Scripture can be found here...
A plea that begins with the image of drowning… waters, swirling around your neck, the feeling that you might not be able to keep your head above the powerful currents.
An image of the collapse of a dying star, witnessed by the archangels, in which all sight and memory is eclipsed by the overwhelming brightness of the explosion… before it fades and disappears forever.
We are holding together two laments today, one written perhaps 2500-3000 years ago, one written in 2010. We are pondering this poetic form: the song of sorrow; the plea for help; the agonized wondering: How can this be happening to me? What went wrong? Is there anybody out there?
The technical term for Psalm 69 is “a psalm of individual lament.” As you might guess, there are also psalms of communal lament, and even psalms of royal lament. What they have in common is the sense of wrongness about what is happening. The poet complains to God, maybe about what is happening to them, the action of an outside enemy. Or, maybe, about their own inner life—what’s wrong with me, God, they might be asking. Or even, what is wrong with YOU, God? Where ARE you? Psalms that contain elements of lament make up fully one third of the psalter.
What that tells us is: life can be hard. Sorrow and trial come to all of us, sooner or later. And those whose faith tells them there is a loving and powerful God, turn to that God, seeking comfort, or relief, or dramatic and visible intervention.
Once you start thinking about laments, they’re everywhere. This past Wednesday I ran up to Boston to see Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” For anyone who isn’t familiar, or maybe who hasn’t read or seen the play since high school, it is the story of an elderly king who decides to divide his realm between three daughters, based on how eloquently they proclaim their love for him. Let’s just say, it doesn’t go well. In the play’s final scene Lear carries the body of his beloved and murdered daughter Cordelia onstage. Lear’s words had me weeping…
And my poor fool is hang’d! No, no, no life.
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life,
and thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never… King Lear, Act V, scene iii.
Later on Wednesday night, alone in a hotel room and unable to sleep, I fired up a British mystery series on Netflix. [i] I watched a story unfold in which an eleven-year-old boy was murdered. In this kind of storytelling, the viewer often knows what is happening before the characters, and so, of course, I felt the tension building in anticipation of the depiction of the devastated family. And I watched as the mother screamed, and collapsed, and wailed. Later, as the series reached its shocking conclusion, the father said to a priest, “We’re drowning here.” Lament.
But we don’t have to turn to fiction to hear laments, do we? Our news is filled with them, every day. This week, loved ones and colleagues are mourning 29-year-old Shreveport, Louisiana police officer Thomas LaValley, at the same time parents and classmates in Texas are mourning 19-year-old college football player Christian Taylor. Twitter has become the location for lament, as each new killing gets its own hashtag, and the names of the dead are lifted as the nation lifts its complaints, crying out, “Why?” and “How long?” and “When?” and “Say their names.”
I first heard the song “Supernova” at a performance in Northampton, Massachusetts, four years ago, as Joan and I managed to combine seeing one of our favorite bands, Girlyman, with visits to college campuses. We had learned months earlier that band member Doris Muramatsu, whom you heard singing lead vocals during the introit, had been diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia—a highly survivable cancer, but terrifying nonetheless. Before beginning the song, at this show in an intimate little venue, Doris spoke about the night she had been diagnosed and admitted to the hospital. Hospital policy had prevented Doris’ partner JJ from staying with her. Doris spoke of how alone and frightened she’d felt, and how this song had started playing itself over and over in her head and heart as she lay in her hospital bed. Though she didn’t write the song herself—fellow band member Nate Borofsky gets that honor—Doris came to feel it absolutely expressed her sense of fear and isolation. What could be lonelier than a star dying, out in space, with only the angels as witnesses? Lament.
I am acutely aware, as I write, how very hard it is to talk about this topic. We don’t really want to talk about our sorrow, and we find it difficult to hear about others’ pain. We have lost touch with the art of lament. Did you notice how I started with things that are fairly removed from me personally? A Shakespeare play. A TV show. The song gets closer, because the music of this band has been important to me, and I’ve actually seen them live, and Doris’ story moved me enough that we had her on our church prayer list. I managed to avoid the story of getting the phone call that my favorite aunt had died without warning, and the wailing on the floor in my apartment that followed. Except maybe for poets and songwriters, we have lost touch with the art of lament. We don’t much want to talk about it.
I mentioned the movie “Inside Out” in the first Psalm sermon in July, and I need to bring it up again. Spoiler alert: plug your ears if you really want to see the movie without knowing anything about it. When I talked about it last month, I told you that the movie is about the inner life of 11-year-old Riley, about her emotions, and about how those emotions have an impact on her developing sense of self: who she is, deep down inside. When the story begins, the emotion “Joy” is driving Riley’s inner life. Joy wants to be in charge, because she wants Riley to have happy experiences, leading to happy days, leading to a happy life. That’s the logic, and all the other emotions are pretty much on board, even though they each respond in turn as the story unfolds. But Joy really puts some effort into preventing the emotion “Sadness” from being expressed. Every time Sadness gets near the surface, Joy tries to push back, and the results of this are very nearly catastrophic.
