A Journey through the Psalms of Lament
Psalms of Lament
In his commentary on the psalms, John Calvin writes that the whole anatomy of the human soul can be found in the psalter. All the things with which our lives are ‘wont to be agitated,’ our ‘griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities,’ are there. And it is true, the whole anatomy of the soul is found in the psalms from the gloom and displacement of ‘singing the Lord’s song in a foreign land’ to the psalmist’s angry cry at the end of psalm 137, ‘happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock.’ There also is the explosion of praise from ‘all people that on earth do dwell (Ps. 100),’ which includes all creatures, even ‘sea monsters,’ ‘mountains and all hills,’ ‘fire and hail, snow and frost’ (Ps. 148). But the psalms are not just an anatomy of our human souls, experiences, and emotions, but they also express the fullness of the divine life. The whole anatomy of God is also expressed in the psalms, beginning with the majesty and sovereignty of God that is declared in the first verses of the 139th psalm and including the theological declaration that there is nowhere we can be apart from the presence of God. That includes the margins of our universe, the margins of our world, and even if we ‘make our bed in Sheol,’ we are not outside the presence of Jesus Christ (Ps. 139:8). The psalmist reminds us that the One who descended into hell is also present in every hell and refuses to exist as God apart from us. Even in Sheol. In these pages, we explore six different psalms of lament through the writings, art, and experiences of SCAPC members.
What are psalms of lament? These psalms are songs and poems that cry out to God from the depths of despair. When we are physically hurt, we cry out in pain but when our spirit is hurting, we also cry out in lament. The psalms of lament call out to God asking the questions of our heart. The psalmists acknowledge their pain, giving it a voice and a name, taking time to sit with the pain and anger before they praise God. Around 40% of the psalms are considered psalms of lament but we often bypass many of these psalms instead focusing on the psalms of praise and exclamation. We encourage you to read these and other psalms of lament as you journey through Lent this year, taking an introspective look at who you are, how you feel, and how you can share that with God.
Candy Ulmer Cranch painted this as a memorial to her cousin, Billy Messersmith, a long time member of SCAPC who died of COVID on March 21, 2020. The butterflies in it represent Rebirth; multiple butterflies represent her family & friends that she has lost during the pandemic. The butterflies lose their color & become totally white as they transcend to the heavens above a body of water. The three hearts at the bottom left represent Candy and her sisters sending love to Billy and her friends.
First Week of Lent
DEVOTION BY CHRIS CURRIE: PSALM 137
By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign Land?
–Psalm 137:1, 4
The 137th psalm is a prayer for God to destroy the psalmist’s enemies and oppressors. It honestly portrays exile, grief, mourning, despair, anger, and petitions God to destroy the psalmist’s enemies. ‘Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!’ Not exactly the most elegant piece of scripture or the most grace-filled. An imprecation to God against one’s enemies. An angry petition to destroy the children of one’s tormentors. A plea for destruction of the ‘other,’ whoever the ‘other’ might be. This week the New York Times published a study that showed that since 2020, traffic deaths in this country have surged to a level not seen since the automobile was introduced on a mass scale in the 1920s. The only explanation, according to law enforcement and analysis of all the factors, is a result of the pandemic. According to chief of police in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Harold Medina, ‘we’re seeing erratic behavior in the way people are acting and their patience levels…everybody’s been pushed. This is one of the most stressful times in memory.’ And this from Dr. David Spiegel, director of Stanford Medical School’s Center on Stress and Health: we are experiencing the effects of ‘social disengagement,’ a lack of contact with other people that in normal times provides pleasure, support, and comfort. Instead, Spiegel says, ‘There’s the feeling that the rules are suspended and all bets are off.’
How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land indeed? Thankfully the psalms are not a domesticated or superficial invitation to humanity lay our lives before our Maker. We are meant to offer over our grief, our anger, our fears, our frustrations, even our demands for revenge, offer it all up to God. The whole anatomy of the human soul, John Calvin reminds us, finds expression in the psalms. The psalms do not give us a God that is going to act on our anger, our pleas for revenge, and our imprecations against our enemies, but the psalms give us a God, as does the New Testament, too, a God willing to receive humanity’s anger, confusion, frustration, grief, and crashes, a God willing to take it, receive it, and absorb it all. Indeed, Mark’s gospel begins with Jesus absorbing the unclean spirits from broken humanity as a way of putting us back together again. May you find the ways God does this through the psalms, through the foreign land of this season, and into a future we entrust to God’s hands.
