Leaning Into Our Lament
Friends, Fred and I had a wonderful time time at SOULfeast. We walked, prayed, worshiped, attended thoughtful sessions on cultivating spirituality and practices, and–our souls were fed!
Last week, I had the honor of serving as the Monday night preacher, which meant that I was tasked with wrestling the Psalms of Lament. Instead, they wrestled me–but I was left blessed, touched, renewed.
Please see below for the sermon text. Then, share your experiences on suffering below. Do you use the Psalms when you are in despair? What other spiritual tools have you discovered along your journey?
Leaning Into Our Lament
Psalm 22:1-11; 19-24 and Mark 15:33-39
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
The opening words of Psalm 22 are familiar to us. This Old Testament text outlines the Suffering Psalmist’s individual prayer of lament—one in which he describes his anguish and begs for God to rescue him. Echoed in both the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, Psalm 22 is the primal outcry of human suffering from one who experiences God as distant. Absent. Silent.
In tough times, this is my Psalm and your Psalm—and it is also the Psalm of Jesus Christ on the cross.
Tonight, I want us to hold three worlds in tension: first, the world of ancient Israel–the context in which Psalm 22 was written, second, the Roman world in which Jesus was crucified, and third, our world as modern Christians.
World One: Ancient Israel
In exploring the world of ancient Israel, we learn from Patrick Miller, author of Interpreting the Psalms, that Psalm 22 is “a lament Psalm par excellence.” It is the gold standard of petition—showing us how to pray from the depths of despair. But such a prayer is foreign to us, the modern Church. But, for the Israelite community, the frequent use of Psalm 22 is “a bold act of faith.”
Wouldn’t most of us consider it an act of doubt? Weakness? Distrust? Is it not a naming of raw abandonment and blame toward the One who has abandoned you?
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
But the Israelites considered the Psalms of Lament to be an act of relationship, not distrust. Their community insisted that “experiences of disorder are a proper subject for discourse with God.” In all things—good or bad—one must turn to God.
But, do we really do that?
? Do we actually think God will be attentive to our prayers? Or do we hedge our bets, stuffing our pain with vices and addictions to busy lives?
My sense is that our modern world is so fast-paced and jam-packed that it interferes with such raw conversations with God.
World Two: Jesus’ World (Exegesis of Mark 15:34)
In Mark, Chapter 15, verse 34, we find ourselves at the Place of the Skull, where a crucified Jesus cries out from the cross:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
Jesus’ words echo the first verse of Psalm 22, a prayer with which Jesus and his contemporaries would have been very familiar. Because the Psalms were a common liturgical tool of the Jewish people, often the first line of a Psalm was recited to represent the entire meaning of the prayer.
But, some scholars debate as to whether Jesus’ use of the first line of Psalm 22 was meant to signify the trajectory of the Lament Psalm—which moves from petition to deliverance—or if it were simply an isolated cry of abandonment. In citing this Psalm, did Jesus want to imply that his suffering would have a resolution? Or, was he simply weak, weary, and tired in the face of distress?
But, numerous verses of Psalm 22 are used in the Gospels by way of quotation, allusion, influence, or reference to the events surrounding Christ’s death—and so we cannot deny that Jesus’ crucifixion experience mirrors the narrative of the Suffering Psalmist. This is an important theological connection, because the juxtaposition of these two texts helps us see the “deeper meaning of the incarnation and God’s identification with all those who suffer and cry out to God.”
In Psalm 22, the poet pours out his lament, but he does not dwell there. In the Gospels, Jesus suffers on the cross, but he does not remain there.
World Three: Our Modern Church
Our religion’s history teaches us that the use of these Psalms was commonplace in the ancient world, so,
In her bestselling memoir on death, Joan Didion, author of The Year of Magical Thinking, names the cultural shift that changed the way we suffer.
Didion points to Emily Post’s 1922 Book of Etiquette, where public and private lament “was still allowed and not hidden from view.”
But, that all changed after the depression, when, in 1930, according to social anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer, public and private suffering were replaced with “an ethical duty to enjoy oneself and an imperative to do nothing which might diminish the enjoyment of others.”
And so, in an effort to be polite, we as a people and as a Church, threw out the baby with the bath water. We have become so accustomed to saying “I’m fine,” that we’ve sacrificed one of the most valuable spiritual tools of our religious history.
Theologian Walter Brueggeman puts it so eloquently:
“It’s no wonder the Church has intuitively avoided these Psalms. They lead us into the dangerous acknowledgment of how life really is. They lead us into the presence of God where everything is not polite and civil.” (The Message of the Psalms)
But, the Israelites believed that “what was said to God may have been scandalous and without redeeming social value, but [they] were completely committed to the fact that whatever must be said about the human situation must be said [loudly and] directly to God, who is Lord of the human experience and partner in it.”
