Scripture - Psalm 22; Lamentations 1:1-7
Psalm 22 (The Message)
1-2 God, God . . . my God!
Why did you dump me
miles from nowhere?
Doubled up with pain, I call to God
all the day long. No answer. Nothing.
I keep at it all night, tossing and turning.
3-5 And you! Are you indifferent, above it all,
leaning back on the cushions of Israel’s praise?
We know you were there for our parents:
they cried for your help and you gave it;
they trusted and lived a good life.
6-8 And here I am, a nothing—an earthworm,
something to step on, to squash.
Everyone pokes fun at me;
they make faces at me, they shake their heads:
“Let’s see how God handles this one;
since God likes him so much, let him help him!”
9-11 And to think you were midwife at my birth,
setting me at my mother’s breasts!
When I left the womb you cradled me;
since the moment of birth you’ve been my God.
Then you moved far away
and trouble moved in next door.
I need a neighbor.
12-13 Herds of bulls come at me,
the raging bulls stampede,
Horns lowered, nostrils flaring,
like a herd of buffalo on the move.
14-15 I’m a bucket kicked over and spilled,
every joint in my body has been pulled apart.
My heart is a blob
of melted wax in my gut.
I’m dry as a bone,
my tongue black and swollen.
They have laid me out for burial
in the dirt.
16-18 Now packs of wild dogs come at me;
thugs gang up on me.
They pin me down hand and foot,
and lock me in a cage—a bag
Of bones in a cage, stared at
by every passerby.
They take my wallet and the shirt off my back,
and then throw dice for my clothes.
19-21 You, God—don’t put off my rescue!
Hurry and help me!
Don’t let them cut my throat;
don’t let those mongrels devour me.
If you don’t show up soon,
I’m done for—gored by the bulls,
meat for the lions.
22-24 Here’s the story I’ll tell my friends when they come to worship,
and punctuate it with Hallelujahs:
Shout Hallelujah, you God-worshipers;
give glory, you sons of Jacob;
adore him, you daughters of Israel.
He has never let you down,
never looked the other way
when you were being kicked around.
He has never wandered off to do his own thing;
he has been right there, listening.
25-26 Here in this great gathering for worship
I have discovered this praise-life.
And I’ll do what I promised right here
in front of the God-worshipers.
Down-and-outers sit at God’s table
and eat their fill.
Everyone on the hunt for God
is here, praising him.
“Live it up, from head to toe.
Don’t ever quit!”
27-28 From the four corners of the earth
people are coming to their senses,
are running back to God.
are falling on their faces before him.
God has taken charge;
from now on he has the last word.
29 All the power-mongers are before him
All the poor and powerless, too
Along with those who never got it together
30-31 Our children and their children
will get in on this
As the word is passed along
from parent to child.
Babies not yet conceived
will hear the good news--
that God does what he says.
Lamentations 1:1-7 (NRSV)
How lonely sits the city
that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces
has become a vassal.
2 She weeps bitterly in the night,
with tears on her cheeks;
among all her lovers
she has no one to comfort her;
all her friends have dealt treacherously with her,
they have become her enemies.
3 Judah has gone into exile with suffering
and hard servitude;
she lives now among the nations,
and finds no resting place;
her pursuers have all overtaken her
in the midst of her distress.
4 The roads to Zion mourn,
for no one comes to the festivals;
all her gates are desolate,
her priests groan;
her young girls grieve,
and her lot is bitter.
5 Her foes have become the masters,
her enemies prosper,
because the Lord has made her suffer
for the multitude of her transgressions;
her children have gone away,
captives before the foe.
6 From daughter Zion has departed
all her majesty.
Her princes have become like stags
that find no pasture;
they fled without strength
before the pursuer.
7 Jerusalem remembers,
in the days of her affliction and wandering,
all the precious things
that were hers in days of old.
When her people fell into the hand of the foe,
and there was no one to help her,
the foe looked on mocking
over her downfall.
*Hymn - I Want Jesus to Walk with Me (UMH 521)
What breaks your heart? What are the deep burdens that you carry - the places where maybe you and God have had a screaming match or two, the wounds that never quite seem to heal, the places where you feel raw right down to your core?
This week, we’re working with Prayers of Lament - those prayers where we cry out to God and share the places where we are aware of the pain and suffering and doubt that resides in our hearts and out in the world.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains; it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
God shouts in our pains to rouse a deaf world.
I believe that it is in our prayers of lament that we are moved to be our fullest, most honest selves before God - to express the anger, hurt, anguish, betrayal, anxiety, bewilderment, pain, doubt, and suffering we feel -- perhaps even directing that anger directly at God. It is the place we mourn and grieve what once was and is no more - taking note of our losses and sadness and aches and frustrations and hurt. It is the place we cry to God, “Why God, oh why is my life this way? Why is the world this way?”
This rich tradition of lament within the Hebrew scriptures I believe has been lost to the church - a church that so often pushes a life and faith that has it all together, that is always joyful and reassuring, that rationalizes tragedy and suffering in the scheme of some larger “plan” that we humans haven’t been clued in on.
