Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Questioning God

Several years ago, likely after the events of 9/11, I began to hear a call to renew or return to the language of lament within our worship. It was such a novel idea that I had no conception of what lament should look like within any shape of liturgy. But it was Don Saliers who first gave me the freedom to find such an expression and necessity in the language of our liturgies. This project has given me another opportunity to explore the language of lament and in particular the questions of complaint that the psalmist posed, not just to God, but at God.

Saliers thoughts are directed toward the shape and theology of our liturgies and how the language of lament forms an essential component of our worship. In his view, “Christian liturgy transforms and empowers when the vulnerability of human pathos is met by the ethos of God’s vulnerability in word and sacrament.”[1] Truly authentic worship lifts up human reality, in all of its complexities and roughness to transformation by the Holy Spirit. Liturgy without lament would seem to ring false, becoming “anorexic, starving for honest emotional range.”[2] And yet, it is so often left out or even suppressed from our worship language. Perhaps their omission is rooted in a fear of sinfulness, unfaith, or an overwrought politeness that these questions concerning the brutality of human experience in the light of God’s promised goodness and past actions, are rarely given full exploration. Simply put, “lament is seen as a negative way of speaking, unfitted for a prayer to God.”[3] Unfortunately this has resulted in our ecclesial communities losing the language of lament, it may serve as a corrective for those that wish to withdraw from life as it really is, to pretense and romance in the unreal world of heavenly or holy things.”[4]

What struck me was that we are so incredibly polite with God. At times, this is rightly so. But there is also a confidence that our faith brings, combined with out utter neediness that we may boldly approach God baring the ugly realities of all that is wrong to the only One who can set things aright. The psalmist’s testimonies left nothing out of their purview: praise and bitterness, hope and fear, life and death. And a good number of psalms emerging from this emotional gamut also contain brute and penetrating questions of Yahweh: Why? Where? How long? Saliers says that their laments (and these questions of complaint) are firmly rooted in the covenant, utilizing memory of the individual and community of God’s past actions. But more provocatively, they remind God of God’s own past actions. In other words, they remind God to be God.[5]

These questions posed to and at Yahweh, emanate from the individual or communal nerve rubbed raw, furnishing an expression of Israel’s deepest needs and concerns in response to Yahweh’s personal invitation. Hans-Joachim Kraus speaks of the summons:
Yahweh himself calls to the men and women of Israel and invites them, ‘Seek ye my face’ (Ps. 27.8)… ‘Call upon me in the day of trouble’ (Ps. 50.15). The call and invitation are accompanied by God’s promises, ‘I will deliver you’ (Ps. 50.15); ‘Fear not, I will help you’ (Isa. 41.13). Yahweh’s word opens the way to petition and thanks. The one who comes to pray comes in the assurance of God’s help. Therefore the institutions of worship bare the sign of God’s accessibility.[6]

But this “open way” and “accessibility” of Yahweh also opens the proverbial door to more than Israel’s petitions and thanks. At times, Israel takes advantage or opportunity of Yahweh’s accessibility and vulnerability in their intimate partnership, to question Yahweh in the disparate light of experience and covenant. This exchange clearly shows that “biblical faith, as it faces life fully, is uncompromisingly and unembarrassedly dialogic.”[7] Brueggemann contrasts Israel and Yahweh’s dialogical partnership with how “gingerly” this reciprocity is treated today in the church. He states,
"If we are dialogic at all, we think it must be polite and positive and filled only with gratitude. So little do our liturgies bring expression to our anger and hatred, our sense of betrayal and absurdity. But even more acutely, with our failure of nerve and our refusal to presume upon our partner in dialogue, we are seduced into nondialogical forms of faith, as though we were the only ones there; and so we settle for meditation and reflection."[8]

Ultimately, our biblical example of Israel’s interactive expression with Yahweh is based in their intimate relationship which gives rise to profound questioning of Yahweh. The lament and complaint simultaneously give “witness to a robust form of faith that affirms that God seriously honors God’s part of the exchange”[9] as well as, the worth of humanness and our experience. Human experience in a fallen world is sure to encounter that which seems unfair and disproportionately wrong. But these laments and complaints give free expression to that which is overwhelmingly incongruent and are not just petty or trivial whining about their condition. Israel saw within their respected relationship with Yahweh, the right to come before the Lord and make complaints and protests grounded in covenantal faithfulness. Israel refused the mute acceptance of their conditions as “God’s will” as so often found in our spiritual vocabularies today. Nor were these vigorous protests to Yahweh acts of unfaith, but vocalized uprisings of their freedom and responsibility.

[1] Don Saliers, Worship As Theology: Foretaste of Glory Divine, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1994), 22.
[2] Ibid., 121.
[3] Claus Westermann, The Living Psalms, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), 67. Westermann notes that since the middle ages and into the more recent times, “most people generally regarded suffering as a consequence of sin and a punishment for sin” (67).
[4] Walter Brueggemann, The Psalms and the Life of Faith, ed. Patrick D. Miller, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 67. Elsewhere Brueggemann says similar things, “It is my judgment that this action of the church is less an evangelical defiance guided by faith, and much more a frightened, numb denial and deception that does not what to acknowledge or experience the disorientation of life. The reason for such relentless affirmation of orientation seems to come, not from faith, but from wishful optimism of our culture.” (Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary, (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984), 51.
[5] Saliers, 35.
[6] Hans-Joachim Kraus, Theology of the Psalms, Translated by Keith Crim, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing, 1979), 141.
[7] Brueggemann, Psalms and the Life of Faith, 68.
[8] Ibid., 68.
[9] Ibid.