Psalms of Lament (for “Scalding Tears”)

Psalms of Lament

Psalms of Lament is a heartbreakingly beautiful collection of poetry. Weems alarmingly yet assuringly gets right down to business in her Preface:

This book is not for everyone. It is for those who weep and for those who weep with those who weep. It is for those whose souls struggle with the dailiness of faithkeeping in the midst of life’s assaults and obscenities. This book is for those who are living with scalding tears running down their cheeks.

Her Psalms are for those whose experiences are “painful, too painful for any of us to try fitting our souls into ten correct steps of grieving.” They come from experience: Weems unexpectedly lost her son (“the stars fell from my sky”) just after his 21st birthday.

Drawing on the great biblical lament tradition, Weems writes lament psalms of her own. David’s familiar structure of

“How can you leave me like this, God?”–>”Yet I will trust you”

is on display throughout the collection. As personal as Weems’s psalms are, like David’s and Jeremiah’s laments, they are universal and could be prayed by anyone who is lamenting.

If you read with an open heart, Weems’s laments can evoke tears at nearly every line. And it’s a profound Godward lament in which she engages: “Anger and alleluias careen around within me, sometimes colliding.” There’s no bitterness here, but neither is there a naïve attempt to placate reality (as if we could!) with boring pseudo-truths like, “Everything happens for a reason,” or, “God took her away because he needed her for his heavenly choir.” Here is Lament Psalm Twelve, one of the starker and more personal psalms, in its entirety:

O God, what am I going to do?
He’s gone–and I’m left
with an empty pit in my life.
I can’t think.
I can’t work.
I can’t eat.
I can’t talk.
I can’t see anyone.
I can’t leave my house.
Nothing makes any sense.
Nothing seems worth doing.

How could you have allowed this to happen?
I thought you protected your own!
You are the power:
Why didn’t you use it?
You are the glory,
but there was no glory in his death.
You are justice and mercy,
yet there was no justice, no mercy for him.
In his death there is no justice for me.

O God, what am I going to do?
I’m begging you to help me.
At least you could be merciful.
O God, I don’t remember a time
when you were not my God.
Turn back to me;
you promised.
Be merciful to me;
you promised.
Heal me;
you promised.
My heart is broken.
My mind is broken.
My body is broken.
Nothing works anymore.
Unless you help me
nothing will ever work again.

O Holy One, I am confident
that you will save me.
You are the one
who heals the brokenhearted
and binds their wounds.
You are the power
and the glory;
you are the justice
and mercy.
You are my God forever.

The six “I can’t” statements (“I can’t think. I can’t work. I can’t eat. I can’t talk. I can’t see anyone. I can’t leave my house.) evoke the monotony and hopelessness that the grieving one feels. Yet three times: you promised… you promised… you promised. Given the way the poem begins, the last stanza seems almost out of place. But it’s a move David made (forced himself to make) in his Psalms.

I only wonder if those who grieve will be ready to pray along to the end of each psalm with Weems, as her laments so often end with an affirmation of God’s promises. For those whose grief is acute, fresh, and numbing, such prayers may at the moment be impossible.

Yet Weems gives us language for when we need it most, for when words of any kind are impossible. A person in the throes of grief not yet be able to say, “Alleluias spin in my heart!” But she or he may want to be able to make such affirmations, if not now, then eventually. Weems offers wording for the griever to attempt that journey. In so doing she provides a pattern for lament that is true to the biblical tradition, true to life.

Psalms of Lament 2Psalms of Lament is a gift to the Church and to those who grieve. Pastors, campus ministers, youth ministers, and worship leaders would all do well to have copies on hand. While Weems seems to have composed her laments with the individual in view, I’m intrigued by the possibility of reading and praying these psalms in corporate worship settings. A funeral or a Sunday after a tragedy would be particularly appropriate times. Yet if we consider, as Weems notes, the possibility of weeping with those who weep, those who pray would do well not to wait until a tragedy to employ these psalms.

