In some admittedly limited ways, this has been a hard year for me.
- It was harder for me to be a mother to my children this spring, when the extra support of in-person school and daycare were not available.
- It is harder for me to be a pastor in a season of change and anxiety.
- It was hard to cancel travel plans, and it is hard to discern which risks I should take and which risks I should avoid during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- I’m worried about the future of my country.
But in so many other ways, I’m fine. My family is healthy. I have a lot of support as a parent. My congregation is creatively and faithfully living into this season together. The travel plans will wait.
It is not so for everyone.
So many cannot say that they are “fine” right now. This pandemic has taken over a million lives around the world. Many in my own congregation have struggled with unemployment, loneliness, mental illness, and deep grief. The realities of racial injustice, which were always there, have become more obvious to white Americans like me. Wildfires rage on the west coast. Americans are anxious about the presidential election for any number of good reasons.
As a follower of Jesus, this affects me. I’m fine, but because I’m inextricably linked to the rest of God’s creation, I am not fine.
The biblical Psalms of lament bridge this gap between my limited experience and the greater pain of our world. The news can do that for me too, but the Psalms of lament ground the realities of our world in the greater reality of a God who is in relationship with us. It’s a good time for this preacher to have the Bible in one hand and the proverbial newspaper in the other hand.
On Sundays this month on The Twelve, I’ll read some Psalms of communal lament. I invite you to join me in this very Reformed practice of Sunday Psalm reading. When the world hurts, we cry out to the sovereign God who can handle our pain, and we cry out to the incarnate God who stands with us in our pain.
Psalm 74 is a Psalm of communal lament. The people cry out to God together about the tragedy of destruction in the temple. “Your foes have roared within your holy place; they set up their emblems there…They set your sanctuary on fire; they desecrated the dwelling place of your name, bringing it to the ground.” (vss. 4,7)
For the people, this is more than just destruction of a building. The temple was their connection to God, the place that symbolized order and goodness. With destruction in this identity-forming place, they question their own identity as God’s beloved, chosen people.
“O God, why do you cast us off forever? Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture? Remember your congregation, which you acquired long ago, which you redeemed to be the tribe of your heritage.” (vss. 1-2a)
They appeal to the character of God, reminding God of God’s creative power to stop the destruction. “Yet God my King is from of old, working salvation in the earth…Yours is the day, yours also the night; you established the luminaries and the sun. You have fixed all the bounds of the earth; you made summer and winter.” (vss. 12,16-17)
This turn toward praise sounds like it could be the hopeful, positive, grand finale of the Psalm, but it’s not. The people are still distraught at what their enemy is doing. They cannot be satisfied with the way things are in this time of anxiety.
They end the Psalm with a plea: “Rise up, O God, plead your cause; remember how the impious scoff at you all day long. Do not forget the clamor of your foes, the uproar of your adversaries that goes up continually.” (vss. 22-23)
The Psalms of lament, like Psalm 74, are grounded in the convictions that God can make things better (“God my King is from of old, working salvation in the earth”) and that God cares about God’s people enough to make things better (“you redeemed [your congregation] to be the tribe of your heritage”).
Things are not better yet! But the people cry out to God in hope.
When I need to be reminded of what is going on in the world beyond my own comfortable corner, I listen to the stories of others. And I sing Psalm 74, so that I’m formed more and more into a person who can say: When God’s beloved world suffers, we all suffer. And when we suffer, we cry out to God who can save.
Thanks for your piece here, Rebecca. Well said. An excellent reminder both that we’re far from the first of God’s people to live in challenging circumstances and that God mindfully hears the laments of God’s people.
Ps 80, the Lectionary Psalm for today was also appropriate with the chorus: “Restore us, O God; make your face shine upon us that we may be saved” (v. 3, 7, 10). I also appreciated 80:14, “Return to us, O God Almighty! Look down down from heaven and see!” We cry out to God in times of despair.
The Psalms are where I turn again and again in these days. Looking forward to this series of reflections!
Thank you, Rebecca, for this honest and heartening reflection. I too look forward to reading what you’ll share in the Sundays to come.