Learning to Lament With the Psalms

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The poetic prayers, songs, and laments of the book of Psalms were recorded to teach worshipers how to praise God, as well as to lament and grieve. When undergoing times of agony or when words are not enough, the Psalms can express the painful emotions for us, as processing emotion helps us to move forward with difficult choices.

Much of the Psalms were attributed to David, including the prayer of Psalm 55—a lament about suffering violence at the hands of a loved one. Many victims of abuse find themselves alone and abandoned by family and friends who become impatient and exasperated by their ongoing struggle with loving their abuser. Praying through a Psalm may be an emotional refuge during such a painful time.

The Living and the Unforgotten

TUVIA RUEBNER HAS earned the lament he wrote for King David, Israel’s better-known sorrow bearer. The poet came into the world 91 years ago in Pressburg-Bratislava, Slovakia, under Nazism’s shadow. It is a shadow he managed to separate himself from physically, but which sticks to him philosophically and is at the core of his poetry. The parched sound of random loss is the root sound in many of his poems. The spawn of an unimaginable yesterday, Tuvia Ruebner is more than anything a poet of today.

His parents, his grandparents, and his little sister Litzi all perished at Auschwitz in 1942, a year after he immigrated to British Mandate Palestine. Forty years after their deaths, Ruebner’s first son, Moran, was sent to fight in Israel’s first Lebanese war. Moran left for South America the following year, estranged from his country and its wars, and after a few letters, was never heard from again.

In Ruebner’s poem “[My father was murdered],” one by one he enumerates his losses:

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No Easy Road to Freedom

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THE KILLING OF 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., last year and the events that followed sparked protests by the community in the St. Louis area asserting that black lives matter and ignited a discussion on race relations in the United States.

On the heels of non-indictments in the slaying of Brown and other black men, our nation focused its attention on the drastic inconsistencies inherent in our judicial system. To many observers, black lives had less standing in our nation than white lives.

Rodney King, Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, and the churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., are part of a long list of black victims of violence. They are victims of an American narrative that devalues black souls, black lives, black bodies, and black minds. In response to these tragic events, particularly since the non-indictment of the police officers who killed Brown and Garner, many evangelicals have been calling for a biblical practice that is often absent in American Christianity—the call to lament.

On one level I am thrilled that evangelicals are discovering the importance of lament in dealing with racial injustice. However, I am concerned that the way lament is being used by some white evangelicals is a watered-down, weak lament that is no lament at all.

Lament is not simply feeling bad that Brown won’t be able to go to college. Lament is not simply feeling sad that Garner’s kids no longer have a father. Lament is not asserting your right to confront the police because, as a white person, you won’t be treated in the same way that a black protester may be treated. Lament is not the passive acceptance of tragedy. Lament is not weakly assenting to the status quo. Lament is not simply the expression of sorrow in order to assuage feelings of guilt and the burden of responsibility.

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The Way of Hope


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Week after week, we can take on the biggest issues we face as a society — from continuing racism, mass incarceration, inequality, and poverty to gender violence and human trafficking, climate change, ISIS — and just try to be hopeful.

Or we can start by going deeper, to a more foundational and spiritual understanding of hope — rooted in our identity as the children of God, made in the image of God, as the only thing that will see us through times like this.

I believe we should start there. Because the biggest problem we face — the biggest enemy at the heart of many of the issues we must address — is hopelessness.

And perhaps the most important thing the world needs from the faith community is today is hope.

'We Are Brokenhearted'

Image via Jesus Cervantes/

Image via Jesus Cervantes/

We are brokenhearted by the murders of nine parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. We join our brothers and sisters in deep lament for the lives lost in this evil act, and our prayers go out to all of the victims, their families and their communities.

Atrocities like this wound the very soul of our nation. We must not merely attribute this horror to the depraved actions of one individual, mourn those we have lost, and move on as if there is nothing more to do. In his statement yesterday, President Obama quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s words in the wake of the bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Alabama in which four little girls were killed:  

"...We must be concerned not merely with who murdered [these girls], but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American Dream."

The deep wounds of racism, America's original sin, still linger in our society, our institutions, and in our minds and hearts — sometimes explicitly, but far more pervasively through unconscious bias. Wednesday's terrorist act is the latest manifestation of this lingering sin. Are there no safe places for black people in our country, even the places where they come together to worship?

We all have the responsibility to overcome both the attitudes and the structures of racism in America. Today we mourn, but tomorrow we must act. 

