Praise, Lament, and Thanksgiving, The Trump Presidency: Who Will We Become, Part 2

In a short series of posts leading to Donald Trump’s inauguration, I want to ask the question of Christians who opposed his candidacy: Who will we become as we resist President Trump’s policies that contradict what we believe are God’s political values?

I used to have an instrumental view of prayer. That is, I thought prayer was a means to a relationship with Jesus. Now I see prayer is the relationship itself, for interpersonal connection demands spending time with each other, listening and speaking. Christians historically learned to pray through the Book of Psalms. In those prayer-poems we find the whole gamut of the human experience, including politics, brought before God in a raw beauty.

The psalmists lived in a cycle of praise, lament, and thanksgiving. They would praise the greatness of Yahweh, Israel’s God. When circumstances led to disappointment and suffering, the psalmists would lament, calling on God to rescue, redeem, and restore. After God acted and brought some salvation, the psalmists would burst forth in thanksgiving.

In order for Christians to oppose Donald Trump when he acts in ways that contradict God’s purposes, we must become people saturated in the Book of Psalms. Through praise we align our priorities and declare our allegiance to God, above any other commitment. In lament we name the darkness and go to God with our protests and demand, “What are you going to do about this?” In thanksgiving we acknowledge God’s generosity in delivering us from our lamentable situations.

We need praise, lament, and thanksgiving for the next four years. Through true prayer God will motivate us to action, and in prayer we bring our experiences to the Holy Spirit. Without praise, lament, and thanksgiving, we lose sight of God at work in the world. Our relationship with Jesus thins to the point where he is nothing more than an intellectual concept. When we lose sight of our true hope, we grow more cynical and succumb to the temptation to seek power. Fostering our relationship with Jesus, that is, praying the Psalms, will strengthen us to work for justice and keep us from dehumanizing our neighbors with whom we disagree.

I recommend starting with three very political psalms that fall into the categories of praise, lament, and thanksgiving. Chew on these psalms, make them your prayers, and let them stimulate you to other prayers. Find a community who will pray these psalms with you.

Praise: The writer of Psalm 146 makes a wonderful juxtaposition in this beautiful hymn of praise. He contrasts the powerful and good God of Israel to the ephemeral political leaders of his day. In this psalm we see the broad strokes of God’s political agenda: creation, justice for the oppressed, restoration for those on the margins.

Lament: The writer of Psalm 73 confesses to being envious of the prosperity of leaders who shirk God. The psalmist’s confusion is apparent. We can see him almost succumbing to the temptation to ditch God’s ways and instead seek political and cultural power. His lament keeps him from despair, however, and realigns him with Yahweh.

Thanksgiving: The writer of Psalm 124 leads the community in a song of thanks to God for rescuing them from their enemies. Their situation was dire, but God proved to be good and faithful. The short prayer brims with rich imagery.

I offer one additional prayer, Psalm 37. Here the psalmist calls people to be patient and remain faithful to God in the midst of an environment where wickedness seems to reign. Let us hear the psalmist’s exhortation again, “Trust in the Lord, and do good.” (37.3) This verse reminds me of something Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “The time is always right to do what’s right.”

Praise sets our hopes correctly on the God of the universe. Lament keeps us from despair and helps us stand against injustice as we name that evil and call the Holy Spirit to act. Thanksgiving reminds us there is still good in the world because Jesus has not grown tired of his redemptive work.

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The Earthy Transcendence of U2’s Lyrics

Lately my music rotation has leaned heavily on U2. (Shocking, I know, that a Christian white male in his mid-30’s likes U2. It just proves some stereotypes are true.) While I love the music, I find myself in this season drawn specifically to Bono’s lyrics. His words evoke an earthy transcendence that is at the same time grounded in the beauty and muck of this world and open to a greater reality out there.

This is not an easy feat. Writers are stuck between two poles. At the one end is the claim the stuff we see, hear, feel, smell, and taste is all there is. Existence is nothing more than a bunch of atoms thrown together at random. Your atoms are animated for a few decades and then you die and that’s it. That’s not to say art that espouses this materialist view cannot be beautiful or wonderful. It’s just that this view will never reach real transcendence.

