We are now well into the season of Lent. The usual question is, “What are you giving up for Lent?” I like the answer Banu gave. “We need to dispossess ourselves of the possessions that possess us, so we can be possessed by God.” As one who is not fond of clutter, I can think of plenty of possessions which, were they to disappear, would please me greatly.
Of course, possessions need not be material. The most insidious possessions are the ones within. They grab hold of our minds, emotions, and spirits. They grab us and we grab them. We are indeed possessed by our possessions. We need to be exorcised!
Psalm 142 presents the utterance, the cry, of one who has been dispossessed, though not by choice. The psalmist laments the loss of security, the loss of freedom, the loss of joy.
According to the title of the psalm, we’re hearing from David when he was in the cave, hiding from King Saul. Saul had become insanely jealous of David. The people loved him; his son Jonathan loved him; the Lord blessed David’s actions. Therefore, David must die!
In the Hebrew Bible, those titles are considered part of the psalm. That’s why David is traditionally thought of as the author. Still, whether or not we see David as the poet, the singer of the song, the psalmist gives voice to a grief resounding down through the ages.
A large percentage of the psalms are psalms of lament. This is one of them. “With my voice I cry to the Lord; with my voice I make supplication to the Lord / I pour out my complaint before him; I tell my trouble before him” (vv. 1-2).
This is a psalm suitable for the season of Lent, even though it appears nowhere in the lectionary. That’s the case with many of these psalms. They tend to be omitted from the worship of the church. (I’ll come back to that later.)
Psalm 142 is suitable, not because Lent is all about lamentation, moaning and groaning. Rather, the Lenten journey focuses on repentance, reflection, and renewal. And it is indeed a journey. As we go through the psalm, we find ourselves in process, in transit. The psalmist is also on a journey. The psalmist is on the road, and it is a rocky road. The psalm speaks to these things.
Our poet is walking the path, and with confidence says to the Lord, “When my spirit is faint, you know my way” (v. 3). That’s a good thing, because here comes trouble. “In the path where I walk they have hidden a trap for me.” The New Jerusalem Bible says, “On the road I have to travel they have hidden a trap for me.”
Who are these would-be captors? What are these would-be captors? What traps, what snares, are lying in wait?
Those are good questions for us this season. I suppose this could be said every year, but it seems like this is a Lent like none other. We are emerging from a global pandemic, and traps a-plenty have been set. Destruction and hardship have been left in its wake.
Wrestling with the effects of lockdowns, debates about masks, the wisdom of vaccine mandates, all that and more—it has taken a toll on our well-being. It’s taken a toll on our sanity! Families have been divided; they have turned on each other. It’s sad but true that in too many cases, people who thought of each other as friends have been divided. Discord has occurred.
I haven’t lost any friends, but I can say there are people I agree with who I didn’t think I would before Covid. On the flip side, I have found myself disagreeing with those who I couldn’t imagine myself doing so before Covid.
Our psalm continues with David (or the David-like person) crying out, “Look on my right and see—there is no one who recognizes me. All refuge is denied me, no one cares whether I live or die” (v. 4, NJB). No one recognizes me. No one cares whether I live or die. This is the picture of dejection, the portrait of despair. Maybe there’s a tiny touch of paranoia?
The psalmist is encircled by enemies, surrounded by the sinister. Our friend is nameless, and no one is offering a hand of greeting.
I wonder, could this also be a picture of abandonment by friends? A question I know we’ve all heard is, “With friends like that, who needs enemies?” Abandonment by friends was poignantly and heartbreakingly demonstrated on the night we call Maundy Thursday. The words from the liturgy: “On the night Jesus was betrayed and arrested” are played out. When the disciples see the gang coming to take Jesus into custody, they make themselves scarce.
Have we ever stood back when a friend needed us? Have we ever seen an injustice and not lift a finger? It’s a terrible feeling if we dare allow ourselves to feel it.
Here’s another uncomfortable question. We easily see those others as persecutors, but how about us?
