The Earth Groans...
This past weekend in church, one of the readings was Romans 8.12-25. In it, I saw something new that I had never seen before even though it is a passage I have read and heard countless times during my life. It may even be one of those that I might even be able to recite part of from memory. It is curious to me how these things happen. Now Christians explain this as the Holy Spirit illuminating the scriptures. Which I do believe happens, however anyone who spends enough time with a text has the possibility to read it with “new eyes”. All those things that we encounter in our lives between the readings come into play and activate in our most recent reading to suggest the possibility of new depths of or alternate meanings. Whatever it is, I appreciate the new ideas and possibilities.
So here is the passage:
12So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— 13for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,
17and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. 18I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
I think, looking back on it now, I likely read this passage in a way was about human struggles and the hope that comes from faith in spite of current circumstances. Now, without looking, Paul is writing to encourage and teach those living in Rome dealing with a pretty crappy situation struggling under persecution. This is all pretty standard. What was new for me is how creation is bound up with humanity in this struggle.
Look at verse 19-23 again.
Creation awaits salvation too! It languishes awaiting its freedom. Again, looking back on it, that I think I conflated humanity as part of creation, which it is, but verse 23 articulates an important rhetorical distinction (23and not only the creation, but we ourselves). This distinction that Paul sets between humanity and creation is an important one. We see, that creation suffers awaiting the same freedom from bondage that humanity awaits. This was an unbelievable thought.
Over the recent years, with my interest in place and shifting theological emphases, I’ve come to think more about the relationship between humanity and the earth very differently. Often, for a variety of long held philosophical reasons firmly rooted in Protestant thought, the physical is diminished in favor of the spiritual. The logic goes that since “we” will fly away from this physical earth, it is of no real lasting significance. Tragically, the position of caretaker from Genesis becomes one of dominance and misuse rendering it a disposable reality to be mined for all its worth to fuel our economies.
As I think about this further, this action only amplifies the groaning. Perhaps what has allowed this idea to emerge is my recent time in the oil fields of North Dakota. At the beginning of this month, I spent 2 solid days, driving through some of the most beautiful landscape of North Dakota which has now become a sprawling oil field. Land is being drastically reshaped, gouged, drilled, drug, and about any other manner of soil movement you might consider. I cannot help but to see the groaning of the earth around me when I drive out there.
While the Psalms retell the laments of those who cried out, “How long?” I fear this is the cry of the earth as well?
Questioning God In The Psalms.8
This study was a profound experience for me. So much more could and should be said about each Psalm that carries one of the accusatory questions. What started off as a musing on the aggressive prayers that Israel seemed to offer has become a provocative challenge to both covenant and Creator. This study has also cemented in my mind the need for lament in ecclesial communities. Without it, our liturgies lack a certain honesty about our selves and our world. We need to overcome the isolating tendencies of individualism on both the personal and ecclesial scale and rediscover our solidarity with a crumbling and disoriented world. Rediscovering our social reality is fundamental to rediscovering lament. When we do, we will find the need for such language again. Such a language will “help the church genuinely mourn the world’s enmity and pain, give a voice to the voiceless, and witness against injustice.” Lament offers the church a solid “rhetoric for prayer and reflection that befits these volatile times, a rhetoric that mourns loss, examines complicity in evil, cries for divine help, and sings and prays with hope. For indeed, what ultimately shapes lament is not the need of the creature to cry its woe, but the faithfulness of the God, who hears and acts.”
 Sally Brown & Patrick Miller, ed., “Introduction,” in Lament: Reclaiming Practices in Pulpit, Pew, and Public Square, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), xix.
Questioning God In The Psalms.4
Continuing on in the questioning of God in the Psalms, I hope to explore several individual Psalms. Psalm 6 seems like a good place to start.
Peter C. Craigie calls Psalm 6 a psalm of sickness that affects both body and soul. It is quite easy to imagine the state of the individual, near death, crying out to God for help and health. The question in vs. 3 says, “My soul also is struck with terror, while you, O Lord, how long?” This question, among others, is particularly evocative. The psalmist, “gasping as a stammerer” cannot even finish the question. It is a poetic portrayal of the psalmist desperation and critical state. However, Mays notes that this state of affliction is not “mutely accepted” but is opposed to it by saying, “‘Don’t…heal…turn…save,’ the prayer pleads, as though it were certain that God’s usual and preferred way with human beings favored health and life.” Such fear of death and discipline has brought the psalmist to plea his case.
We see the theme of the righteous sufferer emerge in verses one and two for the request not to rebuke or discipline the psalmist in God’s anger. From this perspective, we can see the underlying question of protest. If the psalmist is innocent, and there is no direct confession of sin in the psalm, then it seems to implicate Yahweh in his sickness. Craigie notes that the psalmist’s plea for deliverance in vs. 4-7, “Return, O LORD, save my life” is based on God’s “steadfast” or covenant love. Yet the underlying implication is that God has deserted him.
