lament

The Spirit moving you to dance semi naked through the streets (2 Samuel 6:14-20)

The Spirit moving you to dance semi naked through the streets (2 Samuel 6:14-20)

Sometimes kings want to dance in the streets with their scepters hanging out. Sometimes you want to mourn the death of children through social media. We do not have to shit on other people’s joy or pain while processing our own legitimate emotions. There is room for both.

Breaking your enemy's teeth, dissolving them like snail slime, aborting them like fetuses, & washing your feet in their blood. On Biblical Schadenfreude [A four for one Card Talk on Psalm 58 ]

Breaking your enemy's teeth, dissolving them like snail slime, aborting them like fetuses, & washing your feet in their blood. On Biblical Schadenfreude [A four for one Card Talk on Psalm 58 ]

Schadenfreude:  "enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others." Sometimes God wants to kick your enemies in the face on your behalf.

The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guarding your heart and your mind in Christ Jesus. (Php 4:7) [A 2017 New Year's Card Talk & Minor Critique of Christian Fatalism]

The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guarding your heart and your mind in Christ Jesus. (Php 4:7) [A 2017 New Year's Card Talk & Minor Critique of Christian Fatalism]

As we ponder the new year we would like to make a simple biblical suggestion: "God is in control" is often an example of Christian fatalism: an anti-intellectual, un-spiritual, amoral cop-out. God may have work to do, but so do you. 

God Causing All of Your Problems (Psalm 88)

"Seriously God, what the f . . . ?"

~ Too many hearts from the beginning till now.


Here is the harsh reality: over 80% of the psalms contain some measure of complaint or request for assistance from God. Well over 1/3 of the Psalter are psalms of lament, what Walter Brueggemann  calls psalms of disorientation. These are the psalms that record the loss of stability, the loss of equilibrium from our lives.  Conflict and trouble have crept or charged in. The world is not as it should be.  We are clawing at the sides of a dark pit, while our ever-present enemies taunt our pain like a dangled rope. 

In much of modern western Christianity, psalms of lament are disrespected. If not completely ignored, they are made into songs, included in sermons, and thrown into bad Christian self-help books by cutting out the cries of pain and focusing on the possible happy endings. Pain is only seen as a path to progress. Hurt paves the road to heaven.

Troubling words and images are revised or culled altogether, and calls for vengeance have little place in polite churches. There is no asking YHWH to destroy enemies like salt does a snail, or to make those who harm us like a stillborn fetus (Psalm 58). It is inappropriate to bestow heavenly blessings upon those who smash the oppressor’s babies against jagged rocks (Psalm 137). None of that fits polite church culture. That level of pain is censored.

Similarly, Psalm 88 is forgotten – so forgotten it is not even included in the Revised Common Lectionary. Why? Because Psalm 88 doesn’t play nice with the other psalms: She’s the rebel who said to hell with biblical poetic conventions, I do what I want.


There is a structure that all psalms of lament follow. They contain 1) an address to God, 2) the raising of complaints and/or petitions to God, 3) a confession of trust in God, and finally 4) a promise to praise God once He comes through. In some respects, psalms of lament are how some issue fox-hole prayers: “God, shit just got real. I need Your help. Even though the situation looks bleak, I know You got my back. Thank You in advance. I owe You one.”

All psalms of lament follow this basis structure. All of them contain a petitioned problem but end in pronounced praise. All of them.  Except Psalm 88.  It is the only psalm without a turn toward hope, praise, or promises to God.  

 More than that Psalm 88 is an indictment of God: The Lord sits not on His throne but on the witness stand.

O Lord, God of my salvation,
    when, at night, I cry out in your presence,
 let my prayer come before you;
    incline your ear to my cry.

For my soul is full of troubles,
    and my life draws near to Sheol.
I am counted among those who go down to the Pit;
    I am like those who have no help,
like those forsaken among the dead,
    like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more,
    for they are cut off from your hand.