I often hear from people - both those who come to worship regularly and those who never come - as to why they chose not to come some particular Sunday or why they feel like they can’t come at all - and most often the reason given for their absence (aside from just falling out of the habit) is because they feel like they were too much of a mess to be there that day - that they were too sad or upset about something, or because they felt like they had to have their life perfectly in order before coming, or they were having a bad day, or a whole host of other reasons that all point to the fact that they felt like there was no space for them in the church for them to be fully themselves, with all their faults, failings, and messes -- that somehow, it wasn’t acceptable to bring that part of them into the building or even bring it before God. I think it’s because we’ve been taught to put on our Sunday best - not just our nice clothes, but our nice selves - checking our hurt and pain and anger at the door - and the church has not done a good job of giving permission for the full range of human expression and emotion..
Reading these psalms of lament - like Psalm 22 - or the book of Lamentations - remind us that our hurt and anger and frustration - at God, at the world, even at one another - have a place in the life of any worshipping community, and certainly a place in our own life of faith.
Our reading from Lamentations points to the heart of the Israelites’ experience of lament. The book was written after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BCE - a defining event for God’s people. The land that they had understood had been given to them by God had been taken from them. Their holy city - the place they understood God to reside - was destroyed. People had been killed as the Babylonians laid siege to the city for 18 months and after the fall, many had been taken captive and ripped away from their homeland. Their whole sense of identity had been taken away from them - all meaning stripped away in the loss of the Davidic monarchy, the temple, their holy city, the promised land. All gone. And so this piece of survivor’s literature turns to poetry in an attempt to give voice to the depth of their suffering.
What we read about in Lamentations is a corporate experience of lament - a people mourning what has passed away, grieving what is lost and naming their honest and raw pain. Our psalm is a much more personal expression of suffering and despair - crying out his feeling of abandonment by God and the misery of his current circumstances, a very visceral description of his state -- “I’m a bucket kicked over and spilled, every joint in my body has been pulled apart. My heart is a blob of melted wax in my gut. I’m dry as a bone, my tongue black and swollen. They have laid me out for burial in the dirt.” --- Anyone ever felt like that? Anyone ever named that before God in prayer?
Yet we don’t often do words like this in church, do we?
And yet, church - in the presence of God and our community of faith - is precisely the place to deal with our hurt and pain and suffering. The Israelites understood this -- they took their frustrations, anger, doubts and addressed them directly to God. In the facing of life fully, they name reality and wrestle with it before God. Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament scholar and preacher, writes, “Nowhere but with God does Israel vent its greatest doubt, its bitterest resentments, its deepest anger. Israel nows that one need not fake it or be polite and pretend in the divine presence, nor need one face the hurts alone. I the dialogue, Israel expects to understand what is happening and even to have it changed.”
Brueggemann continues on to say, in reference to the church, “If we are dialogic at all, we think it must be polite and positive and filled only with gratitude. So little do our liturgies bring to expression our anger and hatred, our sense of betrayal and absurdity. But even more acutely, with our failure of nerve and our refusal to presume upon our partner in dialogue, we are seduced into nondialogic forms of faith, as though we were the only ones there; and so we settle for meditation and reflection or bootstrap operations of resolve to alter our situation.”
Lament takes seriously the relationship we have with God - all aspects of it - and demands that we are our full selves before God - and that worship is the place where we can bring our fears and hurts, our challenges and struggle - and work them out with God in and among a community of others that are doing the same.
The point of laments isn’t that we are venting our hurt and anger - but that we are doing so in conversation with God - that God takes note of our condition - that God pays attention to our wrestling and struggling - and moreover, that God cares about us and suffers with us.
That is the beautiful thing about laments - that in our suffering, we have a God who suffers with us - who came to be with us as one of us in Jesus and in Jesus experienced pain and suffering, even feeling abandoned by God on the cross. We have a God who knows our hurt and sorrows and anger, our faults and failings and frustrations, and continues to surround us in love. We have a God who is not driven away by these things - by our sin or our lack of faithfulness or our woundedness - but draws ever closer to us, who shouts to remind us of how close God is to us in these places.
We don’t have a God who offers to us a quick fix, or an explanation of why bad things happen - but we have a God who enters in to dialogue and community with us to share our pain and frustrations. It out of this place of dialogue and relationship, of acknowledging the God who bears with us in our suffering, that so many of the psalms of lament end in this place of finding comfort and relief in God - of authentic and real gratitude and thanksgiving - praise that is all the more real and genuine because of the pain that has been carried and witnessed.
That’s why in worship, we need the space for lament - we have a God who suffers with us….and we are invited into each other’s brokenness and suffering. It is why precisely when we feel like we are a mess that we need to be in worship - to be our full selves, to voice - either aloud or in our hearts - the wounds we bear - to the God who bears those wounds with us...and who was wounded so that we might be brought to wholeness. It is in those places of pain where God speaks to us and moves us to attend to the needs of one another.
I invite us - as we continue to prepare ourselves during this season of lent - to consider what it would mean for us as a church to be that space for one another - a church where we could be free to bring all of who we are into worship - the places of authentic joy and celebration, the places of honest grief and lament - a community that felt free to pour our hearts out to God in anger and longing before one another - knowing that as we did so, we were putting everything into the hands of the God who loves us, who listens to us, who suffers with us, and who will never leave us.
May we step into that kind of richer, fuller faith together - trusting in the God who is big enough for our anger, who is always in community with us, who will never leave or forsake us. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and two year old son, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.