“But, Oh Best Beloved, without psalms of lament, we are cut off from our anger or our grief. We give up the opportunity to be honest with God about our emotions. Just as within all intimate relationships, the absence of honesty taints our relationship with God. If we cannot pray the full range of psalm prayer, if our hymns focus only on praise and thanksgiving, if we do not hear honest words of despair and complaint from the psalmists proclaimed in our liturgy and from the pulpit, then the psalms are not functioning as fully for us as they ought.”—Robin White
Wing + Prayer
By The Reverend Robin White
Editor’s Note: This column—sermon, more properly speaking—first appeared in Hubris in January 2019. The Reverend Robin White, who has been with/in Hubris since November of 2018, is just as likely to quote Rachel Held Evans as St. Paul: “This is what God’s kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there’s always room for more.”
PENDLETON South Carolina—(Hubris)—1 March 2023—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” These words of lament from Psalm 22 generally appear in the Good Friday liturgy, though the psalm does come up in the Revised Common Lectionary at other times of the year. The thoughts and feelings that color this or any Lament may be difficult for us to hear, especially in the context of worship. These words of anger and grief challenge us, emotionally, intellectually, and in the context of our faith.
The book of psalms, known as the Psalter, was the hymnbook of “Second Temple Judaism.” The early Christian church was influenced by the norms of synagogue worship, so they, too, read psalms as scripture, prayed psalms as prayers, and sang psalms as hymns. The psalms were used as liturgy, not just as a collection of prayers but, rather, as poetic lessons in how to pray.
From the psalms, we learn that there are many different ways of praying. They teach us how to articulate to God the entire range of human emotions; fear, anger, grief, praise, joy, thanksgiving . . . even despair. Perhaps, especially, despair. The words of the psalmists show us the many facets of God and our relationship to God, whom we experience as both present and, sometimes, apparently absent.
Unfortunately, over the centuries, the church has been rather selective in the use of these liturgies. Psalms of Thanksgiving, Psalms of Praise, Enthronement Psalms, Creation Psalms have all been incorporated into our Christian worship. But despite the fact that more than a third of the psalms comprise outright laments we, as Presbyterians, have relinquished our age-old instinct to complain to God and, instead, have assumed a mask of stoic obedience or resignation in response to God during times of tribulation.
There is a reason Presbyterians are known as “God’s Frozen Chosen!”
But, Oh Best Beloved, without psalms of lament, we are cut off from our anger or our grief. We give up the opportunity to be honest with God about our emotions. Just as within all intimate relationships, the absence of honesty taints our relationship with God. If we cannot pray the full range of psalm prayer, if our hymns focus only on praise and thanksgiving, if we do not hear honest words of despair and complaint from the psalmists proclaimed in our liturgy and from the pulpit, then the psalms are not functioning as fully for us as they ought.
Psalms of lament serve as a valuable resource for healing and wholeness in a broken world. The structure of the lament itself shows us how lamentation may embody a legitimate complaint-in-faith to God and lead us through darkness to begin healing.
When we read through Psalm 22, we can clearly see the structure of this prayer, this poem.
This first part of the Lament framework is The Address: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” The psalmist’s salutation is short, but emotionally packed.
Next, comes The Complaint, itself, an articulation of the suffering, a naming of “the enemies” and the assertion that God does not care.
Then comes The Petition, which is a call for God to be present . . . to comfort; to rescue.
A fourth element of the Lament is The Motivation or The Incentive, which often includes a confession of sin; a declaration of innocence.
Finally, the psalmist closes with The Declaration of Trust, usually introduced by the words “but” or “yet.” Listen to the beauty of this turn in Psalm 22: “Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast. From birth I was cast on you from my mother’s womb you have been my God.”
This powerful acknowledgement of the psalmist’s trust points to the final component of the lament structure, which is The Vow of Praise. The psalmist avows, “In the midst of the assembly I will praise you.”
What we find reflected in the structure of the psalm is that the lament does not merely bemoan the experienced tribulation, but rather seeks change. The Psalmist describes the hardship, often in very vivid, metaphorical, and provocative language, then interprets the distress and, finally, makes an appeal to God, based on the interpretation. The lamenter’s intention is to motivate God’s intervention.
Even Jesus, according to both Matthew and Mark, lamented to God, praying the words from Psalm 22. Tortured, surrounded by the darkness, taunted, even by those who have been crucified with him, Jesus gasps for each breath as he slowly suffocates. In the midst of such horror, he cries out the lament: “Eloi, Eloi. Lema sabach thani?” My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
Jesus, in those hopeless final hours, feels completely alone, abandoned by God. With the psalmist, and with us, he embodies the universal cry of humanity, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” It is what we cry out when a child dies. It is our cry when a loved one suffers a debilitating illness and we are unable to share anything of what we have shared in the past. It is our cry when we hear of another mass shooting, or see children ripped from their parents’ arms and locked in “tender-age-shelters”– concentration camps, by any other name. It is our universal human cry when we see the rollback of environmental regulations and, every year, watch as climate change wreaks more and more havoc; fires, epic storms, and earthquakes wiping out entire communities. It is our cry when we see victims of horrific crimes; vulnerable and yet courageous, mocked, laughed at, ignored.
