from the inside out

Every few weeks, the text for the week calls up some long-ago, filed-away kids’ song that I sang in Sunday school or Vacation Bible School or at Camp Bethel. This week, I’ve had this gem from the Gaithers stuck in my head – I’ve woken up singing it, hummed it while I washed dishes, went to bed with the lyrics running through my dreams:

 

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This morning, our scripture is the story of God anointing David to be King over Israel. You know that story: Samuel, the priest, hears from God that he is to anoint a new king, and he hears from God that the new king will come from the house of Jesse. So he invites Jesse and all his family over for dinner before the big sacrifice, and when they arrive, Samuel is certain that Jesse’s oldest son, Eliab, is the one that God has chosen – he’s attractive, strong and (as we remember from last week’s story about King Saul) he has the most important leadership quality: he’s tall.

But God says, “Nope. Not the one. ‘Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’”

And that is the money verse right there, the one you probably remember from Sunday school like I do – the reminder that God’s ways are not our ways, the pinch of shame remembering how the Israelites exclaimed and fawned over the handsome, tall, totally unqualified King Saul that they had begged God for. Jesse parades seven sons before Samuel, and God disqualifies each one of them until Samuel finally asks, in desperation, whether or not there is any other son around. Jesse finally calls in David, the youngest, still a boy who is outside tending the sheep.

And when David walks in, dirty and smelly from tending the sheep, God says to Samuel: “Rise and anoint him. This is the one.”
When we hear this story, we think this scene – David getting anointed unexpectedly – is the entire narrative. At least in my memory of the story of King David, I remembered that Samuel anointed him, he proved his worth by fighting Goliath, and took over ruling Israel immediately, with God’s blessing and the people’s good will.

But actually, that’s not how the story goes. There’s a little problem: Israel still has the old king. Saul the Tall is still on the throne.

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I’ve really enjoyed imbibing and whittling down these epic narratives from the Hebrew Bible this summer, as we’ve navigated our way through the family legends and stories of a people thrust into conflict with Empire and figuring out how to live as God’s people.

And this is the first week that I have to confess that I cannot make heads or tails of the narrative.

1 Samuel tells the story of Saul’s kingship – the story of Samuel being dedicated to God and the temple before his birth, growing up under the mentorship of Eli, taking charge of the worship of the entire people and following God’s advice to anoint the people a King when they demand that they have one in order to be like all the other people, in order to have someone who can “fight their battles for them.”

All of that makes pretty decent narrative sense. What comes next – the chaos of the reign of Saul – does not.

Saul does some good stuff – wins some battles, kills a ton of enemies – but he does some bad stuff, too. The bad stuff is not entirely clear. It seems like the final straw for God was when Saul refused to kill ALL the Amalekites, keeping the best livestock and their leader for himself and his men. Scholars are still unsure why THIS is the offense that leads God to declare Saul no longer fit for kingship – a failure to show no mercy? but either way, God decides that Saul is no longer his anointed one.

So, God tells Samuel to go anoint a new king.

Here’s what happens when Samuel anoints David as King, even though Saul is still on the throne:

“From that day on, the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David…”

And, one verse later, “Now the Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him.”

So, maybe the following mishmash of events is due, in part, to this evil spirit that has taken over Saul. Certainly Saul’s behavior makes sense for someone possessed.

Even though God has clearly shifted his allegiances from Saul to David, even though Samuel has anointed a new King, Saul still sits on the throne. David has the Spirit of the Lord, but he doesn’t have any military might or power from the people. He’s still just a young kid tending his dad’s flocks. Everybody is still looking to Saul for direction, that King that they demanded of the Lord, the one Samuel warned them would be awful for their well-being and their children’s well-being. But the Israelites are stubborn, and they’ve gotten what they’ve asked for, and now they are fawning over this new King, following his royal dictates in the news, watching his every move on the Iron Age equivalent of Twitter. I bet that even the Israelites who were opposed to the whole King business in the first place (ahem, Samuel…) are just as caught up in Saul’s antics as the rest of them.

Everybody’s watching King Saul. But God’s spirit has GONE OUT OF HIM. God’s not working his promise through the throne anymore.

God’s got his man down with the sheep.

But soon enough, David finds himself in the halls of power. As Saul’s health declines, he starts having hallucinations. He can’t sleep. He is tortured by the evil spirit that God has sent upon him, and his advisers think he needs a personal musician to help tame the demons. David, it turns out, is pretty great with a lyre. They summon him, and he enters into service of the King. Well, into the service of the guy who all the humans assume is still the King.

David would play his lyre whenever Saul got agitated by the evil spirit, and Saul took a special liking to him.

The Philistines (remember them?) were still hanging around, threatening the Israelites. One of their huge, popular warriors, named Goliath, challenged the Israelites to something like a gladiator challenge. All the Israelites grumble and argue about who they’ll send to go fight this gigantic man, but David – skinny little kid who spends his days playing the lyre and tending his father’s sheep – volunteers as tribute.

And you know this story: David pings Goliath in the forehead with a rock from his slingshot, Goliath falls like a mighty oak, face first into the dirt, and David finishes him off.

The people are totally impressed, and so is Saul. Saul starts sending David out as a warrior, and wherever Saul sent him, he managed victory over the Israelites’ enemies.

The people start fan-girl-ing David, chanting in the streets: “Saul has slain his thousands, but David his TENS of Thousands!”

And that’s when Saul gets jealous. David has more and more success, and Saul begins to be afraid of him.

And this is where the story gets…wonky. For the rest of the book – 12 more chapters – Saul chases David all over creation, trying to kill him then remembering that he once loved him like a son; commanding his generals to assassinate him, then being chastised by his son Jonathan, who loved David deeply; stalking him from town to town, then repenting when David decides not to kill him when he has a chance.

This goes on, and on, and on, and on. Saul cannot bear David’s rise to power, and yet he also cannot seem to cut him off. Saul the Tall has gone legitimately mad. He can’t tell up from down, his supporters from his enemies, right from wrong, dead from alive.

In the midst of all this cat-and-mouse game, Samuel the priest and prophet dies. All of Israel mourns him – the last leader of integrity that they had known. In his frantic grasp at power and sanity, Saul makes a trip to a woman who is a Seer – something he himself has forbid for the kingdom of Israel – in order to call Samuel forth, back from the dead, to give him advice.

