Tag Archives: psalms of lament

What if America was invaded? A thought project to teach us how to be restored

12 Dec

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Imagine that some nation invaded the USA, defeated us, and started carrying us away back to their land where we worked for them as slaves!  How would that feel?  Horrible, right?  And life in that foreign land would not be like life here.  It would be very, very hard.  And we would cry out in lament to God to restore us.  Perhaps we would rack our brains about why this happened.  We would like conclude that it was really our fault, whether due to complacency or apathy or internal moral decay.  And we would feel the weight of guilt and shame and embarrassment.  But then imagine we had a sudden restoration of fortune, as the foreign nation finally after 70 years allows those of us from Central PA to return.

By then our parents and grandparents had passed away, and we were returning, ourselves in old age now. We are bringing our kids and grandkids to see the wonderful land of Lancaster PA to show them all the places that to this point we had only been able to tell them about in story after story.  Our grandkids are to the point where they say, rolling their eyes, “Grandpa…you’ve told me about the farmland and Central Market and Tastykakes like a million times.”  Now you are actually getting to show them!

When you show up, brimming with excitement, what do you find?

A shock.  The land is trashed and scarred, with buildings burned out.  The Promised Land has become a waste land.  And you fall to your knees and cry out to God.  You remember the glory of what it used to be, and your heart aches, and what is worse you know you will never be able to show your kids and grandkids what you once saw.  Because that is now gone.  But it gets still worse.  You remember that the Promised Land is now a waste land because of you and your people and how poorly you behaved and it was your fault.

You’re restored, but there is still a lot of work to do.

I think something like that is happening in Psalm 85.  I also think something like that happens to all of us in many ways throughout our lives.  Let’s look at the next section of Psalm 85 to discover more about how to respond to the restoration that needs to take place.

In my previous post, I introduced Psalm 85 as our second Psalm of Lament in our sermon series for Advent 2017.  Psalm 85 seems to have been crafted in four sections, and in that previous post we looked at the first section, which talks about how God forgave the sins of the people of Israel, restoring their fortunes in the past.  Which restoration is the psalmist talking about?  Most likely it seems this psalm was written about the time when a small group of Jews was giving permission to return to Israel after having been exiled in Babylon for 70 years.  But when they returned, they were in for a surprise. And that surprise is what we read about in section two, which we are studying in this post.

Section Two covers verses 4-7, which is a lament for restoration and revival, for God to show his love and salvation in the present time.  If Israel has been restored to their land, if they have been forgiven, as Section One (verses 1-3) clearly states, then why are they asking once again to be restored?  Didn’t God already do that?

It seems that when the people were restored to the land, after the initial excitement wore off, they realized the immensity of the situation.

They were away from their land for 70 years, during that time working hard to maintain their traditions living in the midst of a foreign power.  So for 70 years they were dreaming of their return to Palestine, and they waited and they waited. Whole generations of them passed away, striving hard not to lose their faith, striving hard to maintain their culture.  And finally, after so many years and so many prayers, a group of them return to the Promised land.

And guess what happened.

It wasn’t what they thought.

The grand capital city of Jerusalem was in ruins.  The temple was destroyed.  The land was ravaged.  Most of them were still in exile.

Israel was a shadow of what they used to be.  And they knew why. It was their fault.  They had sinned against God over and over and over.  You and I have been there, right?  Imagine the guilt and pain that you feel when you know you are dealing with consequences of your bad choices.

Imagine being Israel looking at their holy city in ruins.  Yeah, God brought you back to the land, and that is amazing, but there is so much work to do.

Ever been there?

It’s easy to read verses 4-7 as if the psalmist is making it sound like this restoration is all God’s responsibility.  As if it was God’s fault that Israel was invaded, that the Promised Land was destroyed, that the people were in exile in Babylon for 70 years.  Yes, on the surface, verses 4-7 seem like the lament is a blaming of God.  But remember from our posts on Psalm 80, lament is deep like that.

In fact, in sermon discussion last week we wrestled with this a bit.  Is lament only appropriate when life gets so bad that there is no other option but to cry out to God?  No doubt that is an excellent time to lament.  When things are bad, lament.  But I think we can also practice lament when times are not at the point of no return.  It is not like lament is a kind of prayer we only practice when we have no other choice.  We can and should practice it then.  But we can and should practice lament before things get that bad too.

It seems to me that is what the psalmist is doing here in verses 4-7.  He knows the people have just experienced the kindness and forgiveness and favor of the Lord.  They are actually in a good spot.  They have been allowed to return to the Promised Land after being away from it for 70 years.  And yet the psalmist laments what is yet to be done.  It’s great to be back, but there has been so much loss, much of which will never be recovered.