I don’t if this exactly qualifies as persecution, but in my freshman year of college, I might be described as the “roommate from hell.” Maybe that’s too strong a term; I never did anything bad to him. Maybe I was just the roommate from heck!
I never really made an effort to get to know him. I rarely asked him about himself or his family or anything personal. He occasionally would offer an olive branch. One night after he’d been out with his friends, he brought home a tamale for me. (By the way, he was Mexican American.) He was a really nice guy. I’m sure we could have been good friends.
One morning really stands out for me. It was a Saturday morning, and I was still in bed. I awoke to the voices of his father, mother, and sister. They were speaking Spanish, so I didn’t know what they were saying. I figured if I pretended I was asleep, they would cut their visit short. That did not happen. They had to know I was awake. I imagine they asked him, “What’s the deal with your roommate?”
They were there for about twenty minutes. After some time had gone by, I was too embarrassed to act like I had just woken up. All I had to do when I first heard them was to greet them and ask if I could have a minute or two to get dressed. I must confess there was a bit of racism involved.
The story does have a happy ending. Decades later, I connected with him on Facebook. I profusely apologized for being such a complete jerk when we were roommates. I even let him know that a few years later, I came to faith and the Lord had turned me around. It turned out he hadn’t thought about very much about it. He just thought I was quiet.
I said earlier that Lent is not all about lamentation, but it certainly has a large role. It is okay—even necessary—to lament.
There is a minister in the Evangelical Covenant Church located in Oakland, California named Dominique Gilliard. He has written on the subject of lament.
“Somewhere along the way,” he says, “we modern Christians got lament wrong: we began thinking of it as optional instead of a required practice of the faith.” This goes with my earlier comment about lament being overlooked by the church.
He continues, speaking of its benefits, “When we lament, we confess our humanity and concede that we are too weak to combat the world’s powers, principalities and spiritual wickedness on our own. When we lament, we declare that only God has the power to truly mend the world’s pain and brokenness.”
This is always true, but how much more we see that pain and brokenness today with war in Europe. At the same time, we too easily disregard wars in Asia and Africa.
Gilliard comments on the power of lament. “Lamentation prevents us from becoming numb and apathetic to the pain of our world and of those whom we shepherd. Lamentation begets revelation. It opens our eyes to death, injustice, and oppression we had not even noticed. It opens our ears to the sounds of torture, anguish and weeping that are the white noise of our world. To live without lament is to live an unexamined life.”
I like how he credits lament as begetting—as producing—revelation. It opens our eyes and ears to the pain that is “the white noise of our world.” It’s difficult for me to sleep without running a fan or something else generating white noise. I need the white noise to drown other sounds out.
Something that gets drowned out by white noise are school shootings. To be honest, I lose track of them. It seems like there’s one every week somewhere in the country.
“To live without lament is to live an unexamined life.” Before I read that in his article, I hadn’t thought of it that way. (Maybe I need help in examining my life!) Lament helps to make us fully human. It puts us in touch with realities that deserve our attention. It puts us in touch with people who deserve our attention. The apostle Paul says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Ro 12:15).
The psalmist begs for attention when calling upon God. “Give heed to my cry, for I am brought very low. Save me from my persecutors, for they are too strong for me” (v. 6). Here’s the final request: “Bring me out of prison, so that I may give thanks to your name” (v. 7).
So, as we’ve been on the road we have to travel, what is our prison? What holds us? What prevents us from giving and living in gratitude to God? Dare to look deep within; I promise you will find something. Going back to the beginning, that is the often-maddening question of Lent. What will we give up?
I’ll repeat my original quote from Banu: “We need to dispossess ourselves of the possessions that possess us, so we can be possessed by God.”
The psalm ends on a powerful note of praise. “The righteous will surround me, for you will deal bountifully with me.” As we progress through Lent on the road we have to travel, if we yearn for freedom, the Lord will burst the bars of our self-constructed prisons.