Sunday, April 14, 2024
God’s Playlist
Psalm 13 & 88
Rev. Dr. Troy Hauser Brydon

Share this message with a friend!

Play Video

My great uncle Bob died in 2005. He was one of four brothers. His oldest brother, my grandfather, died of a heart attack in the mid-1980s. The next oldest, Jim, died about six months before Bob, leaving only Ron, the youngest, who died just a few months later. There was a lot of funerals all of a sudden in my family. I happened to be in seminary when all of this happened, and life in ministry had me thinking a lot about life and death. (Actually, our kids accuse us of talking about death at dinner far too often, and they’re probably right. It’s the collateral damage of being in ministry.)

Because my grandfather had died when I was so young, I really loved having my great uncles in my life. They were kind and fun. We’d often go to Bob’s house for Thanksgiving. He had a pool table in the basement that kept me occupied for hours. Bob was a singer. He led the men’s chorus every year at the Pennsylvania Baptist men’s convention. Before we sat down to our Thanksgiving meal, Bob would lead the family in a rousing rendition of “We Gather Together.” Every time we sing that song even now, I think of Bob. 

Bob’s funeral was in Meadville, Pennsylvania, and we were able to make the trip from New Jersey to be there. Bob was a lifelong Baptist. The family on Bob’s mother’s side were actually founding members of that congregation where I would be baptized decades later. Bob had died unexpectedly, so grief was very much a part of the service. But this service really didn’t allow space for grief. Rather, it was focused entirely on heaven and hell. If I could summarize the sermon briefly, it would be this, “Bob’s in heaven. Are you going too?”

I was mad. I wanted to grieve and receive comfort. Instead, we heard judgment and even wrath. I felt like I could see the smoke coming out of my brothers’ ears. This kind of sermon and thinking reminded them of why they were done with church. And I, their brother studying to be a pastor, was trying to process what a better way to handle this would be. 

That year I was assigned to write a sermon for a funeral, and I used that assignment as a form of catharsis. I channeled my anger and grief into the writing, and I chose Psalm 88 as my text. Why? There are 150 psalms, and the 88th is the only psalm that ends with no note of hope. There is no praise at the end. There is no glimpse of redemption. It merely ends on the word “darkness.” I was mad at death, so I wrote a sermon about it. It’s not one I’d ever give at a funeral now (I think my professor graciously accepted this in lieu of my seeking counseling), but I needed to lament. 

Psalms 13 and 88 are laments. Actually, around two-thirds of all the psalms are laments. I find that very interesting and heartening. The psalms are prayers, poems, and worship all rolled up into one. They are talk to God and about God. They run the whole range of human emotion — joy, grief, anger, and even confusion. I’m going to focus on Psalm 88 today, but you don’t have to go far to find laments among the 150 psalms. I know many of us struggle in how we should talk to God. We Presbyterians like to write our prayers out so that we get them right. For many of us, “getting it right” would exclude complaining. We would want to soften our language to make things sound more palatable. 

I have good news for us. God wants to hear our complaints. God wants to hear what troubles us, makes us sad or angry. God hears lament. That more than half of the psalms — the prayerbook of the Bible — are laments is great evidence that God wants to hear the unvarnished version of what’s on our minds. 

There is a lot to lament in life. Some is personal — a failed relationship, not making the team, losing a job. Some is communal — the business that employed much of the community leaving town, the effects of the pandemic. Lament gives language to our grief. It gives space to say what’s wrong without needing to explain it. N. T. Wright puts it this way, “It is no part of the Christian vocation, then, to be able to explain what’s happening and why. In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain — and to lament instead. As the Spirit laments within us, so we become, even in our self-isolation, small shrines where the presence and healing love of God can dwell.”

So, today I’m getting back to my Baptist roots, and I’m going give us us six P’s for what lament is as a way of helping remind us that lament isn’t just something that is occasionally OK to do, but rather that it is a fundamental part of being human. God wants to hear our laments. 

Let’s begin with the unexpected: Lament is a form of praise. The majority of psalms are laments, but the book isn’t called “laments.” (There actually is an entirely different book in the Bible called Lamentations, which is a series of beautiful acrostic poems weeping over exile.) No, the title “psalms” in Hebrew is tehillim, which means “praises” or “songs of praise.” By including laments in the praises, the Bible is showing that we can bring our whole selves to God in worship and prayer. We don’t just bring the happy parts or the successes. We bring it all. Lament is also praise. 

