Learning from Lament
This past Tuesday, the Faith Study Group wrestled with Psalm 31. The given lectionary readings for this morning of this psalm are the beginning and the end. It was the parts in the middle that caused us to pause and wonder about the life of the person who wrote this psalm. The beginning and the end talk about putting one’s trust in God and on this Mother’s Day many of us can reflect upon the way in which our mothers had a trust in God as they raised their families quite often in the face of adversity.
It is the verses in between that describe the reality of the Psalmist’s life. They are what is known in biblical literature as a lament. The dictionary defines lament as a passionate expression of grief or sorrow. This psalm describes physical and psychological torment as well as the scorn and rejection of one’s friends. There is a translation of the complete Psalm by Rabbi Pamela Greenberg, who was the first female rabbi in the United States, in this morning’s bulletin. You can read this catalogue of woes and afflictions. The interesting thing about lament is that the writer doesn’t get mad at God. My understanding of lament is that when you are in a situation you are asking, “My God, how did I get into this situation?” There is a feeling of perplexity and utter powerlessness.
A short historical note. The psalm is ascribed to King David. In Old Testament times, it was common to ascribe writings to great people because it was seen as giving credibility to the work. We know that this psalm was written around five hundred years after David and five hundred years before Jesus when the Jewish elite had been taken into captivity in Babylon. You might be familiar with one of the laments that they wrote, Psalm 137, and made famous by the group Boney M:
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down
There we wept, when we remembered Zion
When the wicked
Carried us away in captivity
Required from us a song
Now how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land
Let the words of our mouth and the meditations of our hearts
Be acceptable in thy sight here tonight.
The Jews in exile were asking themselves, “God, how did we get into this situation?” The prophets of the day reminded them that it was through their own doing that they had ended up in Babylon. Their world view believed that the people, the community, had wandered away from the ways of God and as such bad things had happened to them. Notice that the blame is not upon God for the terrible things, but rather a realization that one has some responsibility for one’s own predicament. The prophets proclaimed that the first step was to get back to following the ways of God. How do we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land or how do we live as God’s people here in Babylon? Let the words of our mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable. Let what we do be in accordance with your will and purposes.
My God, how did I get into this situation? A friend was telling me that one day he was at work and in a flash realized that he was in a dead-end job. He said he looked heavenward and asked, “My God how did I get into this situation?” Another friend told me of her marriage which she described as a crumbling relationship. All she could ask of God and herself was how she got into that situation. Lament. How did this happen to me? We can have lament on many different levels. So, one day if you feel like railing against God and against the world by screaming, “Why did this happen to me? How did I get into this mess?” just know that you are in good biblical company.
I came across a lament known as the “old guy’s lament,” which I seem to relate to more and more. It is all about how we see things in life. “Everything is farther away now than it used to be; it is twice as far to the corner and they’ve added a hill, I’ve noticed. I’ve given up running for the bus; it leaves faster than it used to. It seems to me they are making stairs steeper than in the old days, and have you noticed the smaller print in the paper lately? There’s no point in asking anyone to read aloud. Everyone speaks in such low tones, and I can hardly hear them. The material in clothes is so skimpy now, too, especially around the waist and hips. It is almost impossible to reach down to put on my shoes. Even people are changing; they are so much younger than they used to be when I was their age. On the other hand, people my own age are so much older looking than me. I ran into an old classmate the other day and he had aged so much that he didn’t recognize me. I got to thinking about the poor thing the other day while I was combing my hair and, in so doing, I glanced at my own reflection. Confound it! They don’t even make good mirrors anymore!!”
In the bible, a lament doesn’t end in woe and despair. It moves to hope. We are not stuck in our predicament. Hope in God. Psalm 31 ends with the words, “But you God heard my supplications when I cried out to you for help. Love the Lord, all you his saints. The Lord preserves the faithful…Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord.” Our hope is in following the ways of justice and mercy, love and forgiveness that we see portrayed in the life of Jesus.
A story of another exile of sorts. Emil Fackenheim was a Jewish psychologist who was interred in a concentration camp by the Nazis during the second world war. As his time in the camp went on, he began to question why some people seemed to be able to cope with the harsh conditions in the camp while others gave up and died. After the war, he reflected upon his observations of other prisoners and noted that the one thing that kept people going in the face of terrible odds was their hope in God and in the future.
You will notice that we have left the cross from Good Friday and Easter at the front of the church. It is an excellent cross because the wood looks old and decaying. And the chicken wire doesn’t help. Remember on Easter Sunday how great it looked decorated with all the daffodils. Each of you helped us decorate that cross to remind us of the joy and hope of the resurrection. Then we took off the flowers and we are left with an empty bare cross. That’s the message of this season of Easter. The roughhewn cross is empty. This is the hope of the Christian faith. There is always new life, new possibility. God vanquished the power of death and because of this, there is hope for us in each of the many deaths that we experience in our own lives.
I want to leave you with a thought and a story this morning. As Christianity moved out into the Roman Empire from it’s birthplace in Jerusalem, the early Christians initially met with terrible persecution from both the Jewish community and the Roman authorities. The apostle Paul, shackled and imprisoned, and it is believed going blind, perhaps due to cataracts, reflected upon his experience. He said that when you are faced with tremendous challenges in life, as a Christian you are to try and snatch a blessing from those challenges. He wrote to the Christians being persecuted in Rome, having to worship underground in the catacombs, “We rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character, and hope.” God doesn’t send trials and tribulations to us, but when, as part of human living, they happen, what good can we make of them?
The story is from Charlie Brown. One of Charles Schultz’s Peanuts cartoon strips has Charlie Brown and his baseball team losing yet again. There have been innumerable line drives that cause pitcher Charlie Brown to go flying off the mound, his hat and glove and even clothes sailing in all directions. On the way home, he complains to Linus. Why has the team lost again? Five million to nothing! And this is the eightieth loss in a row! Nobody can hit. He’s got a beagle for a shortstop. Lucy certainly doesn’t try very hard out there in center field. Charlie Brown, whose secret unrealized ambition has always been to be called “Flash,” is one dejected athlete. Linus responds with a casual shrug. “Look at it this way, Charlie Brown. You learn more from losing than you do from winning.” This is exactly what Charlie Brown doesn’t want to hear. Turning on his friend in sorrow and rage, he knocks him right over with a shriek: “that makes me the smartest person in the world!!”