… Because we need all our emotions. And eventually, even Joy comes to understand that Sadness has an important role to play. Riley needs to be able to feel it, and to express it. So do we. There is a place for Sadness. There is a place for lament. Without them, we are not completely human. We are shut down, and we are cut off. And sometimes that seems like the safest place to be… until we realize that, in the immortal words of John Green, “That’s the thing about pain. It demands to be felt.”[ii] Sadness and pain that are suppressed or choked off result in things like addiction and other self-destructive behaviors, not exactly the recipe for a happy life. We need to feel our sadness. We need lament. Not all the time, not 24-7-365, but as part of the menu of full human expression, full human living.
Save me, God,
because the waters have reached my neck!
I am tired of crying.
My throat is hoarse.
My eyes are exhausted with waiting for my God. ~Psalm 69:1, 3 (Common English Bible)
And so, we have the psalter. This prayer book at the heart of our Bible knows things. It knows what the full human experience looks like, and it’s all in here. And if we read all the way to the end of this psalm (which we did not do earlier—we only read the first half), we find out what else it knows. It knows that one of the best ways to end our songs of lament is to do what my friend Robin Craig calls “preaching ahead” of ourselves. Like many psalms of lament, this one ends with words of praise.
I will praise God’s name with song; I will magnify him with thanks…
Let the afflicted see it and be glad!
You who seek God— let your hearts beat strong again
because the Lord listens to the needy and doesn’t despise his captives.
Let heaven and earth praise God, the oceans too, and all that moves within them!
God will most certainly save Zion, and will rebuild Judah’s cities
so that God’s servants can live there and possess it.
The offspring of God’s servants will inherit Zion,
and those who love God’s name will dwell there. ~ Psalm 69:30, 32-36
“Preaching ahead” of herself is something my friend Robin had to do after her young adult son died of suicide in September of 2008. Robin was a second-year seminarian that year, and after taking the fall semester off, one of the first decisions she had to deal with was whether she could manage a preaching class. I’ll let her describe the experience (this is an excerpt from her blog):
“In February of 2009, I met with the instructor of the Homiletics (preaching) class for which, under normal circumstances, I would have registered during the third quarter of my second year of seminary. My son had been dead for six months. I had a number of concerns: What good news, exactly, might there be to preach? How would I contend with the professor's expectations for memorization, when most of the time I could no longer remember which city I was in? What if I completely failed?
… It appeared that taking Homiletics, just like getting up each morning, was probably an exceptionally foolish thing to attempt.
So I did. Attempt it. The most significant factor in my decision was the statement offered by a friend in the cafeteria line one day: "You'll be studying and preaching the Word of God," she said. "What could be more healing?"
I thought that she had lost her mind but: whatever. The whole universe was so off-kilter that I was hardly in a position to challenge her assertion.
My first assignment was not terrible, and then I made it through the second. And then a few months later I began working at my field ed. church and came up with the idea of "preaching ahead of myself." My friend Wayne would call it Hope. TIKVA in Hebrew…
Every sermon I preach, I think: Not there yet. Look ahead.”[iii]
When we sing our psalms of lament… whether we are wailing on the apartment floor, or listening to a song that perfectly describes the desert-like condition of our heart, or immersing ourselves in the more bereft lines of the psalter… we also have the opportunity to, if not preach, then pray ahead of ourselves. We can start small, with some assertion that we can at least intellectually subscribe to, something like, “God is good.” We wail and flood the floor with our tears, and at the end, we say something that, in the face of our devastation, feels ridiculous. We lament. But we also pray ahead of ourselves. We need the lament. We also need to nod towards something we may in no way feel internally. We need the lament, and we need the hope, or even the suggestion of it, or even the understanding that, sometimes, some people feel it. We need that. We need to know that, in Robin’s words, “our God, who sees the starkness, the emptiness, the shattered lives strewn across the deserts of human existence, says to us: This is not the end of the story.”[iv]
We need lament. But we also need to know that, in God’s economy, lament is not the end of the story. We need to know that God most certainly will save, and God will surely rebuild, even if we cannot see it now, through our tears. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] “Broadchurch,” Season 1.
[ii] John Green, The Fault in Our Stars, Chapter 4.
[iii] Robin Craig, “Preaching Ahead of Myself,” Thursday February 10, 2011, Beautiful and Terrible, http://metanoia-mrc.blogspot.com/2011/02/preaching-ahead-of-myself.html.
[iv] Robin Craig, “Body, Breath, Place: Sermon on Ezekiel 37:1-14,” Saturday April 9, 2011, Beautiful and Terrible, http://metanoia-mrc.blogspot.com/2011/04/body-breath-place-sermon-ezekiel-37-1.html.