It works – the seer woman summons Samuel’s spirit, and Samuel shows up. Saul bows down to him and Ghost Samuel says, irritated, “‘Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?’”

“I don’t know what to do!” Saul wails. “the Philistines are waging war against me, God’s spirit has gone away from me, my advisers keep quitting on me, no one listens to my Twitter rants anymore…I’m just so LOST!”

And Samuel replies: “Why do you consult me, now that the Lord has departed from you and become your enemy? The Lord has done what he predicted through me. The Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hands and given it to one of your neighbors – to David…The Lord will deliver both Israel and you into the hands of the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons will be with me.”

And, unsurprisingly, soon thereafter, the Israelites enter into another battle with the Philistines. When the enemy surrounds Saul and wounds him, he cannot take it anymore. He falls on his own sword.

David has been steadily rising in influence as a tested and victorious warrior who also seems to treat his enemies with some measure of mercy. The people have come to love him, and when Saul dies, they eagerly seat him on the throne. David only become king years and years after Samuel has anointed him, years and years after Saul has lost his mind, years and years after that moment where God declares that he does not value power the way that we humans value power, but that the heart is the most important.

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It’s hard not to read the story of Saul – an unlikely King demanded by a dissatisfied people and reluctantly installed by a disapproving Deity who knows how badly it will end; an unprepared mind simply not up to the task of wielding such power and descending, predictably, into paranoia, narcissism and pain, dragging an entire people with him – and not make a parallel to America today.

Plenty of Christians cite that verse from Romans 13 when they talk about the relationship that faithful people should have with the government. You know the one: Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.

And I want to call that out as an evasion, a half-truth, a way of hiding behind one verse of scripture without acknowledging the whole of it in order to keep our hands “clean,” as it were, in order to let ourselves off the hook when the governing authorities turn out to be not just bad but actually actively destroying the lives of our sisters and brothers, actively dragging us into madness.

God established Saul’s authority, it’s true. The Israelites asked for a King and God gave them one. But God also REMOVED HER SPIRIT from Saul. When Saul went rogue, like everybody knew he would, God started working in and through David to guide the Israelites toward the promise. And God says, straight up, “I don’t work the way you work. I don’t see power the way you see power. Authority doesn’t come from being attractive or wealthy or in the right place at the right time – the authority that I establish comes from having a heart that is pure and humble and inclined toward me.”

So, here’s a challenge for all of us this week: where do you see GOD at work? Where do you see God’s spirit moving among her people? Instead of following the white house on Twitter, look around – in unexpected places, with unexpected people. Where is God’s Spirit hanging out, these days?

I saw it on Main Street on Friday, when I walked the couple of blocks from my house to share water with protesters spending 7 hours marching against the KKK. I saw it in kids dancing, musicians drumming, neighbors chanting, dozens dropping off water and snacks and sunscreen and people declaring, together, that this city is not a place where evil spirits are welcome.

I’ve read a few of the media reports of what’s going on in Durham over the last few days, and I have to say that I’m not sure journalists are equipped to report on things “from the inside out,” like God does. But if we pay attention, we do have ways to look at the heart of a situation. We know what ‘heart’ looks like – often unassuming, sometimes stuck in the back with the sheep, sometimes from a backwater sort of place like Nazareth, sometimes hanging out with the people no one else wants to pay attention to, sometimes teaching and preaching and healing in opposition of the religious and political leaders, sometimes crucified for all that, sometimes resurrected in the power of God’s own Spirit.

Where have you seen HEART at work recently?

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but you guys…he’s TALL!

It’s hard to keep track of the news, these days. This week felt particularly hard. I couldn’t pry myself away from the internet yesterday – watching hate show itself so baldly in Charlottesville, wondering about friends and colleagues who were there, waiting for the President to say something, wondering how my fellow clergy were going to re-write their sermons to take this eruption of hatred into account. Maybe you weren’t following things in Charlottesville so closely yesterday, but I feel pretty sure that one of the terrifying headlines of late has gotten to you, held you in its grasp, made it hard for you to focus on much of anything else. What do we do when the world feels immeasurably dangerous?

This week’s text from 1 Samuel felt like a balm to me as I was reading and studying it. Maybe it will feel the same way to you. Or maybe it will fuel your discontent. Or maybe it will feel completely unrelated. Nonetheless, our story of Samuel continues this morning. Listen, won’t you, for contemporary resonances.

When we last left Samuel, he had lost his lifelong mentor, and been suddenly thrust into leadership of the temple. The Philistines had stolen the Ark of the Covenant, and when they finally brought it back, Samuel was the one who assumed Priest-in-Charge duties. He restored the Israelites to their proper form of worship, and, the text tells us, he “judged Israel as long as he lived.” He traveled all over – from Bethel to Gilgal to Mizpah and back to Ramah, where his home was.

Samuel had sons, and when he grew too old to carry the whole burden of priest and judge duties, he appointed his sons to be the new judges. But, just like old Eli’s sons before them, Samuel’s sons were not great leaders. They were “bent on gain, they accepted bribes, and they subverted justice.” The Israelites knew what rascals Samuel’s sons were, and they begged him to appoint a king, instead.

Remember, right, that the Israelites – the people descended from all those family legends we’ve been studying, the ones who were descended from this small family out in the desert, the ones who moved into Egypt and encountered empire only to become slaves to the Pharaoh there, the ones who’ve spent decades, now, being led by various priests and warriors and judges – the Israelites have never had a king.

God, who called these people his own and continues to care for them, to lead them out of slavery and into promised land, who keeps showing up just when all hope was lost and bringing forth a new heir or a new leader or a new way of worship…God never felt it necessary to appoint a king over Israel. In fact, when they did make it into Egypt and out of the desert, the king there was less than beneficial: they ended up enslaved. It took an act of God to lead them out.

Still, the Israelites are dissatisfied with the way things are going. Samuel was a pretty good leader, like Eli was before him, but now his sons have come to power and they are not leaders of integrity. Moreover, every other people that they know of has a king.

The elders gather around Samuel and say to him: “You have grown old, and your sons have not followed your ways. Therefore, appoint a king for us, to govern us like all the other nations.”

