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The Prayerbook of the Bible

If you have ever tried to read your way through the psalms, beginning with Psalm 1 and ending with Psalm 150, you might be surprised. Because even though the book of psalms is often called the book of praise, scattered throughout the 150 psalms are psalms that scholars have come to call the psalms of lament. They are the honest, gut-wrenching prayers of the psalmist.


And if the Psalms are indeed the prayerbook of the Bible, then these psalms violate all the rules of Christian prayer. Most of them begin with “me” or “I.”  Look at me, God listen to me.


But even more laments seem to attack God, the point the finger at God, blame God, and some even accuse God of abandonment, of murder, of falling asleep on the job.


For some of us, speaking this kind of no-holds barred truth seems unthinkable, perhaps because we think God already knows how we feel so why should say it aloud because that just makes it real. Or perhaps because we’re not really sure that God cares enough to hear what we have to say. Or maybe because we think God is the cause of our trouble, so it isn’t even worth bringing to God in prayer. Or maybe this kind of truth-telling simply doesn’t seem very worshipful or reverent because it’s far removed from the hands folded in our lap kind of prayers we might have learned in Sunday School.


But the very presence of these laments in scripture offers an invitation to make them part of our prayers too.


Laments call on God, complain to God, and plead for intervention by God. They look at the world and tell it exactly how it is. Full of harsh and biting words, that go well beyond asking for healing or deliverance, the psalms of lament are words of pain when life hasn’t gone as planned.


Psalm 42 is one such psalm. “My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?’” And later, “’Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?’ As with a deadly wound in my body my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?’”


And yet, alongside such words, Psalm 42, and most of the other lament psalms, contains incredible words of hope, “Hope in God, for I shall again praise him, my help and my God. My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you.”


It’s as if the psalmist lights a match in the darkness. And suddenly, even if nothing about the outward circumstance has changed, the psalmist gets a glimpse of the presence of God there beside him. Hope in the midst of pain and suffering.


But breaking the mold of a typical lament, Psalm 42 presents a more cyclical journey, one that moves from distress to praise and back to distress. Perhaps it’s a reminder that life, and faith, are not always happy trails, but rather a journey that moves constantly between lament and praise. And maybe we need that invitation too.


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