Rage and Grief and Cries for Justice: Praying the Lament Psalms

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Shannon Dingle is a writer and activist I really respect, and she recently lost her husband to a freak accident. When she initially posted about it on social media, she wrote, “Please pray for us. And feel free to cuss and smash stuff because God knows I’ll be doing some of that.” Reading of her loss, all I could do was cuss. I was so angry—at God, at the universe, at our stupid mortal bodies. That a good man, husband to Shannon and father to six children could just die for no good reason, is offensive. It is enraging how fragile we are, how fragile the bonds that connect us are.

There are times in any faith when we need to express anger, disgust, despair. A faith that doesn’t allow for uncomfortable emotions, or insists on maintaining a positive front, is a fragile faith. There are times to rage and curse and break things and here’s the good news: the people of ancient Israel knew this, and their scribes collected over a hundred and fifty prayers of all types, some of which are songs of praise, some of which are songs of lament, some of which are songs of anger and cursing. Most are contained in the book of Psalms, but there some other songs scattered through other books, including Jonah and Samuel. These Psalms are honest and often raw cries to God, so if you’re new to praying with cusses and anger, the Bible gives you pointers, or rather rubrics to get you started!

This morning I want to focus just on the lament tradition, because let’s face it: that’s where many of us are right now. When we are asking how long children will live in filthy cages, we are engaging in the tradition of lament. I was introduced to lament Psalms in my second semester of seminary, when I took a class on the book of Lamentations. Our first translation project was Psalm 13, which has often been prayed by people in the midst of illness. “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?”

“How long?” is a constant refrain of lament Psalms. Because when you’re in the midst of depression, or a chronic physical illness, or an estrangement from someone you love, or you’re being accused unjustly, time stretches like taffy. Your feelings are intolerable, and you think this has got to end, but then it doesn’t end. It just keeps going. “How long, O God, will you make me suffer?”

Despite this, most lament Psalms move from complaint to praise (and sometimes back to complaint). Psalm 22 is familiar to many of us because Jesus prays it from the cross. It begins, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? . . . O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but find no rest.” Yet it moves quickly to praise: “Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.” The lament Psalms often reference God’s deliverance of Israel in the past; God’s history with Israel in bringing them out of slavery in Egypt is the foundation for hope and trust in God. I think this is a way to avoid the depths of despair that tempt us to wade into them. In Judaism, after a loved one dies, you recite the Kaddish in worship. The Kaddish is not a prayer about death; the word “kaddish” comes from a root meaning “holy,” and it’s a song of praise. It’s a sacred obligation, in the midst of mourning, to praise God and sanctify God’s name, to remember that God is good even at times when it doesn’t feel that way. The praise that occurs in lament Psalms functions in the same way: those Psalms allow you to express bad or difficult feelings but encourage you not to stay there longer than is healthy.

Here’s the thing about these Psalms: people pray them all the time, even when they don’t “feel like it.” Monastic communities and people who pray the daily office pray all of the Psalms over a course of one week to thirty days. Imagine reading these prayers and songs over and over. They’re not separated out by theme, so you can go from a wisdom psalm to a royal psalm to a lament psalm in one sitting, and that’s just Psalms 1 through 3! So of course you’re going to pray things you don’t feel at the time. Protestants, especially Protestants from certain backgrounds, have this idea that we’re supposed to feel what we pray. But the truth of religious life is that that’s an unsustainable goal. It’s also kind of reactionary, as if true prayer is nothing but our personal reactions to what’s going on. The life of faith requires more of us. It requires faithfulness and prayer even when we’re not feeling it. It requires us to sit with discomfort, and with the disconnect between our prayers and our emotions. And it requires reflection on why some things are so hard for us to pray.

I think this is how the Psalms save us: we pray them over and over, often not feeling them, or resonating only with parts of them. If we are going through a fallow period or a time of mourning, the parts that praise God can sound very insincere to our hearts. But we keep praying them only to find that they change us. The words of praise may sound hollow to us now, but there will be a day when we find we really do mean them.

