At dinner with a friend earlier in the week I surprised myself when I said that one of the challenges of growing older is adjusting to the increased frequency with which we encounter endings. Whether or not my observation is objectively true is open for debate. These facts are not: endings are inevitable, and we respond to them differently as we mature. Both endings themselves and our reaction to them are important in life generally and critically important in what we might term our spiritual lives or journeys. The great psalmist understood these things.
Before we turn to David, however, I want to do what at first may seem like wandering off topic. Today is Ascension Sunday and liturgical churches across the globe celebrate it in their selection of scripture readings and prayers and hymns and in their teachings from the pulpit. Mine is one such church. On Ascension Sunday, we commemorate an ending – of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry both before and after His resurrection – when “he ascended into heaven,” as we recite weekly as part of our creed. So we mark the conclusion of one period of Christ’s life — but not of his life and reign, for he is “…is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory…and his kingdom will have no end.” Christ’s Ascension was also a beginning. It opened the way of faith and salvation and resurrection to an eternal life with him for us who believe on the basis of the words, lives and testimony of those witnesses who saw and knew Jesus.
This morning some in our congregation experienced an ending only the Lord Himself could have designed for us. Just as we were all singing “Farewell vain world, I’m going home! My Savior smiles and bids me come, And I don’t care to stay here long,” a message came privately and unobtrusively (via technology) to a lay leader in the pew. A friend of many, who was suffering in hospice, had just responded to that bidding about which we sang. She had left our vain world for her eternal home. As soon as our Sunday service ended, the man turned to me with deliberate and quiet urgency and asked that I gather the few others whom he named and immediately come to the prayer rail at the front of the church. There he told us what I already sensed in my spirit. Then he prayed with us all and particularly for those closest friends who would be most deeply touched by her departure. In the moment, the Body of Christ came together naturally and obediently and in true godly love to care for one another. In the moment, there were silent tears, tight embraces, whispered words of comfort, long and absolute silences, loud and uncontrollable sobs. In other words, there were the varied, spontaneous outpourings and outcryings of intensely sorrowing hearts. Lament and praise.
That brings us back to the psalms. It had been my intention for this blog post to address the question “When is lament praise?” I was going set the question in the context of the Hebrew name for the book of Psalms. It is Sefer Tehillim, which is translated Book of Praises. And then I was going to observe that of all the types of psalms – thanksgiving, royal, lament, wisdom, pilgrim – the largest category is psalms of lament. Thus, I had planned, I would bring us to the conclusion: if the Hebrew designates them praises, and those Jews who first wrote and recited and chanted and prayed those poems saw them that way, and if poems of lament abound in the book of praises, then lament must be praise. But when…and why and how…can lament be praise? The questions would launch an examination by which I thought I could take us logically to an adequate response.
But when it comes to understanding lament, and more specifically how lament can be praise, answers arrived at through reason are not adequate at all. We can only get to them, as the psalmist knew and as God mercifully showed me this morning, by way of the heart.
Now I can only answer the question I posed by turning to Psalm 22. It is that one of David’s poems most full of anguish and is the psalm Jesus quoted from the cross. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” it asks bluntly and with raw emotion. That psalm complains and it questions, as all lament does. What turns the questioning complaint to praiseful lament is that it entrusts all the doubts and griefs to the Lord and directly addresses Him, who alone can answer and reach inside to bring comfort to our broken hearts.
The laments laid down openly at the altar of my church were that kind of direct address. They did not immediately end the grief or resolve the pain. The tears and gasps and questions that continued once we got up off our knees and spoke to one another were honest and indisputable testimony to that. But we all knew that our corporate and individual laments, having been given over to God, were the beginning of profound personal healing.
Praise Him who alone “has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.”(Is. 54:3) Endings and beginnings. Lament. Ascension.
When we fall on our faces broken before Him, He will raise us up.