In the wake of yet another mass shooting in the U.S. on Wednesday night—which was also an act of racism—I suspect many of us have found ourselves at a loss for words. Scripture’s language of lament can come to our aid in the aftermath of violence and tragedy. Of course, the Psalmists who turned their pain and puzzlement into prayers did not see lament as a panacea for all the world’s evils. Even if God were to vanquish all of David’s enemies on the spot, he knew he still had the sin of his own heart to contend with.
Psalms and prayers of lament do, however, help the one praying make the important move of deliberately entering God’s presence in a state of deep pain, confusion, frustration, exhaustion, and exasperation. If you are tired of praying, “How long?” and “Why?” and “Please come to our aid quickly, O Lord!”, I wonder whether the Psalm writers might simply advise us to redouble our efforts and pray those same prayers once more.
Psalm 74 says, in part:
How long will the enemy mock you, God?
Will the foe revile your name forever?
Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand?
Take it from the folds of your garment and destroy them!
But God is my King from long ago;
he brings salvation on the earth.
Psalms of lament—with a couple noteworthy exceptions—end with an affirmation that God is still King, and his ability to bring salvation cannot be compromised. I’ve often imagined that when the authors of such Psalms came to the reaffirmation section of their laments, they wrote with trembling hand, watering eyes, and a fast-beating heart that clung desperately—hope against hope—to the truth of God’s sovereignty.
Now is the time to pray such laments—especially on behalf of others and the injustice and pain they undergo. Though all life is valuable and the taking of another life is tragic in any setting, the victims at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston were brothers and sisters in Christ, bonding together in prayer in their final moments of life on earth.
Their prayer and study of the Word of God is now transformed into something more than they could have imagined, as they meet the One who is called the Word, face to face, in all his glory.
But there’s more to respond to—the shooter appears to have been a white supremacist who targeted his victims specifically because they were African Americans. It’s stupefying how people of color in our country continue to be targeted. Our prayers and support are needed.
I know it can feel like “it’s getting old” to make lamentations, and we can get tired of praying the same prayers (over and over) for justice and healing around issues of racism and hatred in all its forms. But battle after battle, injustice after injustice, threat after threat, that’s what the Psalmists did. They kept turning their pain to prayer—kept bringing complaints about injustice into the presence of God.
Let’s not lose heart in praying that God’s kingdom would come, in all its fullness.
The above is adapted from what I wrote to our congregation this morning: a call at a time when words fall short to engage the lament language of Scripture.