This year I started seminary. It is exciting, and hard. Very often in my classes I hear something that blows either my mind or my heart right open. That is the exciting part. Tests are the hard part. Here, at my new monthly column “Seminary for Everybody,” we’ll do bites of the good stuff without any of the tests. I’ll share what am I learning so seminary could be for everybody, not just seminarians. That is what we’ll do.
In my Old Testament class we are in the midst of the Wisdom Literature. This means that in one week I read all the way through the Psalms. One week. All the way through. It was a lot. There are a lot of Psalms. If you do read all the way through the Psalms in a week you will find ones that you are intimately familiar with. You will see your favorite lines from your favorite praise Psalms. You will remember Psalms you haven’t heard since you were a little girl.
In the midst of all the familiar praise, you will find a lot of Psalms you maybe haven’t heard before. There are tons where frankly, the content seems a little inappropriate for the Bible. I mean, are you really allowed to talk to God like that? Are you really allowed to tell God you hate your enemies so much you want to watch their babies being smashed against the rocks? Are you really allowed to tell God you can’t believe God would abandon you like this? Are you allowed to ask God why? Are you allowed to demand answers of God?
All these things happen in the Psalms. I know. I was shocked too, but it is all in there. The Psalmists talk to God any kind of way. The Psalmists talk to God in ways I was not allowed to talk to my parents. The Psalmists never really hold anything back in the Lament psalms. These laments weren’t just used to tell off God. They were used communally, as a way to express sorrow.
The Hebrews taught the next generation how to lament, together.
I love this idea. I love the idea that the Hebrew people came to their God and told all their business. They told God the truth about their lives. Y’all. Some bad stuff happened to those who were writing the Psalms. They were conquered. Their homes were destroyed. They were pursued by their enemies. People they loved died senselessly. Of course they were mad at God. Of course they were angry with their enemies. Of course they were confused and frustrated and wanted some answers about the sense of life. Of course they did.
Some of us, many of us, were raised in churches where being honest about our feelings was not okay. Some of us still go to churches where everyone is always fine, great, blessed. But the Psalms teach us that it is okay to not be fine; it is okay for the whole community to not be fine! They didn’t just give permission to lament, they taught people how to do it. It was a regular part of the communal worship and lament was considered a kind of praise.
The Psalms teach us that it is okay to say what we need to say. As long as we are talking TO God and not ABOUT God, we are still faithful. It is still a faithful act, even if the act is to tell God about himself and how he messed everything up.
I look at the Psalms of lament and I long for a church where we would do this. Not just that we would hold space for anger, frustration, brokenheartedness, but that we would teach people how to cry out to God. The lament Psalms were taught. This was taught as a way to worship God. Just like my small children need to be taught the words to name their emotions instead of lashing out, I think the people of God today also need to be taught how to properly adress God while in pain. Because the crazy and beautiful thing about the lament Psalms is that still they end up saying, “I will trust God anyway; we will love God anyway.”
I long for a place where we lament together. I think God longs to hear us. That is what the Psalms are for.