 

This is not just a fictional story of America.  It’s not just the story of Jewish exiles returning to Palestine.

It’s also your story and mine.  I know you’ve been there.  I’ve been there.  It occurs in many ways in our real lives.

A relationship that is broken, but then it gets patched up.  The thing is that the patching up is just the beginning.  You know there is a lot of work to do yet.  Hard work.  And it seems like too much.

Or maybe you make some bad financial decisions, and now you find yourself in debt.  Maybe you have to declare bankruptcy.  Maybe you get help from a generous family member.  And you are saved.  But you know that is just the beginning.  You have lots of work to do to start making changes with how you handle money.

You’ve been restored, but there is so much work to do.  Too much work, it feels like.  Extra work that is your fault, and you’re hard on yourself, and you ache because it seems like it will be too hard.

And what do you do?  You lament.  Not because life is so bad that all hope is lost.  Sometimes you lament because life is just so dang hard.  Sometimes you lament because you know you need to do a lot of work to keep the restoration going, and you don’t know if you can handle it.  You probably think you can’t handle it. That’s a horrible feeling.

You love the progress that you’ve made.  A relationship that seemed dead has a new spark.  The bill collector that had been calling is paid off.  God has restored your fortunes.

But you know there is so much more to do for the restoration to continue.  That relationship is going to require a lot of time and energy, and you are going to have to stop some bad patterns, and you don’t know if you can.  That bill collector might not be calling today, but unless your income starts to grow larger than your expenses, he’ll be calling again soon.  And you know that you have a tendency to make bad choices with money.

Or maybe at your office, you work through your inbox, and your boss is pleased, but there were the ten previous times when you were lazy, and your work was late, and not only was your boss upset about it being late, but he also found all kinds of errors in your work, and it cost the company a contract.  You know that can’t happen again.  You’ve got a reprieve, but you have very little confidence that you’ll be able to work as fast and as good as your boss is asking you to.

What should you do?  Lament.  Get on your knees and passionately plead for God to intervene.  Ask for him to restore you again.  Ask for him to shower you with his unfailing love. When the work of restoration seems too much, lament.  It is a proper response to the weight of the world.

Lament is not blaming God.  Lament is not a cop-out either, trying to get God to do what it is our responsibility to do.  Lament is a crying out to God for his help and empowerment while we work for the restoration to continue.  Just as God had restored their fortunes and brought them this far, the psalmist now sees the mountain they have to climb, and he knows that they can’t do it alone.  So he laments.  Calling for God to show them his unfailing love and salvation.

He calls for God to revive them again.  Restoration and revival.  They were words in Psalm 80 which we studied last week.  Lament calls out for restoration and revival!  “Bring us back to life again, Lord.”

Whether we are lamenting our own situation or lamenting the state of the church or the state of our country, we are asking for restoration and revival. It might sound like we are saying to God that we are blameless and our situation is not our fault.  That is 100% not true.  And that is not what the psalmist is doing.  That is not what lament is all about.  Lament is not blaming God, acting like we have no part in this.  When we lament, we know our part in it.  And we own up to our part.

How about you? Do you have a situation in your life that has seen the spark of restoration, but the ongoing work seems too hard, too much?  How can you lament to God?

Do you struggle with FOMO?

11 Dec

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Do you struggle with FOMO?  Fear of missing out.  I recently read an article where a guy talked about his fear of missing out.  Because of the prevalence of social media in our society, and the quick access to social media accounts on our phones, FOMO is a real thing for many.

The author of the article would see all these amazing photos people put on their social media accounts, and he would think, “That’s awesome, I want to see that too.  I want to be able to post that to my social media account.  I’m missing out!”  He went so far as to spend thousands of dollars to visit exotic locations, just to get that ultimate picture of coolness so that he could post it on online to show all his friends.

But something happened. When he actually went on made it to the exotic spot, it would be a cloudy day.  Or he would get sick. Or there would be obnoxious tourists, all conspiring against him being able to get that perfect photo.

He didn’t take stock of all the loads of details that you need to take into account when you are trying to achieve something momentous. Having a successful vacation takes a lot of work.  You don’t just decide to go on vacation, and the next day go on vacation and have everything go perfectly.  You have to think through all the details, working hard to plan it right.  And then when you get there, the unexpected can take over and surprise you and mess up your plans.