It’s accurate that most of the other civilizations in the Ancient Near East had kings. These leaders controlled resources, mustered armies, and meted out justice. They were seen as shepherds of the people and often superhuman – if not gods themselves, then the very next best thing. And, in most of the writings that we have about the kings of the ANE, kingship was believed to be initiated by the gods and descended onto humankind. In other words, in those days, kings were put into power by divine beings, and seen as the gods’ right-hand men.

It’s pretty fascinating that kingship for the Israelites comes about in exactly the opposite way. God does not choose and install a king for his people. Instead, the people, fed up with the kind of leadership that they have, insist that Samuel anoint a king for them. This king will not be divinely chosen: this king is clearly put in place because the people are fed up.

And the people are not shy about why they want a king: they want to be like everyone else. They saw that other nations had kings instead of judges, they’re afraid for their own safety and security, and they demand a king for themselves.

Samuel is not happy. He’s been deeply formed in the way of priests and judges, and he also knows that even when the priests and judges don’t act with integrity, God has a way of bringing about better leadership. Didn’t he, himself, end up as judge when Eli’s sons, who stood to inherit the priesthood, were struck dead during battle? And hadn’t God himself whispered to Samuel that he would take care of this during that dream way back when he was a young boy?

Samuel knows what the people do not: God is in charge, and God will see to it that his people are cared for and well led. Samuel complains to God: “can you believe this, Lord? The people know who you are, they know your promises, they’ve even seen you do mighty works and save them from bad leaders and from our enemies. Don’t they remember that time you inflicted hemorrhoids on the Philistines when they tried to steal the Ark of the Covenant? Don’t they trust YOU to be their king?”

But God, who knows that arguing logic with scared kids is of no use, says to Samuel: “Heed the demand of the people in everything they say to you. For it is not you that they have rejected; it is ME they have rejected as their king. Like everything else they have done ever since I brought them out of Egypt to this day – forsaking me and worshipping other gods – so they are doing to you. Heed their demand; but warn them solemnly, and tell them about the practices of any king who will rule over them.”

And so, Samuel takes a deep, deep breath, and goes back out to the gathered people and does what God has told him to do. He warns them about all the ways of Kings:

This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: he will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plough his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.’

“So, you guys,” Samuel says, “is this really what you want? I mean, are you SURE? I really, really, really don’t think you’re going to like it.”

And the people said:

“We must have a king over us, that we may be like all the other nations. Let our king rule over us and go out at our head and fight our battles.”

Samuel, with another deep sigh, leaves the assembly and reports back to the Lord. “God,” he says, “they’re really serious. This is happening. Are you SURE you want me to give them what they want?”

And God says, “Heed their demands and appoint a king for them.”

But there is a tiny problem: who, exactly, should Samuel appoint to be King over this whole people? It really can’t be an internal hire – just think of all the politics and hidden alliances that would have sprung up. And it’s not like the Israelites had a lot of contact with people outside their own community. How would they even FIND a King?

Well, God solves this problem pretty quickly, as does the text. The very next thing we hear is that “there was a man of Benjamin (you remember Joseph’s little brother?) whose name was Kish son of Abiel son of Zeror son of Becorath son of Aphiah, a Benjaminite (oh, right, a member of one of the twelve tribes, still distantly related to Samuel’s people), a man of substance. This man had a son whose name was Saul, (note: it wasn’t SAUL who was a man of substance…he was the son of one); no one among the Israelites was handsomer than he; he was a head taller than any of the people.”

So, here’s what we know about Saul, the guy who is going to be anointed the very first King of the Israelites, the one the people have clamored for, the one God has sent to fulfill their desire to have someone to rule over them and fight their battles for them:

His dad is a “man of substance”;

he is more handsome than any of the Israelites;

and…

he’s really tall.

I mean, sure, when you’re looking for a King, those are the most important qualities, right? Comes from a good family, looks attractive, really tall.

Totally qualified to lead an entire people, wage war, distribute resources, mitigate disputes and generally be considered a divine being in total control of an entire people. I mean, HE’S TALL, you guys!

Never mind that Samuel himself, the last leader of this ornery people, was dedicated to God before he was even conceived, spent his entire life being formed in the ways of the temple and mentored by the priest and leader, and only assumed leadership after a lifetime of learning how to do all the important things, in the wake of his mentor’s death and his people’s defeat in battle. Who cares about all that preparedness? Who needs formation? This man…THIS MAN…is HANDSOME.

A few of Saul’s father’s donkeys ran off, and his dad sent Saul out after it. “Take some servants,” he said, “and go find those asses.” This is verbatim, direct translation, from the text, and I cannot help but read a bit more into it than Saul going to look for livestock. Haven’t the Israelites, who he’ll eventually stumble into, been acting like donkeys?

Saul and his servants look and look, but they can’t find the lost donkeys. They traveled over every hillside around Jerusalem, day after day, and finally, Saul said “this is taking too long. Let’s go home – otherwise Dad will think he’s lost his son in addition to his donkeys.” But his servant recognized the hillside nearest them as close to the place where Samuel, the prophet, lived. “There is a man of God in that town,” he told Saul, “everything he says comes true. Let’s go see him; maybe he can tell us where to find the donkeys.”

Fine. Saul agrees, but insists that if they go to visit this prophet man, they ought to take a gift. “What do we have?” The servant said “I happen to have a quarter shekel of silver. I can give that to the man of God, and maybe he will tell us about our errand.” So they set off.

As they climbed the hillside, they saw some girls walking out to the well to draw water, and asked if the prophet was in the town. “Yes,” the girls replied, “But he’s about to leave – you should hurry if you want to catch him.” Saul and his servants hurry into town, and as they entered the gates, Samuel passed them on his way up to the temple.

Samuel, we know, never stopped talking with God. And just the night before, God had told him that he would be sending a man from the territory of Benjamin, and that Saul should go ahead and anoint this (tall) (handsome) man as ruler of Israel. And when Samuel looked up and saw Saul striding into town, God said to him “That’s him!”

