Job 23.1–9, 16–17
Then Jesus lamented: “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”’ Mark 10.23
Last week, we spoke about suffering. We said that there is no real answer to the question ‘Why?’. There is something more to say though—not an answer to why bad things happen, but why we feel it so much when they do.
We feel the pain of suffering so much because we have a great hope that the world can be well. Our hope is ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done’. And when we look at the suffering in our world, we can see that God’s will is not being done ‘on earth as in heaven’. And those who hope for God to act can find that it brings confusion, sadness, grief, even anger.
Those who lack this hope may just shrug their shoulders and sigh in resignation. ‘What can we do about it?’ they ask.
Or they just try to have a good time, ignoring the pain that others endure.
Or they may even decide to turn a profit from the troubles of the world: after all, there’s plenty of money to be had by an unscrupulous operator.
Lament is the biblical approach to the pain of suffering. But it is an an unpopular message today.
Take Uniting in Worship 2; many of you know that I was one of its editors. It was published ten years ago this month, but really it should have been published a year earlier. One reason for the delay was that we were including prayers of lament as resources and making it possible to use lament in our services of worship.
Those who opposed us were adamant that a service of worship should begin with prayers or songs of adoration. To begin with lament was starting with ‘us’ and our needs; it should always start with God, they argued.
Since that time, our decision has been accepted, but partly, and sadly, because of a humanitarian disaster. The Boxing Day Tsunami flooded communities around the Indian Ocean, and Uniting Church congregations were crying out for the National Working Group on Worship to provide worship resources. So we put the resources that were going to be published onto our website and gave people free permission to use them. No one at any ‘official’ level of our Church has since argued that we shouldn’t use lament in our services.
Just as well, because that’s exactly what the Book of Psalms does.
Today’s psalm was Psalm 22, which is a psalm of lament. Remember that a lament is a cry of unresolved pain and confusion, of complaint, protest, and appeal—a cry that flies from the human heart straight to the heart of God. I want to talk a bit about the Book of Psalms, and then we’ll have a brief look at why lament stays unpopular in local congregations, and is still neglected.
The Book of Psalms. Its Hebrew name means Book of Praises—and yet in the 150 psalms in the Psalter, there are more Psalms of Lament than any other kind. There are 58 Psalms of Lament, more than any other single type of psalm.
In Israel’s praise, lament wasn’t on the edges; it was central. The people of Israel could not imagine worship without the psalms, including the Psalms of Lament. Mind you, we can say the same of many religious orders like the Benedictines, and any church that uses the full Lectionary.
So what’s your favourite psalm? Many people would say their favourite is Psalm 23 (‘The Lord is my shepherd’); or Psalm 139 (‘I am fearfully and wonderfully made’); or even Psalm 150 (‘Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!’). They often don’t choose a lament psalm.
I read recently of a man called Glenn Pemberton (Hurting with God: Learning to lament with the Psalms) who had been making a translation of the Psalms.
His boss asked him how he was going. Pemberton writes,
my response confused me; while the work was going well I was finding it discouraging, even depressing. That didn’t make any sense to me. I was, after all, working on the Book of Praises.
Are you surprised too? Why would translating the Psalms have a flattening effect on this man? The boss’s response was to affirm him and say,
It’s the Psalms. It’s lament.
The Psalms are chock-full of every emotion known to humanity. High-soaring praise, disappointment, joy, woe, hope and anger sit cheek by jowl in the Psalms. Just like life, really.
Yet when we look at most contemporary Christian music or worship, the language of lament is lacking or even missing. There are many churches who will only sing upbeat ‘praise songs’.
Lament has been neglected. Why? Let’s think of a few reasons.
People say they don’t come to church to be confronted with painful things. They say they come to be refuelled, to get a boost before the working week starts. So who wants to hear a psalm like Psalm 3?
Rise up, O Lord!
Deliver me, O my God!
For you strike all my enemies on the cheek;
you break the teeth of the wicked.
How do we sort that out? Is it even Christian? Aren’t we supposed to love our neighbour? Is this the so-called ‘God of the Old Testament’?
We may have heard that Christians should be happy all the time. I have. Well, let me tell you that is rubbish. The people who say that have confused happiness and joy. No one can or should be happy all the time, not even a Christian. But joy is a deeper thing, it’s part of the bedrock of the Christian’s being.