At the other pole writers deny the value of the physical world and claim only the spiritual or more ephemeral ultimately matters. This kind of writing hopes for transcendence, but really it is gnostic and escapist. It resonates with our longing for a better world. It cannot give a true account of our experiences of pain and goodness in the physical world we inhabit. If writing at the first pole cannot lift off the ground, the writing at the second pole cannot connect with the real dirt between our toes.

Bono’s lyrics don’t merely vacillate between the two poles. Rather, his words wake us up to the wonder of the everyday stuff like father-son relationships and medical breakthroughs and shoes walking down the street. Like other great poets, Bono can see ocean waves breaking on the shore as massive forces of H2O and as metaphors for a couple in a relationship stuck in a cycle of doom and rebirth.

For however lofty Bono’s lyrics can be in imagining a world shaped by compassion, I love how unsentimental and unromantic they are. Take the great song, “One,” from Achtung Baby. In it he sings, “We’re one, but we’re not the same.” In this one lyric he turns on its head every flimsy free-love song from the 1960’s that claimed people are all the same. Bono acknowledges our essential differences that are not easily reconciled, but reminds us we are all in this together. The result is, “We get to carry each other.” Notice carrying each other is not considered a natural reflex. We have to choose to care for one another. Whether it’s the father we have fought with for decades, the spouse who has raised children with us, or our enemy, we must make conscious decisions for love, oneness, and unity. True love doesn’t eliminate our differences. True love simply doesn’t allow those differences to keep us apart, it embraces the differences of the other.

Consider, “Love and Peace or Else.” The title alone shocks us as Bono mingles a Summer of Love image with a threat. As we listen to the song, we see Bono further grounding the ideas from “One” in the realities of generational religious and ethnic conflict. “All you daughters of Zion” and “All you Abraham’s sons,” the seemingly eternally warring adherents of the Abrahamic religions, are all called to “lay down your guns.” Again, Bono makes no claim that love and peace are our natural states. Love and peace are hard choices requiring work on our part. We have to decide, we have to act to, “Break the monster’s back.” This anti-war song continues the tradition of “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” in which Bono claims “Tonight we can be as one,” which requires the disciplines of seeing the truth, rejecting being immune to others’ suffering, and “To claim the victory Jesus won.”

In rejecting a sentimental view of life while also acknowledging a transcendent reality, Bono evokes the biblical language of the psalmists. A pie-in-the-sky view of reality cannot help us stand against evil and injustice. The best we can hope for is escape. Plenty of pop music offers us escapist denial. A view of reality completely lacking transcendence can only see the mire. It can name injustice without real hope of a better world. At most we can hope that enough random atoms will move in a random way in enough random people that they accidentally commit to peace and unity. Ultimately we despair.

Because Bono does not deny the reality of suffering nor the reality of a better world, he can truly hope, he can lament like the psalmists. So he can sing to Jesus, “Wake up dead man,” as he deplores being alone in this world. He can also recognize goodness breaking through the cracks. First hearing the Ramones is for him a miraculous experience that gives him his vocation—he recognizes music will allow him to “exaggerate my pain and give it a name.” The physical world points us to a greater good. “Freedom has a scent like the top of a newborn baby’s head.”

I am attracted to Bono’s lyrics during this season because they remind me of two important realities: the stuff around me is not all there is and there is wonder and mystery infused in that same stuff. Bedouin fires, the Chinese landscape, even oilfields at sunrise wake us up to a beautiful day in which we can once again be shocked out of our stupor and ask for help to have eyes open to transcendence.

Touch me

Take me to that other place

Teach me

I know I’m not a hopeless case

Surprise, Lament, and the Maladjusted

This morning I was reminded of one of my favorite sayings from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He describes our need to foster surprise. I would say that surprise is a necessary part of our relationship with God. Our surprise at God’s greatness and goodness leads to praise. Our surprise at evil and suffering allows us to lament. And our surprise at salvation gives rise to thanksgiving. I’ve used this quotation before, but it is so good that it demands repeating from time to time. Heschel said:

I would say about individuals, an individual dies when he ceases to be surprised. I am surprised every morning that I see the sunshine again. When I see an act of evil, I’m not accommodated. I don’t accommodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere; I’m still surprised. That’s why I’m against it, why I can hope against it. We must learn how to be surprised. Not to adjust ourselves. I am the most maladjusted person in society.

