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"How long, O Lord." Familiar words from the beginning of the 13th Psalm, one of those marvelous bits of biblical insight we have come to call the "Psalms of Lament."(1) For what it's worth, almost half of the Psalms fall into this category.
For that matter, laments are found, not only in the Book of Psalms, but are part and parcel of the biblical witness - humanity cries out, God responds. As you know, there is even one Old Testament book called Lamentations. The ancient writers regularly expressed their deepest feelings - words of praise at times; at others, there were heartfelt questions: "Why, God, Why?"
If you look at them carefully, you will see a pattern:
Verse 2: "How long must I wrestle with my thoughts," asks the young man who was victimized by a pedophile 20 years ago and even now is unable to trust anyone to love him. "And every day have sorrow in my heart?" asks the mother in Harlem who has lost two sons in the never-ending drug wars. "How long will my enemy triumph over me?" asks the young Palestinian who is the third generation to be forced to live in a refugee camp despite this being the land of his ancestors for a hundred generations.
Verse 3: "Look on me and answer, O Lord my God!" says the union negotiator who is looking for a fair bargain but only sees a management that does not care for anything but its own inflated paycheck. "Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death," says the management negotiator who only sees a union so intent on its own agenda that it is willing to risk the collapse of the company in its intransigence. "Lord, this is KILLING me!"
Verse 4: "My enemy will say, 'I have overcome him,' and my foes will rejoice when I fall." The anguished cry of the Israeli mother mourning her children lost in the blast of a Tel Aviv suicide bomber. The sounds of lament come from everywhere.
Now we come to verses 5 and 6 and suddenly, a change. We hear, "But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, for he has been good to me."
Here is that shift we spoke of earlier. Read it this way: "My enemy will say, 'I have overcome him' and my foes will rejoice when I fall." SIGH! "But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, for he has been good to me." In between verses 4 and 5, something changes. It is the arrival of hope that is born of memory. Yes, things are AWFUL, but I can remember a time when they were NOT awful, when God's care for me was much more evident, and I am convinced that such a day will come again.
It seems to me that the church, when it is at it's best, lives it's life between verses 4 and 5. We hear that deep SIGH when words cannot come. We hear the laments from both within and without as people feel free and safe to speak to their anguish. All by itself, that listening ear helps the healing process because, as psychotherapy has taught us, there is catharsis in voicing the pain. Between verses 4 and 5 tears are shed, because when the church is at its best, we rejoice with those who rejoice, but we also weep with those who weep.(4) Between verses 4 and 5 we remember the despair of Good Friday that was answered by the delight of Easter. Between verses 4 and 5, we hear again Tony Campolo's wonderful phrase, "It's Friday, but Sunday's comin'." Between verses 4 and 5 is where the church finds its most meaningful life.
Sad to say, we stiff-upper-lip Presbyterians are awfully good at promoting denial though - we would rather skip verses 1, 2, 3, and 4. "How are you?" "Fine." The expected response even when our heart's cry is "How long, O Lord," and life is going to hell in a handbasket. Not good.
The other night I heard a colleague talk of former parishioners, a husband and wife, both college professors, very active in the church, who suddenly stopped coming. Some time passed and one day, while shopping at the mall, she ran into this couple. "I have missed seeing you at church," she said. They explained that their teenage son had gotten into some terrible trouble with drugs and alcohol and he was taking a great deal of their time and energy. But then they added that lately, instead of the Presbyterian church, they had been worshiping with a Pentecostal congregation because they felt they could be honest there and cry there and no one would mind. In fact, the others would cry with them. THAT was a church that knew how to be a church. They lived between verses 4 and 5.
And now we come to the Lord's Supper. The poet, who is one whose life HAS tumbled in, and wonders whether or not it is safe to give voice to the pain here, asks:
for damaged hearts and scarred souls?
Do you not invite everyone who believes?
Oh God, I believe.(5)
The poet happens to be Ann Weems, a Presbyterian, the wife of a Presbyterian minister even. Her son Todd had been brutally murdered just after his 21st birthday. How does a mother deal with such a devastating blow? Friends tried to help and offer consolation. One was a seminary professor who called to her attention all the biblical material - the laments - that seemed to be saying so much of exactly what she was feeling. Noting her prodigious talent, he encouraged her to put her feelings to paper. The result is a remarkable compilation that not only helped her healing process, it has helped thousands of others as well. The book is called simply Psalms of Lament. My copy says, "To David, Through Tears - With Hope. Ann Weems." Her poetic preface, composed after her work was done, describes "life between verses 4 and 5":
there is a deafening alleluia
rising from the souls
of those who weep,
and of those who weep with those who weep.
If you watch, you will see
the hand of God
putting the stars back in their skies
one by one.(6)
A promise of healing and wholeness. "Through Tears - With Hope." That is the church. That is Life between verses 4 and 5.
1. Psalms 3, 4, 6, 7, 12, 13, 17, 22, 25, 26, 28, 35, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42-43, 44, 51, 54, 55, 56, 57, 59,60, 61, 63, 64, 69, 70, 71, 74, 77, 79, 80, 83, 85, 86, 88, 90, 94, 102, 109, 123, 126, 130, 134, 137, 140, 141, 142, 143, 144.
2. c.f. Psalm 109 or 137
3. From a workshop given by Old Testament scholar, Dr. Walter Brueggemann at Montreat, NC during a conference entitled "Recovering the Language of Lament," 5/30/02
4. Romans 12:15
5. Ann Weems, Psalms of Lament, (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1995), p. 97
6. Ann Weems, p. xvii