So, in obedience to the Lord, Samuel greeted Saul and invited him over to dinner. Saul and his group went home with Samuel and ate a delicious dinner. But when Saul asked about the lost donkeys, he got a very unexpected reply: “Oh, yes,” Samuel said. “The donkeys have been found. Don’t worry about them. But there’s something else: the Lord has told me that you are to be anointed as the king of the Israelites. For whom is all of Israel yearning, if not for you and all your ancestral house?”

Saul is, understandably, surprised. But he puts up no fight and apparently offers no excuse or resistance. Samuel and Saul went up to the roof, and Samuel took a flask of oil out and poured oil on Saul’s head, kissed him, and said “The Lord herewith anoints you ruler over His own people.” Then Samuel gives Saul a few instructions about returning home, what to tell his family, what signs he’ll see on the way to know that God is really with him, and sends him off.

And, as Saul turns around to leave, the text says that “God gave him another heart.”

And that’s that. The Israelites have a king. Done and done.

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See, isn’t that a comforting story? 🙂

I love the way God acts toward her people: like an amused and slightly annoyed parent. Clearly, God did not want Israel to have a King. The people had been formed to be God’s people, a nation made different than all the rest, a community built without need for a monarch, trained to put their trust in the one, divine King. It had worked for them up to this point, they’d managed to grow into huge numbers, just like God promised Abraham; they’d been led out of slavery and found the promised land, just like God promised Jacob; even just now, in the last few years, they’d lost their most precious Ark of the Covenant and then miraculously had it returned to them, ended up with crooked leadership and suddenly had them replaced with a strong man of faith. God was in the process of keeping her promises.

And still, those Israelites wanted nothing more than to be like everybody else, to make themselves feel safer by having a King, to do things their way.

And God does not condemn them, God does not chide them, God doesn’t even seem all that surprised or angry – even though it’s clear that this request is an outright rejection of God’s own protection.

No, God just sighs a deep, deep sigh and tells Samuel to give the kids what they want.

As if it won’t really make all that much difference in the end, as if God saw this coming all the way back in the Garden of Eden.

Clearly, there is a better way to go about being God’s people: don’t have a king. But when God’s people decide not to go that route, God does not abandon them to their fate. Oh, yes, there are consequences, and they are huge – we’re still wrestling with the consequences of this choice today. But the bad choice does not separate the Israelites from God.

No, instead, God sighs really deeply, brings them the tall, handsome, unqualified guy they insisted upon, and after Samuel anoints him, as he turns to walk away, God gives him a new heart.

God knows our fears. God knows our sin. God even anticipates our rejection. Our cowardice and self-righteousness does not surprise the God who made us. And it does not separate us from his presence, from his love, or from his plan.

Of course, there’s a better way to live. There’s the original intent, straight from the Creator: live without fear, without shame, without needing a King to do our dirty work for us. But even when we reject that better way, we are not cast out of possibility.

Here’s why that’s comforting to me, today: I don’t think God was surprised at all by yesterday’s eruption of hatred and bigotry in Charlottesville. I don’t think God was surprised, and I know that some of our sisters and brothers of color who have lived with that kind of hatred every day of their lives were not surprised.

If we are surprised, that’s part of the privilege of whiteness.

I don’t think God is surprised by the depths of our capacity to hate. I think God offers us, again and again, over and over, generation after generation the possibility of another way forward, the assurance that we do not need to be afraid of one another, the reality of a new heaven and a new earth, available to us here and now.

And when we choose to bypass God’s offer, choose to give in to the parts of us that tell us the world is a place to be feared and resources are scarce and we should huddle closer to the people who are like us and keep everybody else out and probably, while we’re at it, get ourselves a king or a militia or an assault rifle or a vocabulary full of hatefulness or a huge bigoted rally where we can wield tiki torches and spew vitriol and parade around like we are gods…

…or even when we see all that happening and refuse to speak up because we’re scared that we’ll make someone angry or start an argument or maybe even lose our jobs…

…or when we see all of it happening and refuse to acknowledge the ways we, ourselves, might be responsible for it by blaming Nazis or evangelicals or the president, pointing fingers instead of doing our own work, confessing our own sin, working in our own ways toward accepting God’s promise…

Whenever we choose to bypass God’s offer, we take ourselves that much farther from God’s intention for us, his beloved creation.

But our choices do not leave us abandoned. God does not throw her hands in the air and stomp off. God shakes her head, sighs deeply, allows us what we’ve demanded, and then sneaks in around the corner and does what she was always planning to do in another, maybe less ideal, way.

God is not surprised by our fear, our hatred, our violence. But I do think God celebrates, squeals with delight, smiles with the warmth of a thousand suns, whenever we choose to accept her offer of another way – the hard and painful way of justice, joy, and peace.

on hemorrhoids & justice

We’re working our way through the family legends of Genesis, Torah, and the prophets at my church this summer. I’m calling the sermon series “Family Values,” which is decidedly tongue in cheek, given that we’re talking about sisters competing in a birth-off, a dad consenting to sacrificing his favorite son, a woman who insists that her slave woman is “part of the family,” and dudes who sell their annoying little brother into slavery.

This week, we made it all the way to Samuel. You remember Samuel, right? His mom, Hannah, had a snotty sister wife who kept having baby after baby and then throwing it in Hannah’s barren face. Hannah had a total meltdown at one annual family visit to the temple and swore to God that if he gave her a son, she would give him right back and dedicate him to work in the temple.

God “remembered” Hannah (which is what the old dudes who wrote these legends down keep saying about women who find themselves somewhat unexpectedly and belatedly pregnant – as if God had totally forgotten them since they hadn’t done their single female task and borne any offspring yet…) and she had a son. She named him Samuel, which means “I asked the Lord for him.” I’m pretty sure that was Hannah’s way of getting back at the old scribes’ misogyny, reminding them that God hadn’t forgotten her and suddenly remembered, but that they’d been in cahoots the whole time.

Samuel grew up in the temple, dedicated to the priest named Eli and the work of God’s house. You probably remember the story of how God called Samuel in the night, but Samuel – new at this whole temple thing and living in an era when God didn’t really speak to humans this way with much frequency – kept thinking it was Eli. When the two of them finally figure out that God is trying to talk to Samuel, God tells him all kinds of horrible things about how Eli’s sons have been horrid scoundrels, stealing from the people and from the Lord, and how God just can’t let that go on much longer.

