible once more, and it is to exert power over an already trampled and forsaken people.

Furthermore, we have it on good authority that we are called out precisely to listen for and to speak with these voices.  For this is precisely how our Lord Jesus Christ responded to the desolate and the dejected of his own time.  Rather than ignore them, he sought them out.  And rather than speak for those in need, Jesus taught us the power of learning to speak with those society had rendered invisible, first by getting to know their stories and their lives, and then by inviting them to a table to participate in the ongoing conversation and work of ushering forth the Kingdom of God.

The Jesus of Nazareth whom we follow lived and worked and prayed and taught and ate and cried and lamented with precisely these downtrodden, these marginalized, these voiceless people of God.  And in the end, he was willing to lay down his life rather than cease working and speaking and praying with those whom society labels the least of God’s people.  Our Savior was willing to wage war against the Empire itself, and he did so armed with the Word of God and a Fierce Love for God’s people that would not back down to tormentors and baby dashers.

The least that we can do, brothers and sisters in Christ, is welcome these voices to our table, open our arms to those who grieve and cry and lament and weep for peace, and welcome them to the Table that Christ has welcomed us to as we seek to understand one another as we fight for truth peace in this dark and stormy world.  We are stronger, and more faithful, when we dare to do so in the name of the One who dared to risk His Life so that we may have Life in Him.

Alleluia, May it be so.

Sermon for the Billings

Greetings friends– This is the sermon that I plan on preaching tomorrow for the preaching contest at Harvard Divinity… lemme know what you think; hopefully its not too bad!


Psalm 137

There was a little fish who lived in a river that stretched long, and wide and deep. And that little fish was in the company of many other fish, who together would travel along the river’s currents, flashing silver and gold and bronze as they flitted left and then right. One day, the little fish found itself swimming upward, faster and faster until suddenly she burst out of the water and up, up, up, into a bright and beautiful spring sky. Amazed by what she had just seen, she tried again. This time as she leapt she looked about her and saw rich, lush hills covered in bright flowers and dark, vibrant pines. Again she leapt, and caught site of the warm, sandy beaches which lined the river and a brilliant sky speckled with clouds and lit by the warm, far-reaching rays of the sun. Breathless with excitement, the little fish found her friends and told them of all she had seen, saying “Friends! You will never believe what I have just seen! I jumped out of the water and saw so many wonderful, beautiful things! Trees, and clouds, and flowers, and warm beaches! I never knew these things existed! You should come with me and see!” Her friends, however, looked back at her and asked…. “What’s water?”

Sometimes the water we swim in is warm, inviting, comforts us and sustains us. And sometimes we find ourselves in waters never knowing there is something beautiful, something extraordinary, waiting for us just beyond the surface under which we swim.

For those who mourned by the rivers of Babylon, the waters were a reminder of what had been lost, a visible sign that they were not home but in a foreign land, a land of occupiers, a land of captivity that threatened to render their identity invisible. That threatened to render THEM invisible.

And they are not alone. Many of us, myself included, have experienced the desolation of captivity on various scales. Many of us have sat by the rivers and wept. Many of us have been held captive by a force so deep and so powerful that it threatened to render me invisible. Many of us have been weighed down by forces so heavy and so dark that we could not see the light beyond the waters edge. Many of us have lived in waters where we could not imagine sunshine beyond the surface.

And if we have not experienced it ourselves, we cannot have failed to see the daily desolations of the world. For we all have turned on the television or opened our newspapers and computers and been brought face to face with the modern day captives of so many Babylons-the many homeless and mentally ill who walk the streets of our cities, the homebound elderly who live out long, dark, lonely years in dark, lonely homes, the starving nations that cry out to us in the face of a small child, the warring nations of the world which refuse to be silent, the victims of domestic violence who walk quietly amongst us everyday, the victims of our prison systems whom we shun and refuse to open our businesses and communities to. So many faces of desolation wade in the waters around us, with us. And we have witnessed the despair upon the faces of these our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, cousins, friends, and strangers who are imprisoned by the waters which consume them.

So many treacherous waters, both visible and invisible, in which the people of God swim:

There are waters in which violence against brothers and sisters prevails, waters which delude us into thinking peace is nothing but a foolish dream, that it is an impossible illusion, until finally we believe it and resign ourselves to it.

Waters of self-denial and self-hatred, which convince us that we are not worthy and that we will never be worthy of the love that we receive from others and from God, waters that sweet-talk us with culture’s promise that success and money and fame and fortune and perfectly sculpted bodies will give us the love and acceptance that we so desire.

Waters of compulsive behavior, which convince us that we are only doing well if we are always doing something, waters which convince us that stopping is failing, that silence is wasted time, that not doing is not worth doing.

Waters of complacency, which convince us that it is not our job to be in communion with others, that it is not our job to care for the sick, the needy, the thirsty, the imprisoned, the poor, the strangers that cross our paths every minute of every day as long as we live.

We all swim or have swum in waters such as these. We all have felt numbed by the rivers as we have watched those we love slip deeper, deeper, deeper into the water. We have all cried out to God and to each other as those waters have overcome our loved ones. We have all wept bitterly as those waters have carried them as they drift out of communion with one another and with God and into numb resignation to their fate.

Sometimes, in our anger we have cried out loudly for vengeance against our captors and against those in whom we find fault. We have shook our fingers angrily when governments fail to work for peace as we would have them, when officials whom we elected have not executed justice and dispensed mercy as we believe they ought. We have decried those people and systems which have failed us and which continue to fail us. And we have cried for blood, for the right to dash our captors against the rocks, and we have believed that with this blood we will finally find peace we are searching for.

But our captor’s pain will not heal us. Capital punishment will not resurrect a loved one. Impeaching a President will not heal the divisions that exist between us. Building walls will not protect us from the divisions that reside within our hearts and keep us from communion with one another. These are only distractions, angry reactions that intensify our pain and deny the true source of our hurt, deny the truth that the pain that we feel is a part of us that we must deal with ourselves, a pain that will not be wiped away even if we wipe away those who have inflicted it upon us.

And in our cries for vengeance we forget the truth-that there is a land beyond those waters. That there is life beyond captivity. That there is a home to which we all belong, a home where we are longed for, searched after, prayed and cared tenderly for. Most of all, we forget that we do not swim alone. In our pain, we forget that there is a God who loves us, a God who weeps as She swims alongside us, begging us to look up from our sorrow and into the sun. We have forgotten because we have let ourselves believe that we are not worthy of such love, that we are not worthy of the sunlight that glitters at the water’s edge. We have let ourselves believe we deserve our captivity, that it is a necessary corollary of our human condition. We have forgotten what hope feels like.

And it would be so easy to prove ourselves wrong, for all we have to do,…. Is jump. Just jump. Jump out of those waters and into the fresh air. Jump out of captivity and into the bright light that warms our hearts. Jump into a new way of life that resists the rumor that those waters ever defined us, that those waters ever were us.

And when we jump we can begin to be healed, for when we jump we signal our refuse to give in to Babylon. When we make the choice to leap out of the river, we reject captivity, we reject negativity, we reject passivity, we reject insensitivity. We reject them, knowing that they will not define us ever again. We reject them, trusting in the Truth that promises us, “Do not worry, I am with you,” the Truth that convicts us and sustains our hearts, and our minds, and our bodies, and the communities. The Truth that God is Love, and that we are Loved by God.

So in the name of a God who loves us and will never let us go, we reject them, and we leap into a life that offers hope beyond our wildest dreams. Alleluia, Amen.