Psalms of Lament – Psalm 88

As I was preparing for this sermon and this short series over the next three weeks on the psalms of lament, a song by the Christian musician, Ken Medema, kept coming back to me.

If this is not a place where tears are understood,
where can I go to cry?
If this is not a place where my spirit can take wing,
where can I go to fly?

I don’t need another place for trying to impress you
with just how good and virtuous I am.
I don’t need another place for always being on top of things,
ev’rybody knows that it’s a sham.
I don’t need another place for always wearing smiles,
even when it’s not the way I feel.
I don’t need another place to mouth the same old platitudes
‘Cause you and I both know that it’s not real.

If this is not a place where my questions can be asked
where can I go to seek?
If this is not a place where my heart cries can be heard
where can I go to speak?

This, for me, is why we need the psalms of lament; to offer us a place where we can lament; where we can cry, where we can question, where we can rage and where we can do all of this in relationship, in dialogue with God, even when things seem so dark and desperate, as in our psalm this morning, that we feel that God is not listening. Verse fourteen; “O Lord, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me?”

And yet, within the church there is a reluctance to allow space for lament. The Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann comments that although roughly one third of the psalms are psalms of lament, only appears in the common lectionary – Psalm 22, the words Jesus quotes on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – which is hard to avoid. Lament is treated with suspicion. It does not sit easily with the Christian story of victory over sin and evil and death. To acknowledge that pain and loss is disorientating, that it turns us around and upside down, that it makes us lose our faith bearings is regarded as a dangerous admission, an admission of doubt or of unfaith. And yet in doing so we rob the church, we rob ourselves, of a way of processing what it is to be human in the light of faith.

My most stark experience of this was at university when my second cousin, Alison, who was also at uni with me, but who moved in different circles – she was more involved with EU (the Evangelical Union) than I was – was killed one morning in a car accident. At her funeral speaker after speaker reframed her death as a victory; that Alison was now with God, that this was part of God’s plan, a witness to all of us to know Jesus as our Saviour too. The minister even issued an alter call. “If you want to see Alison again, come and speak to me now at the left-hand exit. Otherwise, use the right.” The right was very crowded.

Looking back, I can understand why people said what they said. They desperately wanted to offer her parents, her family, some consolation, some rationale for what had happened. But the one speaker who stood out was Alison’s best friend who simply listed all the things she and Alison had hoped to do together – talk about their boyfriends, get engaged, be bridesmaids at each other’s weddings, get jobs, have children – and said how terribly sad she was that none of this would every happen. She was the one, who for me, voiced a lament for Alison, who honestly acknowledged the enormity of what had been lost.

It is confronting to be faced by lament; to hear the words of the Psalmist saying, not once, but three times in this psalm, “O Lord, I cry out to you…” and to hear no answer, no resolution of the psalmist’s anguish. It is confronting to be faced by the wild and ragged language that the psalmist uses, “I am like those who go down to the Pit… like those forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom you remember no more, [like those] cut off from your hand.” It is confronting to have a psalm that does not end with any comfort or any hope or any light, but in darkness.

But sometimes our experience of life is like this and what is required of us, as people of faith, is to engage with life as it is. Brueggemann writes, “[Lament – rather than being an act of unfaith] is an act of bold faith….because it insists that the world must be experienced as it really is and not in some pretended way.” But, taking this path, insisting that the world must be experienced as it is, wrestling with that incoherence and waiting in the dark night of that experience, leads to a transformed faith; a faith in a God who, Brueggemann writes, “is present in, participating in and attentive to the darkness, weakness and displacement of life.” A God “of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” A God more defined by fidelity than immutability.

Daniel Hans is an American Presbyterian minister who published a book of the sermons he preached during the year and in the months after his three-year-old daughter Laura died of cancer, after four surgeries and nine months of treatment. One of these sermons is titled: ‘Caution. Your God is Too Big’ and in it he relates how he once surveyed his congregation, asking them about their disappointments with God. He asked them to share things that they had hoped God would do, that God didn’t do and people described times they had prayed for the life of a newborn baby only to see it die, or for God to protect his people only to hear of an elderly woman in their city stabbed on her way to church, or for rain for famine stricken Africa only to see starvation continue. To these disappointments Hans now added his own – he had hoped God would heal his baby girl, but her condition only grew worse.

What Hans suggests, and what the psalms of lament relate, is that disappointments like this are not the result of sin in our lives, but the stuff of life; that when we read Scripture we discover that alongside the stories of miracles and amazing feats of God there is story after story of disappointment with God, of times when God appears silent and inactive. What Hans told his congregation was that sometimes we remember only the miracle stories and we develop too big a view of God – not that we can have too big a view of God’s greatness and power or too big a view of God’s love and grace – but that we can have too big a view of God’s will. God’s action in our world is not always to perform the miraculous, but, more often, to walk through our suffering with us.

Secondly the psalms of lament tell us that there is no subject, nothing, that we cannot say to God. The language of the psalms of lament, Brueggemann says, is not “polite and civil”. In praying the psalms of lament, we “think unthinkable thoughts and utter unutterable words.”

Saying whatever we need to say to God is not an expression of a lack of faith, of unfaith, but another expression of a bold faith that demands an intimacy with God. Brueggemann writes, “What is said to Yahweh may be scandalous and without redeeming social value, but these speakers are completely committed, and whatever must be said about the human situation must be said directly to Yahweh, who is Lord of the human experience and partner with us in it.”

Even this psalm, Psalm 88, where the psalmist rails against a God who is accused of not listening, of deliberately casting him away, or inflicting the suffering on him that he experiences, of abandoning him, is still addressed to God! The psalmist is still expressing a relationship with God, demanding a relationship with God and so this is still an expression of faith, a bold faith, that speaks to us and for us in the moments of our utter darkness as well.

Daniel Hans tells another story in his book of French nationals who were hiding a family of Jews in their basement during the war. What happened to them is not known, but at the end of the war these words were found scribbled on the wall of that basement:

“I believe in the sun even when it does not shine.
I believe in love even when it is not given.
I believe in God even when he is silent.”

The psalms of lament give us a voice to express the reality of our experience, to find our way to a different faith, a different relationship with God and give us the confidence to keep demanding that relationship with God through all that we experience.

The final verse of the song we sang at the beginning, ‘Be still and know that I am God’, is ‘In you, O Lord, will I put my trust.’ Can I invite you now, as an expression of your bold faith, to say with me three times those words this morning?

In you, O Lord, will I put my trust.

In you, O Lord, will I put my trust.

In you, O Lord, will I put my trust.