How many of you have ever had that experience?  Where you are looking forward to something for so long, and you are waiting and getting excited and finally that day comes, and when you’re actually experiencing the vacation or the event or watching the new movie or reading the new book or listening to the new album, and you’re thinking “What??? I waited and worked and got excited for this???”

I think that is what was happening with the people of Israel in our next Advent Psalm of Lament.

To review from last week, lament is a type of prayer, directed to God, asking God to intervene.  In lament the pray-er is calling out to God with a passionate expression of grief or sorrow, like mourning, but deeper.

In Psalm 80 last week, we heard the psalmist lament by repeating the phrase “Restore us, O Lord God Almighty, make you face shine upon us, that we may be saved.”  Let us hear how a different psalmist laments today, Psalm 85.

It seems like the author was purposefully using a structure when he put together this psalm.

  • 1-3 Past Blessing
  • 4-7 Present Lament
  • 8-9 Present Obedience
  • 10-13 Future Blessing

Today we’ll look at the first section, and then in the following posts we’ll work through the rest.

Section One: Verses 1-3 – Past Blessing

In verses 1-3 the psalmist reviews God’s favor to Israel in the past. Look at verse 2 where he describes God dealing with their sin.

A verse like that gives us a clue about that time period this psalm was written.  It came after the people had sinned and God forgave them.  There are many, many instances in the Old Testament that Israel had sinned.  Which one is this one talking about?

Scholars I studied suggest that the most likely event that the psalmist is referring to in verses 1-3 is the time when Israel was allowed to return to the land after the Babylonian exile when in 538 BC, Cyrus the Great of Persia, conquered Babylon, and allowed some of the Jews to return to Palestine, the Promised Land.

The people of Israel had been in exile for 70 years.

But God allowed them to return.  That’s what we think verses 1-3 are all about.  God showed them favor, restored their fortunes, forgave their sin, allowing a small group of them to return to their land.

You can read about their return from exile in books like Ezra, Nehemiah, and in the prophets Haggai and Malachi.

Guess what though?  Just like the guy who wrote the FOMO article, when the exiles return to Palestine, they have a shock waiting for them.  We’ll learn about that surprise in our next post.

When you cry out to God over and over and he doesn’t respond

7 Dec

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Have you ever waited for something a long time?  I feel like I regularly get in the store check-out line that has the longest wait.  It’s uncanny.  But that kind of wait is not what I’m talking about.  I’m talking about waiting for something for months or years, and often the waiting involves pain.  It might be a physical ailment, and no matter the treatment, surgery or medicine, you are not getting better.  It might be relational pain, where a person who is a loved one now seems like an enemy, and as hard as you try, it is not getting fixed.  It might be a financial difficulty where, despite working multiple jobs to exhaustion, you can’t seem to pay off debt.  It might be national or global pain, as you watch the news about wildfires, floods, racism, poverty, refugee crisis, terrorism, or sexual predators.  As we discussed in the last post, there is much darkness in our world. And deep down you cry out to God, and you ask him to intervene. In fact, you ask him over and over and over, and it seems like you’re not getting anywhere.  You are just waiting and waiting, sitting in the pain.

If you’ve ever felt that, your in good company with Asaph, the writer of the first Psalm of Lament that we are studying at Faith Church this Advent.  Asaph looked at the situation the nation of Israel had gotten itself into, and he was deeply concerned.  Let’s take a look at how expressed his pain in this first lament, Psalm 80, and perhaps we might learn to lament as well.

Structurally the psalm has three sections, each with a repeated “Restore Us” refrain that concludes the section.  Here is a summary:

  • Section 1 – verses 1-2, concluding with the refrain in 3 – total of three verses
  • Section 2 – verses 4-6, concludes with 7 – total of four verses
  • Section 3 – verses 8-18, concludes with 19 – total of 12 verses

You see what the author, Asaph, is doing?  He is increasing the length of his plea. Even the repeated refrain is slightly expanded each time, a fact we’ll look more at in the next post.  Why is Asaph adding material each time?  He wants us to sense a growing urgency to his lament.

Let’s take a deeper look at each section to hear and learn from his lament.

Section 1 – verses 1-3

The image he uses here is that of God as Shepherd, residing in the temple.  Asaph sees God as the shepherd, and thus the people of Israel are his sheep.  The idea of God as Israel’s Shepherd is very common throughout the Old Testament.  They were led by God, cared for by God, as a good shepherd does for his sheep. Asaph looks around him and sees that the sheep are in danger, and he cries out for the Shepherd to do his job!