Second, lament is a prayer for God to act. It’s helpful to look more closely at Psalm 88 to see this at work. It begins, “O Lord, God of my salvation, when, at night, I cry out in your presence, let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry.” This psalm is attributed to a man named Heman, and it is clear that he is on death’s door. He is praying fervently for God to do something. The psalm begins with him praying at night. In verse 13, it continues with him praying in the morning. He is unrelenting in bringing his lament to God. He is so ill that he knows only God can help him now. Even though it seems that God is not doing anything on his behalf, he keeps on praying. 

Third, lament is a pathway to intimacy with God. This psalm is intensely intimate. The gloves are off. He’s laying it out exactly as he sees it. I am full of trouble. I am a dead man. I am forsaken. I am cut off from your hand. And then it turns from the “I” to the “you.” Speaking directly to God, he says, “You have put me in the depths of the Pit….Your wrath lies heavy upon me….You have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a thing of horror to them.” 

You may have felt at your wit’s end, but I highly doubt that your prayers have ever gone this far. He’s shouting at the sky, and the only result he’s seeing is his continued suffering. He tries one final plea. It’s a series of six questions that ring out into the universe.

Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the shades rise up to praise you? Is your steadfast love declared in the grave? Is your faithfulness in the abyss? Are your wonders known in the darkness? Is your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?

The psalm pauses. There is silence. And then he continues to plead and pray. 

Because, fourth, lament is proof of the relationship. Imagine with me that it’s a Saturday morning with nothing on the schedule. (I know for our families these days this sounds impossible!) The parents are trying to sleep in, but the youngest sneaks into the bedroom at 7:00 a.m. and asks for dad to make pancakes. At first dad might be a bit annoyed because he hoped he could sleep in, but ultimately he’ll get up to make the pancakes because this request is proof of their relationship. He loves the kid, even though it’s too early.

Or perhaps the opposite scenario helps describe this better. Russell Moore shared a story of a family going to an orphanage in another country, hoping to adopt. When they entered the nursery, it was silent. The babies never cried. Why weren’t they crying? Surely they had needs, but these babies had already learned that no one cared enough to answer their cries, so they stopped. Children who trust a caregiver will cry. Their lament is proof of their relationship. 

Fifth, lament is participation in the pain of others. This is where using the psalms as a prayerbook can be so valuable. The psalms cover all sorts of territory that may feel a bit foreign to us. We may not be so sick that we feel we’re going to die, but praying this psalm brings us in solidarity with those who are — those in the hospital, those starving, those utterly alone. They create empathy within us and expand our limited experience into the imaginative and prayerful space where we might have even a little sense of what it’s like in another’s situation. 

This is what allows us to enter into the pain of someone else and be present to them in that moment. Isn’t that at the heart of Christianity? Jesus entered the world and experienced all that we did. He did not have to do so, but he did because he could be present and participating in the pain of others. He also did so because he is redeeming it all — even the hardest, darkest parts. We have not seen the end of pain or suffering, but we are called to enter into those hard places. Praying the psalms is one way God is softening our hearts.

Finally, lament is permission. Perhaps you’ve been unsure how to talk to God. Maybe you’ve struggled to be honest with God with what truly is on your heart. Maybe you think God’s too busy with more important things than what is troubling you. Lament is permission to be honest with God. God knows the cries of our hearts. God cares about them. Psalm 88 may seem despairing, but I take solace in the fact that the poet just keeps putting it all out there before God. That, too, is faith. 

Glenn Packiam puts it well, “Lament is not our final prayer. It is a prayer in the meantime.” Lament is a display of trust that God can and will make beauty from pain. It may not happen immediately. It may not happen in the way we expect it to happen, but God is in the business of redeeming all things. Even our pain. Even our cries for help. Even our hurt. 

So, the invitation is this. Be bold to trust God enough with everything, including your burdens. God loves you so much that God will redeem even those. Bring those prayers of lament to God in the meantime, while you wait to see God’s grace even there.