The prophecies come true. The Israelites get into a skirmish with the Philistines. When they lose the first battle, they decide that they need something to strengthen morale and raise their spirits. They decide to go drag the Ark of the Covenant – the dwelling place of the Lord that was usually kept in the holiest of holy places inside the temple – down to the battlefield.

Of course they’d need someone to accompany the Ark, so they enlist Eli’s scoundrel sons to guard it down on the battlefield. The plan does not go well. The Philistines capture the Ark and, in the process, kill both of Eli’s sons. When Eli hears the news, he falls out of his chair, hits his head on the ground and dies instantly.

philistines.jpg!Large

Philistines, Jean-Michel Basquiat

So, the temple is effectively inoperable: no priest, no Ark, no worship.

The Philistines, meanwhile, have difficulty storing the dwelling place of the Most High God. Everywhere they try to stash it – one city after another – tragedy befalls them. People get sick. Depending on how you translate a single Hebrew word, the plague that follows the Ark through the Philistine territory is either Bubonic plague, tumors, or…hemorrhoids.

Yep. The Lord of Hosts inflicts the Israelites’ enemies with hemorrhoids.

It turns out to be an effective defense. After moving the Ark around several times, the Philistines give up and decide that they’ll just have to return it to the Israelites and their temple. But they can’t just return it without an explanation or an apology. They decide that they need to return the Ark accompanied by some gifts. They call together a council to decide what the appropriate gift is for stealing another tribe’s sacred divine dwelling place, and they settle on five golden rats and five golden…hemorrhoids.

The Philistines bring the Ark back to the Israelites along with their apology gifts. When they return to the temple, who is there to accept the gift?

You got it: Samuel. The last of the Judges; first of the prophets.

At Peace Covenant, we share in the interpretation of the text. So at the end of this story, I asked: what do we learn about God from this story? And what do we learn about ourselves?

A friend on Facebook said that her interpretation of the story is that God does not need us to defend him – that he is totally capable of taking care of his own business (hemorrhoids, tumors, etc.).

One church member said “the main point is that messing with God is a pain in the butt.”

And several others said that this seemed to be a story about justice: that God does not care for lying, cheating, wicked scoundrels in charge of his people and that God will make things right in the end.

It is interesting that Eli’s sons – the ones who were inheriting the power and privilege of temple leadership – were killed, while the Philistines – outsiders who stole the precious center of worship – got what was coming to them in the form of a very uncomfortable bodily malady.

That makes it seem to me that God cares a lot more about the integrity of the leaders he calls to care for his people than she does about the integrity of some outside group that is clearly aiming at enemy status.

Which makes me wonder if we are spending too much of our discipleship energy worrying about the evil Philistines, and too little of it paying attention to who our own leaders are and whether or not they are acting with integrity.

But what do YOU think?

 

 

bad poetry

Yesterday, Parker Palmer shared a Mary Oliver poem on Facebook, which I read before the morning walk with the dog through the giant empty lot behind my building:

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And, wouldn’t you know, there were, in fact, some weeds growing in a vacant lot. And, because Mary Oliver and Parker Palmer seem to me to be pretty overwhelmingly decent teachers, I decided to patch a few words of thanks together, and I was surprised where that other voice took me.

 

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This defiant flower

commandeering this half-crack of concrete

declaring eminent domain

right of crumpled burger wrap

just left of wadded undershirt

growing in wisdom and in stature,

rooted in this rupture.

Like the dumpster

and the culvert

and the steep slope on the corner:

all of them cradling some artful being

startled to see me when I round the corner with my tiny, happy dog;

like the ICU block where I arrived to pray

with the family of a dying man

(a crass and ornery and dirty joking kind of man)

all of us folded into the unit

laughing at his old jokes as we waited

for him to commend his spirit and breathe his last.

Like the craggy mountain path I hiked,

(roots of pine clawing at the incline

treetops angled precariously but reaching up, anyway,

for sunlight and growing down, anyway,

for water)

when the family called

two days later

to say this old and dying man had pulled

another one over on them;

that he breathed breath after breath

refusing to commend anything to anyone,

electing instead to commandeer,

declaring even in that slim sliver of possibility

that we beings are inclined, it seems, to BE.

against instinct and in line with love

In the liturgy of the church, on Easter Day when we celebrate the resurrection, the preacher proclaims:

“Christ is risen!”

And the gathered body responds:

“Christ is risen, indeed!”

In the Eastern orthodox traditions, this is the way everyone greets one another, passing each other in the street, saying hello at the door of the church. It’s like saying “Merry Christmas” on Christmas Day. Imagine, every time you answered the phone or passed someone in the hallway, or greeted a friend at your door today – and, perhaps for the next few weeks, as we celebrate the Easter season for a while – you started the interaction with this phrase:

Christ is Risen!

And imagine, if every person you encountered – friends and strangers alike – replied in turn:

Christ is risen, indeed!

//

Mary Magdalene did not expect to be running across town with that greeting on the tip of her tongue. She’d woken up early in the morning, grief-stricken and confused by the events of the week. She’d made her way to the tomb while it was still dark and noticed that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance. Concerned that grave robbers had stolen the body of her friend and teacher, she ran all the way back to town to tell her brothers.

Simon Peter and John ran out to the tomb themselves, saw what Mary had seen, and returned, silently, to the place where they were staying. Whatever they were feeling – grief, anger, confusion, relief, fear – whatever they were feeling, they and our gospel writer have kept a mystery to us. These disciples go home. They leave the scene. They keep a safe distance between themselves and death. When they get back home, they gather everyone together in one room and lock the doors behind them, because they are afraid of whatever mysterious thing is about to go down.

Peter and John are terrified. When they see that Jesus’ body is gone, they run home and barricade themselves inside. They flee the scene.

I do not blame them. I’d run home and lock the door, too, after all that. I have run home and locked my door after witnessing scary, confusing situations. I have fled plenty of intense scenes, terrified by the strange unfolding drama over by some tomb or another, driven to the safety and comfort of my own living room. Haven’t you?

Peter and John run home and lock the door, terrified.

But Mary sticks around.

Mary does not run away.

Mary stands at the opening of the empty tomb and weeps.

