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,
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
"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
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
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.