In the sleepless night, we cry, we beg for God to hear our prayer, but hear no answer. Our soul full of troubles, our life on the brink of death, we feel forgotten by silent skies and lead-covered clouds.  The only thing we are sure of is the source of our pain, the one who stands accused:

You have put me in the depths of the Pit
       in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
       and you overwhelm me with all your waves.
You have caused my companions to shun me;
       you have made me a thing of horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
       my eye grows dim through sorrow…

 

From the witness stand, the divine is silent. The Almighty seems to plead the fifth. But still we press the witness for answers:

But I, O Lord, cry out to you;
    in the morning my prayer comes before you.
O Lord, why do you cast me off?
    Why do you hide your face from me?

 Still no answer is forthcoming, only a realization:

 Wretched and close to death from my youth up,
    I suffer your terrors; I am desperate.
Your wrath has swept over me;
    your dread assaults destroy me.
They surround me like a flood all day long;
    from all sides they close in on me.
You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me;
    my companions are in darkness.

And there the psalm ends. There is no turn towards the good. There is no easy resolution or a nod toward the possibility of one. It ends emotional, evoking the words of a grief-stricken C.S. Lewis:  “The conclusion I dread is not 'So there's no God after all,' but 'So this is what God's really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’”  ~ A Grief Observed

 

What do we do with this? First remember our humanity, and the humanity of the author.


“The Psalms, with a few exceptions, are not the voice of God addressing us. They are rather the voice of our own common humanity – gathered over a long period of time, but a voice that continues to have amazing authenticity and contemporaneity. It speaks about life the way it really is, for in those deeply human dimensions the same issues and possibilities persist. And so when we turn to the Psalms it means we enter into the midst of that voice of humanity and decide to take our stand with that voice. We are prepared to speak among them and with them and for them, to express our solidarity with the anguished, joyous human pilgrimage. We add a voice to the common elation, shared grief, and communal rage that bests us all.”  ~ Walter Bruggemann, Praying the Psalms 


Second, we remember the reality of our perception. Sometimes God is hidden from our sight, silent to our ears, beyond our grasping, bloodied fingers. And that is why this psalm is so beautiful and appropriate to complete the Psalter.

It is present to say the questions “why?” and “how long?” are appropriate. That asking “what did I/he/she/we/they do to deserve this?” is valid.

That it is okay to scream, even at God, because the lines of communication are still open: at least you’re still talking.

And besides, God can take it.

But what do we know? We made this game and you probably think we’re going to Hell. 


                                               "Hagar in the Wilderness," Gustave Dore

                                               "Hagar in the Wilderness," Gustave Dore

If the above didn't drive you to drink, then you should read about why “There really aren’t enough good hymns written about_______”

Babies with their brains dashed against stones (Psalms 137)

We've taken some hits for this card, which puts us in good company: so has God. We and the Almighty would like some vindication.

We (the creators of the game, not God) went to different "Christian liberal arts colleges" where we heard too many people, including religion professors who should have known better, accuse God of "dashing babies against rocks" with omnipotently calloused hands, or ordering the children of Israel to do so, using this passage as a source.

Does the Divine Warrior occasionally order the slaughter of whole nations, men, women and children, in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament? Yes (see our post about "Not giving a $h!t about the Canaanites"); however, this psalm is not such an example, and it is important to recognize that.


The speaker is not God, it is an individual crying out to God on behalf of his (some scholars argue her) people in their time of abject suffering. They are "by the rivers of Babylon," mocked by their oppressors after their Temple has been destroyed, their mothers and daughters raped, their fathers and sons decimated, and the survivors death-marched across a desert.

This is a song of lament hummed traversing The Middle Passage, chanted across the Trail of Tears, whispered in cattle cars to Auschwitz.

