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The Lectio Letter - Issue #37 - Learning to Lament with the Psalms

The Lectio Letter - Issue #37 - Learning to Lament with the Psalms
By Liam Byrnes • Issue #37 • View online
“The use of these ‘psalms of darkness’ may be judged by the world to be acts of unbelief and failure, but for the trusting community, their use is an act of bold faith, albeit a transformed faith. It is an act of bold faith…because it insists that the world must be experienced as it really is and not in some pretended way. On the other hand, it is bold because it insists that all such experiences of disorder are a proper subject for [conversation] with God.“
Walter Brueggemann, The Costly loss of Lament

Welcome to Issue #36 of the Lectio Letter. This members-only newsletter is filled with music, film and food suggestions, links, and an article written by yours truly.
As a member, you get access to all the previous issue’s even if you only just signed up recently. Click on a previous issue and then follow the ‘already a member’ link and it will email it straight to your inbox!
The Article this time…
The article for this Lectio is on learning to be sad. As I mention in the article, our inability to sit, both personally and corporately, with our own pain and the pain of those around us leads to a dangerously stunted emotional life and can also create hotbeds for abuse and scandal. None of this is a surprise to the God who made us who invites us to climb the scaffolding of the psalms and find a map for the full spectrum of human emotions in the presence of God.
PSA
This edition is coming out a little later than anticipated (reasons explained in the status board), so it is also a bit of a bumper edition given the extra time I’ve had collecting links and the like. I’ve heard a number of people missing out on the whole email if they use Gmail because the email gets ‘clipped’. You can see at the bottom of the email if it says “message clipped”, then click “View entire message” to see it all. If you don’t see my signature at the bottom, you are not getting it all.
Sharing is Caring
As ever, If you think this or any previous articles would be interesting or useful to those you know, please feel free to forward this email and encourage them to sign up too.
As a member, you get access to all the previous 36 issue’s even if you only just signed up recently. Click on a previous issue and then follow the ‘already a member’ link and it will email it straight to your inbox!
Status Board
Work/Life
Straight after the Module 3 Intensive I mentioned in the last Lectio we unexpectedly hopped on a plane back to Scotland to surprise Rachel’s brother and sister-in-law on the occasion of their 40th Birthdays! It was a precious time to connect and be in autumn in bonnie Scotland.
The time also had its challenges as Rachel’s father Les was diagnosed with a brain tumour within days of our arrival. The prognosis is the best case scenario for what is otherwise a scary diagnosis. We’d love your prayer for Les and Rachel’s family in these coming weeks.
Reading
I finally finished After Doubt by AJ Swoboda, it’s tipped to be my most recommended book of recent times. Swoboda does a wonderful job charting the illusive third way through faith deconstruction arguing, as I have, that faith must continually reform but doesn’t need to destruct.
These last few weeks I’ve begun Cambridge theologian, Sarah Coakley’s The New Asceticism. It’s a series of essays on celibacy and sexuality from a theological perspective. Celibacy is highly contested with many arguing that Priestly celibacy and therefore suppression of sexual desire leads to the many abuse scandals that have plagued churches. Rather than solve the issue by advocating for persmissiveness, Coakley argues that forms of celibacy and the disciplining of desire is core to the Christian calling whether married or celibate.
I also began Reappearing church by Mark Sayers which is an excellent workbook encouraging Christians to see and act on the potential and possiblity of christian witness in a secular age. He takes high level social commentary and philosophy and create a workbook that allows small groups to stir themselves with hope for renewal in the church and the world.
I just started “Into the Silent Land” by Martin Laird, a guide to the Christian practise of Contemplation. I read “An Ocean of Light” earlier this year which is also in this series (I unknowingly read them out of order). While readers of evangelical conviction will have to spit out some contemplative roman catholic theological bones, the writing in this book clearly flows from a life deep in prayer and therefore is rich invitation to contemplation from someone from a different christian stream than our own.
Music
Jordan Rakei, a lockdown discovery for us, here with a brilliant cover Blackbird..
'Blackbird' - Fat Freddy's Drop (covered by Jordan Rakei)
'Blackbird' - Fat Freddy's Drop (covered by Jordan Rakei)
I’ve mentioned a couple of times that the UK music scene is booming at the moment. Love this live performance from Little Simz with a great London accent on the legendary Later.. with Joolz Holland.
Little Simz – Woman (Live on Later)
Little Simz – Woman (Live on Later)
Food
The other evening we had a zoom meeting and so we wanted something quick to cook that was simple, light and summer-y (yes, I’m afraid to boast to my northern hemisphere counterparts, but we are entering summer here).
In Jamie Oliver’s Italy book I came across this simple recipe for swordfish and it was delicious! You cook the fish as hot as your pan or BBQ can get and then simple pour over the salsa di giovanna (lemon, mint, oregno and olive oil dressing).
Ingredients
juice of 1 lemon
extra virgin olive oil
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely sliced
a sprig of fresh mint, leaves picked and roughly sliced
a sprig of fresh oregano, leaves picked and roughly sliced
4 ½-inch thick slices of swordfish or tuna
Instructions
Squeeze the lemon juice into a bowl and add 3 times the amount of olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and stir in the garlic, mint and oregano.
