When Malaysia Airline Flight 17 was shot down over the Ukraine, a video was posted on line with the news footage of the disaster and a voice singing the words of this Psalm we just heard. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H7q5ggN9C_0) Sometimes, the only words we can say in moments of despair are the words we have inherited from our faith. The words of the Psalmist could just as easily be the words of a mother who has tragically lost a child, the song of a people who have been oppressed for centuries, the cry of a father who has had his child taken away from him and given to strangers.
There are more Psalms of Lament than anything else in the book of Psalms, which might tell us that though history and culture may have changed, our human experience and emotions have not. About a third of the Psalms are laments. They give space then and now for us to cry out to God in our own place and time about the personal and the political events that leave us with that sense of being under siege, isolated, desperate, angry or alone. The Psalms are poetry: they use metaphorical language and speak with both a human voice and the divine voice; they are meant to be sung to music, and to be read as a source for spiritual meditation and prayer.
In the past year I have heard a lot of lament. I have read laments on Facebook about national and international politics, environmental devastation, racism, hunger, homelessness, cancer, dementia, children with disabilities or life-threatening diseases, ignorance, shallowness, drug addiction and overdoses, corruption, and more. They have been personal, and they have been political. Some have been addressed to other human beings, some to society as a whole, and some, even, to God.
If you listen to the songs on the radio or the internet, there are many about the usual topics: romance, sex, fun in the sun, partying, dancing, and so on – but as long as there have been songs there have also been songs of lament. There’s Shakespeare’s “A Lover’s Lament” from Twelfth Night”; “The Lament of Flora MacDonald” from the Jacobean period; “Wayfaring Stranger” in the early 19th century (recorded in this decade by Ed Sheeran); “A Mother’s Prayer for Her Boy Out There” from the First World War; “I’ll Be Seeing You” from the Second. Billie Holliday singing “Strange Fruit”; “Rainy Days and Mondays” by the Carpenters or “Cat’s in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin or Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally)”, which is about as close to a biblical lament as you get in pop music. Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”. Even pop groups like Abba or the Bee Gees had “laments”: ABBA’s “Chiquitita” and the Bee Gee’s “Mr Jones”; a whole lots of songs by the Eurythmics, U2 or Sinead O’ Connor; (U2s “Sunday Bloody Sunday”); Ani DiFranco “The Pacifist’s Lament” ; Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind”; Green Day’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”; “Marvin’s Room” by Drake. Johnny Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” recorded a year before his death – if you can watch the video without crying you’re stronger than I am!
We could go on and on. Did you know that the first number one song on the Billboard Charts was “I’ll Never Smile Again?”; it was inspired by the death of musician Ruth Lowe’s husband? A lament at the top of the charts, when the charts were first invented.
It’s surprising how many hit songs are sad songs. Most of them are about break-ups and the loss of love, but not all. Some of them take on larger themes and express the struggle to make sense of a world that just doesn’t seem to work the way it should. What makes Biblical Psalms unusual is they don’t stop with the sadness. They begin in that moment, recognizing the disorientation, expressing those feelings of brokenness: “2How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long “; but then there’s what we might call “the ask” – the plea to God to ease the pain somehow: “.3Consider and answer me, O Lord my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,.” There’s an expression of trust:” 5But I trusted in your steadfast love.” There’s also a promise. “6I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me”.
The cry of pain, the plea for help, the expression of trust, and the promise of praise – all of these are part of Biblical lament – and together, they form a prayer that is powerful and transformative, whether spoken or sung.
There are many people who believe they’re not allowed to get angry with God, to express fear or sorrow or despair or rage. That’s when I recommend the Psalms. They remind us that the life of faith is a dialogue with God, a living encounter, in which all of life, even the really awful bits, are part of what we take to God.
What might your prayer of lament be today? What is it that causes you to cry out to God? Can you take that to God in prayer? If you don’t have the words, don’t worry. The Psalms are here to help us; and if not the Psalms, perhaps one of the songs of lament from our hymnbooks. We know “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”. One of the types of music deliberately included in More Voices when it was published was hymns of lament. This gives us the gift of hymns to express what we cannot find the words for ourselves. And if even the words of the hymns or the Psalms are not enough to contain your lament? Pray anyway. Even when we have no words, the Holy Spirit prays in us, bringing the deepest longings of our hearts into the heart of God.
This week as I prepare memorials for two people – a young man who lost his life tragically and an elderly friend who passed away peacefully with her family around her – the words of lament feel very close to my heart. Sometimes life just doesn’t make sense; but as the quotation at the beginning of this service says, “learning to live with the rain” is where our faith deepens, becomes more honest, more true. In facing the chaos of life, we discover that God is there, too, that we are not alone, and that somehow, in some way we cannot see now, God will bring us through to a place where we can once again know blessing and gratitude. We trust in God’s love, and we rejoice in God’s mercy. May it be so.