“The more you see the less you know, the less you find out as you go. I knew much more then than I do now” (U2: 2004).
A disaster like the one in Haiti stimulates deep questions. A friend spoke about a Bible study the other night. She said that she is beginning to understand how people might feel when they come to church with doubt and hard questions. Curious, I listened intently to her reflection. “The more that I study scripture, the more questions that I have”, she said. “The other night, I laid it out there. I listened to the nice little answers that make us all feel good, and then asked the hard questions. You know those questions that are full of doubt, that deal with pain, suffering, and why people only thinking of themselves seem to prosper. Every time I asked a question, I got a brisk answer back. It was as if everyone was scared of the questions. The conversation had to be resolved with answers. I am beginning to understand why people do not like church.”
The more that I reflect on this conversation the more I see how important the Writings in the Old Testament are for helping us deal with the tragic realities of life. The more that I learn about living life with God from the Writings, the less certainty I have in beliefs and the more certainty I have in God. This personal paradox reflects the paradox in the Writings. The wisdom of Proverbs contrasts with Ecclesiastes and Job. The Psalms contain praise, lament and thanksgiving. The book of Ester tells of the salvation of the Jews who in turn slaughter those from whom they found delivery. If there is one common theme in the Writings, it is paradox.
However, hiding just below the surface in the Writings is a greater theme that holds this paradox. This greater theme enables the existence of paradox, challenging one to claim that that they know the answers to the great questions of life. This theme is God’s hesed. It is because of God’s hesed—steadfast love or faithfulness— that we find lament, praise, love, hate, tears, and joy in the Writings. Without this hesed, there are only brisk answers that have no room for paradox, and it is paradox that enables faith itself.
It seems very fitting that roughly one third of the Psalms are laments. These laments are both individual (ex. Psalm 4, 13, 22, 30, 38) and corporate (ex. Psalm 44, 74, 80, 83, 106). Although these Psalms usually include thanksgiving and praise, they can also be troubling. These Psalms challenge our conception of God and the way that we think we should talk to God. We are more comfortable with the Psalms in which we see trust put in God who is a refuge and source of strength (Psalm 9, 18, 46). The Psalms that carry lament and petition to God for justice when there is a sense that injustice has occurred give us pause (Psalm 4:1, 5:2, 7:5-7, 17:1, 130:2-3). Internally we cringe at the prospect that we might be pushing God too far. We fear deep inside that, maybe we will lose favor with God if we question, complain, and get angry. We might just lose our place in heaven if we get on God’s bad side. Yet, petition and lament is able to occur in the Writings because God is just and righteous (Psalm 11:6-7, 33:4-6, 140:11-13, Job 34:11-13, 2 Chronicles 9:7-9, Ezra 7:24-26). The writings show that God is faithful, and steadfast in love.
Brueggeman points out in his article The Costly Loss of Lament that our modern church, in turning away from laments, has experienced a loss of genuine covenant interaction (Brueggemann 1986:62). This seems to hit home in the reality of the faith tradition I have grown up in and in conversations like that mentioned above. This loss of lament, leads to a faith that is unable to deal with the real, messy, paradoxical reality of life. As Brueggemann writes, we become like “yes people” surrounding the one in charge, always speaking as we think we should so that we can stay close to power. By acting this way, we betray the reality of life and the reality of a God who is bigger than our manipulation, imagination and control. Bruggemann asserts that this risky undertaking of lament shows our understanding of lament to be an act of faith in a transforming and faithful God (:64).
Maybe this is why I find lament Psalms, such as Psalm 88, so interesting. Psalm 88 is just so real. I actually find it encouraging. This Psalm begins “O LORD, the God who saves me, day and night I cry out before you” (88:1) and ends “You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend” (88:18). If we could never speak to God in this way, would we really be in relationship with God? There is a sense in this Psalm of the overwhelming hyper-presence of God. God is so close that God seems far. God, in God’s overwhelming holy presence, seems removed yet present.
These lament Psalms are a great reminder of the mystery of knowing an unknowable God. The doubt that creeps into the subtlety of the passages is the breeding ground for the faith that twists its way through the same passages. This is a practical orthodoxy. It does not defend belief in God, but believes as a way of existing in this world.
Our uncomfortable relationship with lament and the questions that emerge as we study the Writings raises an important question. Where is our faith rooted? It may be easy to say that we need to risk the faith that we think we have. However, what if our faith is misplaced and rooted in ourselves rather than God? The Writings challenge us to think about to whom we ascribe lordship. We need to study, read together and write some laments as congregations so that we can risk the faith that we think we have. Maybe we should spend some time this week in lament for Haiti, our world and other things that God places on our hearts.
Brueggemann, Walter. 2002. Reverberations of faith: a theological handbook of Old Testament themes. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press.
____________ “The Costly Loss of Lament” in Israel’s mysterious God: an analysis of some Old Testament narratives, Bernard P. Robinson, 1986. Newcastle upon Tyne: Grevatt & Grevatt.
U2 . 2004. “City of Blinding Lights”. How to dismantle an atomic bomb. [United States]: Interscope Records.