Mary must be just as terrified as Peter and John. She must be just as confused and grief-stricken and scared as they are. She’s been with them through the whole ordeal of the last week, seen the same things they’ve seen, heard the same proclamations and cries, watched, just as they watched, their friend and teacher be betrayed, accused, sentenced and crucified.

And it’s not like Mary knew anything more than Peter and John did. She was not privy to the super secret Jesus wisdom about who he was or what he promised. She heard the same confusing parables and saw the same unbelievable miracles that the rest of them did.

The only thing that sets Mary apart from her fellow disciples is that on this morning, instead following fear and grief toward the impulse to run and hide, she chooses to stick around, to draw nearer to the tomb, to weep right out there in the open, to make herself vulnerable, to persist in her love for her friend, to refuse to leave the scene.

The only thing that sets Mary part from her fellow disciples is that she chose to draw nearer to the tomb instead of running away.

And that simple choice – to act against instinct and in line with love – meant that Mary saw the Lord and found herself transformed into the first preacher of the gospel.

Because as she is standing there, weeping out in the open, she leans over and peers into the tomb. Two angels – of all things! – are sitting there and ask, “woman, why are you crying?” She explains her grief, and as she finishes, she turns around to see a man standing near her. He, too, sees her tears and asks, again, “woman, why are you crying?” Again, she explains her grief to him.

The man says her name – nothing else – just a simple “Mary,” and immediately she recognizes him as the very friend and teacher that she is weeping over, runs at him and grabs him. But Jesus tells her not to hold on to him. “Instead,” he says, “go and tell the others.” She does. She runs back to the house, where Peter and John have fled in fear, and shouts: “I have seen the Lord!”

Mary becomes the first to share the greeting: Christ is Risen!

 

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From Jan Richardson’s Hours of Mary Magdalene series.

//

Simone Weil, philosopher and theologian, had some things to say about Mary’s choice to draw nearer to the tomb:

Affliction contains the truth about our condition. They alone will see God who prefer to recognize truth and die, instead of living a long and happy existence in a state of illusion. One must want to go towards reality; then, when one thinks one has found a corpse, one meets an angel who says, ‘He is risen.”

Recognizing truth and choosing to go towards reality is not always the easiest choice. In fact, it is probably almost always the harder decision.

Recognizing truth often requires that we act against our instincts. It often means allowing ourselves to feel fear and move closer, anyway. It often means recognizing that there might be danger in a situation but allowing the deeper pull toward truth to carry us into it, anyway. Recognizing truth can mean that we have to let go of our own assumptions, our own attachments, our own certainties.

Recognizing truth might mean admitting that we are wrong.

Recognizing truth might mean saying that we are sorry.

Recognizing truth might mean giving up some of our comforts, some of our privilege, some of our money…some of the things that we wrap around ourselves in order to keep up the illusion that death is very far away from us.

Recognizing truth might mean getting ourselves into a complicated situation that we would SO MUCH rather avoid altogether.

Recognizing truth might be painful.

And yet, and yet, and yet:

when we choose to draw nearer to the painful realities of death, violence, oppression, the deep wounds of the ones we love and the deep wounds of our world;

when we choose to act against our instincts of self-preservation and avoidance;

when we choose to stick around even though we are weeping so hard we cannot see;

when we choose to open our eyes, unlock our doors, walk out into the world and stick around in the places where someone or something has died;

when we choose the way of love over the way of fear;

we just might be completely surprised.

We just might find own, unlikely selves turned into proclaimers of gospel, preachers and witnesses to the remarkable every day resurrections that God is always working in our midst.

//

During the season of Lent, we spent time dwelling with the Psalmists in all their messy glory. We yelled and screamed, lamented, repented and wept. We celebrated and we anticipated.

I think Mary’s genius, the genius that turned her into the first preacher of the good news, is not unrelated to the genius of the psalmists.

Like the psalmists, Mary was not afraid of the depth of her own emotions. She wept, openly. And, like the psalmists, she brought her fear, grief and pain directly to God. She dwelt at the tomb, where her dead Lord had been laid.

And, like the psalmists, Mary made the choice to face the realities of her life and the realities of the life of the world head-on. She did not run and hide from the events of the day. She did not worry about her own safety. She stood out there, by the tomb, weeping in full view of passerby, angels and Jesus himself. She allowed herself to become vulnerable, like the psalmists, and, in the process, allowed herself to be swept up in the truth of resurrection.

Mary wept, and Mary stayed. And then, having seen the Lord, she ran and told the others:

Christ is Risen!

On this day, may we all find the courage of Mary, the wherewithal grounded in the truth of resurrection to draw nearer to whatever tombs we have been avoiding. May we allow ourselves to weep and to wail, and to be drawn by love instead of fear.

On this day, when we proclaim that death has been defeated and the pain and evil of the world redeemed, may we all share in Mary’s joyful shout:

Christ is Risen!

Amen.

turn the beet around

I spent last week in Roanoke, where I did my taxes, hung out with some Ministry Chix, soaked up mountain views and spent time with a bunch of family. I also convinced my mom to teach me how to can pickled beets.

In my mid-thirties, I am suddenly experiencing this deep-seated curiosity about all those domestic arts that I never really learned or cared about when I was…supposed to. Sure, I learned how to frost a cake in Home Ec, and I know how to fold a fitted sheet (but I never do it). I am perfectly capable of keeping myself clean, clothed and fed, and I could probably handle doing all that for a couple of other human beings if I needed to. But none of these things have ever held much intrigue until now. All of a sudden, I want to learn to can and quilt and pickle and bake and embroider.

What is that? Some latent biological need rearing its ugly head? The effect of grounding my decade-long jet-setting lifestyle? The unintended consequence of adopting a(n incredibly adorable) dog?

Who knows. But I am in the market for acquiring these arts, and my mom agreed to teach me to can.

Turns out, it’s ridiculously easy. Time consuming, but easy.

I was inspired by this article about preserving things, and for whatever reason (possibly that roasted beet-quinoa-citrus salad I keep ordering at Panera?), I fixated on the Kickin’ Pickled Beets.

I Snapchatted the entire adventure, and now I’m blogging it. What am I, some kind of lifestyle blogger, now?

