Lamenting and Hoping

MIT Anniversary (2011)

MIT’s homepage today features a story and photo of the MIT community welcoming home two undergraduates from the Middle East who had been denied re-entry to the U.S., following the President’s Executive Order to bar anyone from seven specific countries. The students had been visiting family during winter break and were trying to return to school at MIT. I don’t think we always recognize the implications for all people when we make blanket policies. The article highlights specific implications for MIT. Similar stories are evolving at the majority of universities in the U.S.

  • In addition to these two MIT undergraduates, there are one current MIT researcher, a visiting student, and a family member of a traveling researcher who remain blocked.
  • Eight other researchers from the affected nations have received offers to come to MIT, but currently cannot enter the U.S.
  • More than 100 students and researchers from the seven affected nations are now on campus; their immigration status is unclear, even though they hold valid visas.

There is hope in all this distress. MIT and seven other Massachusetts universities are working hard to keep their schools “open and accessible to talent from anywhere in the world.” They filed an amicus brief with the federal court in Boston in support of a lawsuit “asking the court to order the U.S. government to stop enforcement of the executive order. The universities “sought to educate the court about the vital role that international faculty, scholars, and students play in our communities, as well as the importance of their contributions to the nation and the world.”

Therein lies my hope. When I am overwhelmed by the distress of the situation, and don’t know if anything I say or do will make a difference, I know that I can stand morally and courageously with the seven universities (and others) who have the voice to influence a change in direction. I believe that this is a place where God is acting now in our lives. My confidence and hope are restored.

This same pattern of distress, complaint, and hope of rescue is found in the psalms of lament. Of the 150 psalms in the Book of Psalms, one third are psalms of lament. These prayers express our belief that God is on our side, willing and able to provide for us in our distress. Laments allow us to establish solidarity with those who are oppressed. They can help strengthen us in our commitment to justice and peace.

There is a recognizable pattern in laments, and we can easily compose our own laments following this pattern. I am indebted to Sr. Irene Nowell, OSB for the following.

  • We address God directly. We take our complaint straight to the top!
  • We describe our complaint. We are sick, our friends have turned against us, innocent people are falsely accused, or we are feeling powerless.
  • We tell God what we want. We ask God to rescue us, or to grant us justice.
  • We give God reasons to help us. We point out how God has rescued us in the past. Sometimes we bargain with God and make promises.
  • We express hope. Laments almost always end in confidence and thanksgiving. We know that God will rescue us again.

As with other genres of psalms, some laments are individual, for example, Psalms 25, 27, 42, 51; others are meant to be prayed in community, for example, Psalms 80 and 90. These examples are laments that have been set to music by one or more composers.

Psalm 90 is a communal lament that describes only in general terms the cause of the community’s distress. This is a contemporary version of Psalm 90:1-6, 12-14 from The Message, translated by Eugene H. Peterson (2013).

MIT Student (2008)

God, it seems you’ve been our home forever;

long before the mountains were born.

Long before you brought earth itself to birth,

from “once upon a time” to “kingdom come” – you are God.

So don’t return us to mud, saying,

“Back to where you came from!”

Patience! You’ve got all the time in the world – whether

a thousand years or a day, it’s all the same to you.

Are we no more to you than a wispy dream,

no more than a blade of grass

That springs up gloriously with the rising sun

and is cut down without a second thought?


Oh! Teach us to live well!

Teach us to live wisely and well!

Come back, God – how long do we have to wait? –

And treat your servants with kindness for a change.

Surprise us with love at daybreak;

Then we’ll skip and dance all the day long.

Janet Sullivan Whitaker composed “In Every Age” (1999) based on Psalm 90. It is worth your time to google the title and composer to hear this psalm. I have been singing it for weeks now.

Pink Dogwood (2008)
  1. Long before the mountains came to be

and the land and sea and stars of the night,

through the endless seasons of all time,

you have always been, you will always be.

In ev’ry age, O God, you have been our refuge.

In ev’ry age, O God, you have been our hope.

  1. Destiny is cast, and at your silent word

we return to dust and scatter to the wind.

A thousand years are like a single moment gone,

as the light that fades at the end of day.

Q. Which psalm of lament speaks the most to you?

Q. How can or do you incorporate psalms of lament into your prayer life?

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