Weems’s prayers floored me. I had turned to her before. As I read her again I never made it very far without choking back tears. (In my better moments, I gave up on trying to choke them back.) The tears Weems evokes, though, are not just tears of sadness, but tears of hope in the God who “will put the stars back in the sky.”

Thanks to Westminster John Knox Press for the review copy. I am confident I’ll want to pick up additional copies of Psalms of Lament for others. You can preview a good deal of the book at Google Books here.

More on the Connecticut school shooting: the haughtiness of humanity will collapse, says Isaiah

I wondered tonight whether this week’s Greek Isaiah readings might have something to say to the recent school shooting in Connecticut. Indeed, here is Isaiah 2:17-19 (my translation from the Greek):

Then every person will be brought low,
and the haughtiness of humanity will collapse,
and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day.

And they will hide everything that is made by hand,

as they bring them into caves
and into the clefts of rocks
and into the holes of the earth,
from before the fear of the Lord
and from the glory of his strength,
when he rises up to strike the earth.

The word for that which is made by hand (τὰ χειροποίητα) refers to idols. But as I read this I couldn’t help but think of the promise from Psalm 46:

He makes wars cease
to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.

…bows, spears, and shields, of course, all being made by hand. I suggested here that a 21st century way of reading that verse could be something like, “He crushes guns and diffuses bombs, he destroys human weapons of destruction.”

One day either we or God himself will bring all our weapons of destruction–indeed, all our evil inclinations–into “caves” and “into the clefts of rocks and into the holes of the earth,” as we recoil at the glory of God’s strength. He will make wars cease; he will end all senseless violence; he will crush evil and wipe it away from the face of the earth.

Lord, as we mourn in the meantime, please hasten that day.

He crushes guns and diffuses bombs; he destroys weapons of destruction (Psalm 46 speaks into the mass school shooting)

gun

Psalm 46, a Psalm for tragedies and disasters, reads:

God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.
Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
he lifts his voice, the earth melts.

The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Come and see what the Lord has done,
the desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease
to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth.”

The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.

The third part of this Psalm begins, “Come and see the works of the LORD, the desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth.” God is stronger than war—he can demolish even the strongest weapons of warfare. So in some kind of cosmic sense we don’t have to be afraid when there is violence.

“He breaks the bow and shatters the spear, he burns the shields with fire.” We might read this today as, “He crushes guns and diffuses bombs, he destroys human weapons of destruction.”

And then there is the main point of the Psalm, verse 10, followed by the refrain in verse 11 that appeared earlier in the Psalm: “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth. The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”

Nature can appear to be in chaos, human actions can leave us scratching our heads, but neither the chaos of nature nor the chaos of human sinfulness can ultimately stand up to the power of God. He is exalted over the earth and over all people. He is a warrior God who declares war on war and causes all violence to end.

“The LORD Almighty,” a title for God from verse 11 and earlier in verse 7, is also sometimes translated “LORD of hosts,” or God of the angel armies. Based on these verses Martin Luther wrote, “LORD Sabaoth his name, from age to age the same, and he must win the battle.”

This Almighty warrior God is with us, present in chaos and suffering. He is the God of heavenly hosts of armies, yet he is the God of Jacob, too, a title that speaks of God’s personal relationship with his people.

He is a personal God that people can know. He invites us into an intimate relationship with him, especially when we are hurting, especially when things are going wrong.

The above is adapted from part of a sermon I preached a couple of summers ago on Psalm 46. I post in now in light of today’s awful news.

Jesus weeps, we weep

Shannon Hicks/Newtown Bee, via Associated Press
Shannon Hicks/Newtown Bee, via Associated Press

Jesus wept, and he weeps again today, with the horrible news of another school shooting in Newton, CT. From the New York Times:

A gunman killed 26 people, 20 of them children between the ages of 5 and 10, in a shooting on Friday morning at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., about 65 miles northeast of New York City, the authorities said.

