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 Necessity of Metaphor for God-Talk: Reflecting on Bono & Eugene Peterson on the Psalms

Yesterday Fuller Studio released its first film: a conversation between Bono and Eugene Peterson on the Psalms. Bono is the lead singer of U2. Eugene Peterson is a Christian pastor and author, most notably of The Message a translation of the Bible in modern idiomatic English.

In the video it is clear both men give great attention to the importance of language, particularly our speech to God. In a critique of contemporary Church music they lament the lack of honesty and realism before God. Bono compliments the beauty of the music found in churches, but finds the lyrics too safe and sanitized. Contrast that to the Psalms, which are prayer-poems of honest rawness.

Beyond the need to recapture the honesty of the psalmists, these men talk about the importance of metaphor. Bono says in the film, “The only way we can approach God is if we’re honest through metaphor, through symbol.” This statement woke me up. I love the arts and have even argued for their necessity in the life of the Church. I’ve written devotionals on the Psalms and spend a good amount of time in them trying to help readers enter the worlds evoked in their language. Bono’s statement revealed to me just how reflexively drawn I am to analytical language. Somewhere deep within me I think concrete analytical language is more valuable than mysterious symbolic speech.

There is room for measured, careful analysis, but a thesis followed by three supporting paragraphs and a clear conclusion can’t capture the truth of desperation found in Psalm 22.1-2:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest. (NRSV)

We need symbolic language to express the reality of our wonder before the grandeur of God as the writer of Psalm 18 does:

The LORD is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer,
my God, my rock in whom I take refuge,
my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. (NRSV)

By writing this way the psalmist evokes a greater response than if he simply wrote, “God offers safety and deliverance.” But this symbolic language does more than express a truth artfully. The metaphor, the symbol, is the truth itself. If the psalmist wants to be analytical, he would write an essay. He chooses to express himself in a poem. Metaphors and similes are not window dressing, they are the message itself. We inhabit a world we cannot fully understand. We encounter a God who will always remain a mystery to us, whose reality will always push the boundaries of our speech. Symbolic language is a step in the right direction at expressing our wonder before the mystery.

I want to dive into symbolic language. Metaphors invite and even demand readers to get dirty. We cannot stay objective or removed. The question for readers of the Psalms is not, what is the concept behind this metaphor? For once we find said concept, we often discard the metaphor. God then becomes merely an abstract source of safety and is no longer a fortress. We lose the powerful image. The real questions might be, how does this metaphor open me to truth? How do these symbols welcome me into the mystery?

I greatly appreciate the work of both Petereson and Bono. Peterson’s books on pastoring greatly shaped my understanding of the vocation while I served churches. His work reminded me of why I was there and what was truly important in the midst of myriad tasks — things like praying, reading Scripture, spiritual direction. U2 has been one of my favorite bands for years and I recently wrote about how I find much beauty in the earthy transcendence of Bono’s lyrics.

 

How the Psalms Teach Us to Pray

In my reading today, I came across this quotation from Walter Brueggemann and it’s too good to not reproduce in its entirety. He captures what it means to be a people of the book. In this case, that book is the Book of Psalms, and our action is prayer. Brueggemann teases out the implications of learning to pray the Psalms. They give us words to pray as well as show us how to create prayers using our own words. (Text in italics is Brueggemann’s emphasis, text in bold is mine.)

The psalms function both as acts of prayer themselves and as invitations to other prayers beyond these words. As an act of prayer, the psalms witness to the ways in which this community has always prayed, from its first “belief-ful” utterance until our own practice of the same speech as an act of prayer. The community uses, reuses, and reuses these same words because the words are known to be adequate and because we have no better words to utter. The initial speakers of these words understood that prayer cannot be thought, but must be spoken. At the source of this prayer tradition, the community found a particular, peculiar spokenness that we still speak: a spokenness that is daring and subversive, attuned to the reality of human hurt, to the splendor of holy power, to the seriousness of moral coherence, and to the possibility of cosmic and personal transformation. The community has found these words and modes of speech faithful, adequate, and satisfying because the original articulations of prayer have—in our judgement, in our faith, and in our experience—gotten it right. We boldly reuse their speaking in our speaking.

