Writing a Psalm of Lament: An Exercise


"Mending" (Phaedra Taylor)

I’ve had two experiences recently where folks have crafted their own lament psalm. At Fuller Seminary I teach a course on worship annually. I cover topics like prayer, confession, the Lord’s Supper, Sabbath-keeping, the liturgical calendar, and so on. It’s one of the funnest courses I get to teach—and I teach a lot of fun courses.

This year I did something new. In our session on the Psalter, I not only taught them about the psalms of lament, I also gave them a chance to write their own psalm of lament. After giving them a crash course in Hebrew poetry and introducing them to the “singular powers” of poetry in general, I provided them with a frame for typical psalms of lament and invited them to write their own. The results were deeply encouraging.

A few days later I found myself at the Laity Lodge retreat center. Sharing the speaking responsibilities with Kathleen Norris, the author of The Quotidian Mysteries and The Cloister Walk, among others, we both spoke on the psalms. Needless to say, it too was super fun. In our fourth session I gave folks an opportunity to craft a psalm that gave expression to their own experiences of grief, suffering, loss, loneliness, doubt, tragedy, death, and so on.

After 45 minutes working alone, I gathered everyone back to together and invited people to share the final results, if they wished. Listening to the ten to twelve people share their poems of lament, I was astonished. People not only exhibited an extraordinary vulnerability, they had also managed to craft remarkable poems in a really short amount of time.

I had reminded them earlier of what both John Calvin and Ellen Davis had said about the psalms. In the psalms, Calvin wrote, “we have permission given us to lay open before [God] our infirmities, which we would be ashamed to confess before men.” Davis remarks similarly, that the psalms “enable us to bring into our conversation with God feelings and thoughts most of us think we need to get rid of before God will be interested in hearing from us.”

As we approach Holy Week and the conclusion of the season of Lent, I thought I'd share here the handout that I had originally produced. There’s nothing so powerful as being able to name the reality of one’s lament at all that’s gone wrong in one’s life and in the world. There’s nothing so cleansing and healing as being able to share one’s lament with others. This is the gift of Lent. This is the gift of the psalms.

Two final notes. I’m including here a sample psalm of lament written by Amber Noel while at the Laity Lodge retreat, and I thank her for the permission to do so. Also, the material here represents matter that I will treat at length in my forthcoming book with Thomas Nelson, Honest to God: The Psalms and the Life of Faith (due out 2019).

My hope is that individuals, small groups, church staff and entire communities might take advantage of this resource (and others like it) as an opportunity to craft a psalm of lament and to share it with one another as together we partake of the sufferings of Christ and in the power of his resurrection.

THE SINGULAR POWERS OF POETRY

1.     Poetry is a language that says more and says it more intensely, more densely, than does ordinary language.

2.     Poetry accents the musical textures of human language.

3.     Poetry brings us into metaphor-rich, imagery-rich territory.

4.     Poetry draws our attention to the particularity of things.

5.     Poetry invites us to slow down as a way to pay careful attention.

6.     Poetry brings to our awareness the “more than just” quality of things.

THE SINGULAR POWERS OF HEBREW POETRY

1.     Shorter sentences than in prose: one line = 6 Hebrew words divided in two halves/cola, or 9 words in a tri-cola. EX: Ps. 2:1 + 2:2.

2.     Default rhythmic arrangement is 3 Hebrew words or 3 stresses per half line. EX: Ps. 2:2, 7 and 8. The second most common is the 3-2: Pss. 14 and 27.

3.     Its language is terse. Things are said in the most economic way possible; it is not a flowery style of poetry.

4.     It relies on the following devices:

-        Strophe and Stanza: Ps. 13 and 19.
-        Rhyme: 5:1-2; 18:46; 26:11; 35:23; 44:5
-        Paranomasia (play on words): 6:10; 28:5; 37:2.
-        Alliteration and Assonance: Ps. 127:1 and Ps. 102:6.
-        Alphabetical psalms: Pss. 9-10; 25; 35; 37; 111; 112; 145; 119.
-        Chiasms (abba): Ps. 29.
-        Refrains: 42:43; 67; 80.
-        Parallelism (“stereophonic complementariness”). Three of the most common types of parallelism include:

a)     Synonymous (Ps. 77:11)
b)     Antithetic (Ps. 30:5)
c)     Synthetic (a heightening or specifying of first line: Ps. 33:8; 6:5).