The gunman, who was believed to be in his 20s, walked into a classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary School where his mother was a teacher. He shot and killed her and then shot 20 students, most in the same classroom. He also shot five other adults, and then killed himself inside the school.

This evil deed is so heinous that even naming and describing it feels bad. May God have mercy on the souls of those poor children, and the grieving families they leave behind.

Christians have a rich Biblical tradition of lament that we can employ in times like this. This summer after the Colorado shooting, I posted this prayer, which was an aid to me in processing the grief, anger, and bewilderment I felt after hearing such awful news.

Prayer of Lament

O God, you are our help and strength,
our refuge in the time of trouble.
In you our ancestors trusted;
They trusted and you delivered them.
When we do not know how to pray as we ought,
your very Spirit intercedes for us
with sighs too deep for words.
We plead for the intercession now, Gracious One.

For desolation and destruction are in our streets,
and terror dances before us.
Our hearts faint; our knees tremble;
our bodies quake; all faces grow pale.
Our eyes are spent from weeping
and our stomachs churn.

How long, O Lord, how long
must we endure this devastation?
How long will destruction lay waste at noonday?
Why does violence flourish
while peace is taken prisoner?
Rouse yourself! Do not cast us off in times of trouble.
Come to our help;
redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.

For you are a gracious God
abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.

By the power of the cross,
through which you redeemed the world,
bring to an end hostility
and establish justice in the gate.
For you will gather together your people into that place
where mourning and crying and pain
will be no more,
and tears will be wiped from every eye.
Hasten the day, O God for our salvation.
Accomplish it quickly! Amen.

**From Let the Whole Church Say Amen! A Guide for Those Who Pray in Public, by Laurence Hull Stookey, pp 94-95 (Copyright 2001 by Abingdon Press). Reproduced by permission. Formatted print-friendly pdf of prayer here.

The Scriptures that the above prayer draws on are: Psalm 124:8, Psalm 37:39, Psalm 22:4, Romans 8:26, Isaiah 59:7, Job 41:22, Nahum 2:10, Lamentations 2:11, Isaiah 6:11, Psalm 91:6, Psalm 44:23, Psalm 44:26, Exodus 34:6, 1 Corinthians 1:17, Ephesians 2:14, Amos 5:15, Revelation 21:4, Isaiah 60:22.

Leslie C. Allen’s Liturgy of Grief for under $5 (ebook)

Leslie C. Allen’s Liturgy of Grief is under $5 this month in ebook form. It’s here on Amazon ($4.99) and here on CBD ($3.99). It’s a good deal for a great “pastoral commentary” on Lamentations.

I reviewed the book this summer, as well as interviewed the author.

One of my reviews to be published in Bible Study Magazine

I have written a book review that is slated to be published in an upcoming issue of Bible Study Magazine.

You can see what Bible Study Magazine looks like by flipping through this past issue.

The book I review is Lamentations and the Song of Songs, by Harvey Cox and Stephanie Paulsell. It’s the newest edition of Westminster John Knox Press’s Belief theological commentary series. (More about the book is here.)

Both authors suggest reading their respective biblical books in a “participatory mood.” Cox and Paulsell each highlight the timelessness of Lamentations and Song of Songs, surveying well their history of interpretation to help readers today apply them and enter in to the texts. A good commentary to have at hand, especially when preaching through either Lamentations or Song of Songs–something that probably doesn’t happen as often as it should.

“Bringing our Pain to God” (Michael Card)

We’re afraid of other people’s pain. Like Job’s friends, we’re afraid when we don’t have answers. Job doesn’t get any answers for his sufferings, but he gets God.

–Michael Card, from this great article on Biblical lament in worship.

He’s got an album called The Hidden Face of God, which you can hear at Grooveshark for free (or click on the album image to the left). It kicks off with a great Gospel-flavored track called, “Come Lift Up Your Sorrows.”