Maybe what I love most about the Bible is how real and honest it is. We can find the whole range of human emotion in there, including the “negative” side of things: anger, jealousy, rage, grief, depression, sadness. The Bible doesn’t assume that life is going to be all cupcakes and rainbows. In fact, of the 150 psalms in our Bibles, a full fifty of them are what we call “laments.” Jesus’ famous words on the cross, “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?” are straight from one of those lament psalms. We even have an entire biblical book called “Lamentations.” It’s full of hard lines like:
For these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears; for a comforter is far from me.
See, O Lord, how distressed I am; my stomach churns, my heart is wrung within me.
For some reason, however, the concept of holy lament has largely fallen out of our Christian vocabulary today. That’s unfortunate because lament, at its heart, isn’t wallowing. It’s hope. Real hope for a real world.
God of Suffering and Hope, please guide us this morning by your Word and your Holy Spirit, so that in your light we might see light, and in your truth, we might find freedom, and in your will, we might truly discover peace through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest. Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame. But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people. All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads; “Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver— let him rescue the one in whom he delights!” Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast. On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God. Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.
“Go Down Moses” — Traditional African-American Spiritual (Performed by Louis Armstrong) (YouTube video with lyrics for in-home worship: https://youtu.be/vf6jBP4YXwo)
Go down Moses Way down in Egypt land Tell all pharaohs to Let my people go! When Israel was in Egypt land Let my people go! Oppressed so hard they could not stand Let my people go! So the God said: Go down, Moses Way down in Egypt land Tell all pharaohs to Let my people go! So Moses went to Egypt land Let my people go! He made all pharaohs understand Let my people go! Yes the Lord said: Go down, Moses Way down in Egypt land Tell all pharaohs to Let my people go! Thus spoke the Lord, bold Moses said: Let my people go! If not I'll smite, your firstborns dead. Let my people go! God, the Lord, said: Go down, Moses Way down in Egypt land Tell all pharaohs to Let my people go! Tell all pharaohs To let my people go
The lament has been described as “a prayer out of pain.” In her new book, Where Goodness Still Grows, Amy Peterson tells the story of Tahlequah, a mother orca who pushed her dead calf over a thousand miles up the northwest coast. The trek took seventeen days — seventeen days of mourning through cold, crushing waves. Killer whales are smart, but this was a show of emotion that would seem to be unprecedented. Their babies gestate for seventeen months, and Tahlequah mourned one day for each month her baby was in the womb. That’s lament.
In the Bible, Peterson remarks, lament is what happens when we offer “holy complaint” about what’s wrong in our lives, as well as what’s wrong in the world around us.
Lament…is part of repentance — of grieving personal sins and turning away from them. But it’s also part of grieving the large-scale injustices for which we may be only indirectly complicit, and those losses that have no evident moral failure or culpability attached to them, but which result from living in a fractured world.
At times, I think, we’ve been guilty of moving too quickly past such repentance and lament. We often live and think as if salvation is a done deal, wondering if those friends who struggle with their sadness or grief for too long might not be guilty of a “lack of faith.” This is neither true to life nor to the biblical witness, and it silences a crucial part of our Christian faith. That part is hope. “My lament was not a rebellion against providence,” Peterson explains looking back at her own newfound experience of lament. “I wasn’t rebelling against God, I was calling on God to be God, and I was lamenting the fact that while our salvation is complete, it is also incomplete.”
If we run too fast past lament, we risk blinding ourselves to the world’s needs or, at the very least, we risk not taking them seriously. It is true that today is “the day the Lord has made,” but it’s also the day the Lord is still making. “In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them,” our psalmist says in Psalm 22, pleading for God to be that deliverer one more time. So lament is not only the Bible’s way of complaining about what still needs to be fixed. It’s also the Bible’s way of insisting that there is a God who is ready and able to fix it. It is, in this sense, a hopeful kind of sorrow that helps us express what it means to be the people of God in the midst of a world that still needs God so very much. If the Christian life and our worship are only about praise and thankfulness for God’s past action, then the Bible would seem to be saying that we’re missing out on a whole lot of what it means to be the people of God in the world today, where salvation is still a work in progress. Lament helps fill in the gaps here.
Can we learn how to lament or, at least, how to do it better? Yes, actually, and not only by paying more attention to the laments we find in scripture. “The musical genre of the Negro spiritual,” Jemar Tisby informs us, “exemplifies the ability of black Christians to theologize their suffering in song.” By learning about the situations that gave rise to the Negro spiritual and by echoing those spirituals with our own voices today, we can relearn how to lament.
The Negro spiritual put black lamentations into songs that soared upward as prayers for God to save them and grant them the perseverance to exist and resist. Through their understanding of Scripture, black Christians sang, “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.” They looked to the book of Exodus and saw God saving the Israelites from slavery. In the white slaveowners they saw “old Pharaoh” and knew they could pray, “Let my people go.”
Last Sunday, we talked about Jewish midrash as stories told about stories in the Bible. The Negro spirituals are doing something very similar. They’re reliving the Bible’s story of oppression and redemption through the lens of their own experiences today.
When Jesus is hanging up there on the cross, he also relives his Bible’s story of oppression and redemption through the lens of his own experience. He cries out, “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?” It was a true lament — as true as his weeping over the death of his friend Lazarus. The Book of Hebrews reminds us that in Jesus “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” By becoming so amazingly vulnerable, Jesus came to know what his fellow Jews had suffered and were still suffering in so many ways. He could truly empathize with them.
In a way, we can, too, when we practice lamenting today, even for those big social issues that sometimes seem so far away from us. Empathy is a powerful tool, and the lament helps our empathy for others grow. “Instead of trying to ignore or pray away my grief,” Amy Peterson asks,
What if I allow it to deepen my understanding of the suffering others have experienced? Maybe practicing lament can help me love my neighbors better; maybe I can let my grief lead me into solidarity with the suffering ones rather than letting it trap me in fear, defensiveness, and violence. Maybe lament can connect us rather than further divide us.
Wouldn’t that be a beautiful thing, today?
Prayers for Our World
This week, as we lament not only the continuation of this pandemic and its deadly history but also the injustice and violence that plague our world, let’s pray together some of our Bible’s lament psalms and so make them our own cries of faith and hope.
Awake! Why are you asleep, O Lord? Arise! Cast us not off forever! Why do you hide your face, forgetting our woe and our oppression? For our souls are bowed down to the dust, our bodies are pressed to the earth… How long, O Lord? Will you utterly forget me? How long will you hide your face from me? How long shall I harbor sorrow in my soul, grief in my heart day after day? How long will my enemy triumph over me? … Rise up, judge of the earth; render their deserts to the proud. How long, O Lord, shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked glory, Mouthing insolent speeches, boasting, all the evildoers? … Look toward me, and have pity on me, for I am alone and afflicted. Relieve the troubles of my heart, and bring me out of my distress. Put an end to my affliction and my suffering, and take away all my sins. Behold, my enemies are many, and they hate me violently. Preserve my life, and rescue me; let me not be put to shame, for I take refuge in you… Show us, O Lord, your kindness, and grant us your salvation. I will hear what God proclaims; the Lord — for he proclaims peace. To his people, and to his faithful ones, and to those who put in him their hope. Near indeed is his salvation to those who fear him, glory dwelling in our land. Amen. — Psalms 85:8-10; 13:2-3; 94:2-4; 25:16-20; 44:24-26
For further reading, check out Amy Peterson’s book, Where Goodness Still Grows, and Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise. Both can be found on Amazon.