The psalms of lament similarly show a lack of accommodation to evil and violence. In fact the writers of the laments are utterly surprised by evil because they believe that God is good and that peace and justice are supposed to define this life. Out of their surprise the psalmists complain and protest. The psalms of lament keep us maladjusted and give us words to combat injustice.

For those who want to explore the prayer of lament more, I have written a brief devotional on one of the psalms of lament, entitled, My Companions are in Darkness: Devotional Readings on Psalm 88. It is available both as an eBook in the Kindle format and in paperback.

Announcing the Release of My New Devotional, “My Companions are in Darkness”

I have returned to the world of self-publishing with my latest devotional, My Companions are in Darkness: Devotional Readings on Psalm 88. The devotional guides readers slowly through Psalm 88, which is perhaps the most intense prayer of lament in the Bible. The psalmist acknowledges the uncertainty and pains of this life, but he refuses to give up on God. It is because he believes deeply in God’s promises that he can raise his protests to God as he endures trouble. The writer of Psalm 88 also shows us how we may take our role as covenant partners with God very seriously even as we face doubt, confounding pain, or depression.

In his influential paper, “The Costly Loss of Lament” (you should read it), biblical scholar Walter Brueggemman says the discipline of lament has been lost in much of contemporary Western Christianity. He describes the importance of lamentation in our relationship with God as well as what we lose when we no longer engage in lament:

When the lament form is censured, justice questions cannot be asked and eventually become invisible and illegitimate…. A community of faith that negates laments soon concludes that the hard issues of justice are improper questions to pose at the throne, because the throne seems to be only a place of praise. I believe it thus follows that if justice questions are improper questions at the throne (which is a conclusion drawn through liturgic use), they soon appear to be improper questions in public places, in schools, in hospitals, with the government, and eventually even in the courts. Justice questions disappear into civility and docility. The order of the day comes to seem absolute, beyond question, and we are left with only grim obedience and eventually despair. (107)

Sadly, I think Brueggemman is right that we have forgotten how to offer laments to God. Without lament, we have little ability to interact honestly with God when we face suffering and injustice. My Companions are in Darkness is an attempt to relearn this vital expression of prayer.

My Companions are in Darkness Cover

Along with the daily readings and reflections, My Companions are in Darkness also contains brief essays that explore the necessary role of lament in our covenant relationship with God as well as explain the method of devotional reading I propose and how it differs from other important ways of reading the Bible. An appendix at the end of the guide describes some of the textual, cultural, and historical details of the psalm, while maintaining a devotional posture toward the Scripture.

My Companions are in Darkness is available at Amazon.com for $1.99 on the Kindle format, or $5.99 in paperback. A free preview is available on the Amazon product page. If you don’t have a Kindle, you can still purchase and read the guide electronically by downloading the free reader app that works on smart phones, tablets, PC’s, and Macs.

My first self-published devotional, Delivered from All My Fears: Devotional Readings on Psalm 34 is also available for purchase in Kindle or paperback at Amazon.com. Feel free to also visit and “Like” my author page at Amazon.

Keeping Theological and Psychological Readings of the Psalms in Tension

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time with psalms of lament, in particular Psalm 88, what just might be the most distressing lament in the whole Bible. In my time swimming in these dark, forlorn waters, I have a lurking sense of shock at the utter sadness expressed in their words. For years I have embraced lamentation as a valid and necessary element of a faith in the God of Israel. I have even said after a long season filled with horrible pains and losses that lament saved my faith because if praise and thanksgiving were the only acceptable prayers to God after my family and friends died, I would not want much to do with this God. Instead, God allows and welcomes our complaints and protests.