And, lest we imagine that the Israelites complained from dawn til dusk, the Psalms of Petition follow a movement we don’t expect: a heartfelt journey from dissonance to hope, from plea to praise. It is a rhythm of prayer from the one who is afflicted, but also the expression of faith in God’s rescue of the afflicted.
But, today, today, we believe that enough education, hard work, money, power, and self-help books will tame our suffering.
However, our honest experience attests to the resilience of suffering, in spite of all we do to crush it. The remarkable thing that we can learn from the ancient Israelities and from Jesus—was that they did not banish or deny suffering from its religious context. They considered it a “bold act of faith” to bring one’s petitions before God. They trusted God—and they allowed the very act of lament itself to help them embrace suffering as the stuff of new life.”
Three Worlds in Tension: Angel of Grief
The Angel of Grief, is a well-known statue by William Wetmore Story, an American sculptor who studied and lived in Rome.
The sculpture depicts a large angel with huge wings weeping over a tombstone, her head down, resting on her arm. Her face is not visible to us, as if to say us, “I cannot face this.”
Since its creation, the piece has been used widely to reflect lament as it applies to the death of Jesus. The Angel of Grief is symbolic for Holy Saturday, the day after Jesus’ crucifixion and the day before his resurrection.
The angel—head down, bent-over, and weeping—does well to represent our desperate times of transition—when we are grieving loved ones, moving through a divorce, caring for the ill, or in or shock over a sudden trauma. We doubt we will survive. We question, we wonder: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
The truth is, modern folks are not good at Holy Saturdays and Lament. We are too quick to offer ourselves and others unhelpful theology to “move on—the quicker, the better.” We say without thinking: “When God closes a door, He opens a window.”
But, as a preacher friend of mine who struggles with infertility recently told me: “Sure, there’s a closed door and an open window somewhere, but they are likely in two different rooms and there is a dark, dark hallway in between.”
Living Lament: Embracing the Psalms
Even though suffering is not lost on the Body of Christ, we wrestle with these unglamorous texts. None of us are beating down the doors to add Lamentations and Ecclesiastes to our nightstands. “Can’t we talk about something more pleasant?” we ask.
But there is a place for lament in our worshiping community.
In his gut-wrenching memoir, Stations of the Heart, Duke Divinity School Professor of Homiletics Richard Lischer writes about his son Adam’s last months with terminal cancer. Lischer describes how our medical culture of hope, chemo, and appeasing suffering stands in sharp contrast to the petitions of the Israelite community.
“What must not under any circumstances be uttered in the clinic [should] be shouted from the rooftop of any church, or candle lit bedroom, even if it is a prayer addressed to the very One who has abandoned you:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” —Stations of the Heart
Emmanuel: God with Us
Our communal sin is that we are too quick to brush away lament—our own and others—so much so that we’ve neglected to see the transformation that occurs in the slow trajectory that both the Psalmist and Christ teach us: yes, we will suffer, we will feel forsaken, but we should turn to God, who is present in our suffering, and whose mercies are new each morning (Lamentations 3:23).
We will not stay in the hallway forever; but while we are there, it’s a bold act of faith to turn to God.
For Christians, Jesus Christ is Emmanuel: God with us. Jesus is God who puts on skin in order to move among us—and minister to the marginalized, heal the sick, and deliver the suffering. God experiences creation’s suffering through the incarnation of Jesus.
The next time you find yourself in the midst of deep, bone-aching suffering, lean into your lament. Open your Bible to Psalm 22. Read the words aloud—let them pour over you. Shout them if you’d like. Allow your suffering to be intertwined with the words of the Psalmist’s and those of Christ.
When you do this, something mysterious happens. You may not feel it at first, but is the gift of the Holy Spirit—God’s presence amid our suffering. Amen.
Friends, do you turn to God when you are suffering? Are the Psalms of Lament a tool you use in your spiritual toolbox? What other tools do you use? Share your experiences below. Your story may help someone find their way through suffering.
Also, I hope you will share this sermon with anyone who is struggling with the lost of a relationship or loved one–and/or anyone who is suffering through an illness or caring for someone who is struggling. I’m hopeful they will a similar strand of permission that I found in researching this sermon.
May we all lean into our lament.
- Dahood, Mitchell. Anchor Bible Commentary on Psalms 1-50; Psalm 22, 1966, page 138
- Miller, Patrick D. Interpreting the Psalms. Fortress Press, 1986, pages 108-11.
- Brueggeman, Walter. The Message of the Psalms. Augsburg Publishing House, 1984, pages 52-52.
- Didion, Joan. The Year of Magical Thinking, Knopf, 2005, page 60.
- Jarrell, Maggie. Art in the Christian Tradition, Vanderbilt Divinity Library Collection
- Lischer, Richard. Stations of the Heart, Knopf, 2013, page 121.