Voicing Our Laments

October 18, 2009

Scripture:  Psalm 22

Christine Nafziger

 

It’s interesting to me that the psalm Erv just read, Psalm 22, comes right before the very well-known psalm that we go to when we need comfort—the 23rd psalm.  The picture of quiet waters and green pastures stands in such contrast to the images in Psalm 22 of bones being out of joint and dogs and bulls surrounding the sufferer.  Look at the first verses of both of these psalms: Psalm 22:1 reads, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Psalm 23:1 reads, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”  How do we make sense of these two contrasting pictures of God—a God who abandons us and a God who provides for all we need? 

The range of human experience is broad indeed.  In one moment we experience such joy that our hearts overflow in gratitude to God, and in the next moment we experience such devastation that we demand to know what God is doing and where God has gone.  And both of these experiences are valid expressions. 

In the psalms we see the whole gamut of human emotion—from despair to delight, anguish to elation.  The writers of the psalms both sing the praises of God and question God, demanding action. 

Over the past two Sundays we have been focusing on testimony—speaking about the work of God in our lives and in the world.  Often when we hear the word “testimony” we think of telling when and how we became a Christian.  This is an important aspect of testimony, but it continues far beyond that.  God’s salvation is ongoing in our lives.  God continues to transform us, save us, restore us, challenge us, make himself known to us.  And this lifelong process is not without pain.      

There are two aspects of Christian testimony, one is telling others about the actions of God and the other is telling God the truth about ourselves and others.  Part of the truth about ourselves and others is that we are broken and we are sinful; we hurt and we despair.  This is part of our experience; we need to give voice to it.   So often we pretend like everything is all right with us.  We don’t want others to see our struggles. 

But the world wants and needs our honesty.  Daniel Raber shared something during sharing time last week that sticks out in my mind—he said he is glad to know this is not a perfect church.  The people here struggle, the people here sin.  It is not often enough that we deeply share the struggles in our lives, that we open ourselves and become vulnerable with others.  But we must do this so that the world knows that we are far from perfect, we do not have it all together, we are not better than the next person.  We too have questions, things we don’t understand, we too ask God what in the world he is doing. 

 

Readings (Denice, Bobby H., Shirley, Mahlon, Linda HK)

I am a 35 year old woman.  After trying to conceive for 3 years, I became pregnant with our first child.  What an exciting and joyful time.  The pregnancy went smoothly (as smoothly as pregnancies go!), until I went in for my 16 week appointment.  The doctor couldn’t find a heartbeat.  My precious little baby is dead.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

 

I am a 64 year old man with a wife, 4 children, and 7 grandchildren.  I retired from social work last year, looking forward to spending more time with my family and doing some volunteer work.  I began noticing that my memory was not as sharp as it used to be and I was having some difficulty with my speech.  I made an appointment with my physician and after tests and scans they discovered a malignant tumor in my brain.

 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

 

I recently got married and started a new job.  I’m so thankful for my spouse and the work I’m in.  But lately I’ve called in sick several times because I just can’t get myself out of bed.  I’m losing interest in things I used to love to do.  I can’t explain it, but there’s this feeling of darkness that I just can’t shake. 

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

 

I am a 16 year old young man.  People at school make fun of me.  They call me things like queer and fag.  I hate it, but I also hate these feelings I have.  I’m so confused.  I feel like I don’t fit in anywhere. 

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

 

I’ve been betrayed.  I trusted my closest friend of 10 years with a secret.  She went and told another friend.  She’s never done anything like this before.  I don’t understand.  Now the secret is spreading, changing, and growing.  Lies are being spoken about me in the community and I feel people’s eyes judging me. 

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

 

My God, my God, why have you forsaken us?

Sometimes in our lives we are living with so much pain that all we can do is question God.  Sometimes speaking a testimony that is faithful means speaking our questions of God, speaking our laments, our anguish. 

There is a play by William Shakespeare called King Lear.  In the final scene, the king is center stage holding his dead daughter Cordelia in his arms.  By the end of the play, this monarch who was once proud and sovereign is broken and dejected, his kingdom is in shambles because of his own foolishness and most of his family is dead because of his own scheming.  As he holds the limp body of his beloved daughter, he moans out his final lament, collapses and dies.  Witnessing this misery-filled moment, the duke of Albany offers a final summary:  “The weight of this sad time we must obey; Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” 

The writers of the psalms, the prophets, Job and others were able to speak what they felt, not what they ought to say.  We read of the deep anguish and pain they experienced:

 How long O Lord, will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me?  Look on me and answer, O Lord my God.  Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death.  (Psalm 13:1, 3)

O Lord, you have deceived me, and I was deceived; you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me.  (Jeremiah 20:7)

Sighing comes to me instead of food; my groans pour out like water.  What I feared has come upon me.  I have no peace, no quietness; I have no rest, but only turmoil.  (Job 3:24)

Lamentation is an inescapable part of life, but how often do we try to escape it, to ignore it in hopes the pain will go away?  How often do we say what we ought to say instead of speaking what we really feel? 

Someone recently told me that life is more brokenness than perfection—that it is the meat and potatoes of life.  The smooth sailing is the smaller part of life—the side dishes perhaps.  Can we see life this way?  It doesn’t mean having a dismal outlook but rather viewing the struggles as the main part of life and accepting that?  We want life to be good, enjoyable, fun.  And when difficult things come our way, well we know we are to learn something from them, but that doesn’t mean we’re real comfortable living in the pain.  But God asks us to stay in the pain, to embrace it, to feel it, experience it.  Not to run away from it or resist it or try to get through it as quickly as we can.  It’s easy to think that when we get through this or when we’re healed of that, life will be much better, then we can live more abundantly. But there is abundant life within the pain.  We prefer life to be mostly devoid of suffering, with a struggle here and there.  But that is not the reality of our lives. 

And that was not the reality of Christ’s life.  He knew that he didn’t fit in.  He knew that there were people who hated him.  He knew about his impending death.  He knew pain and he embraced it.  He also questioned it.  In the garden of Gethsemane he prays in his distress, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” (Mk. 14:36)  and on the cross he cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 

When Jesus speaks these words, he is naming what all of humanity feels at one time or another.  Jesus enters into the divine abandonment felt by each of us.  When Christ is on the cross and cries out with these words, he does not merely name or “experience” our pain; he takes it upon himself to transform it.  God enters our God-forsakenness to transform it into God’s blessedness.

As we see in Psalm 22, praise and lament are often very much intertwined.  For the first 21 verses of this psalm, the writer goes back and forth between lament and praise, desperation and trust.  Even as the psalmist questions God, he does so in the context of a deep faith in God.  The way the psalmist addresses God is rarely found in the scriptures.  He does not say O God, or just God, but my God.  The intimate relationship the writer has with God is not destroyed even by the most agonizing despair. 

The psalmist question’s God’s absence while at the same time affirming God’s presence:  O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.  Yet you are holy…in you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.”  The psalmist looks back to the past and is able to remember God’s faithfulness and deliverance.     

As we speak our laments and our questions, we can do so with the knowledge that God is our God.  His salvation is ongoing.  God has helped us in the past and he will do so again.  What an incredible testimony to share with the world—to name our questions and our deep pain, while at the same time naming our trust in the God who has been faithful to us. 

As the psalmist says in verse 22, “I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”  God’s hand is at work in our struggle.  This good news is for us to share with the whole congregation, and to declare to the world that we are afflicted but God hears us when we cry, that darkness may surround us but God is with us.    AMEN!

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