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So Help Me God -- Psalms 56 and 103 (8th Sunday After Pentecost)

In her book, Help Thanks Wow, Anne Lamott suggests that we keep prayer simple – that there are three essential prayers: Help. Thanks. and Wow.[1] Now, to be sure, books have been written that might tell us how there is so much more to prayer than just that. But the more I think about it – the more we pray together – the more we travel through this Summer of the Psalms (the prayer book of the Bible) – the more I’ve become convinced that there is life-giving wisdom in Anne Lamott’s basic premise:

There are three essential prayers: Help. Thanks. Wow.

Maybe here, in the last few years, we’ve talked most about Thanks. At the start of our COVID experience, we opened up even more space in our worship for a practice of gratitude – our prayers of thanksgiving. Around Thanksgiving and at the start of the new year, we talk about gratitude as a daily spiritual practice.

Two weeks ago, we talked about the Wow prayer – as we considered the psalms of praise that nourish us with and give voice to the goodness of God. I even pointed out that the Hebrew title for the Book of Psalms is Tehillim – the Book of Praises.

Now did you know that even though in the Hebrew it’s called the Book of Praises – in the Book of Psalms, laments – crying out to God from the depths of our pain – laments make up the biggest category of Psalms?[2]

As the psalms take us on a journey through the whole of life,

as they sing the broad expanse of human experience,

more than anything else – the Psalms pray, “Help!Help us God.[3]

It is a raw word, spoken out of real human life – out of the trouble, out of the struggle, out of the pain – Help. Please help. It’s one of the places where the Psalms are most specific. The Psalmists lay out particular complaints – here is the trouble I am in, right now – and then, they ask God for help.[4]

The Psalmist does that in Psalm 56. Give me grace, O God. Have mercy All day long, my enemies oppress me. They trample me all day long. They twist my words. They scheme for my ruin. They conspire. They lurk. They watch my every step. They hope to take my life. Help.

If we look throughout the Psalms – there’s all manner of trouble and distress – enemies are prowling the walls of the city.[5] They stalk the city streets bringing ruin. They oppress. They defraud. Some psalms find the psalmist crying up out of a pit; some find the psalmist caught in the fowler’s snare; some, waiting for the next conquering army to roll over the hills. The psalmist cries out – This is the trouble I am in right nowHelp.

And the Psalms are specific about what it feels like.

· The pain is intense: Help me, God, I am languishing; my bones are rattled; I am exhausted with my groaning; at night, my bed is soaked with tears. (Psalm 6)

· Sometimes it feels like God has abandoned us. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22)

· Sometimes it feels like God is complicit –“How can you let this happen God?

The psalms are specific enough to voice to God the Psalmist’s pain – the psalmist’s need for help – and at the same time, they are open enough to leave room for ours:[6]

· for those times when we can feel the pain and brokenness in our bodies – when we see and hear it in the lives of others;

· for those times when it feels like the world is crashing in, those sleepless nights when it feels like trouble is prowling the walls;

· for those times when we look around at the world – at the systems of oppression grinding away – a planet hurtling toward collapse – and feel like there’s nothing we can do.

The psalms of lament, in their spare and honest particularity, leave room for our particular pain – space for our prayer, too: Help.

And it’s not only the big sweeping help that the Psalms cry out for. We’ve talked about how the psalms of lament do cry out for liberation, but perhaps even more often, the cry is for the here and now – the everyday trouble, the need for everyday help. Robert Alter – a prominent Hebrew scholar – points out that the Hebrew word that usually gets translated as “salvation” – in the Psalms – can just as often mean to get someone out of a tight fix.[7] So he translates that word, in the Psalms, as “rescue.” We pray to the God of rescue for help. In the Psalms, Alter says, “The speakers aren’t seeking to be transported out of this world to a different spiritual realm: They implore God to lift them from the pit, to confound their enemies, to bring them to wholeness and safety[8] – they pray for the help they need now, out of the pain they feel now, in this moment of this day. Help.

When she starts her chapter on prayers of “Help,” Anne Lamott says this:

It’s all hopeless. Even for a crabby optimist like me, things couldn’t be worse. Everywhere you turn, our lives and [families] and morale and government are falling to pieces. So many friends have broken children. [So many children have broken parents.] The planet does not seem long for this world. Repent! Oh wait, never mind: Help![9]

That’s a lament.

Lamott says, “Most good honest prayers remind us that we are not in charge, that we cannot fix anything, and [they then] open us up to being helped by something, some force, some friends, some something.”


Maybe it might be good to take a breath here – and just think for a moment:

· As we, as you, look around the world, where do you hear cries for help like this?

· Where do you need help?

This week, I read this thing about prayers of lament that really didn’t seem to fit at first. It was this: All prayer is response. It actually said, “All prayer is answering speech.”[10] All of our prayer is a response to God. But with lament, it sure feels like we are speaking the first word in the conversation. Help. God, help. It wells up from deep within us, out of our pain and our suffering. We cry out, and then we wait for God to respond.

But here’s the thing with lament – with that prayer for help – with our lament – we pray – we pray because we have the sense that someone is listening. That’s what differentiates prayer from wishful thinking. We pray to the God we have come to know – to the God who has loved us first –

· in the Psalms, to the God we have come to know in all the ways that God has accompanied and delivered God’s people –

· and for those of us in Christian traditions, to the God we have come to know in Jesus Christ.

These psalms of lament sit alongside all of the Psalms that hold our memory of all the ways that God has come to help – generation after generation – God’s steadfast love endures forever. Psalm 103 does that.

