A response to Coronavirus – quick look at Lament in the Psalms

Faced with the challenge of Covid 19 it is difficult to know how to respond in the context of Christian worship. Our expectation is that Christian worship ought to be praise of God and Christian hymnody is praise of God sung. The furthest many congregations, or individual Christians, will diverge from this is in prayers of intercession. At best these will, at least acknowledge that we might be the answer to the prayers that we utter. At worst we wait for God to put all things right. The thought that we might criticise God would be anathema for many people. Judaeo-Christian religion has long sought to enable people to channel their emotions toward God, but questioning suggests doubt and criticism of God would be shocking.

Quite often these days young people in stores serving me will conclude the deal by saying, ‘see you later’. They’d be surprised if I offered a time and place! I’d be doubly surprised if they turned up, not at all surprised if they didn’t. On the other hand if I said to a close friend or my partner, ‘see you at 715’ and arranged a place I’d be concerned, if not angry, if they broke the agreement. We regularly think of God in human terms and so, if we link this to the two examples I have given, we have a simple but interesting model. If we have a belief in God which has any depth then we might just be distressed if God doesn’t meet our expectations. And this is where the Psalms can begin to offer examples of how we might worship when things don’t go right, when counter to Julian of Norwich all things are not well and all manner of things seem to be not at all good, when, for instance an unexpected virus evolves and begins to randomly infect us. So let us tuen to the Psalms.

The psalms are full of emotive expression…’My God! my God! Why have you forsaken me'(Ps. 22), ‘How can we sing the songs of the Lord in a foreign land'(Ps. 137), ‘I cry aloud to the Lord, I lift up my voice to the Lord for mercy'(Ps. 142); indeed Jean Calvin wrote:

..there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is
not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has
drawn to life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares,
perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the
minds of men are wont to be agitated. (J. Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries,
Psalms Vol. I pxxxvii).

At the same time religion has presented people with an interpretation of God’s response to their particular situation; ‘Thus says the Lord…’

At least a third of all the psalms are psalms of Lament, of complaint to God. ‘The pain at the center of praise has theological warrant in Israel in the cries of hurt, rage, doubt, vengeance and isolation. Most importantly they are cries, not buried, not stifled, but cries passionately addressed out of the reality of life'(W. Brueggemann, Israel’s Praise, Fortress Press, Philadelphia,1988 p133). It has always been true that ‘access to life is mostly through the resistant door of pain. That door is a world kept closed by idolatry (of a god who does not suffer) and closed by ideology (of a system that never fails). That door of access is so resistant because our idolatry has turned pain to guilt, and our ideology has turned pain to denial'(W. Brueggemann, ibid. p133). Given this is it any wonder that in the church today we shirk from anything that might give voice to deep-seated emotion or feeling, particularly if that expression is perceived as posing a threat to the religious fabric, harming our sensibilities or being critical of God. ‘The lament psalms are obviously a scandal to the church, because they cannot be prayed to a god who does nothing, and because they must not be prayed within a social system that cannot be changed or criticised'(W. Brueggemann, ibid. p140.

It is not that our individual lives are devoid of things about which to lament, particularly at this time. Neither is the life (temporal or spiritual) of our world so fair, righteous and just that we are lacking reason for this expression. Perhaps it is, in part due to the fact that we think that Christians should be gentle, meek and mild and that strong feelings are prohibited. Yet Jesus wept over Jerusalem and was angry at injustice. He gave vent to strong feelings and did not suppress them. Or could it be that we are frightened to admit to ourselves, let alone to our neighbours or to God that life does sometimes get on top of us, that things do make us angry, that we feel lost, alone and upset, if not simply confused. After all God is meant to be good, God is Love.

The psalmists were not so squeamish and whether in the form of an individual lament or one giving expression to the feelings of the community they were quite explicit.

