One of the more unique events our family attended while living in Glasgow, Scotland in the summer of 2004 was the “World Pipe Championships,” which boasted over 10,000 bagpipe players. They played all kinds of songs: including wedding songs, folk songs, battle songs and drum and pipe songs together. Historically, however, many of the songs written for the bagpipe were known as a “dirge,” – or an ancient song of lament. In traditional Scottish music, they were usually named after a person; most often the person for whom they were composed was a warrior slain in battle. One can imagine their haunting, extended notes wafting across the village or valley reminding all of the sorrow, the pain and the loss felt by many.
In era’s when the loss of life usually occurred at a younger age, and often at the hands of neighboring clans or kingdoms, this music of lament became something that bonded communities together, and helped them to make sense of their lives.
In the language of our series on the Psalms this fall, laments are sung as Psalms of Disorientation. Throughout our service, we are encountering such psalms.
On August 14, 1982, Todd Weems, son of Ann Weems (author of our opening prayer), was killed less than an hour after his 21st birthday.
“August 14, 1982,” she writes, “and I still weep.”
As an author and workshop leader, Weems began to write down her thoughts, her sorrow, her anger, and her laments. She soon began receiving letters and phone calls from people. Their stories, “like mine, were painful, too painful for any of us to try fitting our souls into 10 correct steps of grieving.
They knew what I knew: …The help we need is far beyond self. Our only hope is to march ourselves to …God and in a loud lament cry out the pain that lives in our souls.”
Walter Brueggemann, suggests that we should “not miss the courageous and daring act of faith” in these prayers. They are not only Israel’s most characteristic and vigorous mode of faith; they are what he calls a “spirituality of protest.” (Psalms of Lament, Ann Weems)
If we’ve learned anything in the wake of so many tragedies around us over such a long period of time, we’ve learned that we are indeed all connected, and therefore the cry of the starving, displaced or disrespected one is indeed a cry open hearted people can, and indeed must, share at some level.
Over the past few months, we’ve sung a beautiful song by Christopher Gundy (Leaning In) that reminds us of this connection.
- We pray for the lonely ones, knowing some of us are lonely
- We pray for the heart broken ones, knowing some of us are heartbroken
- We pray for the wounded ones, the regretful ones, the starving ones, the imprisoned ones, for the dying ones …because some of us are one of those.
Even if we are not at the center of the cry of lament, the cry from a place of extreme disorientation, a faith that doesn’t acknowledge that injustice, tragedy and are wrong, that doesn’t allow for room for screaming “why” at God is a faith that has cut off not only from other human beings; but also an honest relationship with God.
John Bell, of the Iona Community in Scotland, (author of our two opening songs this morning) leads worship and worship workshops literally all around the world – from South Africa to Romania, California to Holland. After traveling for years gathering music and liturgies, he began working on what he called “the lost tradition of lament.” He writes:
- Without lament – the ancient cry for justice or deliverance or vengeance to a listening God – what does our faith offer the mother whose baby is still born?
- Without lament, what does our faith say to the child whose father is taken early in life?
- Without lament, what does our faith say to those who suffer at the mercy of natural disasters, human made wars, or senseless acts of violence and mayhem?
In the Psalms from which we read today, a prayer of lament is more than just cathartic, it is “performative.” It demands a change in the way God is dealing with us and the world in this moment. Those praying these prayers do not believe in a “hands off” God. They don’t believe in being docile recipients of all that befalls them. They demand that the holy one be accountable, responsive, and present.
Prayers of lament were uttered so much in ancient Israel that a predictable form developed with the songs of disorientation. They begin with “My God, God of my fathers” or some other intimate address. They are not spoken to a stranger or an empty sky.
The prayer moves immediately to complaint. The complaint is specific, even if part hyperbole.
It is after uttering these specific, demanding, outraged words that one of our faith’s great mysteries happens. In the biblical prayers, the mood changes as the prayer concludes. With anger and protest spent, a move is made towards positive resolution. In the case of Psalm 22, the first 21 verses are lament, 22-31 shift towards praise. The speaker expresses confidence that God has heard and that they trust God.
In our sacred reading of Psalm 13, we paused. We did that because we know in life is that this turn often takes a long time to occur.
As in the case of Ann Weems, the lament can last for years. The words of spew forth repeatedly, passionately. But somehow, sometime, something happens that allows us to make a move towards trust – even if that move is hardly noticed by us.
Weems writes that even after publishing a book of these “lament” psalms, her psalms are not finished. “Anger and alleluia careen around within me, sometimes colliding. Lamenting and laughter sit side by side in a heart that yearns for the peace that passes understanding. Those who believe in the midst of their weeping will know where I stand.” (Psalms of Lament, Weems)
We are going to share in a psalm of lament today. It is long. It is specific. It can almost feel like a dirge. I think this is appropriate. The spirit of lamenting may take some time to ‘get into.’ We can’t do a quick refrain and be done. You are invited to chant it along with the choir, to sing the response (page 632 in the New Century Hymnal). But most of all, I invite you to ‘feel’ this lament. Feel the anguish, the pain. Your own, of others, of the voiceless and even nameless around you and in your consciousness. If listening instead of singing along is a better way, please do that.
You are invited to remember those times in your life when such a prayer was necessary; you can feel what it is like to give yourself permission to pray with boldness and honesty to God in the future; and we can remind ourselves that there is a great ministry as we stand beside others, accepting and even encouraging them to shout, scream, or wail in all honesty and anger. We can be the presence of permission for another.
Psalm 22, page 632.
We sit with the pain, we anticipate the trust.
Part of our journey this season, in response to these ancient psalms, is to create our own. To put our own journey out into the world.
To honor, with the specifics of our lives, that it is a struggle to be hopeful. To hope and pray for that moment when Alleluia and Anger collide within us, leading ultimately to the realignment of the stars in our world, in our hearts, in our faith.
As an aid to our own quest – we offer a couple of simple questions. I invite you to ponder these questions in the moments of silence that follows.
- Have there been times in your life that you’ve felt ‘invisible’ (as I slip out of sight?). What might be your prayer in a time such as that?
- Have you felt a time when God, the world and those you love ‘persist in forgetting’ you? When you felt like you were living with ‘useless heartache and grief?” Is there some kind of spiritual practice/creative endeavor that helps you out of that place (art, physical activity, music, writing, cooking, etc)? How might you express to other what that journey has been like for you?