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The Voice of Lament

Updated: Oct 2, 2020

Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 7th of Sixth Month, 2020

Speaker: Brian C. Young

Scripture: Psalm 22:1–2, 14–15

Psalm 22:1-2, 14-15, NRSV:

1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?

2 My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest.

14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted within me.

15 My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death.

Good morning, Friends.

This morning I come to you with few words. The events of these past two weeks have made it difficult for me to know what words are most helpful right now.

Here this morning, we have to acknowledge the season of grieving we are in today: there is so much to mourn. In recent months we have lost beloved members of the West Richmond community, and beloved family members.

Friends in the Earlham and ESR communities are grieving the loss of co-workers laid off due to budget cuts, in an atmosphere of overall uncertainty about the next academic year.

The continuing COVID-19 pandemic has left more than 100,000 dead in the US alone.

And this is a time of grieving our deep national sicknesses, which go back much further than COVID-19: the sickness of racism and white supremacy, which have been with us since 1619; the sickness of violence infecting our body politic; the over-policing of communities of color, which is just one of the places where these two deep sicknesses intersect; the violence that we have visited upon other nations in the name of freedom and democracy.

Once again, we are faced with the murders of black men and women who have died at the hands of police officers. Today we lift up the names of George Floyd of Minneapolis, and Breonna Taylor of Louisville, both killed by police action; Mr. Floyd less than two weeks ago, Ms. Taylor in her own home, asleep in her own bed, in March. And with them we number Ahmaud Arbery, of Georgia, who was shot by a former law enforcement investigator in February. I didn’t know any of these beloved people, and they have been eulogized elsewhere by people who did. But we need to name them today, to recognize them, and to say that their deaths must not be in vain. The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery expose, once again, the differences between what people of color can expect and what white people can expect from law enforcement and the criminal justice system in this country.

But our purpose here is not simply to mourn. Our grieving must not be just for us, a private conversation here in our Zoom session. Even as we reflect upon these tragedies, we have to remember that we are not alone. We gather to worship the God who is the source of all life, and so we must reach beyond and seek the ear of the Almighty with our cries.

And when we do, our mourning becomes something more—it becomes lament. Lament is a movement of the spirit that is all through the Hebrew Bible, but that arguably doesn’t show up in very many places in the New Testament. The wardrobe for lament is sackcloth and ashes on one’s head. Lament includes complaint, but it’s not just complaint.

Lament is what happens when we reach towards God, the only one fully capable of coming to our aid, and put our complaint on God. Oftentimes lament begins with an assertion that God is not there, that God does not hear, even that God is asleep—hence, the opening words of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.”

As we see in verse 1, lament often centers on the question, “Why?”

“Why do you let this happen, God?”

“Why have you forsaken me?”

Another mode of lament involves the question, “How long?”

“How long will you stand there and look on, Lord?”

“How much longer will you delay?”

Friend Howard Macy writes that the “how long” question “whispers of hope, however it cries out eloquently of anguish” (Rhythms, p. 92). The Psalmist does expect that God will act; but what is the reason for the delay? Why must it go on so long?

Lament is the cry of a broken heart. In the Psalms this often seems to come from personal circumstances, the personal animus of enemies, as appears to be the case in Psalm 22. But this cry also comes from injustice. Why do the wicked prosper, and the righteous suffer? How is that possible? Why does God allow that to happen?

This is truly a moment of lament for so many in our nation and world. Where is God? Why does God not answer? What is going on?

And it can be a moment of lament for us as well. One thing we want to avoid in this, however, is it becoming just a lot of hand-wringing: “Oh, how horrible it is that this or that thing has happened, whatever is to be done, how terrible.” The last time I spoke, when we looked at Jesus healing the man with an infectious skin disease (Mark 1:40–45), we looked at Jesus’ motivation for his action. Some translations use the word “compassion,” and others use “pity’”; I suggested that pity is a kind of feeling-for-others that is yet remote and colored by our own security, while compassion is a gut-deep reaction that compels a response. So our lament could have a lot of the features of pity—we can lament in a way that still allows us to distance ourselves from the pain and tragedy. Or we can sit with the pain and tragedy and allow something deeper to emerge. True lament requires our hearts to be broken.