To understand the Psalms we need to have a grasp of the theology of the people of Israel. This people had an overwhelming conviction that they were God’s chosen people. God had brought them out of slavery in Egypt and, through various trials had settled them in the Promised Land. Their experience had formed the belief that

God cared for them and that their relationship with God was one of Covenant, agreement. The depth of gratitude of the people for the providence of God is demonstrated by the words of a Passover Song, ‘It would have been enough’,

How many benefits has God granted us!
Had he brought us out of Egypt and not supported us in the
wilderness –
It would have been enough!…
(The Passover Haggadah of the Union of Liberal and Progressive
Synagogues, England, 1981/5741)

Against this background there was not just a sense of distress when things went wrong but, on occasion, a sense of outrage. Clearly the people were able to let God down and sometimes their misfortune was attributed to God’s just retribution, but some things were inexplicable in this way (as the book of Job goes to great lengths to point out!) and it was inconceivable that God could forsake His people. To give expression to their sense of alienation the Lament was born:

O God, why dost thou cast us off forever?
Why does thy anger smoke against the sheep of thy pasture?
(Psalm 74, 1) (All Biblical quotations are taken from the
Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Collins, 2nd. edit. 1971)

Such a Psalm might well have been composed at a time of natural devastation such as that of the plague of locusts described in Joel 1, 1ff., but such occurrences were given theological significance. There is a sense of the Covenant being broken and the plague is seen as God’s judgement against a rebellious people. The people are given the words with which to plead for restoration:

Remember thy congregation, which thou hast gotten of old,
Which thou hast released to be the tribe of thy heritage.
(Psalm 74, 2)

At a later date the Psalm found its way into the liturgy of the nation being used in the Royal Cult of the Temple in Jerusalem (A. Weiser, The Psalms, SCM, England, 1962 p68.). In this context it could be used at any time of perceived threat, whether the threat was seen as being temporal or spiritual: ‘Thy foes have reared in the midst of the Holy place’ (Psalm 74, 4). In this circumstance God is invoked:

How long, O God, is the foe to scoff?
Is the enemy to revile thy name forever?
(Psalm 74, 10)

All these words might seem to be despairing were it not for the understanding in which they are based and so the Psalm returns to the faith out of which it is grown:

Yet God my King is from of old,
working salvation in the midst of the earth.
Thou didst divide the sea by thy might…
Thou hast fixed the bounds of the earth
(Psalm 74, 12 & 17)

From this sure ground the psalmist can intercede:

…do not forget the life of thy poor forever.
Have regard for thy covenant…
Arise, O God, plead thy cause.
(Psalm 74, 19,20,22)

It is clear how such a Psalm could be used by an oppressed or afflicted congregation. The words are those with which  the people could identify. This is the strength of Psalmody, for while it gives utterance to specific needs generated by particular situations, there is invariably a universal application which will enable the Psalm to be used with equal felicity by succeeding generations. This having been said, the force of the emotion, already alluded to above (Calvin), is sometimes so powerful as to make us hesitate. This is nowhere clearer than in Psalm 137. The Psalm has its origin in the exile of the people of Israel in Babylon. The experience of the conquest and exile can only be responded to in the strongest language:

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land…
Happy shall he be who requites you with what you have done to us!
Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them
against the rock!
(Psalm 137, 4,8-9)

Calvin responds to these words by saying that the psalmist, ‘does not speak under the impulse of personal feeling and only employs the words which God himself has authorised’. He intimates that the words mirror those which describe the Last Judgement and that ‘Godly people’ would not be prey to such emotions(J. Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, Psalms, Vol. V, p197). However we might respect Calvin’s opinions in other matters it is clear that here his theological sensibilities have over-ridden his understanding of both humanity and the Psalms. Firstly, such feelings can be experienced by most people given appropriate circumstances. Secondly, part of the value of the Psalms is as an indicator that we can pour out our deepest, darkest feelings to God when that is our need.

This leads us to the place of individual laments which are best  represented for the purpose of this study by Psalm 22. It begins with words of invocation but immediately presents us with a conundrum which is best addressed by Calvin:

When the Psalmist speaks of being forsaken and cast off by God, it
seems to be the complaint of a man in despair; for can a man have
single spark of faith remaining in him, when he believes that there
is no longer any succour for him in God? And yet in calling God
twice his own God, and depositing his groanings into his bosom, he
makes a very distinct confession of his faith.

