Archive for July, 2018

Jonah’s Lament

Sunday, July 15th, 2018

I was thinking about Laments a couple days ago. Then today, our pastor began a sermon series in Jonah.

Why did this strike me? Jonah chapter 2, his prayer from the belly of the whale, is a Lament.

Now, when a modern reader reads Jonah, the prayer seems, frankly, a little odd. If I were swallowed by a great fish, I’d pray something like, “Lord, I need out of this fish!” Or: “In the name of Jesus, fish, I command you to vomit me up!”

But Jonah’s prayer as given in the account is exactly the appropriate prayer from the perspective of his time and his culture.

According to the professor of my Psalms class at Biola, the Lament form wasn’t unique to the psalms. Other Ancient Near East poetry used the same form. And this form is one of the most common forms you’ll find in the Psalms. To those of that time, this is a good way to pray when you’re in trouble.

The belly of a whale is proverbial trouble.

Now, the form doesn’t have every component every time. And when I look more carefully, it seems closer to the very-closely-related Thanksgiving Psalm form. Let’s look at the verses with that in mind:

I. Introduction

In my distress I called to the Lord,
and he answered me.
From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help,
and you listened to my cry.

[Note: II. Call to Praise is missing, which is often true in the Psalms, too.]

III. Account
A. Crisis in Retrospect
[This is very closely related to the Lament part two, the Complaint. The main difference is that in a Thanksgiving Psalm, it’s usually past tense – as it is here in Jonah.]

You hurled me into the depths,
into the very heart of the seas,
and the currents swirled about me;
all your waves and breakers
swept over me.
I said, ‘I have been banished
from your sight;
yet I will look again
toward your holy temple.’
The engulfing waters threatened me,
the deep surrounded me;
seaweed was wrapped around my head.
To the roots of the mountains I sank down;
the earth beneath barred me in forever.

B. Deliverance (slight order change here)
2. You heard and you intervened.

But you, Lord my God,
brought my life up from the pit.

1. I called.

When my life was ebbing away,
I remembered you, Lord,
and my prayer rose to you,
to your holy temple.

IV. Praise
[Here this more closely fits the Lament finale – Vow to Praise.]

Those who cling to worthless idols
turn away from God’s love for them.
But I, with shouts of grateful praise,
will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good.
I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’

So why would Jonah, in the belly of the whale, pray a Thanksgiving Psalm?

Well, his words answer that. We are used to thinking of being in the belly of the whale as the worst thing that can happen to you. But remember, first he was thrown into a raging storm:

The engulfing waters threatened me,
the deep surrounded me;
seaweed was wrapped around my head.

I’m thinking that the great fish didn’t swallow Jonah the moment he hit the water. I’m thinking when his “life was ebbing away,” when he was minutes from drowning – that’s when he desperately called on the Lord.

For Jonah, the great fish was a rescue, a place to reflect.

We forget that drowning was the danger – the great fish was the deliverance. And Jonah was given a gift of three days to reflect. Now he had time to compose a psalm.

Thanksgiving was completely appropriate.

I also think that after miraculously escaping from drowning – I seriously doubt that Jonah was terribly concerned that God was going to leave him inside the belly of the great fish. He’d just experienced a miracle, after all.

But that also explains why he’s still using the “Vow to Praise” at the end, rather than the straightforward praise of a regular Thanksgiving Psalm. In a Lament, the psalmist generally finishes off with, “When I get out of this, I’m going to tell the world how wonderful you are!” In the belly of the great fish, Jonah wasn’t yet in a position to testify to God’s faithfulness to anyone else. But he has enough confidence in God’s deliverance – already saved from drowning – to vow that he will do it.

So there you have it. The next time you find yourself metaphorically in the belly of a whale, or metaphorically saved from drowning – think about following Jonah’s example with a Lament or Psalm of Thanksgiving. I like the way these psalms remind us that God hears and answers.

Psalms for Prayer

Friday, July 13th, 2018

I was thinking about Laments today.

I talked about forms of psalms – Laments and Thanksgiving Psalms in posts from three years ago.

The idea is that we can use the forms used in the book of Psalms to pray our own prayers. But to be honest, I’m a little embarrassed by the psalms of my own I wrote and posted as examples. (But part of the point is that it doesn’t have to be good writing!)

Here’s the form of a Lament:
1) Address to God
2) Lament or complaint
3) Review of God’s Help (Confession of Trust)
4) Petition
5) Words of Assurance
6) Vow to Praise

I was thinking about Laments because I currently have multiple friends, relatives, and acquaintances dealing with cancer or other life-threatening illnesses. On top of that, I’m discouraged by what’s happening to our country.

With a Lament, you’re allowed to question. You’re allowed to complain. You’re allowed to feel pain.

You do come back around. You remember how God’s helped in the past. You ask for help. You express belief that God will come through. You make promises that you are going to praise God when this is over!

To be honest, I don’t feel adequate to write a Lament for my friends, or for our country. At least not that I’m willing to post.

But where I am in my own life is a spacious place. After a long, dark time. After some wilderness wanderings. So I’m going to try a psalm of Thanksgiving. Here’s the form for that:

Thanksgiving Psalm
I) Introduction
II) Call to Praise
III) The Story
A) Crisis in Retrospect
B) Deliverance
1) I called.
2) You heard and you intervened.
IV) Praise

Okay, I’m going to try it. I’m going to be rather vague, in the name of symbolism. (And because I’ve been rescued from obsessive thoughts!) Remember: They don’t have to be great literature. I will probably borrow heavily from the Psalms. And I’m going to try to include parallelism. Also remember that you don’t have to slavishly follow the form.

Fluttering

Lord, I’m here to praise you.
May my heart always sing to you.
You gave me new life.
You brought me out of the cocoon.

Let everyone rescued by the Lord remember.
Let us sing
for the joy of being alive today,
for the light of hope again in our eyes.

For his voice when all was dark,
for his healing when the world spun,
for his solution when my resources were spent,
for his presence when I felt all alone,
for his confirmation when I was without confidence,
for his notice when I felt utterly insignificant,
for his good gifts when I felt worthless,
for his calling when I felt useless.

O Lord, you gave all these things.

My mind was spinning and obsessing.
My hopes and plans were shattered.

You changed my tears to laughter,
my disappointment to joy.

The cocoon was dark and dismal;
now flowers line my path.
I may not be soaring,
but my wings have dried,
and I’m beginning to flutter.

Lord, I didn’t understand the darkness,
but your love has made me new.

Praise the Lord
for his unfailing love
and his mercies that never fail.

Praise the Lord.

***
That’s my example. The real reason to post is in hope that you’ll try it yourself. But also that you’ll join me in praising the Lord.