Ash Wednesday dawned bright and clear in Seattle. It was the day of the earthquake, a rattling, shaking experience, which almost made us forget what had happened the night before. Wednesday morning, however, was anything but bright over Pioneer Square. Those who watched the morning news saw incredibly ugly scenes from Mardi Gras madness. Seventy people injured, including one 13-year-old, one dead. Three hundred plus police officers were required to face the mob of 4000. There were windows broken, cars overturned, fist-fights, assaults, and even a few gun shots. And this was after a few days of warm-up unruliness for Fat Tuesday.
I felt like lamenting: “Why, Lord, must people defile this season set aside to remember your death and resurrection with drunken violence on the night before it begins?” “How long, O Lord, will people whom You created in your image claim the right to act in a stupid, destructive manner?” Later that day, we might have added: “And why, O Lord, on the heels of Mardi Gras madness, does the earth have to shake, causing $2 billion damage in our area?”
The season of Lent speaks to us of things our culture tends to resist. Lent is about penitence. Our culture exalts partying. Lent is about remembering Jesus going to the cross. Our culture wants to see how far it can go and still get away with it. Lent is about self-discipline. Our culture glorifies self-indulgence. Lent is about death leading to life. Our culture is filled with pseudo-life leading to death.
Someone described Lent as that period of time when people deny themselves things they don’t want. Maybe it’s like the child who saw his grandfather drinking beer during Lent. “Grandpa, I thought you gave up liquor for Lent.” “No, sonny, just hard liquor,” said grandpa. “Ok, then,” said the boy, “I’ll just give up hard candy.”
Giving up things for Lent may be very good and helpful. But I wonder if we ought not add something for Lent. And, if we do give up something, maybe it should be in order to add something.
Lent speaks to us of things we need in our lives, not just during these six weeks leading up to Holy Week, but all year long. Lent speaks to us of skills we need to learn. And if we don’t need these skills now, there will come a time. One of the things Lent can teach us to practice all year long is how to lament.
Someone may be thinking: Pastor, why would we want to do that? We came to church to praise God and to be happy. But sometimes some people come to worship with a deep need to lament. Biblical lament is a kind of prayer. The Bible illustrates prayers of praise and thanksgiving. These are summer-like prayers, bright in tone and feeling. “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord …” is the epitome of that prayer. We pray these prayers at Christmas, at Easter, at Pentecost. And some of us may have the idea that they are really the only kinds of prayer appropriate for congregational worship.
But there are also winter-like prayers. “Out of the depths have I cried to you, O Lord.” On the cross, Jesus was probably reciting one of the great psalms of lament, Psalms 22. There, the ancient poet-king cries out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? These are winter prayers. These prayers of lament are what we learn to pray during Lent.
The psalms, said fourth century church leader, Athanasius, “become like a mirror to the person singing them.” The psalms reflect our deepest feelings — all of them. And sometimes those deepest feelings are not bright and cheery. David, and the other psalmists, lamented their sins. But the psalmists also lamented the tragedies happening around them. The psalmists lamented and protested the troubles of human life. The psalmists lamented their enemies — expressing anger against them to God. The psalmists knew how to lament.
We may not feel comfortable with prayers of lament, especially in congregational worship. Someone has suggested that the true religions of America are optimism and denial. We are often urged to “put on a happy face.” We may feel embarrassed by our darker feelings. We feel the need to cover them up lest people think poorly of us. In congregational worship we’d much rather praise God than lament.
On the other hand, many voices today urge us to “let it all hang out.” Let all emotions be immediately and publicly vented. Complain, whine, be a victim! Go on the Jerry Springer Show and tell the world how you’ve been mistreated. Find a sympathetic news reporter and tell her how bad things are with you.
But the psalms of lament head in a different direction. They are prayers to God, not just complaints to anybody who will listen.
Before us this morning is a compact psalm, one of the classic psalms of lament. It’s apparently a prayer to be sung in church. The heading says: “For the Director of Music. A Psalm of David.” David knew how to sing praises to God with exuberance. But David also knew how to sing songs of lament. This Lenten Season, let us learn from David’s psalm how to lament.
In the first movement of his lament, David openly asks questions of God. Four times, the anguished question is flung godward: “How long O Lord?” Each time, there’s a companion question, detailing the pain and distress of the prayer. He feels forgotten by God. He feels like God has hidden His face from him. He is wrestling with painful, sorrowful thoughts. His enemy has the upper hand over him. How long, O Lord, is this going to continue? How long must I suffer? Do we know anything about those kinds of questions? Do we? It would do us good to express them openly to God.
Along with questions, many of the psalms of lament are full of protest. The poets protest the injustice of their enemies. The poets protest God’s apparent silence and inactivity in the face of this injustice. “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off. Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalms 10). “O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night and am not silent” (Psalms 22).
There’s raw anger, in some psalms, even curses at the unjust and the oppressors. “May those who seek my life be disgraced and put to shame; may those who plot my ruin be turned back in dismay” (Psalms 35). “Smash their teeth, O Lord!” cries another psalm.
But all of this is in the context of prayer. We don’t literally go and smash someone’s teeth. We don’t go and complain into the teeth of one we think has mistreated us. Instead, there’s an open, honest venting of feeling toward God.
There’s lament in one part of the Christmas story we seldom tell. It’s usually neglected in the wonderfully glad retelling of Jesus’ birth. But I tucked it into our scripture reading this morning. Matthew tells us about the magi from the east, who follow a star to Jesus. They stop in Jerusalem to ask directions to where the new king of the Jews is born. But it’s Herod, who bears the title “King of the Jews.” And Herod is paranoid about anybody else being called king, even if it is only a baby. So Herod calls Bible scholars together and finds out where the prophets said such a king would be born.