Within Psalm 6 is the profound role of memory that was noted in the beginning. Verse 5 states, “In death there is no remembrance of you.” The question functions liturgically where Israel’s memory of God’s past action brings about praise. But the re-enacting of human memory before God, also reminds God of his past actions and covenant. It is a reminding God to be God.
This psalm is also a fine example of Westermann’s three-fold typology of participants: Yahweh, humans, and enemies. Verse 8-10 introduces the enemies as the third participant. But in the course of the psalm, God has heard the plea and protest and come to the aid of the psalmist and thus vanquishing also his enemies. That which was offered in plea and protest successfully motivated Yahweh to act on his behalf.
 Peter C. Craigie, Psalms: 1-50, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 19, (Waco, TX: Word Books Publisher, 1983), 91.
 Artur Weiser, The Psalms, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1962), 130.
 Mays, 60.
 Weiser states, “The recognition of the psalmist’s sinfulness indeed forms the background of the psalm and is implied within it, but the actual confession of sin is entirely lacking” (Weiser, 130). Craigie also mentions the possible sin interpretation but prefers the “righteous sufferer” interpretation (Craigie, 92).
 Craigie, 92-93. This is one of the generalizing adjectives that became normative for Israel’s speech about who Yahweh was. See Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, 213 and note 12.
 Craigie, 93.
Questioning God In The Psalms.3
Continuing on in this series:
Claus Westermann argues that there are typically three main participants in protests and laments: Israel, who speaks the protest and petition; Yahweh, who is being addressed; and often the enemy, whom Israel is seeking help against. Yet these forms appear with variations between the individual and corporately enacted psalms. Westermann has said that the individual is still never an “isolated individual standing alone” rather he is always in some relations to another. He builds on that saying, “prayer always has a communal or social aspect: a man is never alone with God…Here we see social relationship, in sharp contrast to any idea of an inner piety: living with God cannot be separated from living with others, the two belong together.” These are encouraging and needed words in our radically individualistic culture.
Westermann also points out that the three participants mirror a unified nature of humanity: theology (God), sociology (others), psychology (self). By way of example, if the psalmist is facing death, it is not as an isolated entity. He does so as a member of a community. But as the faithful one faces the realities of death, it leads them to ask “why” and question the nature or source of the suffering, and thus drawn to God.
The “how long” form is the second most frequent question of God, to the “why” question posed to and at Yahweh in an apparent long enduring of suffering. The “How long?” questions ask about the absence of God and are predominated with terms of anger. Within the communal lament, God is often portrayed as the direct or indirect cause of the current distress, often including clashes with the enemies. Westermann notes that these complaints against God “tread that thin line between reproach and judgment. But never do they condemn God, for the utterances are never objective statements.” And despite all the confusion and frustration the psalmist feels, they are never portrayed as abandoning God.
The psalmist’s suffering is the second participant in lament psalms and occupies a less significant role than the complaint against Yahweh, though the two are intimately bound together. The corporate lament is often tinged with both suffering and disgrace of the second participant. While a little more complicated in the lament of the individual, the causes of distress vary from physical and spiritual suffering, the immanence of death, and more general laments.
Complaints about the enemy, the third participant in laments, occur in both individual and corporate experiences. The enemy constitutes a basic component during times of war and is closely related to the corporate complaint against God. Often the accusation against the enemy contains two foci: a) what they have done to Yahweh’s people, and b) their slander and abuse. In the individual experiences of the enemy, statements often concern either an act of the enemy upon the lamenter (which are most frequent) or are statements about the nature of the enemy.
 Westermann, Praise and Lament in the Psalms, 169, 174-194. See also Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, 375. Also Philip S. Johnston seems to utilize Westermann’s 3-fold typology but renames them “agents of distress” in Interpreting the Psalms: Issues and Approaches, ed. David Firth & Johnston (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2005), 74-78.
 Westermann, Praise and Lament in the Psalms, 170.
 Westermann, The Living Psalms, 70.
 Ibid., 70.
 Westermann, Praise and Lament in the Psalms, 177.
 Johnston, in Interpreting the Psalms: Issues and Approaches, 74.
 Westermann, Praise and Lament in the Psalms, 177. Does this mean they are just emotional eruptions? How seriously does God take them then?
 Ibid., 186.
 Ibid., 180.
 Ibid., 189-194.