But the scene that Asaph paints for us is not just a pastoral one.  The mention of the cherubim in verse 2 is that of the Ark of the Covenant in the most holy place of the temple.  There the presence of the Lord resided.  Perhaps he is here likening God to a shepherd that is just hanging out in the temple, and not doing his job, which is to care for the sheep.  In fact, he depicts the shepherd as being asleep while the sheep are being afflicted.  So he calls for God to wake up, move out from there and save the people.

Lament often cries out to God to wake up and intervene.  That might sound very inappropriate.  As if the lamenter is accusing God of not doing his job.  The psalmist, no doubt, knows that God is holy and perfect and righteous.  Therefore, Asaph is not being disrespectful or accusing God of being irresponsible.  Instead Asaph knows that Israel is at fault for the predicament they’re in.

And yet that is lament for you: emotional, deep, crying out to God.  When we’re emotional, we don’t always think straight do we?  We don’t always craft our words perfectly.  We sometimes say things we don’t mean or even believe.  The emotion is so strong.  We’re desperate.  And so we say things like “God, you are our Shepherd!  Get up off your seat and take care of us!”  Lament is intense like that. And in the next section the intensity continues.

Section 2 – verses 4-7

Verse 4 starts with Asaph calling out to God again, asking of him “How long will your anger smolder against the prayer of your people?”

The image is quite vivid isn’t it?  The word “smolder” there could also be translated “smoke”.  I think of the hot smoking glowing red ashes in my wood stove.  We put ashes from our stove in our ash bucket, and take them out on our deck.  But if they are hot, if they are smoking, glowing red, we do not keep them on our deck.  All it would take is a gust of wind to blow some of those hot coals on to the deck, and we would be in big trouble.

So anytime we have smoking ash and coals, we dump it in our fire pit, which is way down in our yard, far away from the house.  There it can safely cool down, even if the wind is blowing.  We do this because smoldering ash and coals are powerful, with a great potential for destruction.  That’s the image the psalmist uses of God’s anger.

We could easily see God’s anger here as mean-spirited and unjust.  But God’s anger is best understood as a righteous anger.  The reason for his anger, the reason for the calamity the people have experienced, has everything to do with their unrighteousness. The psalmist would not be unaware of that, or trying to dispute that Israel had messed up.  The psalmist is just expressing deep longing for a change, and he knows God can bring that change.

And so Asaph utters words that are classic signposts of lament: “How long?”.  When you hear the psalmist say “How long O Lord?” you could think he is being impatient or fussy.  He is not.

Instead, one scholar says the words ‘how long?’ describe, “hope deferred, and though sick at heart, still clinging to God and yet protesting against the long-protracted calamities.”

We get the idea of “hope deferred.” How many of you know that very personally?  You have hopes and dreams, but they are deferred, meaning that they are not being realized.  You are waiting and waiting, and you are wondering “How long?”

We also get the idea of being “sick at heart”, that deep emotional longing in the midst of waiting.  Look at how Asaph describes the pain.

In verse 5 he describes the pain by saying to God: “you have fed them with the bread of tears.  You made them drink tears by the bowlful.”  Whew. That is some deep pain.  Rather than the manna in the desert that tasted like honey, and rather than water from the rock that tasted sweet, God is now giving them nothing but tears.

What’s worse, he says in verse 6, is that the neighboring countries around Israel see them in pain, and those neighboring countries mock Israel.

And yet, as the psalmist laments and feels the pain, he is not letting go of God. He is actually reaching out to God.  Clinging to God. That, too, is classic lament.  When we say “thoughts and prayers are with you” we too often put a quick phrase out there, and then we move on to the next thing.  When we face tragedy, the pain and confusion is so difficult to wrap our minds around that we tend not to even try.  But in the psalms of lament, the psalmist is engaging the tragedy and the pain, he is looking it full in the face, he is holding it up to God and saying “God, do you see this?  What are you doing about this?  Why are you taking so long to respond to this?”

He is clinging to God, but he is protesting God at the same time.  “How long, O Lord?”  Lament cries out to God from a heart that is sick with pain, but still clinging tightly to God in faith, knowing God is our hope, and yet also upset with God because it is taking so long.

Rather than turning away from the tragedy, or avoiding dealing with the tragedy, lament sits down in the tragedy, examines the tragedy, and shows it to God saying, “How Long O Lord?”

That might sound light an act of unbelief, or disrespect, or sinful rebellion. Instead, lament is an act of deep faith.  Lament knows that the situation is dire, the pain is awful, and there is only one solution.  God.  And lament persistently, boldy, enters into that pain and asks God to deal with it.

