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.

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.

The “Preacher’s Trash Bin” (A Review of What Not to Say)

Here is some great preaching advice from my mother-in-law, a pastor: Never say from the pulpit that a certain idea came you to while you were in the shower.  Because who wants to think about their pastor in the shower?

Or as John C. Holbert and Alyce M. McKenzie put it, “Don’t tell stories that involve listeners picturing you naked. …So you received an insight into the cleansing power of God’s love in the shower on the mission trip as the cleansing and healing water cascaded over your body. Find another setting to tell about your epiphany.”

I set out to read What Not to Say: Avoiding the Common Mistakes That Can Sink Your Sermon, thinking that the book would be full of practical ideas like not sharing shower epiphanies as having taken place in the shower. Yet Holbert and McKenzie also write with theological depth and care as they coach preachers on what not to say and do in the pulpit.

Their chapters cover what not to say (and what to say): about God, about the Bible, at the sermon’s beginning, about the congregation, in the middle of the sermon, about yourself, in stories, and at the end of the sermon.

The goal of the book is “to give very direct advice out of the store of [the authors’] combined sixty years of preaching and over forty years of teaching others how to preach.”  They write, “It’s important in preaching to be as clear about what we are not saying as we are about what we are saying.” Here is where the theological depth of the authors comes to the fore, right in the first chapter: “First, affirming the sovereignty of God is not the same as insisting that everything that happens in my life and the world is directly the result of God’s actions.” The authors have a high view of God’s sovereignty, yet caution preachers against saying or implying, “Everything happens for a reason… and that reason is God.” Especially in a funeral sermon, for example, they say it’s theologically misguided for the preacher to say that God just “needed” the deceased’s voice to join the heavenly choir, or wanted “another flower for his heavenly bouquet.” God is sovereign, yes, preachers should affirm, but did he really cause a drunk driver to kill your daughter? No, the authors would say; free choice gone awry (i.e., stupidity) caused that. But preachers have to be careful that their words don’t somehow affirm that God’s sovereignty means He somehow took away that life. He may have allowed it; he didn’t ordain it.

Though the reader may not always find herself or himself in lock-step with the authors’ theology (I think the Bible is more of an “answer book” than they seem to indicate, and I respectfuly disagree with their interpretation of Romans 1, that Paul didn’t really understand the nuances of homosexuality), the reader will certainly appreciate their theological, Biblical, and homiletical care that grounds the eminently practical advice they give. The authors’ love of the Gospel, of the Church, and of preaching is on full display in these pages… and it inspired me as I read.

A few more highlights ought to convince anyone with an interest in preaching or public speaking to read this book:

  • The authors say the preacher should ask herself or himself this question honestly: “Do I habitually base my sermons on my favorite passages and avoid others I know little about or that may prove difficult?”
  • “Preachers throughout history have known that it is as important to exegete the congregation as it is to exegete the text. Jesus certainly did….”
  • “Sermons these days need to teach biblical and theological themes to often biblically illiterate listeners.”
  • “When we stir up people’s emotions without tying them to a biblical and theological message, what are they to do with their stirred-up emotions?”
  • Holbert and McKenzie want the preacher to ask: “Does the sermon tell the truth of the Gospel, not a domesticated version I assume the congregation would prefer to hear?”
  • On bad preaching habits (verbal filler, overused non-verbal gestures, etc.), they say: “Anything you do in the pulpit again and again will become over time the source of boredom and finally ridicule. When the youth sit in the balcony and count the number of times you say or do a certain thing, it is time to take stock of your preaching patterns.”
  • “Never make yourself the hero or heroine of your sermon” by using yourself as a positive example of how to apply a certain Scripture. “The sermon is not about us; it is about God.”
  • “Never use any of your children as sermon examples.” (Whether the reader finally agrees with this or not, the authors make a good case for it.)
  • Ask anyone for permission to talk about them in a story, even if that story shares something positive about them: “There are people in your church who would immediately transfer their membership if you thanked them publicly or singled them out in a positive way.”

It would be easy for me to go on about the helpful things I read in this book. I highly recommend it to all who preach or teach, in the Church or elsewhere.

The book is out now through Westminster John Knox Press.  (I am grateful to have received a digital galley of What Not to Say for review through Net Galley.)

I’ll give the authors the last word:

Preachers and teachers of preaching like to talk about the preacher’s toolbox. That is a positive metaphor. It signifies a repertoire of useful, effective sermonic strategies. There is also a preacher’s trash bin, a receptacle where we ought to put all the ineffective sermon strategies we don’t ever want to use again.