Questioning God In The Psalms.2
The question, “How long” seems to function with two different, but interrelated, intentions. Israel’s questions were not abstract or generic musings, but were immersed in concrete life experiences. First and foremost, the queries are pleas from the rugged and overwhelming depths of human experience to the One whom they trusted could rectify their situation. And yet, they are not simply about receiving a time-table from God. While the questions are in one sense, an avowal of trust that Yahweh is good and faithful and will act on their behalf, experience and expectation do not always meet. Brueggemann states:
"Israel is profoundly aware of the incongruity between the core claims of covenantal faith and the lived experience of its life. Covenantal faith had dared to make the claim that the world is completely coherent under the rule of Yahweh, so that obedience leads to shalom. Israel’s lived experience, however, makes clear that an obedient life on occasion goes unrewarded or even suffers trouble in ways that should not have happened.”
Within this disparity, the questions function secondarily to probe Yahweh’s actions and various states of “hiddenness, ambiguity, instability, or negativity.” Israel’s position, which generates the plea, is also a near indictment of Yahweh’s lack of accountability and responsibility in their state, in contrast to that which was promised them. It is a critical comment on the covenantal relationship.
Israel’s interrogations seem to ask if their covenantal partner is faithful. Are Yahweh’s self-revelations in word and deed are ultimately correlative of Yahweh’s character? Israel, having accepted what Brueggemann terms the normative adjectives from Exodus 34.6-7 (merciful, gracious, slow to anger, steadfast love, abounds in faithfulness, forgiving) as central testimony about who Yahweh is, calls these very same things into question in their cross-examination of Yahweh. We begin to see that Israel’s questions are not only to Yahweh about their suffering state, but accusatorily at Yahweh for perceived infidelity to the covenant and Yahweh’s own self revelation and character. The seriousness of Israel’s petition to God is now escalated to confrontational levels in hopes to engage Yahweh.
It is proper to examine the question in other non-psalmic scripture to see if the dual functions follow. We see the question asked by both Yahweh and Joshua as a rebuke of Israel in Exodus 16.28; Numbers 14.11, 27; Joshua 18.3. Also, shows up in Moses attempt to aright Pharaoh in Exodus 10.3; as Eli censures Hannah in 1 Samuel 1.14; and in Job’s interactions with his critics in 8.2 and 18.2. Gerstenberger notes that all of these instances introduce “reproachful speech apparently after repeated efforts to amend the situation have failed...The undertone in all these passages is that a change is overdue.”
And yet it is the very serious state of crisis which propels Israel to approach Yahweh in simultaneous speech of hope and doubt of Yahweh’s true integrity. The laments and complaints speak both about the utter collapse of all poles of orientation and yet claim that Yahweh, though perhaps not hidden, is still in control. But then again, if Yahweh is in control, he is either explicitly or implicitly responsible for their misfortunes. It is an insistent and forceful hope where the crisis of doubt proves Israel’s faith. The lament structure itself seems to lead the speaker into, through, and out of the darkness. Thus Israel’s hopeful plea to Yahweh, out weighs the underlying critique. It is a hopeful appeal and provocation for Yahweh to remedy the unbearable situation on the basis of covenantal faithfulness and Yahweh’s own integrity.
 Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 378-9.
 Ibid., 318.
 Exodus 34.6-7 - The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.
 Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, 213-14.
 I cannot help but to wonder if this is Israel’s attempt at manipulating Yahweh to action with the threat of maligning his character.
 Erhard S. Gerstenberger, Psalms: Part 1 With an Introduction to Cultic Poetry, Vol. XIV, The Forms of the Old Testament Literature, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), 84.
 Brueggemann, Message of the Psalms, 54.
 Ibid., 54.
 There seems to be some debate over the categorization many of the Psalms. While lament is one of the main categories, Westermann suggests that the “appeal” to God represents the core of the lament psalm. Westermann chooses to retain the traditional wording, with this point having been made. Claus Westermann, Praise and Lament in the Psalms, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981), 33-34. While Brueggemann would like to make another subdivision or clarification, not on petition, but like more in line with provocation regarding the complaint nature of the psalms. He states, “It is important to note that these psalms are indeed voices of complaint or judicial protest, and not lamentations, as they are often called” (Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, 374).
Questioning God In The Psalms.1
Several years ago, likely after the events of 9/11, I began to hear a call to renew or return to the language of lament within our worship. It was such a novel idea that I had no conception of what lament should look like within any shape of liturgy. But it was Don Saliers who first gave me the freedom to find such an expression and necessity in the language of our liturgies. This project has given me another opportunity to explore the language of lament and in particular the questions of complaint that the psalmist posed, not just to God, but at God.