There is something incredibly meaningful, therefore, to the practice of lament.  There is something powerful about it.  I think the power of lament flows from the inner passionate experience of pain found in a person who is facing that pain, combined with that person’s choice to cling tightly to the Lord in the midst of that pain.

Here’s the thing about Psalm 80, though. Though the psalmist says “How long, O Lord,” he’s not done yet!  In our next post we’ll look at section 3, the remainder of the psalm, to see how Asaph continues his lament.

When Thoughts and Prayers Are Not Enough

5 Dec

Image result for thoughts and prayers are not enoughIn the morning, my family has a routine.  Our two kids still at home, one middle schooler, one elementary, get ready for school while we are watching the local news.  Then at 7am we switch over to CBS for their morning show.  A few days ago, we were surprised to hear that CBS fired one of their anchors, Charlie Rose, because of sexual misconduct.

Then a few days after that, we were watching the same program when they reported that NBC had just fired one of the Today Show anchors, Matt Lauer, for the same reason.

It seems like a new allegation and firing occurs every day.  That the truth is coming out and people are being held accountable is incredibly important and good.  A necessary purging, hopefully leading to deep change in our society.

But on top of the reports of sexual misconduct there have also been mass shootings pretty much every day.  In malls, schools, movie theaters, at concerts, in churches.

As we hear about these abusers and tragedies, we can’t help but think that the world is a dark place.  We can become despondent, confused.  How do we respond to darkness, to tragedy?  What should we think and feel?  What should we do?

One of the first responses to tragedy that we hear is, “Our thoughts and prayers are with you.”

Praying for people is good thing.  You see it on Facebook, in the news, on the lips of politicians.  Prayer rising up out of the ashes of tragedy.

In that sense, “Thoughts and Prayers” is a good thing.

But after one of the recent shootings, the idea of “thoughts and prayers” was called into question. The shooting happened, and almost as soon as the news was reported, people started posting “thoughts and prayers” on Facebook.

“Las Vegas, our thoughts and prayers are with you.”

But this time that sentiment, which is a good thing, was called into question.  Why?  Maybe people had reached a point where things had gotten so bad, that they had enough.  Maybe some people felt that “thoughts and prayers” was nice, but other action needed to be taken.  “Thoughts and prayers” has been called into question many times before, especially when “thoughts and prayers” are uttered by people who could potentially do something to stop or decrease the tragedies, but don’t.  And that makes people very upset.

I am going to agree with them today.  Other action does need to be taken.

Hear me out.  The critique I’ve heard says that “thoughts and prayers” are not enough because something additional needs to happen around gun laws.  Lives are so easily cut down by guns, thus  motivating the critique of “thoughts and prayers.”

I’m not going to talk about gun laws today.  Might be a topic for another time!

Today, though, I am going to agree with the critique of “thoughts and prayers.” I’m going to say that “thoughts and prayers” are good, but not enough.   There is another form of prayer that is so often missing.

That prayer is called lament.

Do you ever pray prayers of lament?  I rarely do.  I hardly even know what lament means.  And yet, lament is very much a common kind of prayer in the Bible. There is a whole book of the Bible called Lamentations, for goodness sake! Lament is especially prevalent in the Psalms.  One scholar I found claimed that more than 50% of the Psalms are lament.

And yet, I suspect many of us do not know about lament.  What is lament?

I suspect that we confuse lament with regret over a bad choice.  If something is lamentable, we mostly, I think, mean that we feel someone made a bad choice.  A error.  The words “lament” and “regret” are related no doubt, but they have different meanings.  Regret is when you are upset about a bad choice you made and you wish you could change it.  Lament is a bit different.  And I think the difference is why we so often have regrets, but we don’t lament.

Lament is defined as “a passionate expression of grief or sorrow; mourning.”

We know about this when we mourn the loss of loved ones.  But lament takes things further.  And that is what we see in these psalms that we will study in Advent.

As I said earlier, when there is a tragedy, we often respond by saying “our thoughts and prayers are with you.”  Prayer for those going through tragedy is good.  I think, though, that we need to add lament to our thoughts and prayers.

Lament is something that we don’t hear about in the face of national tragedy.  How is lament different from “thoughts and prayers”?

Andy Crouch in an article in Christianity Today says: “An equally valid and instinctive form of prayer in the face of tragedy is lament, which calls out in anguish to God, asking why the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. Lament confronts God with his seeming inaction and distance. This is a profound response of faith. Far from being unchristian, it is actually the prayer offered by Jesus himself on the Cross: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”

So this Advent at Faith Church we are going to learn about lament in the psalms.

In our next post, the first psalm of lament we’ll be studying is Psalm 80.