May 17, 2020
1 How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? 2 How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
3 Consider and answer me, O Lord my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, 4 and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.
5 But I trustedin your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. 6 I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.
We’ve been in this season where we’re seeing one another in person far less than we normally would, and if you’re anything like me, you’re probably sending more texts and making more phone calls as a way of staying connected. A few weeks ago, I texted one of our church members to wish them and their spouse a happy anniversary, and they replied by saying, thank you, and followed by asking ‘How many years for you and Callie?’ that is of course, how many years have we been married. Yet instead of writing years, it accidently autocorrected to ‘tears.’ How many tears for you and Callie?
And thinking that I’m funnier than I actually am, I quickly responded, ‘Almost four years now, and thankfully, only a handful of tears.’
All this to say though, even though the text was of course an accident, truth is, they’re not wrong. There have been a few tears. Of course there have been. It’s a part of the life we live. Single or married, young or old. There are going to be a few tears here or there like it or not.
And what I find so refreshing and ultimately so beautiful about the bible and the God that we worship is the acknowledge that we live in a world where there will be tears. It’s an acknowledgement that God is good, and yet life can often be hard. And that we have the freedom, the ability to bring not simply our worries and fears to God, but also our sorrows and grief, our desperation and pain, and yes, even our tears. You see, we worship a God that says it’s okay, it’s good and right even, to have a box of Kleenex in each pew.
And we know this is true for a variety of reasons and especially so because of the Book of Psalms, and because of one particular kind of Psalm that we find within it, what are known as the Psalms of Lament.
And what’s so striking about the Book of Psalms, is that out of the 150 Psalms that make up the book, 1/3 of them are Psalms of Lament. 1/3. That statistic alone says something powerful. It’s a reminder that lament is a key part of the Christian life.
After all, the Book of Psalms functions as the prayer book, or song book for God’s people, covering the gamut of emotionsand the highs and lows of the human experience. And lament is part of the Christian life and what it means to be human.
And so, the Psalms of Lament, and specifically for us today, Psalm 13, they teach us, show us, instruct God’s people on how to lament well. The Psalms of Lament give us the language we need to wrestle with the life we live and truths we know – that life is hard, yet God is good.
Now, before we get too far into this, it’s probably worth asking, what exactly is a lament? What does it mean to lament? Truth is, it’s not a word we really use all that often. Or maybe a better way to think of it is, how is it different from the other ways we process our tears and pain? How is it different from crying or venting or yelling or complaining or pleading?
Well, I think pastor and author Mark Vroegop says it best, when he says, a lament is a ‘prayer of pain that leads to trust.’
I love that nuanced and multi faceted definition. That a lament is not simply a prayer of pain, but yet one that leads us towards greater and greater trust in God himself.
You see, lament is neither despair nor denial.
Despair says, ‘There is no hope.’ Lament doesn’t say that. After all, look at how the Psalm ends – ‘but I have trusted in your steadfast love.’
And yet, lament isn’t denial either. Denial says, ‘It’s not a big deal. I’m not really experiencing pain.’ After all, look at how the Psalm begins,2 How long must I bear pain in my soul …
Lament is neither despair nor denial. A lament is a ‘prayer of pain that leads to trust.’
And this is the movement or progression we see in our Psalm today, Psalm 13.
Here again is how the Psalm begins,
1 How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? 2 How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
It’s impossible to miss the pain and sorrow that the Psalmist is feeling. It’s a feeling of desperation, a feeling of, ‘I’m not sure how long I can take this.’ And yet, even more, the Psalmist expresses a sense of God, ‘Where are you, are you even there, have you abandoned me completely?’ Clearly, the Psalmist has hit what must feel like rock bottom – and so he cries out to God.
Now for what it’s worth, you may hear the Psalmist’s words and think to yourself that this all sounds a bit too dramatic, or maybe simply that his experience doesn’t really match up with what you are experiencing in this COVID-19 season. You very well, and understandably so, may be thinking, that’s far more dire or extreme than what I’m going through.
After all, I’m guessing that most of us aren’t mourning the loss of a latte at Sweetwater Coffee or a workout at the YMCA, saying to yourself,
2 How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
I’m guessing most of us aren’t saying or thinking that. Now, maybe you are, and if so, I promise, there’s no judgment here.
But yet, this I know for sure, that in this COVID-19 season, in this ‘When will we ever move from Phase 1 to Phase 2 moment we’re in’, I know that you and I are asking the same basic question that the Psalmist is asking. That is, how long, how long, how long, how long?
God, how long are things going to be like this? Lord, how long is this all going to last? Will things ever return to normal?
How long, O Lord?
The Psalmist’s question is our question too. And so in light of that, here are three takeaways I want you to see when it comes to lament.
The first is this -
Give yourself the freedom to lament.
Friends, have we ourselves taken the time to lament in this season? Have we made space to lament the things we have lost, the things we miss, both big and small? It’s important that we do.
Here are a couple basic prompts for learning to lament.
One might be, to paraphrase verses 1 and 2 in your own words. What questions might you ask of God, what might you say to him after this question, ‘How long, O Lord?’
Or here’s another prompt. Fill in the blank.
‘God, I know you are blank, but it doesn’t feel like it today. ‘God, I know you are blank, but it doesn’t feel like it right now.’
That is a prayer of lament.
This week, I asked some members from our church family to lament with me and to reflect on some of the things we’ve lost in this season, some of the things that we miss, things big or small.
And here’s some of what they said,
Many people commented that they miss giving and receiving hugs from the people they love, whether that’s their extended family or our church family.
Our choir directors mentioned how much they miss the God’s Kids Choir, their energy, love, talent and smiles.
