Monday, November 20, 2006


I've been thinking a lot lately about the concept of lament, because I'm writing a paper on lament psalms for my Hebrew poetry class. It seems to me that we rarely use the lament psalms in the middle class American Christian community that I have the most experience with. (Liberal Friends don't use much of any scripture, of course, which is another topic entirely--so this is more aimed toward programmed Friends who use weekly scripture in their meetings for worship, and for those from other American denominations.) Why do we hesitate to lament?

I have a few thoughts on the matter--OK, a lot of thoughts, but I won't burden you with a 20-page paper here!!

One of the most interesting ones, I think, is that over the history of Christianity we've developed these doctrines of God's "providence." We think because of God's providence we don't have the right to complain to God or question God's actions. God works all things together for good, right? So who are we to question that? But the lament psalms do exactly this. In a way they put God on trial--they say, "Hey, God, I'm doing all I can to follow you, so how come I'm the one suffering when all the evil people in the world seem to be prospering?" As Christians, mostly due to incluence of Greek thought at the beginning of the Christian movement which changed a lot of the philosophical norms of Judaism, we don't think we have this right. But if we take the Hebrew scriptures seriously as part of our own sacred text, this is obviously not true. People petition God right and left for God to change plans--Abraham asking for Sodom and Gomorrah to be saved if he can find just one righteous person, the Israelites crying out to God for deliverance from slavery in Egypt, Moses interceding on behalf of the Israelites when they're rebellious, and especially the lament psalms that ask for God's deliverance again as in the past.

The research I've been doing emphasizes the dialectic nature of the lament psalms--someone cries out to God, and expects God to answer, expects a dialogue, expects God to hear and be gracious.

This is another important distinction that we modern (postmodern?) Christians often don't make--these laments show people crying out to God, angry, hurt, sick, downtrodden--and yet they have an unshakable, almost irrational faith that God will hear them and deliver them. It seems like now, if we dare to question God, often it's a true questioning. We don't address our questions of the existence of God to God, because that would presuppose the existence of God, and our linear, rational brains can't handle that kind of cyclical thinking. But these psalmists, even in their questioning and deep agony, trust that God is there and will respond.

One more important thing, I think, has to do with our position in society. I've grown up in a middle class family, and although my parents were always careful to be simple, to give, to not take more than we needed, we still were fairly comfortable. I had the privilege of a good education, and am able to continue that now. I have a lot to praise God for--do I have anything to truly lament about?

I think middle class Christians a) feel like if we lament it's not really justified because we have so much that we shouldn't complain, b) don't want to think about those around the world who truly have reason to lament because then we might have to live differently and less comfortably, and c) have a stake in the continuance of the status quo so we don't really want (in our heart of hearts) God to come down and shake things up, because we might not be the righteous ones crying out to God for justice--we might be the enemies so frequently talked about in lament psalms!

But God is the God of the oppressed and the suffering. God hears the cries of those lamenting, hears their just accusations and is fully present with them in this anguish. Jesus, we are told, cried out a lament psalm as he died on the cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Psalm 22). He cried out to God his feeling of intense anguish and isolation, and God was intimately present in that moment. He called out the beginning of Psalm 22, which goes on to proclaim infinite trust in the presence and deliverance of God. Jesus also said that when we do something for the poor, sick, prisoners, outcasts, it is as if it was done to him. He is so present in their suffering that our action toward the oppressed is action for or against God in Christ.

The laments are the cries of God as much as of us in our suffering, but this is so hard for middle class American Christians to understand, because we don't suffer in physical ways as much. We suffer, to be sure, but it is almost always private, hidden suffering--broken relationships we don't talk about in public, miserable jobs that pay the bills but never allow us to rest, feelings of helplessness from being trapped in systems we feel we can't change. But we're not allowed to express these things in our Christian communities, because the only "acceptable" way to interact with God is through praise.

One of the books I was reading suggests that if we only praise without the content of the praise--the lament and the trust in the face of that lament--we are putting on a false identity. We can't truly praise God without first voicing and admitting our lament. And the ancient Hebrews knew that to get rid of our pridefulness, we need to do that in public, in community, lamenting together even when we don't feel the need to lament, because there are always some in our community who are justified in lamenting. And we need to hear them, to stand in solidarity with them, to question with them and come to the place of utter trust as a community, and then to praise God for the wholeness we receive even in the midst of a broken world.

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