Heat a griddle pan or frying pan until very hot and season your swordfish or tuna with salt and pepper. Place it in the pan and cook for around a minute on each side, until golden. This will leave the fish slightly pink in the middle, so if you don’t like the idea of this, feel free to cook it a little more. Divide the fish between your serving plates and spoon the sauce over the top.
Learning to Lament with the Psalms
In my Lectio Letter #35, I explored some of the realities that lead people to deconstruct their faith. I highlighted that a growing and maturing faith is always renegotiating what and how it believes, but this does not need to lead to the destruction of faith that is becoming so commonplace. 
One of the consistent realities I have come across in many Christian communities is the inability to make space for sadness, grief and depression. Sooner or later, these realities appear as a part of the human experience in our broken world. As much as we would like to, we cannot escape the reality that before Christ’s return, all is not as it is meant to be. 
In defiant contrast to the pain we experience, the tone of our Christian culture is often formed around a sense of positivity or an upbeat, victorious stance. The best of this is that it comes from a deep assurance that the God who raised Jesus from the dead promises to make all things new. In its less mature forms, however, this often creates unhelpful and deeply damaging dynamics that may cause those who experience grief, depression or even simple melancholy to feel second rate and spiritually homeless.
While God’s final victory over disease, disorder and death is assured, we still live in a time where our lives are caught in the crossfire of brokenness, death and decay. When these circumstances break into our lives, which they inevitably do, we may find ourselves out of step with the worshipping communities we are a part of. In spoken or unspoken ways, we may receive the message that “Jesus is alive, so tell your face to smile, and suppress your pain.” Much of our worship can feel like a “positivity pep rally” and anything other than an assured and high-spirited countenance can seem like faithlessness.
This also translates from our worshipping life into our pastoral presence with one another. In the face of another’s pain, we may grow deeply uncomfortable and offer pithy pastoral statements like; “Oh you have cancer, well at least there is chemo,” "You lost your job, I’m sure something better will come along!” or “You have depression? Try reading Jeremiah 29:11 every day.” There is a form of truth in these sentiments, but what the other person often hears is, "I don’t know what to do with your pain. It makes me feel uncomfortable, so please clean yourself up and come back with a smile.” In our drive to be positive and generally upbeat, we effectively cut off our emotional lives in ways that make us less human. 
One of the strengths of the Evangelical Church has always been our activism. We believe we can bring change and good in the world as we serve, fix and save. But how do we respond to realities that can’t be fixed right now? In our incessant search for solutions, or remedies to problems, we often make things worse because we are not quick to lament. We find it challenging and uncomfortable to sit with someone’s pain and say, “this is not good and this is not the way it is meant to be.”
Lament is the expression of grief or disappointment in the context of worship. When lament is not part of our worship i.e: when the people of God fail to acknowledge pain and sadness in one another’s lives, it is not a quantum leap for those hurting people to feel that God doesn’t acknowledge their pain either. Could this be a significant reason many people are feeling spiritually homeless in a world so filled with grief and pain? 
How do we confront our own discomfort with the stress and messiness of sadness and grief? How do we grow into people who can “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” (Rom 12:15)
By including the Book of Psalms in Scripture, God offers us a map for the full spectrum of our emotions as we live in relationship to Him. The Psalms are a collection of songs written in praise, protest, depression and desire by David and others. If they weren’t in the Bible, we might be tempted to think of these types of proclamations as being unfaithful, heretical or inappropriate. Here are a few:
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.
Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the one Israel praises. (Psalm 22:2-3)
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
 and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
 How long will my enemy triumph over me? (Psalm 13: 1-2) 
For you are God, my strength; why have you abandoned me? Why do I go about in gloom at the oppression of the enemy? (Psalm 43:2)
I can’t imagine someone speaking out these kinds of sentiments in many of the worship contexts I have been in without them being hushed or embarrassed by an awkward silence or eyes facing the floor. Sadly, if this type of protest, including anger, does not get addressed to God, we will lose our ability to meet God in the midst of these darker emotions. Over 1/3rd of the Psalms contain lament, complaint or protest directed toward God, with a plea for him to help. When we suppress this aspect of our emotional lives in times of disappointment or depression, we lose true relationship. Like friends that can never disagree, we shove pain and disappointment under the carpet of our lives until we inevitably trip over the ever-increasing mass of suppression. Why is it surprising that we are left to wonder where God is, when we have effectively locked him out of these experiences? 
Throughout the centuries, traditional Christian worship included reading through the whole book of Psalms each year. This has sadly been lost over the last century. Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, wrote an essay entitled “The Costly Loss of Lament”. In it, he reflects on the deep impact of the loss of lament in our worship. 
"One loss that results from the absence of lament is the loss of genuine covenant interaction because the second party to the covenant [the person praying] has become voiceless or has a voice that is permitted to speak only praise…Where lament is absent, [the relationship happens] only as a celebration of joy and well-being. Or in political categories, the greater party [God] is surrounded by subjects who are always ‘yes men and women’ from whom ‘never is heard a discouraging word’. Since such a celebrative, consenting silence does not square with reality, covenant minus lament is finally a practice of denial, cover-up, and pretense, which sanctions social control.”
