Lament as Pilgrimage

This is the text from a meditation on lament, offered on March 25, 2009 in our continuing series of Wednesday evening Lenten liturgies. The music for the evening was offered by Kerri Woelke, with Brian James sitting in to play a bit of rootsy and atmospheric organ.


his is the fourth in a series of five evenings built around the theme of pilgrimage.  Jim Draper launched us out on this series, with a reflective wandering through some of the great old hymns of pilgrimage.  He invited us to think a bit about what kind of church it was that produced those hymns, how different is our church is in these times, but also what fresh insight this church of ours might need to hear from that church of an earlier time.

The next two weeks found us hearing stories of actual, physical walking pilgrimages; one taken along the Camino trail by the musician Oliver Schroer, and one by a group of aboriginal women who year by year have systematically walked their way around the Great Lakes.  Each of those pilgrimages were marked by both great joy and deep struggle; that is often the stuff of a pilgrim’s walk.

Both tonight and next Wednesday we’ll be invited to consider pilgrimages of a different sort; what you might call an inner pilgrimage.  Next Wednesday, Vincent Solomon will offer some words on the grace that may be encountered in the midst of the storm, the hard times.  Tonight, in the biblical texts read, in the songs Kerri sings and in the words I offer, it is pilgrimage as lament.

But why lament?  If you’re a fan of Monty Python, you’ll know the scene in The Holy Grail where God tells King Arthur to “quit groveling,” and to stop reciting all of those “depressing psalms.”  Fully a third of the 150 biblical psalms are laments, and if you add in things like the Book of Lamentations and all of the lament material from the prophets, you’re covering a lot of text.

What’s the point of that?  To make yet another Monty Python reference, wouldn’t it be better to “always look on the bright side of life?”  The power of positive thinking and all that?

Consider these words from the rock musician Bono, lead vocalist for U2:

At the age of 12, I was a fan of David. He felt familiar, like a pop star could feel familiar. The words of the psalms were as poetic as they were religious, and he was a star. Before David could fulfil the prophecy and become the king of Israel, he had to take quite a beating. He was forced into exile and ended up in a cave in some no-name border town facing the collapse of his ego and abandonment by God. But this is where the soap opera got interesting. This is where David was said to have composed his first psalm — a blues. That’s what a lot of the psalms feel like to me, the blues. Man shouting at God — “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me?” (Psalm 22).

The blues… African-American music born of the blood and sweat and pain of slavery; the same cultural soil that gave birth to gospel music.   Maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that both forms came from the same starting point, for embedded in the gospel itself is a deep awareness of the blues.  And as Walter Brueggemann observes, when our liturgies have no room for lament – for the blues – worship “is mistaken, dishonest, and destructive… such worship is destructive because it requires persons to engage in enormous denial and pretense about how life really is.”

If all we ever sang were alleluias and hosannas and praise songs, what would happen when the bottom fell out of our lives?  If in our mother tongue of faith we have no words of sorrow, of protest, of loss, what can we possibly say when we lose?

And of course, this is no theoretical matter of “if the bottom falls out” or “if we lose.”  It is never “if”, and always “when.”

We read to you tonight a loose translation of Psalm 88, which is the lone psalm that simply refuses to resolve in hope.  Most of the time the laments do move to some resolution, even if that is just a hope-filled cry for relief.  The author of Psalm 88 is not convinced.   The last few verses again, this time from the NRSV:

O Lord, why do you cast me off?
Why do you hide your face from me?
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 neighbour to shun me;
my companions are in darkness

Do you hear it?  This psalmist is actually convinced that God is doing this, whatever this is.  And yet, this psalmist simply cannot help but write that out in clear and uncompromising words; this writer cannot not address God in pained, blues-soaked prayer.

Of these laments, Calvin Seerveld writes, “Wrestling in faith with God for rescue and blessing, knuckles bared, fired up with chutzpah, is what the LORD wants from God’s adopted children.  Wrestling with God is not pretty, because it is a matter of life or death.” (Voicing God’s Psalms, Eerdmans 2005, p. 63)

Sometimes, though, we can get trapped.  We can begin to imagine that this is not a pilgrimage, but rather our sorry lot in life.  We can begin to believe that we’ve ruined things beyond repair, or worse, God is raining ruin upon us because we’ve erred and there is no way back.

And there may not be a way back, because in fact on a pilgrimage the way is always through and forward.  Even if we’re going in circles for a time, the way is forward.  That’s not naïve optimism; it is more like Seerveld’s chutzpah.

Consider the words we read tonight from the Book of Lamentations:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.

Do you know the context for these words?  Jerusalem lies in ruins, having been ravaged by the Babylonians.  People are starving in the streets, and the calculated military terrorism wrought by the Babylonian army is nightmarish.  The Book of Lamentations is five chapters of almost unrelenting sorrow, but then for a few verses in the middle of the third chapter, it breaks and sings about God’s steadfastness.  Not because things feel so good; they don’t.  No, the singer proclaims God’s steadfastness out of a place of stubbornness and resilience.  He would understand the Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn when he sings, “you got to kick at the darkness until it bleeds daylight.”

From Calvin Seerveld again:

Would to God the psalms could teach us the tensile strength of pleading with the LORD, of wrestling with God, if not for ourselves then as intercessors for others who desperately need protective custody.  If we take these psalms on our lips, in our mouth, actually to wrestle earnestly with God, the LORD will indeed give grit to mature our faith and maybe, as the Angel of the LORD did once upon a time for Jacob (‘the deceiver’), bless us with a handicap, a thorn in the flesh, to keep God’s servants seasoned and humble (Gen 32; 2 Cor 12:1-10).  The well-worn phrase of the prayer Christ taught us has a feisty existential dimension: “Give us today, LORD, our daily manna – the food we need, the emotional well-being, the reflective insight, the wisdom to rule with mercy, O LORD, lest we perish! (Voicing God’s Psalms, pp. 63-4)

Give us this day the manna we need, O Lord:  the words, the insight, the courage, the stubbornness.  To pray in all of the seasons of life, and particularly in those seasons where we seem at such a loss for what to say.  Give us this manna.

Jamie Howison

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