Calvin goes on to point out that people wrestling with God find in themselves the weakness of the flesh but at the same time give evidence of their faith(J. Calvin, Vol. I ibid. p357ff). The challenge is actually to enter into the struggle, to be secure enough in faith to complain to God (H. Beck, ‘The Psalms of Lament’, address to the Conference of the Hymn Society of America, 1982). The words of the psalm derive from utter desolation and give a key to one way in which songs and hymns can help in times such as those in which we are now immersed, that is by simply giving expression to that stress by acting as a safety valve. As the psalmist struggles, and as we identify with that struggle, do we, perhaps, begin to enter into the admission of our situation of despair (whatever it might be) and a recognition that, in reality, God sometimes feels far off, we do feel abandoned? [If we need reminding that this theme is ageless the re-writing of the psalm by the late Ernesto Cardenal (E. Cardenal, Marilyn Monroe and other Poems, Search Press, London, 1975, p79) with its imagery of the asylum and the concentration camp may serve to jog our sensibilities]. Within this situation a tension is generated between reality as we experience it and what we wish it to be. Assurance and doubt are held in tension by hope. The psalmist longs for restoration but can see no way toward it. In a similar situation centuries later Peter Bohler told John Wesley ‘preach faith until you have it’. Only when there is an admission of need can the need be met. It is too easy to skate over this fact with triumphalist statements which ignore the reality of the sufferer and make little sense from within the anguish.

Psalms may be uncomfortable, even scandalous, but they are, at once true to experience, yet grounded in faith. Though Psalm 22 begins in forsakeness it builds to the statement that:

Posterity shall serve him(God); men shall tell of the Lord to the
coming generation, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
that he has wrought it.
(Psalm 22, 30-31)

Thus far we have shown that the Psalms sometimes enable stress to be addressed by way of lament and that such stress has been brought about by way of exile or personal rejection. Similar feelings may be generated by social distancing or voluntary isolation. In each instance despair is apparent. This is not the only response that the psalmist makes. Many psalms, while implying that a cause of stress is close at hand (e.g., ‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…’ Psalm 23, 4), respond by way of a confident statement of faith; ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want’ (Psalm 23, 1) or words of reassurance; ‘My help comes from the Lord…He will not let your foot to be moved, he who keeps you will not slumber'(Psalm 121, 2 – 3).

The psalmist always takes the plight of the sufferer seriously and listens to the plea of the one who laments, but this is invariably set against the backdrop of the covenant relationship of God and God’s people. Words of confidence or reassurance are not then seen as empty, but realistic assertions of God’s providential and merciful nature. The Psalter is unrelentingly practical and thus provides realistic help to those who suffer hardship. It is recognised that anger and grief are legitimate emotions and the purpose of liturgy is to confront them with action, trust and expectation. Harrell Beck observed that the psalms recognise the need for thanksgiving to derive from reality and sometimes hardship. There is no real thanksgiving when people have not had to struggle to achieve it(H. Beck, ‘The Psalms of Lament’, address to the Conference of the Hymn Society of America, 1982). In support of this he quotes Emily Dickinson:

Without darkness there is no light,
Without silence, no word.

Praise and lament, therefore, stand in antiphonal relationship. It is not possible to be free from grief, from the causes of stress until the art of lament is learnt. ‘Pain must be processed and not denied or siphoned off into guilt'(W. Brueggemann, ibid. p142) There is a need to repent, to complain and present one’s feelings bare before God. ‘All true theology begins in pain’. Life is made whole or sole where life is rent(W. Brueggemann, ibid. p129). The healing process begins with lament for as we confront God we admit to ourselves the need of which we speak, a need which it is often more comfortable, but more harmful, to suppress.

I sense that our worship and, as part of it, our hymnody ought, especially at times like these, to be grounded in the universal strength and depth of Psalmody.

© Andrew Pratt 30/3/2020 adapted from an Essay entered in the Pratt Green Trust competition (1994).

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Andrew Pratt

Andrew Pratt was born in Paignton, Devon, England in 1948.

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