Even when I was in my most deeply depressed time, I knew that joy was still there. I may not have felt it right then; but I knew that joy was God’s promise to me, and that I would know it again one day.
Lament is also unpopular because we don’t like to be whingers. We want people to get on and do something. We want things to be fixed. Remember those young couples we spoke about last week who were angry that no technology could stop their child’s death? They wanted it fixed.
Except—their anger was itself a lament! And saying ‘Why me?’ was a lament. So when someone sat down with them and listened to their lament, they felt a sense of relief.
There are many reasons why lament is a neglected form of prayer in church, but I’ll just mention one more. We have too much information. The news is coming at us all the time, through TV, newspapers, the internet, twitter and other things. When you watch a story on TV you often see a little line of breaking news at the bottom of the screen. It’s not enough just to get the news one item at a time any more. We can get two news items simultaneously! (Can you hear that I’m lamenting?)
Too much information. Sometimes, we just want to turn the news off and forget it. Well, if you need to turn it off for a while, do it. Turn it off. Spend more time in the garden, or with friends. Take more time for prayer. Come back to the news when you’re ready.
But even while we take a break, our eyes have been opened. The world is a hard place for many people. Once we know that, we can’t un-know it.
Why should we lament? Let me suggest a couple of reasons. One: it helps. Pouring out your heart in a safe place helps.
If you’ve ever had counselling or therapy, you probably know this. When you are heard, when your experienced is held to be valid and ok, the sense of relief can be profound.
So it’s interesting that this is how psalms of lament work. These psalms speak their complaint to God; they remember God’s goodness and salvation; they look forward to praising God with joy.
They speak their complaint to God, like Psalm 7:
O Lord my God, in you I take refuge;
save me from all my pursuers, and deliver me,
or like a lion they will tear me apart;
they will drag me away, with no one to rescue.
Or Psalm 13:
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
But they don’t stay there. Then they remember who God is. Take Psalm 18:
In my distress I called upon the Lord;
to my God I cried for help.
From his temple he heard my voice,
and my cry to him reached his ears.
Now, they can once more hope again in God, like Psalm 30:
You have turned my mourning into dancing;
you have taken off my sackcloth
and clothed me with joy,
so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.
Or if they don’t yet rejoice in God, they wait confidently for God to act. Psalm 27 ends:
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord!
Our opening hymn (from Psalm 42) works the same way. It starts with a cry from the heart:
As pants the hart for cooling streams
in parched and barren ways
so longs my soul for you, O God,
and your refreshing grace.
It ends with hope in God:
Why restless, why cast down, my soul?
Hope still, and you shall sing
the praise of him who is your God,
your health’s eternal spring.
We may value practical people, but lament does bring results: it brings a change of heart.
The second reason lament is useful is that it gives us language to express our empathy for those who are in genuine distress in our world. We may feel pretty ok, that we don’t need to lament. Life is good! But for the good of our souls, we need to lament on behalf of others who suffer around the world today.
Psalm 22 is a Psalm of Lament, one which we accept without question because we see the suffering of Christ in it. This psalm gives us words to express the suffering of Jesus. It actually works to increase our empathy for him.
Psalms of Lament can increase our empathy for others too. They may give us words to pray alongside a Syrian refugee, or a family with a disabled child, or children whose only Christmas present will come from Operation Christmas Child.
Lament may never be ‘popular’ in churches today. But we are seeing more songs of lament being written that teach us to value pouring our hearts out to God. We have the psalms; and we could read them more often than we do.
Of course, Jesus knew the psalms, and would have sung the psalms of lament and known them by heart. Let me point out something that I saw for the first time this last week. When Jesus meets a fine man who doesn’t ‘get it’ because of his riches, his words to the disciples are a lament.
How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!
Jesus laments that those who are rich find it hard to enter the kingdom. He then looks to God:
For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.
That is why even if we are fine, we need to lament on behalf of others for the good of our souls. So that God may work his way in us.
One last thing. We ‘do lament’ quite well here in this congregation in one particular part of our liturgy: in the Prayers of the People. I want to thank sincerely those who lead us in this way, who ask God to right the wrongs of the world. In this congregation, our prayers for others are often laments.
So—if we do it well in these prayers, perhaps we can try it in more of our songs? And in reading the psalms more?
And to the Holy Trinity of Love,
the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,
be all honour and glory and praise,
now and for ever.