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Prayer for the week

18 July 2014

Catherine Pickford relishes the positive power of learning to lament


On the estate, lord, the people
Take counsel one with another
And in the public house
There is lamentation.
The cost of living soars
Like wild ducks rising
After morning feed.
Man has neither means nor meaning.
The cry of the young in the street
Rouses a protest in the market place.
What shall I do, Lord?

Cliff Ashby from "Latter Day Psalms" in Plain Song: Collected Poems (Carcanet Press, 1985)

WHEN I was in my early twenties, at theological college, I found the psalms of lament oppressive. Hav-ing to say them regularly as part of morning and evening prayer was a trial. I wondered how healthy it was to start and end the day by saying that so many troubles had fallen on me that I was close to death (Psalm 88), or that my friends were avoiding me (Psalm 38).

Over the years, I have gradually learned to use the psalms as part of my prayer life, and now I find "Israel's songbook" a welcome companion, especially through the difficult times. The psalms are a reminder that we are part of the history of the people of Israel, in all their joys and sorrows, and we can take all that is in us to God, and lay it at his feet.

This modern psalm is reminis-cent of those biblical laments. It was published nearly 30 years ago, but could easily have been written yesterday. We can imagine the psalmist walking the streets of our estates and inner cities, hearing the conversations at the bus stop, at the school gate, on the park bench.

Life is hard in the city. Often, the much politicised "hard-working families" are no longer able to make ends meet on the minimum wage, and join the queue at the foodbank. In our parish, 41 per cent of children were living in poverty before the cuts began. This is a community where the "bedroom tax" or benefit sanctions can mean the difference between eating and not eating.

The economy is picking up, but there are no signs of the proceeds of the upturn being passed on to the poor. City-council cuts have only just begun, and it is going to get worse before it gets better.

"Man has neither means nor meaning" is frighteningly accurate. Unemployment often robs man - and it seems to hit males more - of both means and meaning. Being out of work, not being able to make a tangible contribution to society or provide for his family can make it difficult for him to feel that his life has purpose.

Finally: the psalmist asks "What shall I do, Lord?" The psalm is carried along on a city crowd, but, in the last line, he stands alone. What can I, in my singularity, do in the face of all of this human need? It is here that the fact that this is a psalm becomes important.

The events described in the biblical psalms of lament are in our collective memory as Christians. By recalling their style, the modern psalmist reminds us of our inherited memories, and that we are part of a tradition that understands and has language for suffering.

As we come before God to lay the needs of the people at his feet, we remember the sweep of biblical history, and that we are part of the story of the children of God. This part of the story is ours to tell, and we are called to tell it with all the honesty and faith of our ancestors, the songwriters of old.

The Revd Catherine Pickford is Team Rector in the Benwell Team Ministry, in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

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