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First: roast the beets. When I told Facebook that I was embarking upon this adventure, a friend sent the recipe she uses, originally from one of my favorite former church people. The notes on that classic advised to cut the greens off the beets, leaving a bit of stem to retain the best flavor. Done. Pour water in the bottom of the dish – just 1/4 of an inch. Roast for 45-55 minutes at 350. My beets weren’t quite done at 50 minutes – the skin did not slip off as easily as recipes led me to believe they would.

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Next: assemble the ingredients.

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This photo leaves out the garlic. DO NOT FORGET THE GARLIC. The brine is easy enough – just chop, combine, and bring to a boil, then simmer for a few minutes.

Then, skin and chop the roasted beets. Again: this proved a smidge more difficult and messy than any of the sages who advised me let on.

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Once you’ve got the brine simmered and the beets chopped, divide them all into your jars, leaving 1/2 an inch of headspace at the top. See how I employ that canning jargon like I know what it means? “Headspace”!

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Wiping the jar rims is, like, the MOST IMPORTANT STEP in the entire process. I did not believe everyone when they yelled this at me in social media comments, and I barely believed my mom when she emphasized it in person. But one of those rims had some leftover gunk on it and, even though I scrubbed and picked at it after wiping thoroughly, that jar did not seal. I’m a believer, now.

And now, for the video tutorial portion of our class! Mom was pretty sick all week, but she made a valiant effort for the cause.

But wait! There’s more!

It’s no wonder I’ve got the canning bug…

 

Fill the pot up with hot water, towels in the bottom. Settle the cans in. Heat on the stovetop until it comes to a boil (a very long time), then, for these beets, let it boil for ten minutes.

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I kept peeking under the lid to see if the water was boiling or not, and Mom kept reassuring me that it was a slow, slow process. I decided to take the dog for a (short) walk. When I got back, no longer than 12 minutes later, they were done. Mom had turned the range off and set the lid aside. I was bummed that I basically missed the entire canning action, BUT:

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I DID get to use the coolest canning tool ever.

That’s it. That’s all. You pull the jars out, set them on a towel on the counter, wait for the sweet, sweet sound of those canned lids popping.

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Oh, and, of course, wait three more weeks for the pickling process to take full effect. Maybe I’ll post another lifestyle blog post when I taste test the fruits of this, my very first pickling and canning adventure.

Seriously, I know there are other, more intense and difficult forms of canning – depending on what you’re preserving and how you’re doing it. But I had been so intimidated by the very idea of canning – and, honestly, so discouraged by all the comments about what a miserable, time-consuming, hot and exhausting process it was – that the ease with which this project came together totally floored me.

Now I want to pickle and can ALL THE THINGS!

straight to complaint

What’s your go-to coping activity when you are really, really, really angry?

Climbing in your car, shutting the doors and screaming as loud as you can?

Crying?

Punching pillows or destroying some old, useless electronics?

Going for a run?

Posting a rant on facebook?

Being short and snippy with your family?

Convincing yourself that you’re not really THAT upset, deciding not to even mention it, and going on about your business as if nothing was wrong?

How about praying?

I admit that when I am really, really, really angry, prayer is not my first inclination. I usually have to employ several of the above mentioned activities before even being able to consider directing my ranting toward God.

The psalmists don’t seem to have that problem. The psalms are full of angry prayers. In spiritual parlance, anger that gets rightly directed is called “lament.” Scholars who have studied the psalms for years have even classified a bunch of them under the heading “psalms of lament.” Out of the 150 psalms in the book, more than a third of them are psalms of lament.

That’s a lot of lamenting.

“Lament” might sound to us in English like “sadness.” A “lamentable” situation is something that might make us feel pity or sympathy. But the dictionary list of synonyms for “lament” is really juicy:

As a noun: wail, moan, weeping, crying, dirge, elegy, requiem.

As a verb: mourn, grieve, sorrow, wail, weep, cry, sob, keen, bemoan, bewail, deplore, RUE.

To lament is not just to feel sad. Lamenting is something more muscular than pity or even sympathy. Lament requires some serious passion, some wherewithal, some stamina.

Lament is not just crying in despair, and it isn’t just yelling in anger.

Lament is actually a spiritual practice: directing our deep emotions and reactions to the pain of the world where we live into a form of prayer that has the capacity to change: it has the potential to change US and the brokenness of the world that we’re called to lament in the first place.

A lament psalm usually comes with a pattern. Usually, a psalm of lament works like this:

  • an address to God
  • a complaint (articulating what, exactly, is wrong)
  • a confession of trust
  • a petition (asking for change)
  • words of assurance (remembering when God intervened before)
  • a vow of praise

Like any strong emotion, being able to channel or funnel it into a time-honored pattern for expressing it can help us process it. When people find themselves grieving, they often turn to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. The stages are helpful because they allow us to put a name to what it is we’re feeling AND they assure us that this powerful, overwhelming emotion is natural, normal, a common human condition.

The pattern of a psalm of lament works the same way. It offers a way to put some shape to our anger, a pattern to assure us that every human feels this way, that it is such a common emotion that it’s been encoded, right here in our sacred scripture.

Our culture, however, is a culture of denial. We are not great, in modern-day America, at being honest and expressive about how we are feeling. When someone asks how we are, we say, quickly, “fine!” Or, just as dismissively, “busy!” – throw-away responses intended to evade the question.

Our culture doesn’t have great rituals or patterns for incorporating lament into our common life together. We talked at last week’s retreat about the grief of losing people from this congregation. Many churches lose people from their community through death, and we DO have standard cultural and religious rituals to mark that kind of passing and to talk – a little – about that kind of grief. But in this community, death hasn’t played a huge part. Loss has come through other means. And when someone moves away, or feels called to another church, or leaves for some other, totally understandable – or not – reason, we don’t have very good ways to mark that occasion. We don’t have great patterns or channels for all the emotion to be acknowledged, spoken, shared and processed.

Luckily, just because we live in a culture of denial does not mean that we are without resources. Right here, in the book of Psalms, is a way to begin to hold up our anger and grief, to name it, share it, and walk through it, together.

Since psalms of lament have such a predictable pattern, they lend themselves really easily to Jr. High Sunday School classes. I’ve shared this story before, but I love the finished product so much that I’m going to share it again. In my Jr. High Sunday School class a couple of years ago, we studied these psalms of lament. We learned about the pattern that they take. And then, we wrote our own psalms.

