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‘Pray the psalms and you will learn what it means to be fully human’

Scholar, pastor note the power of lament during twin pandemics of COVID-19 and racial injustice

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo courtesy of Humble Lamb via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — As dark December transitions into nearly-as-dark January and February, preachers in need of resources can serve both God and their hearers by preaching the psalms of lamentation.

A Synod of the Northeast webinar offered Tuesday explored why such texts as the 13th and 22nd psalms are “in your face” and “I” psalms that give voice to anyone who prays them, said the Rev. Dr. Beth Tanner, a vice president, dean of Academic Affairs and the Rev. Dr. Norman and Mrs. Mary Kansfield Professor of Old Testament Studies at New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Jersey.

the Rev. Dr. Beth Tanner

“We talk about the psalms and put them in the mouth of David, or ‘the psalmist,’” she said, but that “blunts our ability to use the psalms. This intercessory person keeps us from having a full-throated conversation with God … Everyone gets to be an ‘I’ in the psalms — the king, president, pastor, synod leader,” as well as the people in the pews.

“We all stand before God in the psalms,” Tanner said.

“They allow the people to speak their truths to their power,” said the Rev. Eric Thomas, the interim pastor at Siloam Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn, New York. “Where in the world are you, God? The God who is sovereign is big enough to hold the ‘where in the world are you?’”

The psalms are unique, Tanner said, in that they’re the only words of the people to God and, at the same time, are Scripture. “They were given to us by God, and we in return give the words back to God,” she said.

Many are feeling blue this Christmas season, and Thomas said he’s felt “sangry” lately — both sad and angry. “Christmas in New York has been removed from us because of safety precautions,” he said, including holiday traditions such as taking a crowded subway to visit the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree or attending a Pops concert at Lincoln Center.

the Rev. Eric Thomas

A modern lament psalm might go this way, he said: “God, I’m angry because it’s not safe to take the subway, or at the supermarket people aren’t wearing masks, or my family member works in the restaurant industry, which is on its knees right now. Maybe that’s my psalm,” Thomas said — “my angry psalm.”

Tanner said the pandemic “has exposed the myth of America’s happy machine. Look at how we grieve,” she said, citing a company that grants an employee a week off to grieve her father’s death, “but we expect you to be back on Monday and we expect everything to be fine.”

“Pastors are struggling with people who think they are grieving too long, that there’s a time limit for our pain,” she said. “Part of it is the Protestant work ethic: you keep going until you collapse from everything going on around you. [Pastors] aren’t supposed to share pain or sorrow or weakness. That happens in private.”

Thomas said he also laments congregants’ inability “to grieve properly, to exercise our funeral rituals. I talk to people about the impossibility of being with a grieving family and negotiating safety with them over how many people can be in the sanctuary at one time.”

As she teaches students who will one day be pastors, “I invite impolite prayer,” the kind found in the psalms of lament, Tanner said.

“How do we present our whole self before God even if we are broken, even if we broke it? You can be your full, broken, human, complicated self before God,” she said, citing as examples Moses in Exodus 32 (“Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people”) and the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7 (But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”).

“As someone who teaches pastors, I wish every Christian would know what that feels like,” she said.

“I can’t fix Black Lives Matter or the pandemic, much as I would like to,” she said. “The psalms give me the chance to vent before God, and white folk don’t get a bigger space than anybody else does. You are the ‘I’ standing before the Creator. It helps justice be heard, and it democratizes the way we stand before God.”

“We can see people who have been invisible to us during the pandemic,” Thomas said, including “the receptionist at the hospital, the people who drive MTA trains and buses when the curfews were happening and the people who restocked the grocery shelves after we hoarded up on toilet paper and [disinfectants].”

“If the psalms are about anything,” Tanner said, “they’re about human agency. Pray the psalms and you will learn what it means to be fully human.”

“There is no ‘Canoeing the Mountains’ for a pastor in a pandemic,” Thomas said, adding he’s suggested to the congregation he serves that “we worship the Lord our God with our mind” as well as our souls and our hearts.

Still, Tanner said, the psalms teach us that “sometimes we have to fight for our faith. We are unaccustomed to that, but the person praying the psalms is grabbing onto God and saying, ‘I am going to hang on with everything I’ve got, even though nothing I am doing is making any sense right now.’”

Both the Old and New Testaments “were shaped in the midst of empire,” she said. “These are folks who were persevering when everyone around hem was telling them, ‘Give it up!’ For all their imperfections, they remained faithful to God. The psalms teach us to do that.”

“God is God enough to listen to us speak to God with hot sauce — with anger, sadness and frustration,” Thomas said. “‘Just as I am without one plea?’ We have many pleas, and God gives us permission that in Jesus, God was reconciling the world to God’s self. We have seen his glory, full of grace and truth. Part of that truth is feeling sad and angry and abandoned, and yet having the trust to find safety and rest and wholeness.”

Preachers who preach the lament psalms do well to start with Psalm 22, Tanner said. “They were the words of Jesus. It helps [hearers] understand how this type of prayer has been legitimized by the words of our Savior.”

Proclamations of justice also come from “the women of our faith,” Thomas said. Mary’s Magnificat draws from the songs of Miriam, Deborah and Hannah, “who talked about how God moves on behalf of the people. We can connect those voices with the voices of BLM, Say Her Name and Time’s Up, the many social justice movements here right now.”

When it was time to draw the webinar to a close, the moderator, the Rev. Dr. Amaury Tañón-Santos, the networker for the Synod of the Northeast, asked Tanner to pray. Her prayer included these words: “We are facing such uncertainty. We confess as humans we don’t like that at all. We ask in this Advent season that you be our guiding star. Fill us with hope when we feel like we have none.

“Embed us with your justice for the world. Call us into a future we can’t see. As we follow the Christ child, we are thankful for your Advent with us, Emmanuel … We ask your grace and your presence to embed us with the creativity we don’t feel like we have anymore. Love us in the name of the Christ child we pray, Amen.”

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