Permission to lament, permission to praise

Nearly every day, it seems, I open my email inbox and find another story of illness or death. This morning, it was two. It’s partly the pandemic, and partly because much of my social network is… well, on the gray side. But I receive sad news even from those of a younger generation, stories of parents and grandparents, uncles and aunts lost to COVID or some other cause. In a recent Zoom meeting of six people, talking about how everyone has been coping with the pandemic, we discovered that three of us — that’s half — had lost parents to COVID.

Many of you have had the same experience. You’ve suffered your own losses. And you’ve heard story after story of the losses suffered by your family and friends. Then, after someone tells you of the dark and difficult things they’ve experienced, they ask you how you’re doing.

But what if you’re doing just great? What if you’ve just celebrated something joyous? How much do you say?

A bit of sensitivity and social intelligence can go a long way here. When people tell us their unhappy news, they don’t need us to say, “Well, I’m just dandy. Too bad you’re not me.” Nor do they need or want us to paper over their pain with religious platitudes. They need us to acknowledge what they’re feeling, to stand with them so they don’t feel alone.

That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s necessarily out of place to say something positive and hopeful.

. . .

Students of the Psalms sometimes like to classify them into types, the most basic distinction being between psalms of praise and psalms of lament. But as we’ve seen repeatedly, many of the psalms don’t classify so easily. Some begin with lament and end with praise, some vacillate back and forth, and some, like Psalm 40, begin with praise and end with lament or a plaintive cry for help.

The emotional truth of the life of faith, in other words, is often not either/or, but both/and. It’s not all lament or all praise. Rather, we lament in the midst of praise; we praise in the midst of lament.

Beyond our experiences as individuals, though, something similar can be said of the community of faith. At any given moment, from one season to another, there will be some in our midst who suffer tragedy and despair, whose lament needs a safe place to be heard. But others also need to be able to speak their praises, without having to worry about violating some unspoken norm of propriety.

Again, to be clear, there are wise and foolish, sensitive and insensitive ways to do this. The key is whether the sufferer feels heard and understood. If not, words that are meant to be encouraging can feel like invalidation instead, as if the would-be encourager had said, “Shut up with the lament already. There’s no place for that here. Christians are only supposed to be about praise.”

The psalmists, I think, would turn in their graves.

. . .

Psalm 40 is instructive in that regard. The psalm begins, as we’ve seen with the image of being pulled by God out of the quicksand of despair. God rescues the psalmist from the bog, setting him firmly on a rock. Thus, the psalmist sings a song of praise:

He put a new song in my mouth,
    a song of praise for our God.
Many people will learn of this and be amazed;
    they will trust the LORD
. (vs. 3, CEB)

The word “trust” here actually pictures a person going somewhere to seek shelter or refuge. We may put our trust in other people, who may pridefully hold themselves up as the ones to follow. But those who are truly blessed, the psalmist declares, are those who make God their refuge and trust (vs. 4).

What we mustn’t miss here is how the psalmist’s song of praise functions as a witness to the goodness and trustworthiness of God. All of us are tempted to locate our security in people and things, in signs of power and accomplishment. But only God is worthy of that trust. Unless someone sings songs of praise, we will forget. We will misplace our trust because we have ceased to be amazed at God.

Once the psalmist begins his song, he finds he has even more to sing about:

You, LORD my God!
    You’ve done so many things—
    your wonderful deeds and your plans for us—
        no one can compare with you!
    If I were to proclaim and talk about all of them,
        they would be too numerous to count!
(vs. 5)

It reminds me of the ending of the gospel of John: Oh my, Jesus did and said so much, there’s no way to write it all down; the whole world couldn’t contain all the books! But that doesn’t mean that there’s no use writing something. Nor does the psalmist fail to sing just because the the playlist is impossibly long. No, he sings because he must; he sings because there’s a reason, a purpose, even a commission.

He sings, in other words, to offer his sacrifice of praise.

We’ll see what that means in upcoming posts.