It is our cry of despair: “Why have you forsaken us, O God?”
There is freedom in knowing that the people of God, down through the ages, have experienced and been willing to express to God such feelings. It is freeing to know that God, in Jesus, shared in the the same experience. We don’t need to feel guilty about that sense of despair, about that sense of being forsaken by God. At our most hurt, at our most lonely, at our most frightened, at our most forsaken by God, we are not alone. Nothing we can think or feel or say in that anguished state can shock God.
Scripture reassures us: nothing can ever make God turn away from us.
There is a scene in Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved, set in rural Ohio, years after the Civil War, where an unaffiliated, preacher, “Baby Suggs,” loved and respected by her community, calls her flock to congregational worship. It is one of the most beautiful and authentic images of honest and meaningful worship, I have ever encountered, in art or life.
“When warm weather came, Baby Suggs, holy, followed by every black man, woman, and child who could make it through, took her great heart to the Clearing—a wide-open place cut deep in the woods nobody knew for what at the end of the path known only to deer and whoever cleared the land in the first place. In the heat of every Saturday afternoon, she sat in the clearing while the people waited among the trees.
“After situating herself on a huge flat-sided rock, Baby Suggs bowed her head and prayed silently. The company watched her from the trees. They knew she was ready when she put her stick down. Then she shouted, ‘Let the children come!’ and they ran from the trees toward her.
“‘Let your mothers hear you laugh,’ she told them, and the woods rang. The adults looked on and could not help smiling.
“Then ‘Let the grown men come,’ she shouted. They stepped out one by one from among the ringing trees.
“‘Let your wives and your children see you dance,’ she told them, and groundlife shuddered under their feet.
“Finally she called the women to her. ‘Cry,’ she told them. ‘For the living and the dead. Just cry.’ And without covering their eyes the women let loose.
“It started that way: laughing children, dancing men, crying women and then it got mixed up. Women stopped crying and danced; men sat down and cried; children danced, women laughed, children cried until, exhausted and riven, all and each lay about the Clearing damp and gasping for breath. In the silence that followed, Baby Suggs, holy, offered up to them her great big heart.
“She did not tell them to clean up their lives or go and sin no more. She did not tell them they were the blessed of the earth, its inheriting meek or its glorybound pure.
“She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it.
“‘Here,’ she said, ‘in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard . . .’”
Living in the presence of the holy and living God means plunging into the raw emotions of our humanity. Being in whole and healing relationship with God means offering all of ourselves, our praise, our gratitude, and our pain and anger, trusting in a God who loves us an embraces us with grace . . . even when we feel forsaken.
In her book, Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott tells the story of Ken, a young man in her church who was dying of AIDS. Shortly after he starting attending worship, his beloved partner died of the disease. A few weeks later, he told members of the congregation that Jesus had slid into the hole in his heart that the death of his partner had left.
“There’s a woman in the choir name Ranola who is large and beautiful and jovial and black and devout as can be, who has been a little standoffish toward Ken. She has always looked at him with confusion, when she looks at him at all. Or she looks at him sideways, as if she wouldn’t have to quite see him if she didn’t look at him head on . . . I think she and a few other women at church are afraid of catching the disease. But Kenny has come to church almost every week for the last year and won most everyone over. He finally missed a couple of Sundays when he got too weak, and then a month ago was back, weighing almost no pounds, his face lopsided, as if he’d had a stroke. Still, during the prayers of the people, he talked joyously of his life and his decline, of grace and redemption, of how safe and happy he feels these days.
“Soon this one particular Sunday, for the first hymn, we sang ‘Jacob’s Ladder,’ which goes, ‘Every rung goes higher, higher,’ while ironically Kenny couldn’t even stand up. But he sang away sitting down, with the hymnal in his lap. And then when it came time for the second hymn, we were to sing ‘His Eye is on the Sparrow.’ The pianist was playing and the whole congregation had risen, — only Ken remained seated, holding the hymnal in his lap and we began to sing ‘Why should I feel discouraged. Why do the shadows fall?’ And Ranola watched Ken rather skeptically for a moment, and then her face began to melt and contort like his, and she went to his side and bent down to lift him up–lifted up this rag doll, this scarecrow. She held him next to her, draped over and against her like child while they sang. Then both Ken and Ranola began to cry. Tears were pouring down their faces, and their noses were running like rivers, but as she held him up, she suddenly lay her black weeping face right up against his and let all those spooky fluids mingle with hers.”
When we have the courage to worship with all our emotions, to lay ourselves bare before God– reckless, daring, careless, praising, trusting, weeping, complaining, and raging–then, we enter into a honest and organic relationship with the very real, present, and holy God who embraces us, lifts us up, holds us up, with tears mingling with our tears. And we are made whole.