Psalm 88 is an individual lament rather than a corporate protest. Its individual nature invites psychological readings and some authors have noted that Psalm 88 accurately describes the experience of depression—loneliness, feeling rejected by God, sleepless nights, feeling trapped, etc. As I read the psalm I want to offer only a psychological reading of this psalm instead of a theological one. That is, I want to let God off the hook and say that Yahweh has not truly hidden his face from the psalmist, but that to the psalmist it merely seems like Yahweh is avoiding him. I want to say that statements made about God in the midst of lament do not adhere to an objective reality about God’s nature. After reading other theologians and having numerous conversations with people of faith, I know that I am not alone in wanting laments to be only subjective protests about the writer’s experience.

I notice, however, that we are generally happy saying that the psalms of praise or psalms of thanksgiving do objectively portray God. For example, we accept the writer of Psalm 145 accurately describes God when he writes, “The LORD is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made” (145.9, NRSV). God truly and objectively is good to all. At the same time, we say the writer of Psalm 88 only expresses his thoughts and feelings when he says to God, “You have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a thing of horror to them” (88.8). God didn’t really cause the writer’s companions to shun him, it just feels like God caused the writer pain.

Why the discrepancy, especially when nothing in the texts themselves suggests different readings?

The discrepancy stems from cognitive dissonance. We want to believe that God acts only generously and lovingly toward people—or the more specific variant, God acts only generously and lovingly toward people in the faith community—regardless of what we might experience at the given moment. Therefore we affirm praise and thanksgiving psalms as having objectively accurate descriptions of God. Any description of God that would contradict our picture of Yahweh must be diminished or dismissed. We might ignore lament psalms altogether. More likely, we say that lament psalms are important because they acknowledge suffering and show us that one can protest to God and still remain a person of faith. At the same time, we may insist, what these psalms say about God has little to no bearing on who Yahweh actually is or how Yahweh actually acts.

Our efforts to relieve our cognitive dissonance lead us to a dilemma of inconsistency that needs to be addressed.

We could say every claim about God in the Psalms relates to objective reality, but not many interpreters move in that direction. The verses of the Psalms overflow with symbolism and metaphor, the language of poetry. Some interpreters move the other way to solve the dilemma by saying all the claims about God in the Psalms are subjective. They have a lot to teach us about prayer, but we cannot draw many conclusions about God’s character from them. This option is largely unwarranted given the amount of theologizing we find in Second Temple texts, the New Testament, and other Christian and Jewish writings that grow out of exegesis of the Psalms. Those writers read the Psalms as having something objective to say about God, not just offering accounts of what life with God feels like. Since the Book of Psalms is a collection of poetry, it is probably best to say that the claims of God contained in any of them are a mix of the objective and the subjective.

If we are going to accept the claims about God in the psalms of praise and thanksgiving as objective, then we better accept that the psalms of lament also make objective claims. If we are going to posit the psalms of lament make subjective claims, then we must also assume that some of the statements about God in the praise and thanksgiving psalms are subjective. Our interpretation must respect that psalms are poems and songs, which by their nature use extreme language. As others have shown, the extreme language of poetry reveals deep truths, though not in the same way as scientific texts. Accepting the Psalms’ claims of God as a mix of subjective and objective may solve the dilemma of inconsistent interpretation in theory, but in practice, holding these poles together is a great challenge. How does one tell if a claim is subjective or objective? Or how does a reader know how much of a claim is subjective as opposed to objective?

The psalmists do not give us a guide that says, “These claims of God written in blue ink are theological and those written in black ink are psychological.” That is, there are no clear-cut answers to ultimately solving the objective/subjective dilemma. Instead, we have to risk by wading into the waters of the Psalms’ language. We let the Psalms shine their challenging light on our assumptions about life and God. We read these prayer-poems with our community and listen to others’ interpretations. We pay attention to and question our responses. It is precisely when we want to reject a psalm’s claims about God because we feel uncomfortable that we stop and consider what if these claims are true? This is a messy process, yet is deeply life-giving. The Psalms show us that life with God is no safe, easy affair. We will be challenged, shocked, and ultimately transformed. But we cannot be transformed if we try to remain on the outside, looking for clear-cut answers before engaging in a life of prayer.