Good and gracious God, comfort the exiled and oppressed; receive the petitions of the angry and the hurting; strengthen the faith of all your people, and bring us all to our true home, the kingdom of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Second Week of Lent
DEVOTION BY KATIE BRENDLER: PSALM 13
How long, O God, how long...
This plea begins the beginning of Psalm 13 and has been the cry of my heart more times than I can count. In the last four and a half years, five very important people to me have died – both my parents, my uncle, and two close friends. It felt like every time I turned around, there was another crisis, another trauma, another goodbye. I wanted to be done; I kept crying out to God, how long do we have to keep doing this?
Will you forget me forever?
The phrase might feel a bit over dramatic out of context but from the depths of despair, every moment feels like forever. Indeed, my life has felt like comedic hyperbole too. On the day we watched my dad slowly and painfully die from brain cancer, six hours later that same day my mom was diagnosed with cancer. Forever felt like the right word for the ridiculous story that had become my life.
How long must I wrestle with these thoughts?
The struggle of wondering, did I do enough? The pain of their loss, the question of what do I do now? Life is changing in big ways and I have to keep up. So many thoughts struggling for purchase, wrestling for control as the world around me continues as usual.
Day after day have sorrow in my heart...
It’s not a quick fix. I wish I could say that grief and pain was a one and done experience, but the fact is that in some form it will always be a part of me. We don’t move on from grief; we move forward. As time passes, the grief takes different forms and stays for different lengths of time, but it always shows up.
But I trust in your unfailing love...
Love comes alongside us. Even when I cannot see it, I trust that it is there. The handwritings of my two friends are part of the prayer tattooed on my arm. Just as surely as their hands have guided me along my path, I know I will carry them with me always, not just on my arm but in my heart, in who I am, and in how I face the world.
I will sing...
It’s a promise. I’ll get there; it may not be today, but I’ll get there. It’s the reminder that I’m not alone, that having big feelings is okay, that relationship with God is about open and honest conversation. I will remember God’s love and the love of my people, and I will sing from the shadows.
ART BY KATIE BRENDLER
Third Week of Lent
DEVOTION BY KATE ELKINS: PSALM 103
The year my son-in-law Matthew did a plastic surgery residence in Boston, our daughter Kathryn and five grandchildren moved in with Gary and me. Sophia, Rowan, Callum, Liam, and Graham and I soon developed a nightly routine: first I read them a story, followed by the Lord’s Prayer, and then I asked each of them to tell me their highs and lows for the day. Liam especially took the question seriously. “My high? That’s hard to say…. Wait! I actually do have a high. Today I painted my sculpture of Horton.” Another day, Liam’s low was that his brother Callum had to get stitches.
I have long been a diarist. Often, my diary merely reports “what I did that day.” But, the more revealing entries recall my highs and lows. Where did I show kindness today – or where did I miss an opportunity to show love? In what did I delight today?
Psalm 103 tells us “As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.” Not only the days, but the years seem to be flying by. The psalmist continues: “But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments.”
Each day is a gift from God. Did you remember to do the Lord’s commandment today? In what did you find delight? What were your highs and what were your lows?
Our Heavenly Father, you have given us the gift of life. Help us to remember to cherish your gift, and to make your gift count. Let us be mindful of others, so that we do not fail to see where a word, a touch, or a gesture of kindness is needed. In Christ’s Name we pray, Amen.
POTTERY BY CHRISTINA CARLISLE
Fourth Week of Lent
DEVOTION BY CASSIE OLIVER: PSALM 139
REJECTING THE CALL
In a popular Disney film called Frozen 2, Elsa hears a voice calling out to her and only she can hear it. The song she sings states,
I’m sorry, secret siren, but I’m blocking out your calls
I’ve had my adventure; I don’t need something new
I’m afraid of what I’m risking if I follow you
That is what I have been telling God for a few years now. In today’s psalm, no matter what you do or where you go, God will always be able to find you.
