Psalm 69 is a psalm of lament. Lament is a spiritual practice for those moments when it seems like the world is falling apart around us. Lament is not just complaining but expressing our deepest hurt, fear, concern and pain to God in the midst of emotional and spiritual and sometimes physical turmoil.
A lament follows a particular pattern. In most Psalm laments there is a petition followed by a complaint. In this case the Psalm begins: “Save me, O God” followed by “the waters have come up to my neck.” Laments often begin with a sense that the writer has been abandoned by God. Their world is crumbling and God seems to have disappeared. Laments are good for moments of death, for moments of receiving a diagnosis of some sort or moments when we witness violence in the world. This week we might look around and wonder where God is following the massacre in a Charleston church. This is a time for lament.
Lament may be personal or communal but it touches raw places in our lives. I want to walk you through a personal experience of lament that came to mind as I was reading this psalm.
For many years as a child and teenager it felt like God had abandoned me and left me alone. When I was in grade five, I invited a friend for a sleepover. She started a rumour that I was lesbian. I ended up in the principal’s office every day for a week as they tried to figure out what to do with me but no one ever talked to me about what I was experiencing and I didn’t understand what was happening. This was in the days before it was common to talk about sexual orientation and before it was a simple thing to Google. What I knew was that it felt like most of my friends disappeared and enemies and bullies seemed to be everywhere. I felt like everyone, including God, had abandoned me. My parents required that I go to church and so I went and I waited for God to save me. I waited for God to end the suffering and pain. I prayed that God would make it easier. I prayed that the people who hurt me would be punished. God seemed far away and unjust.
After about three years of bullying, in 1988 when the United Church was talking about sexual orientation and ministry, CBC radio interviewed a lesbian couple. Listening to this conversation was my first inkling that there was more than one sexual orientation. I knew that God had come through for me in our church’s courageous decision. I was no longer alone. I still didn’t fully understand the varieties of sexual orientation or what that meant in my life or the world but I grasped the church’s stance that no one is beyond God’s love. It felt like a lifeline.
And I went to church expecting to hear love expressed. I went to church expecting to experience God’s love first hand in my own church community and instead found that even in a community of faith, I was alone. And I was afraid. Even in the faith community, God had abandoned me. I could have stayed in a place of anger at God and the people who had hurt me. I could have stayed in a place of fear and aloneness– and I did for many years. But if we follow the pattern of lament, something else happens.
This psalm goes on for twenty-nine verses about how God has abandoned the writer, how the water is overwhelming them, how their enemies are coming from everywhere and surrounding them. This is a lament that goes on and on. The writer’s world is falling apart from every direction and in every way. This writer has nothing to live for and continues to plead with God.
After verse 29, something else happens. The pain, the anger, the fear and the bitterness are all spent. All that remains is God. The writer has poured out everything only to find that in that most painful spot—the spot that is now empty—God resides. This is the place where the addict hits rock bottom. This is the place where nothing could possibly get worse. In the place that is left behind when all the pain has been poured out, there is a spark of God that has the ability to sustain and guide us through the darkest of nights. That little spark that starts from emptiness has the ability to grow brighter and help to transform ourselves and the world. Lament is incomplete unless it seeks God’s transformation. Lament that remains as petition and complaint doesn’t accomplish anything except bitterness and pain.
As we see the massacre in Charleston and place this event within the context of ongoing racism there is so much to lament. In Canada we might lament the legacy of residential schools and the ways in which there seems to be no end to the hurt. We can lament the disparity in education, income, medical care, living conditions. We can lament all the hurt and pain that has been caused. Lament by itself gets us no further than acknowledging there’s a problem and maybe captivates us with fear, anger, bitterness or resentment. Lament by itself might give a sense of helplessness.
In the moment when we have poured everything out to God, there is finally space to experience God. Lament serves the purpose of turning us from our own sense of helplessness to a place where we can rely on God and be open to God’s spirit. When there is nothing left to lose we can experience God. We can experience God at the end of the rope or as we hit rock bottom. Lament takes us into the heart of God.
In the place where lament turns to praise, we can look back and see the God who walks with us and who nurtures us. In my own experience, I could look back and see glimpses of people who had reached out to me. I could identify a few moments when I had felt safe. It wasn’t that God had abandoned me in the lament and left me alone. My own experience was so overwhelming that I couldn’t see or feel anything beyond the pain and isolation. The sense that others had also been so isolated and the church’s acknowledgement of God’s love for all people was the turning point for me. That was the moment when I could begin to recognize that I hadn’t been abandoned by God. It was also the moment when I knew that God was calling me to a life of changing the world and that the hatred and violence didn’t need to be so overwhelming and consuming.
When we look at the experiences of racism and violence it might feel like God has disappeared. It might feel like God has simply left the world to fend for itself as we humans destroy each other with hatred and violence. As we witness the destruction in the world around us and pour out our grief, the moment when we catch a glimpse of God’s presence and can begin to affirm that we are not alone, is the moment where our lives and the world can change. That one thing that brings our attention back to God doesn’t need to be a big thing but it needs to gives us something to hold onto.
As I have listened to residential school survivors tell their stories, I lament the experiences of violence and abuse that occurred for so many. I lament the ongoing effects these experiences have on individuals and communities. This week I had an opportunity to speak with an elder who is leading a cultural camp for aboriginal youth to help show a better way. The elder hopes that the experiences at camp will prevent substance abuse and minimize violence. Having this conversation with an elder helps to move me from a place of lament to a place of hope.
Lament gives us a place to pour out our pain and frustration and our longing for change and salvation. The practice of lament is important in our faith as we give over our hurt and brokenness to God so that we may be healed and transformation can occur. May it be so in our lives and the world.