5.     Its language is suggestive rather than discursive.

6.     Its powers reside in its use of metaphor and imagery.

THE BASIC SHAPE OF LAMENT PSALMS

With individual and communal psalms of lament, there is a recognizable pattern. Psalm 13 is typical of this pattern.

A Complaint (vv. 1-2)
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
    and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

A Petition (vv. 3-4)
Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!
    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”;
    my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.

A Resolution (vv. 5-6)
But I trusted in your steadfast love;
    my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
    because he has dealt bountifully with me.

While there are plenty of variations on this pattern, the complaints are directed chiefly to God. (Psalm 3:1, “Oh Lord, how many are my foes!” Psalm 10:2,“Arise, O Lord; O God, lift up Your hand. Do not forget the afflicted.”) What are the complaints about? They may be about God, or about one’s life, or about a presumed enemy. (Psalm 22:1, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Psalm 38:3, “There is no health in my bones because of my sin.” Psalm 72:4, “Save the children of the needy, and crush the oppressor.”) The kinds of petitions that the psalmists make of God range widely. They include requests for healing, deliverance, vindication, provision and protection, and, in the cases of confession of sin, forgiveness. The final resolution of a psalm of lament may involve a confession of trust; it may involve a resolve to praise or a promise to obey; or it may involve a confident affirmation of God’s own faithfulness, even if there is no empirical data to prove it.

WRITING YOUR OWN PSALM OF LAMENT:

1.     Taking the basic shape of a lament psalm as your pattern, write your own lament psalm.

2.     Choose whether you wish to write an individual lament or a communal lament.

3.     Keep your phrases/lines succinct; no long sentences, no wordy phrasings.

4.     Be specific and concrete in your statements, rather than abstract and idiosyncratic.

5.     Choose evocative imagery or metaphors that will help you see what you’re praying.

6.     Take advantage of the unique devices of Hebrew poetry.

7.     Title your psalm.

8.   Share it with a friend (if you feel comfortable).

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------
God heals the broken-hearted,
and binds up all their wounds,
God fixes the number of the stars;
and calls each one by its name.

“Psalm 147,” by Amber Noel

God of Israel, listen! Let me wag a bitter tongue.
How my desires cling to the dust! Would you
call it lame? Do you blame me for eating too much,
or for watching Netflix instead of your numbered stars?

Why do good, why licitly, innocently amuse
myself, without shared memory, progeny --
when people who don’t even bother
to seek you seem to do just fine? Oy!

Damn it. You don’t even treat animals
this way, ask for patience, proper ceremony,
unbroken covenant from birds in pair,
from monkey troops grooming each other
in zoos, from does, each year their new fawn.

Or two!

Your are not far off, O LORD. That is not
my problem. I make my complaint of the farness
of flesh, the inability to look your sweet eye
in the eye, in the eye of another, a human gaze.

You command not the deprivation of the senses,
O LORD, and we desire it not. I’ve said save me
from the lying tongue, the violent hand,
the turned-aside foot, the hopeless belly.

But for the hungers you have ordained,
which your very presence does not dampen
but stoke, not fair! What shall I ask? You give
the wine, the bread, the priestly hand
on palm and hair, the oil, the ash, the tears

Of saints falling, from me, (I think) from statues;
the friendship of children, too, animal comfort,
friendly embrace, my body bounding still free
through air or water on a summer’s day. Hooray!

Are these enough? If I am honest with you
(petulance not having yet undone your love
some-thousand years and counting, I risk),
then no. No, your gifts are not enough...

My God,
have mercy.

Let those whom the generations yet unborn
praise, saying, “This will be my mother, and this
shall be my father,” stand in the gates and praise me also,
saying, “This is she who loved and loved, who prayed

For me on my sickbed, and I arose, who took
the LORD for her abode.” O LORD, comfort
the single, the childless woman! The one-bedroom
apartment, O God, I know you do not despise.

I look at the stars and see you have fixed
the number of the clusters, yet set between
each the expanse of your presence, like open
hands. It is in their aloneness you name them.
It is in their gatherings we do. Return, O God,

To count your modern does among the blessed,
maybe even the blessed few who wait with no proof
that your will will please. You do not reject the lonely,
nor cast out those who rule a small house.

Hallelujah! Bearing your name, I say,
let the Name of the LORD be praised.


Amber Noel, 2018

Comments

Tim Stewart said…
Oh my! Amber’s lament psalm struck me dumb! Fantastic, lovely, true. What blessing there is in sharing our aches, in a shared ache.

Congrats, David, on the upcoming book too!

Tim
Thanks for your words, Tim. And I agree with you. Amber's psalm-poem is wonderful.

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