Saliers thoughts are directed toward the shape and theology of our liturgies and how the language of lament forms an essential component of our worship. In his view, “Christian liturgy transforms and empowers when the vulnerability of human pathos is met by the ethos of God’s vulnerability in word and sacrament.” Truly authentic worship lifts up human reality, in all of its complexities and roughness to transformation by the Holy Spirit. Liturgy without lament would seem to ring false, becoming “anorexic, starving for honest emotional range.” And yet, it is so often left out or even suppressed from our worship language. Perhaps their omission is rooted in a fear of sinfulness, unfaith, or an overwrought politeness that these questions concerning the brutality of human experience in the light of God’s promised goodness and past actions, are rarely given full exploration. Simply put, “lament is seen as a negative way of speaking, unfitted for a prayer to God.” Unfortunately this has resulted in our ecclesial communities losing the language of lament, it may serve as a corrective for those that wish to withdraw from life as it really is, to pretense and romance in the unreal world of heavenly or holy things.”
What struck me was that we are so incredibly polite with God. At times, this is rightly so. But there is also a confidence that our faith brings, combined with out utter neediness that we may boldly approach God baring the ugly realities of all that is wrong to the only One who can set things aright. The psalmist’s testimonies left nothing out of their purview: praise and bitterness, hope and fear, life and death. And a good number of psalms emerging from this emotional gamut also contain brute and penetrating questions of Yahweh: Why? Where? How long? Saliers says that their laments (and these questions of complaint) are firmly rooted in the covenant, utilizing memory of the individual and community of God’s past actions. But more provocatively, they remind God of God’s own past actions. In other words, they remind God to be God.
These questions posed to and at Yahweh, emanate from the individual or communal nerve rubbed raw, furnishing an expression of Israel’s deepest needs and concerns in response to Yahweh’s personal invitation. Hans-Joachim Kraus speaks of the summons:
Yahweh himself calls to the men and women of Israel and invites them, ‘Seek ye my face’ (Ps. 27.8)… ‘Call upon me in the day of trouble’ (Ps. 50.15). The call and invitation are accompanied by God’s promises, ‘I will deliver you’ (Ps. 50.15); ‘Fear not, I will help you’ (Isa. 41.13). Yahweh’s word opens the way to petition and thanks. The one who comes to pray comes in the assurance of God’s help. Therefore the institutions of worship bare the sign of God’s accessibility.
But this “open way” and “accessibility” of Yahweh also opens the proverbial door to more than Israel’s petitions and thanks. At times, Israel takes advantage or opportunity of Yahweh’s accessibility and vulnerability in their intimate partnership, to question Yahweh in the disparate light of experience and covenant. This exchange clearly shows that “biblical faith, as it faces life fully, is uncompromisingly and unembarrassedly dialogic.”  Brueggemann contrasts Israel and Yahweh’s dialogical partnership with how “gingerly” this reciprocity is treated today in the church. He states,
"If we are dialogic at all, we think it must be polite and positive and filled only with gratitude. So little do our liturgies bring expression to our anger and hatred, our sense of betrayal and absurdity. But even more acutely, with our failure of nerve and our refusal to presume upon our partner in dialogue, we are seduced into nondialogical forms of faith, as though we were the only ones there; and so we settle for meditation and reflection."
Ultimately, our biblical example of Israel’s interactive expression with Yahweh is based in their intimate relationship which gives rise to profound questioning of Yahweh. The lament and complaint simultaneously give “witness to a robust form of faith that affirms that God seriously honors God’s part of the exchange” as well as, the worth of humanness and our experience. Human experience in a fallen world is sure to encounter that which seems unfair and disproportionately wrong. But these laments and complaints give free expression to that which is overwhelmingly incongruent and are not just petty or trivial whining about their condition. Israel saw within their respected relationship with Yahweh, the right to come before the Lord and make complaints and protests grounded in covenantal faithfulness. Israel refused the mute acceptance of their conditions as “God’s will” as so often found in our spiritual vocabularies today. Nor were these vigorous protests to Yahweh acts of unfaith, but vocalized uprisings of their freedom and responsibility.
 Don Saliers, Worship As Theology: Foretaste of Glory Divine, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1994), 22.
 Ibid., 121.
 Claus Westermann, The Living Psalms, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), 67. Westermann notes that since the middle ages and into the more recent times, “most people generally regarded suffering as a consequence of sin and a punishment for sin” (67).
 Walter Brueggemann, The Psalms and the Life of Faith, ed. Patrick D. Miller, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 67. Elsewhere Brueggemann says similar things, “It is my judgment that this action of the church is less an evangelical defiance guided by faith, and much more a frightened, numb denial and deception that does not what to acknowledge or experience the disorientation of life. The reason for such relentless affirmation of orientation seems to come, not from faith, but from wishful optimism of our culture.” (Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary, (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984), 51.
 Saliers, 35.
 Hans-Joachim Kraus, Theology of the Psalms, Translated by Keith Crim, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing, 1979), 141.
 Brueggemann, Psalms and the Life of Faith, 68.
 Ibid., 68.