Recently, I have been having more conversations with family and friends about, “what do you want to do after the YAV (Young Adult Volunteer) year?” I throw out many different options like throwing spaghetti against the fridge to see which idea actually sticks. I feel like when I am asked this question, I am trying to find a path that fits into my life and what I want to do, while rejecting the call, like Elsa, that keeps popping up all around me. But, as the psalm says today, “My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” Psalm 139:15-16
Is God calling you to do something outside your comfort zone?
Are you willing to step into the unknown, knowing that God has prepared you a path and walks alongside you every moment of everyday?
ART BY CASSIE OLIVER
Fifth Week of Lent
DEVOTION BY SARAH CHANCELLOR-WATSON: PSALM 51
In the Disney movie, Encanto, (which if you haven’t seen, I would highly recommend it, no matter your age), we are introduced to the magical and fantastical Madrigal Family in the film’s catchy opening musical number. One of the family members we are introduced to is Isabella, and like many of the people in her family, Isabella was gifted with a special magical ability. Her special powers are that she can grow and produce plants and flowers out of thin air, making the world around her verdant and beautiful. Isabella herself is the picture of beauty and grace, the “perfect golden child.” In the course of the movie, Isabella ends up in a heated argument with her sister, Maribel. One minute Isabella is yelling at her sister and the next a small prickly and asymmetrical cactus appears between the two sisters. The cactus surprises both girls as it is nothing like the delicate and elegant flowers Isabella usually conjures. In usual Disney fashion, Isabella sings a song where she declares that what she has just made “is not perfect, but it’s beautiful.”
In our worship, nearly every Sunday we engage in a time of confession and assurance of forgiveness. The words of our prayer of confession on any given Sunday may hit a little too close to home and prod those places in our hearts that we would rather not expose. While seemingly not the most uplifting and inspiring part of our worship, I would venture to say that praying our confession and hearing God’s promise of pardon is among the most important things that we do in worship.
Isabela’s “cactus moment” in Encanto is one of liberation for her. While she seems to have the perfect life and everything comes easy to her, we see that her role within the family to be the “golden child” is in fact confining her and keeping her from being her truest and most beautiful self. Today’s psalm reminds of the importance of coming before God with our whole and truest selves. These words tell us that God’s grace and mercy make it possible for us to also break out of the confines of trying to be perfect. We don’t have to be the perfect Golden child for God to love us or for us to be valuable and worthy. God is able to take our prickly parts and create something beautiful.
ART BY CHANCE WATSON, AGE 1
Sixth Week of Lent
DEVOTION BY AIDEN MORRISS: PSALM 22
The first time I read this psalm, I was sitting in the pew waiting for service to start. I often found myself bored in those minutes between Sunday School and regular service. To combat this, I flipped through the Bible. After reading Psalm 23, which I was already familiar with, I looked to the left-hand side of the book and began to read Psalm 22. When I did, I found it fairly disturbing. Psalm 22 is, for its opening half, a fairly harrowing story, after all. That idea, that God could abandon one of His flock, shook me fairly deeply, and when I was interrupted halfway through the psalm, I found it hard to focus on the service as I was consumed by doubt and worry, which I didn’t often feel in church. After all, if God could abandon this narrator, could it happen to me, too?
My pre-teen angst about this passage would have been assuaged, of course, if I had continued reading past the halfway mark. Psalm 22’s mournful beginning is counterbalanced by a joyous and praising conclusion that predicts God’s love will save the narrator as it has so often before. The narrator wishes to sing the praises of God for the bounty and mercy He has shown his people, and the hopeless attitude of the preceding verses feels foolish and short-sighted. So often I have allowed myself to be distracted by the world around me just when I feel my lowest and farthest from God, and I allow my fears and doubts to consume me. But if I wait a little longer, I find myself forgetting that doubt in the face of God’s salvation.
Doubt in God’s love and fear of God’s abandonment are both natural parts of our faith journey. How has God walked with you in these times, and what helped you to pass through these times of hardship?