(Walter Bruegemman in The Psalms and the Life of Faith, p.102)
Brueggemann highlights a grave danger here, not just for our inner emotional lives, but for the types of Christian communities we help create. If we believe God is offended by complaints, we naturally create communities where one no longer feels free to voice dissent without retribution. We imagine God as an insecure boss who won’t hear anything other than positive things said about himself and his creation. In turn, we create communities where faithfulness is interpreted as toeing-the-line and never voicing concern or worse, abuse. This is how Christian communities become hotbeds for abuse and scandal when, ever so subtly, we create a culture where positivity and celebration are the only acceptable forms of expression. The absence of an ability to lament or to express grief or sorrow results in what Bruggemann powerfully calls “a religion of coercive obedience.”
I was recently introduced to helpful terminology from Cathy Loerzel from the Allender Centre in the USA. She speaks about how humans are made for Eden. We are made for the type of flourishing and relationship that characterised the world before the rebellion of Genesis 3. But in Genesis 3, and now in all our lives, the shalom of Eden has been shattered. One day Eden will be restored, and that is God’s work. But we still need to acknowledge the shattering that has taken place in our lives, and if we pretend it isn’t there, we begin to live numbed-down and denial-filled lives. 
So how do we recover whole and healthy emotional lives where we can pray out both praise and protest in God’s presence? 
Historically, as I’ve mentioned, Christians were able to offer the full spectrum of their emotions to God by reading the entire book of Psalms in their worship times over a year. These days, such liturgical disciplines may be experienced as rote and inauthentic. Surely, if we are trying to offer our deepest feelings to God then the formality of liturgical worship doesn’t have anything to offer us?
Well, imagine with me for a moment being a worshipper in a community that reads through the Psalms every Sunday over a year. On some Sundays, you may feel great and you read and respond to the praise and celebratory psalms with a full heart. On another Sunday, you may experience grief and you are invited to bring your grief before God in the presence of His people. This simple act of reading through the psalms becomes a type of scaffolding upon which your emotional life can begin to rest. You begin to experience the welcome invitation to speak out the rightful protest against the impacts of a bruised and broken world. And one is not alone when they address their protest to God as they join with others to proclaim that "even so God, we put our trust in you.” This is how many of the Psalms are resolved. In the context of a community of God’s people, we become convinced that we no longer need to hide our depression, disappointments and doubts, but instead can address them to God in the presence of His people. There would be, of course, weeks when the reading of these Psalms would be distinctly out of step with one’s own emotional life, but even this serves to teach us that this is not just about us. Rather, it is about growing to become the type of person who has the emotional fluency to, as Romans 12:15 encourages; “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”
Some of us are melancholic in disposition and we need the discipline of celebration. For those who are upbeat, we need the discipline of naming and sitting with grief, even when it isn’t ours.
Eden has been lost, and we are living in a broken and hurting world. One day it will be restored, but unless we can live faithfully in the now and not yet we will create cultures of toxic positivity that convince those that grieve that they have to do so outside, away from others. Could this be part of the reason the Church loses so many people as they come of age and finally face the fractured and broken state of the world? By returning to Psalms and liturgies of lament, maybe we can sit with those who weep and encourage them that even here God is present.
Jesus took on the title of a Man of Sorrows, the messianic prophecy found in Isaiah 53. He experienced grief, and so he knows ours. God, in Jesus, knows what it is to be fully human, having entered into our shattered world.. And he is with us through Holy Spirit. We are not alone.
Once again returning to the Psalms;
Where can I go from your Spirit?
  Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
  if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. (Psalm 139: 7-8)
We don’t need to protect God from the highs and lows of our lives. He is Emmanuel, God with us, in the highs of celebration and in the lows of depression. And we are called to meet Him in it all. 
Miscellaneous Link List
Gymnast breaks record with epic six-metre backflip between bars | Guinness World Records
A look under the hood of the most successful streaming service on the planet
'This experience broke a lot of people': Inside State amid the Afghanistan withdrawal - POLITICO
The London to Edinburgh train ride was once a thing of wonder. Can it be again? | Ian Jack | The Guardian
Facebook's Dangerous Experiment on Teen Girls - The Atlantic
Satellite images show China built mock-ups of U.S. warships - POLITICO
South Africa on the Edge | by Scott MacLeod | The New York Review of Books
The 100 Best Inventions of 2021 | TIME
An incredible visualisation show how deep the ocean really is…
Ocean DEPTH Comparison 🌊 (3D Animation)
Ocean DEPTH Comparison 🌊 (3D Animation)
The Size of Space
Huge sunfish weighing up to two tonnes found off coast of Ceuta – video | Environment | The Guardian
Comedy Pet Awards account on instagram is worth a scroll..
That’s all for now….
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Liam Byrnes

A Fortnightly newsletter with links, music, recipes and one article from me focussed on Christian formation, Theology and Discipleship

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Liam Byrnes, 1 Montrose Close, Noordhoek, Western Cape, South Africa