A Call for a National Lament

Mourners In Harlem Hold Prayer Service And Vigil For Victims Of Charleston Church Shooting, by Eric Thayer / Getty Images

Lament is not a passive act. Many Christians may hear the word lament and assume that feeling bad about suffering is the purpose of lament. How sad that people died. How sad that the shooter had a mental illness. But lament moves beyond bad feelings for the privileged. Lament is subversive and an act of protest. The powerful and the privileged have no problem being heard. It is the marginalized that need to be heard. The voiceless speak through lament. They cry out that things aren’t right. They are not the way things are supposed to be. Lament voices the prayers of the suffering and therefore serves as an act of protest against the powers.

Lament and the Call to Advocacy

Image via Paul Matthew Photography/

Image via Paul Matthew Photography/

The work of the prophet is to stand as an advocate for others. The advocate role is an important role in the ministry of justice. Many American Christians hold a position of privilege in American society. As the privileged, there is an important voice that can be raised on behalf of the marginalized. American Christians can advocate for the rights of the unborn, the poor, and the oppressed of our society. Part of our strength would not be to effect change that would further our privilege and affluence, but to advocate for change that would benefit the very least of our brothers and sisters. The role of the geber is to advocate for the suffering in Jerusalem and offer a lament on behalf of the suffering.

'That Song You Sing For The Dead'

BIBLICAL LAMENT includes both pleas to God for help and mournful dirges. Sometimes they are rooted in individual travails and grief, other times in anguish for those crushed by injustice or war.

The psalmist and the prophets dig deep into visceral images of bodily suffering—and stretch up, out, yearning to find symbols and metaphors in nature that might capture the mercy and presence of a God who, the psalmist isn’t afraid to say, is sometimes a bit elusive.

The album Carrie & Lowell is indie musician Sufjan Stevens’ multifaceted lament: For a mother, Carrie, he lost at least twice—to mental illness, addiction, and abandonment when he was a child and to cancer when he was a man. For the grief that surprised him after her death. For his inability, as he sings to his mother, to “save you from your sorrow,” hinting at that lingering, impossible guilt felt by so many children of troubled parents. Stevens reaches no tidy resolution in the course of the work (although early on, in the first song, he does offer that most basic, difficult, and saving grace: “I forgive you, mother”).

So why would you want to listen to something that speaks of so much pain? For starters, these are exquisitely spare, beautiful, and haunting folk-not-quite-rock songs. Stevens’ gift for hook and melody here is distilled, deceptively delicate, carried by few instruments and subtle effects. Layered vocals and harmonies swell up on a bridge or carry a song wordlessly to the end, like waiting choruses of angels, or ghosts.

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Resistance. Lamentation. Action.

Fist symbol. Photo via Arthimedes /

When stories of human trafficking or dramatic rescue operations come across our news feeds, we are understandably shocked. For a moment, our attention is grabbed and we feel genuine outrage toward the traffickers and, hopefully, compassion for the trafficked persons. But to what end? 

Sadly, the underground and criminal nature of human trafficking helps to keep the stark realities out of sight and, consequently, out of the minds of most people. When we do think of human trafficking, it tends to be as something that happens “over there” or in seedy brothels. It is somehow easier to blame the bad actors, pimps, traffickers, and sweatshop managers rather than recognize the multiple ways that we are connected to human trafficking through our everyday actions. Because we are, in fact, connected. As Pope Francis observed in his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium: “There is greater complicity than we think. The issue [modern slavery] involves everyone!”

Human trafficking is present in virtually every human community. Moreover, because the majority of people held in slavery today are forced to work in agriculture and mining, it is inevitable that products make it into the supply chain and our shopping carts. Sex trafficking also does not happen in a vacuum, but rather in a social context which tolerates, and even normalizes, sexual exploiation and the commodification of the human person.

It's Time Again: Depression and the Holidays

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Don’t check your watch. This is something else all together. We know it will soon be the end of November and the end of Thanksgiving weekend. In the Christian calendar, it’s the beginning of Advent, the season leading up to Christmas. For many people, the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is a tough time to get through. There are too many reminders of loss:

           -the empty chair at the Thanksgiving table;

          -the time when being alone turns to loneliness as everyone talks about family (some stores were closed on Thanksgiving to show support for families, but what if you are estranged from your family?)

          -the bright red lettering over Macy’s front door proclaims “BELIEVE” — but believe what? The very word can remind you that you don’t believe anything anymore. What time is it in your life right now?

Can we be as honest as the Bible?