Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me,
for I am poor and needy.

Psalm 86:1

At the Lotus House we pray every evening and every morning. We read Scripture, sing canticles and hymns, and try to form our lives by the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples. One of the most central parts of our prayer life is the psalms, that mysterious library of songs and prayers which form the heart of Jewish and Christian spirituality.

The other day I came downstairs just before seven. The children were sitting at the table, still wiping sleep from their eyes. The kitchen was coming to life with sunshine and the sounds of our chickens outside. Daniel or Alden had already done the house a great kindness by starting the coffee. As the prayerbooks were arranged, I was struck with the beauty of this ordinary morning. This is what life in community is all about. The joy of sharing meals and prayers becomes ordinary, expected, even routine, and yet when I pause for a moment to reflect upon it I am struck by the beauty of it all.

But then the psalm was read and it ruined everything.

Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing;
Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror.
My soul also is struck with terror,
while you, O Lord—how long?

I am weary with my moaning;
every night I flood my bed with tears;
I drench my couch with my weeping.
My eyes waste away because of grief;
they grow weak because of all my foes.

Psalm 6:2–3, 6–7

It as if the psalmist unleashed a tornado into our peaceful kitchen.

I’ve known sadness, heartache, and depression, but these words from the psalmist seem foreign to me. Even in my darkest moments, I never was surrounded by foes. My bones have never had cause to shake with terror.

This isn’t an isolated passage either. Nearly every day at least one of our psalms sticks a knife right in the middle of our time of prayer and reflection.

The enemy has pursued me,
crushing my life to the ground,
making me sit in darkness like those long dead.
Therefore my spirit faints within me;
my heart within me is appalled.

Psalm 143:3–4

As far as I know, no one in the Lotus House has an enemy that is chasing them, threatening to crush them into the ground. So why do we keep reading this? Why does this darkness keep impinging upon our prayer? Why can’t we just reflect upon bucolic scenes where the serene Jesus of Werner Sallman listens to our every concern and blesses adorable children?

What’s worse, recently our evening readings have been coming from the book of Job. The other evening I had to say “The Word of the Lord” after reading,

Like a slave who longs for the shadow,
and like labourers who look for their wages,
so I am allotted months of emptiness,
and nights of misery are apportioned to me.

When I say, “My bed will comfort me,
my couch will ease my complaint”,
then you scare me with dreams
and terrify me with visions,
so that I would choose strangling
and death rather than this body.
I loathe my life; I would not live for ever.
Let me alone, for my days are a breath.

Job 7:2–3, 13–16

What does it mean to say that these words are the Word of the Lord? What does it mean that God saw fit to include all kinds of lament and even invective directed at himself in the prayerbook of his people? What does this tell us about who God is, who we are, and who we should be?

Job Praying Marc Chagall, 1960

Job Praying
Marc Chagall, 1960

I’m not sure about all of the answers to these questions, but I’m certain that they are significant. And I am certain that there is far too little reflection on lament in the Scriptures among the churches and traditions that I know. This is not surprising. We don’t have much cause to lament. I don’t have much cause to lament. I have never wanted for food or shelter. I have never been beaten or raped. I have never been forced to work sixteen hour shifts in an grey factory surrounded by nets to catch the suicide jumpers. No one has ever marked by door, threatening to kill me if I didn’t exile myself from the society. No occupying military ever bombed my home and then targeted the only places where we could flee to. No one in authority has targeted me because of my skin color. I am part of the group of people who are allowed to threaten police with assault rifles and receive no punishment. I am not a part of the people who are gunned down for holding a toy gun while on the phone at Wal-Mart.

What right do I have to pray these passages? What do I have to lament?

 

 

Lament remind me of Jesus. It reminds me of his cry of dereliction on the cross. But when I pray the biblical laments, I feel more like Peter, weeping by the charcoal fire having thrice denied the one he supposedly loves. Yes, I have much to lament, but I don’t lament my own suffering, I first lament that I am on the wrong side of suffering. I lament what sin has done to me, placing me in a racist world where even Christians are separated from one another because of a long history of sin and oppression that continues to this day. I lament that I am part of a society that is built on the backs of the poor and at the expense of the land and water. Most of all, I lament the many ways that I contribute to the continuing of these grievous sins.

The most foundational point of lament in the Scripture is that something is not right with the way that things are in the world. The world is not as it should be and things must be changed. The people of God do not accept this broken state of things. It is absolutely intolerable that things are the way they are. It is not acceptable that you are three times more likely to die before your first birthday if you are born in our neighborhood than if you are born in south city. The eighteen year disparity in life expectancy between the black and white parts of our region is not tolerable.

photo

This is something those of us who wake to beautiful mornings shared with those we love need to remember. The world is not as it should be. As much as we should welcome the gifts of beauty that God gives us with grateful hearts, we must accept the interruption and challenge that lament gives to us.
Walter Brueggemann writes,

Where the cry [of lament] is not voiced, heaven is not  moved and history is not initiated. And then the end is hopelessness.  Where the cry is seriously voiced, heaven may answer and earth may have a new chance. The new resolve in heaven and the new possibility on earth depend on the initiation of protest.
It makes one wonder about the price of our civility, that this chance in our faith has largely been lost because the lament Psalms have dropped out of the functioning canon. In that loss we may unwittingly endorse false self that can take no initiative toward an omnipotent God. We many also unwittingly endorse unjust systems about which no questions can properly be raised. In the absence of lament, we may be engaged in uncritical history-stifling praise.

The discipline of praying the psalms awakens us to the reality of history, with all of its suffering, with all of its challenging of the justice of God. In putting these words in the prayerbook of His people, God is inviting us to wake up, to see the world as it is. He is calling for us to know and name the injustice of the world. He is asking us to ask him to change it. In the end, he is jolting us out of our complacency and sinful obliviousness and reminding us that the cry of the broken man on the road to Jericho can be heard even now, even in the ordinary beauty of a kitchen illuminated by the morning sun.

 

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