Many people commented that they miss traveling, particularly to see out of state family.
Another person mentioned they miss having their grandsons over for sleepovers with lots of snuggles.
Others mentioned concerts cancelled. Bucket list trips cancelled. Losing the freedom to go anywhere or do anything. Losing the ability to plan just about anything.
Many mentioned worshipping here at church, seeing our church family in person, singing together, fellowship hour together.
Maybe my favorite one was a very simple one, and that is, the loss of sleep. And that how somehow in a season where so much came to a screeching halt, life got busier, and therefore less sleep.
All things that we are lamenting at this time.
Here are a couple things I’m lamenting myself. One church related, another personal.
From a church standpoint, I miss you all. I miss gathering together for Sunday worship. Hopefully, that was a given. But there’s a particular moment on Sunday mornings that I especially miss. I miss those 4-5 minutes before worship where I walk the aisles, where I try and say hello and shake hands with each and every one one of you. That is always one of my favorite parts of Sunday mornings. And what saddens me all the more is that whenever we do come back together for Sunday worship, that very meet and greet moment will look much different in the era of social distancing, and that’s a very real loss for me.
From a personal standpoint, it saddens me that we haven’t been able to see our extended family who live out of state for a few months now, and what grieves me most when it comes to this is that our parents haven’t seen their grandson Noah for a few months. Truth is, it’s okay if I don’t see them for a few months, after all, I don’t really change all that much month to month. But little Noah, that little guy changes by the day. It grieves me that they’re not getting to see him more frequently and see his growth. And I know many of you can relate to this one and are grieving the very same thing.
Friends, have you given yourself the time and space to lament in this season? Don’t underestimate the importance of lament.
Here’s a second takeaway I want you to see that is related to the first and might be just as important, and that is,
Give others the freedom to lament.
You all, have we allowed the people we know and love the time and space and freedom necessary to lament?
It’s an important reminder for me, because at the risk of over-stereotyping here, I know as a guy and as a husband, my gut instinct is to try and fix things when Callie is hurting or grieving the loss of something. When truth is, I just need to keep my mouth shut, listen, allow her to lament, and if I say anything at all, to say something like, ‘Yeah, that sounds hard.’ Or ‘Yeah, that’s the worst.’
So, let the people you know and love lament.
I know it can be tough to know exactly what to say when the people around us are hurting and grieving. We want to find words of comfort and so sometimes we try and find the magic words that will fix everything when truth is, sometimes it just makes things worse.
I recently saw a post on Facebook that gave some incredible and I think biblical advice on what’s not helpful and helpful say when people are hurting. It said,
Instead of saying, ‘God never gives us more than we can handle.’ Try saying, ‘God is always with us, even when life is hard.’
Instead of saying, ‘Trust God’s timing,’ try saying ‘God weeps with us.’
Instead of saying, ‘God called her home, it must have been her time to go.’ Try saying, ‘Even death cannot separate us from the love of God.’
Or instead of saying, ‘Everything is going to be okay because God loves you,’ try saying, ‘God loves you, even when everything is not okay.’
So there you go. A few ways to reframe our words of comfort, in a way, that is more biblical, more true, and in the end, much more likely to bring real comfort.
Friends, in this season where you might be tempted to say to yourself and to others, ‘Hey, suck it up, It’s not that bad, toughen up,’ don’t be afraid to lament. And allow others to do the same.
And finally, here’s the third and final takeaway -
Reflect on God’s past goodness in your life as a way of growing in trust.
Here’s how the Psalm ends,
5 But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. 6 I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.
Isn’t that beautiful. It’s stunning, really. Here this Psalmist, in just a few short verses, moves from pain to trust, from sorrow to joy, from desperation to hope, from mourning to singing, why? Because of who God is and what He has done.
The Psalmist knows that two things can be true at once. That life is hard. And that God is good. Lament is living between those two poles, those two truths.
And one of the ways he’s able to do this is by reflecting on God’s past goodness in his life.
He says, ‘I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.’
This is how we can trust God while we lament. We look back on the ways God has dealt bountifully with us in the past. So you all, as you reflect back on your life, how has God dealt graciously with you? Where have you seen his steadfast love at work? Maybe it was how he provided for you and guided you in midst of a divorce, or cared for you during a cancer diagnosis, or how he comforted you during the loss of a spouse or a child. One of the most practical ways we can trust in God in our present is by reflecting on our past. By reflecting on his provision, his goodness, his trustworthiness in our past.
Earlier I quoted Mark Vroegop in saying a lament is a ‘prayer of pain that leads to trust.’
It’s a pretty remarkable claim that Mark and I think our Psalmist is making here - that the very act and practice of lament leads to trust. How can that be exactly?
Maybe it’s that the very process of lamenting before someone instills over time a greater sense of trust in that person, in the way that lamenting before a counselor establishes a bond and trust, knowing that that person is able and willing to hold your pain with you. After all, one of the names of God is that he is the Wonderful Counselor.
Yet I also have to believe that lament leads to trust because we as followers of Jesus lament before a God who lamented himself. For when Jesus was on the cross, he in no uncertain terms, lamented. He even quoted a Psalm of Lament, Psalm 22 when he was on the cross, ‘My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me? He was lamenting as in that moment, as he hung on a cross, he knew two things to be true at once. That this is hard. And God is good. And that God works all things together for our good.
Friends, we can lament before God because God lamented himself. And because God used the pain of the cross and out of it brought the hope of the resurrection, the first sign of a renewed and redeemed creation, we can lament with hope knowing that as followers of Jesus we’ll one day live in a world where we will never lament again.
But until that day, you and I have been given the freedom to lament. Because life is hard, God is good. It’s the language you and I need to live in that tension until He one day comes again.