From a heart of sorrow the psalmist wishes equal harm to befall his/her tormentors, cries to the heavens for it to be a reality, but God does not swing any infants by the ankles, nor order such to take place. God's hands are clean and so is the singer's. No Babylonian children were harmed in the making of this psalm. But that is (almost) a secondary point.

Here is what should give you pause:

If you cannot fathom the level of anguish required for a normal person to wish a gruesome death upon another's child, then you have lived a charmed life and should praise whatever deity you hold dear; but how dare you blithely minimize or judge someone else's expression of a pain you can't comprehend?

Who are we to criminalize another, not for action, but a plea of distress to God? And what hubris does it require to indict God for not condemning them for their poetic, emotional release?

Perhaps we should ease up on people in pain.

Perhaps we should allow them to honestly grieve in their own way.

 

But what do we know: we made this game and you probably think we're going to Hell anyway.

The Pain and Pleasure of a God Who Hovers

[Talk for a future card]

We currently don’t have any cards that address Passover. Due to recent events in our lives and in the world (death, destruction, desperation) we are beginning to rethink this. The question of God’s presence in the face of human suffering is throughout the narrative. Allow us to localize it further.

“For the LORD will pass through to smite the Egyptians; and when he sees the blood upon the lintel, and on the two side posts, the LORD will pass over the door, and will not suffer the destroyer to come in unto your houses to smite you.” (Exodus 12:23)

You know the story: through his proxy Moses, God has upped the plague ante in his battle with Pharaoh. The first born of every household will die at the hands of another divine proxy, The Destroyer (מַּשְׁחִיתהַ), if those inside do not have the symbolic blood affixed to their posts and lintel. The Destroyer will “pass” by if the blood is there.

But notice: “pass” is said twice in this verse, and they are not the same Hebrew word.

First “the LORD will pass{עָבַר `abar } through to smite the Egyptians” (and any Israelite who does not have the blood appropriately splattered)— the LORD, and The Destroyer, will deal death throughout the land. But on the houses with the blood, “the LORD will pass {פָּסַח pacach} over the door” and keep The Destroyer (and Himself) at bay. These two words do not share the same meaning.

The first pass {עָבַר `abar } means to transverse from one location to another— to pass over, through, under something; however the second pass{פָּסַח pacach} might be better translated as “to hover.”

Consider two other passages, in different contexts, where the word is used.

1 Kings 18:21:

And Elijah came unto all the people, and said,” How long will you hover {פָּסַח -pacach} between two opinions? if the LORD be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him.” And the people answered him not a word.

For centuries commentators have shown that Elijah is conjuring an image of a bird between two branches; while some have argued that the bird is “hopping” between the branches, the image of the bird hovering is more appropriate to the people’s context: a bird cannot keep up that type of exertion indefinitely, it must choose where it will land, as the people were being demanded for a choice.

Isaiah 31:5:

As birds flying, so will the LORD of hosts defend Jerusalem; defending also he will deliver it; and hovering {פָּסַח -pacach} over he will preserve it.

Again, a prophet uses this word with images of birds in flight. A simple fly over, a quick passing over is not enough to secure the borders of God’s people. The LORD takes up residence over Jerusalem to stop all intruding forces.

The word means to hover over, to remain above something, not merely to pass by.

The image of God hovering over us, protecting us, sparing us from evil, is a great comfort. Until we return to the Exodus passage, where we see the angelic/demon weapon of God’s will, heavily panting beside the Almighty’s wings, waiting to be unleashed.

Until we turn on the news and see the swirling mass of devastation in the Philippines.

Until we walk outside and a thousand disasters unimagined descend, or creep within our comfortably closed doors.

Were the Egyptian infants any more worthy of death than those in Tacloban or Newtown?

We will admit the context is different, but the image is plain: God hovers overhead as death and life hangs in the balance. An image we find a balm and a burden, depending on the time of day, or season of news cycles.

But what do we know: we made this game and are aware that sometimes this world feels like it is all the Hell that we need.