Praise God, O my soul, and forget not all God’s benefits,

who forgives our sin,

who heals our broken places,

who pulls us up out of the pit,

who crowns us with love and compassion,

who nourishes and sustains us,

who works justice for the oppressed,

whose love for us is as great as the heavens are high above the earth

who remembers we are dust,

who lets us lament like this,

who listens,

who loves,

who breathes life into us, in this breath, and the next.

In these psalms of lament, in our prayers of lament, out of our pain, we pray in response to the God we have come to know – to the God who has loved us first – and we ask for help. Now to be sure – it is not wishful or magical thinking. Any of us who has prayed in pain knows that it doesn’t work like that. The psalms of lament don’t report the particular way that God fixes their particular pain – or even that God does or did.

But in some ways, the psalms of lament make an even bolder claim – that God listens– that God hears our lament – and that God cares – that God is for us – even in our pain – especially in our pain. One writer puts it like this: “The psalms of lament bespeak a bold assumption: God cares that I am in pain and can be expected to do something about it. That is a remarkable assumption when you think about it —that the God who made heaven and earth should care that I am hurting.”[11]

Did you catch how the Psalmist expressed that in Psalm 56? After all the lament – the Psalmist says, But you, O God, you keep track of all my wanderings, you put my tears in your bottle. God who is Almighty – God who brings down nations – God who makes the sun to rise – is the God who gathers up every tear so that not one tear of ours falls to the ground – God scoops it up. Not one tear falls to the ground unnoticed.

And then the Psalmist says this: God is for me. God you are for me. In this moment, in this pain, God you are for me. God, you know all my wanderings. You listen when I cry. You gather up every tear. You are here. You are near.

The power of lament isn’t that it fixes all that is wrong – but that it lets us give it voice – and then reminds us that we are never alone – that God is at the same time close at hand, and always on the way.

Help. Thanks. Wow. There’s something to that.

But maybe we come to experience them in the reverse order.

Wow. God, you made heaven and earth – the stars, the sky, the sun, the moon, the sea – every living being – soaring redwood, grassy plain, fish that swim the seas, every crawling thing. And us. We toil here on this earth, fumbling our way through the darkest days. And you make the sun to rise every morning.

Thanks. Thank you for this day – for a new breath, a new moment opening with new possibility. Thank you for the people we love, and for those who love us – for family, and friends, and this community of kindred spirits – for the kind word, for tender touch. Thank you for giving us lives of meaning, something to learn in each new day – for the gifts of community and hope and memory – for all those times you’ve reached down and pulled us out of the pit. Wow. Thanks.

So, help me, God. Help me now. In this struggle. In this pain. You know my wanderings. You gather up every tear and keep it in your bottle. As you’ve loved me before, love me now. Love us now. Bring your healing, your justice, your peace. Your steadfast love endures forever.

So, help me, God.

The Psalms pull together all of these prayers of lament – alongside the memory of God’s loving action from the beginning of time to now – and then hand them down from generation to generation – leaving room enough for us to join in with our prayer – reminding us that we pray these prayers together.

Perhaps a bit more metaphorically, we pray them together over time. The Psalmists lament out of the pain of their world – the suffering of being enslaved, the bewilderment of wandering in a desert, the agony of living in exile far from home – the everyday ache of their particular lives. Their lament echoes down through the generations, and as we join our voices to theirs, we remember together what it is to be human – to live these frail lives – and to love and be loved by God.

Less metaphorically, in this moment, we are actually praying these prayers together. Maybe this morning, you have brought your lament into this space. Maybe I have brought mine. All our tears gathered up in the vessel of this moment. Maybe, maybe, this is not your morning for lament – maybe you arrived this morning feeling something altogether different. And that’s great. We live the full range of human experience, and we come to this space every week just as we are. And yet, even on better days, we remember, we know what it is to lament. In our bones. And we are here for each other.

However we have arrived in this space, here we are together, in God’s presence, holding each other’s pain. We sit with each other, pray with each other, sing with each other. And we say to each other, “Wherever you are on the journey, there is a place for you here.”

When we pray these psalms of lament,

in so many ways,

they remind us that we are never alone.

© 2023 Scott Clark

[1] Anne Lamott, Help Thanks Wow (New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2012). [2] See Ellen Davis, p. 14. [3] For general background on psalms of lament and deliverance generally and on Psalm 56 specifically, see J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. iv (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996), pp. 900-03; Walter Brueggemann and William Bellinger, Psalms (New York, NY; Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp.249-58; Ellen Davis, Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament (Lanham, MD; Roman Littlefield Publishers, 2001), pp.14-22; Denise Dombokowski Hopkins, Psalms Book 2-3 (Wisdom Commentary) (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2020), 193-200; Nathaniel Samuel Murrell, David T. Shannon & David T. Adamo, “Psalms” in The Africana Bible: Reading Israel’s Scriptures from Africa and the African Diaspora(Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010); W. David. O. Taylor, Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life (Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 2020), pp.67-79, 107-120. [4] Brueggemann and others explain that the basic structure of the lament moves through (1) complaint, (2) petition, and (3) assurance. Brueggemann, pp. 251-52. [5] See Psalm 55. [6] See Brueggemann, p.251. [7] See Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 2007), p.xxxiii. [8] See id. [9] See Lamott, p.11. [10] Eugene H. Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer (New York, NY: HarperOne, 1989), p.86. [11] Davis, p.17.

Photo credit: Annie Spratt, used with permission via Unsplash

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