Lament: a reflection from John on this morning’s sermon
This morning, Duncan was reflecting on the place of lament in our experience as Christians, using as his text Psalm 13, which is attributed to King David. We’re not told to which of the many hard times in David’s life this Psalm refers to – was it a product of his experience as a young man, hounded by his enemies; or the deep pain of his bereavements; or the sorrow resulting from his own poor moral choices?
But it is to our benefit that we aren’t told, because we can use David’s words as a template for our own lament, whatever the cause of our pain and anguish may be – COVID-19 and its consequences; the looming global climate crisis; the world’s inequalities; or something personal to us. Here are the words Psalm 13 gives us:
How long, Lord? Will you forget me for ever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, ‘I have overcome him,’
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me
It’s hard when other people are praising God apparently joyfully at times when we know only sorrow – but we learn from the Bible that lament is part of life, and part of the spiritual journey.
Duncan highlighted three aspects of the Psalm.
Firstly perseverance. When the going gets tough, when we are crying out in the darkness ‘How long, God?’ we may feel ‘Should I abandon faith? Is there any point in continuing to call out to a silent God?’ But David perseveres. I think of St Paul’s comment in Romans 8:26 – ‘the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.’
When all we can manage are ‘wordless groans’ we are sharing, as Duncan said, in the lament of God over a fallen world. God prays with us and in us as we cry out in the hard times. And so we continue through our dark valleys of the shadow, knowing that we are not along.
Secondly honesty. If it reflecting the experiences of people of faith in the Bible, Christians in community should be honest with one another. If we pretend to a lead a constantly victorious Christian life when we know full well this is not the reality; if we pretend to spiritual emotions which have in fact long evaporated; then we are deceiving ourselves, distancing ourselves from reality, and modelling to others a false Christian experience.
There will be times of pain and darkness – sometimes through things beyond our control, sometimes as a consequence of our own unhelpful choices. There will be times when God seems far off. But it’s all right to be honest with God, OK to pour our anger and frustration and tears and sorrow. We are loved and in the catharsis of honest expression we will find healing. And it’s OK to be honest with one another, as we share the hard times, and encourage one another through the hard times. Honesty is such blessed relief and release.
And thirdly, patience. I was wondering what Duncan meant by the difference between patience and perseverance. Perhaps perseverance is holding on in the darkness until we can say again ‘I trust in your unfailing love.’ To be able to say those words honestly means that inner healing has already reached us – ‘Yes Lord, again you are with me!’
At the level of experience the worst is over. But the exterior situation which caused our anguish may not have materially changed – and it may in fact have worsened. We need patience as we live forward, looking out for signs of the redeeming love which we have once more encountered at work in our situation.
The Psalm is very much an individual lament which chimes with our 21st centurywestern individualism. But in the Bible faith is often a community experience, and life in church encourages us to recover that sense of community. And there are things which it is appropriate for us to lament as a community, as in the prayer Shona read this morning about those affected in different ways by the coronavirus. We lament together, we are honest to God together, together we find rest in the unfailing love of God. As a church we need to cultivate this sense of a community on a journey together.
In lamenting, we follow in the steps of Jesus. ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Matthew 27:46) In a reflection on Psalm 13, poet and theologian Malcolm Guite interprets it in the light of Christ’s journey on our behalf through death to resurrection:
Come down to free us, come as our true friend,
How long, how long? Oh do not hide your face
Or let me sleep in death, but light my end,
Till it becomes a bright beginning. Place
Your wounded hands in mine and raise me up
That even grief itself may turn to grace.
Then I will sing a song of sudden hope,
Then I will praise my saviour, the divine
Companion who drank the bitter cup
And in so doing made it flow with wine,
That his strong love might overrun my heart
And all his joy in heaven might be mine.
Then I will sing his song, and take my part
In Love’s true music, as his kingdom comes
And heaven’s hidden gates are drawn apart.