by David Baer, June 18, 2017
Text: Psalm 13:1-6
It’s one of the first things most of us do in this life. Not all babies cry at the moment of birth. But look—as newborns we’ve just experienced a physical trauma, and now we’re struggling to breathe on our own, surrounded with unfamiliar lights and sounds, and—I have to believe—feeling colder than we’ve ever been now that we have to regulate our own body temperature. Is it any wonder that with all these things pressing in on us, most of us enter this life squalling for all we’re worth?
And what happens when a newborn cries? What effect do these sounds have on the parents? When my children first exercised their lungs, we held them, caressed them, embraced them, and spoke soothingly to them. Our first experience of relationship is like this: we cry out in need, and someone is there to comfort us. Life in this world brings distress and hurt, but also grace.
Last week I started a series on the psalms by talking about Psalm 100, which is a song of joyful thanksgiving. Today’s psalm is a psalm of lament. This is a very freeing kind of prayer. As adults we so often feel as though we’re supposed to be in control or have the answers, but there are times when the circumstances are bigger than we are, where we come to realize that we’re not in control. It might be an illness or an accident. It might be that someone you care about and depend on is no longer there. The psalms of lament, like the one we heard and sang this morning, allow us to be honest about the hurts we bear in our bodies and our spirits, and to reset the way we look at our relationship with God. It’s a way of praying that takes us back to the beginning of being human—we can’t live on our own merits, but only through grace.
Last week I talked about three different kinds of psalms—these categories come from Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann. There are psalms of orientation, that reflect the way we speak to God when life is good, when our established patterns of living are working well for us. And then there are psalms of disorientation, when those patterns break down during a crisis, and we cry out for help. And then lastly there are psalms of new orientation, when the crisis is past, but the way we look at ourselves and our relationship with God has changed. Today’s psalm, you might guess, is a psalm of disorientation.
This psalm begins with the words, “How long, O Lord?” The words “how long” are repeated four times—this is someone who is hurting, who wants it to end now. And the first complaint that’s lifted up, the one we can presume causes the greatest distress, the one that needs to be spoken before all the others, has to do with the relationship with God. It’s bad enough to be experiencing inward pain, and to have your enemies closing in. But worse than that is feeling God’s absence: “Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?”
Next, the psalmist expresses his hurt, which has the greatest possible dimensions. It touches his soul, the deepest part of him. His sorrow lasts “all day long.” What’s more, there is an unnamed enemy who has risen to a place of advantage: “How long,” the psalmist asks, “shall my enemy be exalted over me?”
So far all the psalmist has done is to cry out in pain about the absence of God, suffering that doesn’t let up, and an adversary who exploits and dominates. “How long? How long?” But now the psalmist turns to God with a request: “Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!” Consider, look, pay attention! The psalmist wants first of all for God to take notice. But more than that, the psalm calls for God to answer, to respond. “How long?” is, after all, a question. “Give light to my eyes”—give me hope, something to latch onto, the psalmist says, “or I shall sleep the sleep of death.”
But what happens in the final two verses of the psalm is remarkable. After a heartfelt, bitter complaint, and a plea for help to God, the psalmist turns away from the crisis in the present. He zooms backward in time: “But I trusted in your steadfast love…” remembering a time when he knew that God was real, present, and reliable. And then he zooms forward into the future: “my heart shall rejoice in your salvation,” imagining a time when he can look back on this crisis as a time when God rescued him and brought him through. “I will sing to the Lord,” he says again about this future time, “because he has dealt bountifully with me.” The message of this psalm is that right now I’m hurting, but that this painful season is taking place within a life where I have placed my trust in God, where I have known God’s goodness, and where I hope to know that goodness again. Hurt is softened by trust and hope.
This is a kind of prayer we need. These psalms of lament show us that it’s OK to be honest with God about what we’re feeling during times of disorientation and disruption. And the whole of scripture shows us other examples of folks crying out to God in pain, loneliness, and anxiety. In the book of Job too, we see someone grieved and even angered by God’s absence. Jesus cried out from the cross, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” And the beautiful paradox of Jesus, the Son of God, speaking these words is that after this, no one else who speaks them is ever alone. Because of Jesus, God is present in every aching cry. Jesus transforms these prayers of lament from human hopes to God’s cry of solidarity and presence on the inside of all human suffering.
We need this kind of prayer because of the things that happen to us. Another pastor, Kace Leetch, tells a story about her struggle with God when her toddler was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, subjected to tests and hospitalization. She says:
The night he came home from the hospital, I put him to bed, and then I sat on my bed screaming and crying and cursing at God. My fit went on for a long while until I was completely spent. Finally, in the silence of a broken spirit I heard a voice, quiet but powerful. It said, “Trust me.” Chills ran through me as I recognized the voice of God. It said, “Trust in me. You have placed all your trust in the medical system. Learn from them, but trust in me.”1
For Leetch, arriving at a moment of trust allowed her to grab onto a hopeful future.
But maybe you don’t need a prayer of lament for what is happening in your life today. You can also lament on behalf of others. There are psalms that cry out not against personal suffering, but on behalf of the poor and innocent who suffer injustice. You can lament for friends who are sick or scared or sad. You can lift up neighbors from across the street or across the world. You can cry out for victims of gun violence, and especially this week Congressman Steve Scalise, who suffered serious injuries after being shot on a baseball field in Virginia. You can cry out for the families of sailors on the U.S.S. Fitzgerald who are missing or killed following a collision with a cargo ship. You can cry out for those who despair of justice for unarmed black men killed during traffic stops. You can cry out for those mourning loved ones lost in fire at the Grenfell Tower high-rise apartment building in London… “How long, O Lord?”
We need prayers of lament, we need psalms of disorientation, because there is so much in our world and in our own lives that is disorienting, disquieting, that prompts primal cries like those of a newborn overwhelmed and reaching for care and comfort. Praying in lament is not a substitute for taking action, for doing what you can to ease the burdens that fall on yourself and others. But being grounded in prayer is the necessary precondition for any action we might take. The seventeenth-century Christian author John Bunyan said, “We can do more than pray after we pray, but we can do no more than pray until we have prayed.” Until we have brought our hurt and our sadness to God, until we have joined the lament of Jesus on the cross, until we have grounded our plans and our expectations about whatever might happen next in the hope of God’s abiding goodness and generosity, what good can we do? But thanks be to God, who embraces us in our sadness and anxiety, who desires, who loves, who accepts and blesses us, so that whether we find ourselves on the mountaintop of joy or in the valley of the shadow of death, we have God’s goodness and abiding presence. Amen.
Kace Leetch, Notes on Psalm 13. Clergy Stuff. Summer 2017.