“Why, King Herod, your majesty, the King is to be born in nearby Bethlehem.” King Herod calls the magi to him, puts on his most pious face, and tells them that he, too, would like to bow down before this newborn king. “So please do come back and tell me where he is when you find him.”
When the magi disobey the king and return to their own country by another route, Herod flies into a fit of rage. He orders all the baby boys in the region of Bethlehem two years old and under slaughtered. And the cries of sorrowing mothers are lifted to God. When Matthew reports this horrible evil, he quotes from the prophet Jeremiah.
This prophet, known as “the weeping prophet,” describes the grief of one mother because her children have been killed or carried into exile in Babylon: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, Because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:18). I can hear Rachel peppering God with questions — “How long, O Lord, will this kind of evil continue unchecked? How long will I feel this pain and sorrow in my heart?” Somehow that doesn’t feel like it belongs in a Christmas carol, does it! But it’s a real part of the Christmas story.
Ann Weems, a Christian author, loses her 21-year-old son in tragic circumstances. She is devastated. “The stars fell from the sky,” she writes. Caring people offer what help they can. But she feels she will never be comforted over this huge loss. One of her friends is a Bible scholar, who is writing a commentary on Jeremiah. As part of her mourning, he suggests that she write her own psalms of lament. They are poetic prayers full of pain and honest questions. But they are also prayers of faith. Ann Weems writes: “O God, what am I going to do? He’s gone, and I’m left. With an empty pit in my life …. 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 ….”1
David openly, honestly asked his questions, made his protests to God. And so may we. I urged pastors in Central Africa last year to help their people offer prayers of lament. How else should believers in civil war-torn Burundi pray? How else should people in earthquake ravaged areas of the world pray? How else should Palestinians and Israelis pray? How else should you pray after the utter folly of Fat Tuesday? How else should you pray when you get news that your spouse is having an affair, maybe is leaving you for someone else? How else should we pray over a loved one ravaged by cancer or Alzheimers? How else should we pray when our petitions for healing don’t seem to be answered? How else should we pray when we have received horrible news about some tragedy or unjust event? How better to pray when life seems to have spiraled out of control and you’re sinking into depression.
We must not feel obligated to clean up our prayers. We must not feel that we should only offer God praise in the midst of problems. But that’s not all there is in Psalms 13.
There’s a second movement in the great song of lament: David honestly lays his need before God. “Look on me and answer, O Lord my God Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death
Was the psalmist ill, threatened by death? Maybe so. He continues: “My enemy will say, I have overcome him,’ and my foes will rejoice when I fall.” Whatever David’s problem was, he laid it fully and openly before God.
In another great prayer of lament, Psalms 55, David cries out: “Listen to my prayer, O God … hear me and answer me ….” That psalm also contains the raw, angry feelings flung before God. In this case, it is apparently a friend, a trusted friend, who has betrayed him. But David moves through his anger and sense of betrayal. “Evening, morning and noon, I cry out in my distress, and He hears my voice.” And David sings: “Cast your cares on the Lord and He will sustain you ….” Lay your needs honestly before God. God always hears those cries, and God will sustain us in our need.
There is intensity about prayers of lament that much of our intercession lacks. There’s deep desire, even desperation in one’s turn toward God. It’s like: “O God, you’ve got to help me. There’s no one else to whom I can turn. O God, what am I going to do?” Ever been there? Maybe you’re there today.
David lamented by turning his angry questions honestly toward God. David lamented by bringing his deep needs and laying them openly before God. There’s a final movement in David’s lament: David returns to trust in the midst of trouble. Now David sings: “But I trust in your unfailing love. My heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord For he has been good to me.”
Remember the contemporary psalm of Ann Weems? Remember her questions? “How could You have allowed this to happen? I thought you protected Your own! You are the power: Why didn’t You use it?”
But she concludes: “O Holy One, I am confident that You will save me …. You are the power and the glory. You are justice and mercy. You are my God forever.” Sometimes, psalms of lament aren’t as tidy as this. They don’t progress neatly through a three point prayer. It’s not like: “Ok, I guess I’m thru with questions and offering petitions, so it’s time for trust.” Psalms 22, for example, alternates back and forth between the poet’s trouble and his trust. In some psalms, even after a lyrical passage of trust, there’s an outburst of anger. Prayers of lament don’t have to be neat and tidy. Prayer, any prayer, doesn’t have to be neat and tidy! Prayer, any prayer, but especially the prayer of lament, may be a process of working thru questions, expressing desperate petition, and yes, reaching out in faith and affirming trust in the One we believe in despite our trouble.
Are prayers of thanks and praise hard for us to do? Maybe we need to lament for a while. Then we can push thru the lament to praise and trust.
Practice prayers of lament this Lenten season. Maybe you don’t feel the need for lamenting right now. Maybe you’re a personality type that usually sees life in bright, summer tones. But there will come a time when nothing but lament seems right. Maybe that time is right now. Know that in the midst of our lamentable circumstances there is One standing with us who gave His own Son to unjust death. Remember that Jesus Himself engaged in the prayer of lament.
But even as we pray the prayer of lament, we can be turning toward trust and hope in One who has said: “Listen to me, I am with you always!” He’s the One about whom the weeping prophet, who wrote Lamentations, declared: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases …. Great is thy faithfulness.”
1From Kathleen D. Billman and Daniel L. Migliore, Rachel’s Cry, United Church Press, Cleveland, 1999, p. 8ff.

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