And, OH, they were good. Jr. High kids are GOOD at lament. Maybe it’s because their emotions are so close to the surface, or because they haven’t fully imbibed our culture’s insistence on denying our powerful emotions, but MAN, those psalms of lament: address to God/complaint/confession of trust/petition/assurance and praise were things of beauty.

I spent some time condensing the jr. high’s individual psalms into a collaborative, communal version. Here it is.

 

 

 

 

But.

You know how they always say that those stages of grief don’t always come in one order? That some people start out with bargaining and then circle back around to denial, or skip the anger stage altogether?

Psalms of lament are like that, too.

Psalm 13 is referred to as the paradigmatic psalm of lament, meaning that in its short 6 verses, it exemplifies the category. But Psalm 13 doesn’t start with a formal address to God. Instead, it launches immediately into complaint:

How long will you forget me, Lord? Forever?!

How long will you hide your face from me?

How long will I be left to my own wits, agony filling my heart? Daily?!

How long will my enemy keep defeating me?

Whew. This psalmist is really mad. Red-faced, about to blow a gasket kind of mad.

And the psalmist is not denying it.

The psalmist doesn’t even bother with the formal address – just lights into God, the Creator of the Universe, the Divine Being Herself, with sharp-tongued, fire-breathing complaint. No preliminaries, no introduction, just getting straight to the heart of the matter.

Think about that.

Of all the people you’ve been angry with, which ones would you be comfortable enough to dive straight into your complaint? No throat-clearing, no heads up that this is going to be a difficult conversation, not even that ominous suggestion that “we need to talk.” Of all the people you know, which ones could you dive straight into the argument with?

I suspect that the people you’re thinking about are the ones you’re closest to, the people you share life with in some way, the ones with whom you’re in such constant conversation that they would already know that things were out of whack, that something needed to change, that an argument was coming down the pike.

The psalmist doesn’t need to introduce herself or even clear her throat. She doesn’t need to preface her complaint or even invite God into the discussion, because God and the psalmist are already in constant conversation. Their relationship is one that allows for complaint to arise spontaneously, to get blurted out without context, to come as naturally as it is felt.

Lament is a spiritual practice that happens in the context of an ongoing conversation with God.

Except:

The psalmist is not satisfied with how the conversation has been going. God, it seems, has not been holding up his end of the deal.

“Look at me!” the psalmist yells.

“Answer me, Lord my God!”

I’m here, in pain, and you are my creator, redeemer, constant companion, the one with whom I have this unending conversation, but it feels like you won’t even LOOK at me!

“Restore sight to my eyes! Otherwise, I’ll sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say ‘I won!’ My foes will rejoice over my downfall.”

Can you hear the challenge in the psalmist’s lament? Come on, God, she’s crying: don’t you know that things are really going to pot here? It’s time you showed up. I need you HERE, NOW. If you don’t come around SOON, all those mocking enemies are going to lord it over us from here til kingdom come.

“But,” the psalmist says, “I have trusted in your faithful love. My heart will rejoice I your salvation. Yes, I will sing to the Lord because he has been good to me.”

It almost sounds, the praise there at the end, like some sort of resignation, doesn’t it? Like a reluctant toddler, tacking the requisite praise onto the end of his tantrum after his mom has demanded he do so.

Which actually might be the case, kind of.

The psalmist is expressing her deep, deep anger.

She is directing it at GOD, with whom she has a longstanding and intimate relationship.

And she is using this time-honored form, the psalm of lament, to do it. The form requires some structure, and that structure includes praise.

You know how, when you do a workout or a piano exercise or a math worksheet, you have to do even the hard parts that you detest, resist, and DO NOT WANT to do in order to finish the activity?

Maybe that’s how the psalmist is working, too.

She’s angry. She knows she can direct that anger at God, because their relationship is strong and deep enough to handle even all those destructive thoughts that might destroy any other, human relationship.

But she needs a pattern, a ritual, a way to express it all. So she turns to the psalm of lament. She shares her complaint, her confession of trust, her petition and then, because it is part and parcel of the exercise, her praise.

Scholars have long speculated how it could be possible that these psalms of lament can include both such vitriolic anger AND such clear praise, both directed at God. Some say that the psalmist’s hearts really did change on a dime like that – from anger to gratitude in just a few stanzas. Some say that during the composition of the poem, God has actually intervened and changed the situation that was causing such pain and anger, leading the psalmist to turn to praise. Other scholars believe that the psalm was part of a worship ritual, and that part of it got left out – a part in the middle where a priest would have interrupted and reminded the complaintant of God’s power and plan to save them, something called a ‘salvation oracle.’

I think the confusion might be cleared up with a much more simple explanation. What if the psalmist is relying on an age-old, time-tested pattern for expressing deep emotion, and that pattern requires the angry poet to remember God’s grace? What if, like those stages of grief, the pattern of the lament psalm is a way for us to acknowledge, express, and move through our own deep emotion?

The theologian Kathleen O’Connor says that

To lament is to name what is wrong, what is out of order in God’s world, what keeps human beings from thriving in all their creative potential. Simple acts of lament expose these conditions, name them, open them to grief and anger, and make them visible for remedy.

In its complaint and anger and grief, lamentation protests conditions that prevent human thriving and this resistance may finally prepare the way for healing.

There is a lot out of order in God’s world these days. I think a lot of us are discovering depths of emotion that we might not have been previously aware we were capable of. I think the anger, disappointment and confusion runs really deep.

And I also think that we will not be able to move through any of that, that we will not be able to effect change in sustainable ways or work together in solidarity or even be honest about why we are doing what we are doing if we do not remember this important spiritual practice of lament. Naming what’s wrong, acknowledging our anger and pain and grief, and expressing it in honest ways seem like an important first step.

And, because we are part of this ancient tradition of people living in relationship with the God of Creation, we are gifted with resources, patterns, rituals and processes for doing exactly that. We have this great gift of the psalms, the record of our ancestors’ frank conversations with God.

So: if you were to write your own psalm of lament, what would your complaint be? What would be your petition? Would you yell and scream, or would you cry? And how would you manage to end it on a note of praise?