Conversely, at our best times we find it hard to relate to something like Psalm 4, which reports that “many are saying, ‘oh, that we might see better times!’ Lift up the light of your countenance upon us, O God!” We might pray that for years without feeling it, only to discover that we needed those words for a place we’re in now. Repeating the words of the Psalms writes them into our hearts, so they’re there when we need them.

Even if we don’t need them ourselves, it’s valuable to pray the lament Psalms in solidarity with those who do need them. Even if we are healthy and happy and rich, there are many people who are not, and praying the Psalms for their insight into other people’s suffering is immensely valuable. I for one like a religion that makes people pray way outside their comfort zone, that makes mentally-healthy folks pray words written by someone struggling with intense depression. I like that well-to-do judges have to pray the words of a poor and oppressed plaintiff, demanding justice.

But if you need a Psalm for yourself, and you’ve read through the Psalter and haven’t found one that expresses your own situation? You can write your own! My second year of seminary, Columbia University demolished a building one block away from my dorm room so they could rebuild on that plot of land. The jackhammers started early in the morning, which made for a cursed existence for me, with my insomnia and extreme noise sensitivity. So I wrote a lament about it! I don’t have a copy of it anymore, alas, but I do remember that one line was something like, “How long will these jackhammers trouble my sleep?”

The cursing Psalms have seen an uptick in popularity over the past few years, especially Psalm 109 verse 8: “May his days be few; may another take his office.” These psalms’ presence in the biblical canon can initially be quite challenging for many Christians. I remember a student in seminary, when I was teaching Psalm 109, saying, “That’s not very Christian.” And I get it—I too was brought up to think of cursing another human being as outside the bounds of good behavior. But, as with a lot of the Bible’s surprises, I think it’s good to sit with the discomfort and the feelings being expressed. Many Psalms, the cursing ones included, speak from the point of view of an oppressed person sick of injustice and sick of seeing evil people prosper. If those feelings are hard for us to understand, perhaps it’s because we’ve never been forced to experience those feelings. There’s a phenomenon where people in a place of more comfort tell people in distress that their tone or mode of talking about their distress is too much, or inappropriate, and if they just altered their tone it would be so much easier to take them seriously. This is called tone policing, and it’s often wielded as a weapon to silence people who are oppressed. Maybe we should pray the cursing Psalms partly to accustom ourselves to hearing that kind of anger and pain and validating it. Even when it’s deeply uncomfortable.

Personally, I’ve found when I’m most angry at injustice, it helps to channel that rage through the words of the Psalms, because otherwise it can be overwhelming. When I was in the midst of trying to get my drivers license through the Montpelier DMV—a branch I later learned is infamously bad—I wrote a DMV-themed cursing Psalm that was very cathartic. It hews pretty closely to Psalm 109 in form, though I am too squeamish for the Psalmist’s curses. Mine reads:

“Let their paperwork always be lacking,
and all their efforts come to naught.
May every parking ticket be counted against them,
may every i.d. photo show them at their worst.
For they did not remember to show kindness,
but pursued the meek and anxious
and the brokenhearted to their distress.
They loved to judge; let judgment come upon them.
They did not love mercy; may it be far from them.”

And it ends like this:

“With my mouth I will give great thanks to God,
I will praise God as I drive down the highway.
For God stands at the right hand of the careful driver,
to save them from those who would condemn them.”

Maybe one of the virtues of the cursing Psalms is that they force you to put things into perspective. They make you laugh at the little things while channeling your true outrage into an impetus for action.

The truth is, as I read about our president wanting to warehouse people with mental illness (of which I am one), as I think of all the lives ruined by our immigration policies, as I hear of plans to make being anti-fascist a crime, I think we need the lament and cursing Psalms more than ever. So often grief and rage and horror take over—they overwhelm and paralyze us. Praying out these feelings allows God into them—not to magic them away, but to transform them into passion for shalom, for God’s wholeness and justice and peace.

Paul said, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” The Psalms not only let us do that—they give us insight into what our neighbors might be feeling—but they also help sort out our own feelings. And let’s face it, as New Englanders, we need that help. And in this critical time for our world, we need that help. It has never been a better time to pray the Psalms, to bring those messy and often painful feelings to God, to allow God into the pain and anxiety, to give God the chance to transform them, and to transform us.

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