By MIKE PATRICK
Psalms of lament typically begin with gloom and end with gladness, sorrow ends with shouting, tears turn to triumph. However, Psalm 88 is the only Psalm that ends in gloom, that ends with a word of darkness. Famous theologian Walter Bruggemann says, “Psalm 88 is an embarrassment to conventional faith.”
The psalmist’s lament reeks with honest misery, declares no peace, expresses no joy, and has no song to sing. It reminds us that life does not always have a happy ending. Like the author, we reflect on our woes, sometimes even blaming God for what has happened. Like the psalmist, it is common to ask questions when life caves in on us.
Several years ago, my wife’s parents roomed together in the nursing home. A few weeks before his death, my father-in-law writhed in pain with bone cancer. My mother-in-law, an Alzheimer’s patient, asked me, “Why doesn’t God just come and get us?”
As a hospital chaplain, grieving people ask me questions: “Why did God take my husband’s life?” Why did God allow my child to die?” When they ask these kinds of questions, they generally do not ask me for some theological treatise on theodicy. Rather, it tends to provide a way for them to express and process their lament. Jesus also voiced complaint when he took the sins of the world upon the cross; he cried out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”
When looking for something positive in Psalm 88, the only thought focuses on the fact that the sufferer, who claims that “darkness is my closest friend,” prays to God. No matter how dark life becomes, we can still pray.
Because of our discomfort with lament, we tend to move quickly toward a reason for gratitude. One website says that complaining shows evidence of unbelief, gives place to the devil, and is not for Christians. Can we not allow ourselves permission to lament? When we pray for others who suffer, we tend to focus on God’s goodness or God’s plan or God’s grace. Can’t we at least acknowledge the depth of that person’s despair?
Or let me stretch your thinking one step further. When you pray for some joyful person, you tend to pray with him in the representative “we.” We thank you, Lord …we rejoice in your mercy…we acknowledge you as the God of grace. However, when someone laments, we tend to take a neutral stance and pray for that person. We pray that she might have a sense of God’s presence, peace, and comfort. But can’t we pray, instead, a lament for the sufferer? Can’t we be a voice of complaint and petition on his or her behalf? We pray representatively in the midst of joy. Why can’t we do that in the midst of lament?
Do we trust God enough to speak in honest misery whether for ourselves or for others?
Mike Patrick retired as Chaplain and Ministry Education Coordinator after 27 years at Hendrick Medical Center.