The psalms function not only as discipline and instruction about how to pray but also as invitation and authorization to speak imaginatively beyond these words themselves. These words in the psalms initiate a trajectory of dangerous speech that we can continue. We not only reiterate these prayers in their timeless words now found timely but are authorized and nourished by these words to find our words, fresh words that are more resonant to our own experience, more congruent with our own life, more crucial for our own faith. Thus our best speech of praise requires our best inventiveness. Our most candid speech of lament permits words that live close to our deepest hurt and our most intimate groan. We pray in our own time and place, from our own experience, and out of our own faith, and therefore in our own words. The psalms both permit and generate such inventiveness.

The inventiveness of our own prayer, however, stands always in an odd relation to the norm of the psalms themselves. The very psalms that invite our inventiveness also expose much of our inventiveness as trivial and trite, unworthy for this awesome conversation. We then move back and forth between these classic acts of prayer and our own inventiveness. We find in the psalms both models and permits. We stand under their discipline, and we are authorized by their freedom. In this movement out of the psalms and then back into them, we are speakers for ourselves. We are at the same time speakers through the countless generations, continuing the prayers and the speech begun for us long before us. (“The Psalms as Prayer,” in The Psalms and the Life of Faith, 33-34)

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.

The Psalms Speak for Us

A couple of years ago I wrote about my need for prayer guides. For most of my life I had this ideal picture of what it means to be a prayerful person as someone who sits and talks to God for long periods. But that picture has never really manifested itself in my life. I have found great help in podcasts that lead people to pray, praying with others, and books of prayers. I wrote Delivered from All My Fears: Devotional Readings on Psalm 34 to be one of those aids to help people pray.

Years ago I was challenged by Eugene Peterson’s book, Working the Angles to look to the Psalms to learn to pray. Peterson argues that until the 19th century the people of God learned to pray through the Psalms. They were the original prayer guides, and are still the best, covering virtually all human emotions and expressing all types of speech to God. Peterson reiterates an oft-cited paraphrase of the 4th century theologian, Athanasius: “most of Scripture speaks to us; the Psalms speak for us.” (55)

A fuller quotation from Athanasius is worth considering. The notion of the Psalms speaking for us comes from his Letter to Marcellinus, which is the first known Christian writing on the Psalms. Note, the language might sound a bit archaic, but the ideas are wonderful and beautifully expressed.

And, among all the books, the Psalter has certainly a very special grace, a choiceness of quality well worthy to be pondered; for, besides the characteristics which it shares with others, it has this peculiar marvel of its own, that within it are represented and portrayed in all their great variety the movements of the human soul. It is like a picture, in which you see yourself portrayed and, seeing, may understand and consequently form yourself upon the pattern given. Elsewhere in the Bible you read only that the Law commands this or that to be done, you listen to the Prophets to learn about the Saviour’s coming or you turn to the historical books to learn the doings of the kings and holy men; but in the Psalter, besides all these things, you learn. about yourself You find depicted in it all the movements of your soul, all its changes, its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries. Moreover, whatever your particular need or trouble, from this same book you can select a form of words to fit it, so that you do not merely hear and then pass on, but learn the way to remedy your ill….

And herein is yet another strange thing about the Psalms. In the other books of Scripture we read or hear the words of holy men as belonging only to those who spoke them, not at all as though they were our own; and in the same way the doings there narrated are to us material for wonder and examples to be followed, but not in any sense things we have done ourselves. With this book, however, though one does read the prophecies about the Saviour in that way, with reverence and with awe, in the case of all the other Psalms it is as though it were one’s own words that one read; and any one who hears them is moved at heart, as though they voiced for him his deepest thoughts.