After Tom Wright—Speaking on the Lament Psalms in Aberdeen

This is a continuation blog post about my speaking tour in the UK.

After a great time with Tom and Maggie Wright, I left St. Andrews, heading north for Aberdeen, before I would need to head south from Scotland to England.

I arrived in Aberdeen at the start of the weekend and had some time to poke about the city and work on polishing some of the talks I would be giving over the next couple of weeks.

The Lament Psalms in Aberdeen

On Monday morning I was picked up by Grant Macaskill, the Kirby Laing Chair of New Testament Exegesis at the University of Aberdeen. We drove to “Old Aberdeen,” where part of the university campus was located. There I spoke on the lament psalms (“Voices from the Ragged Edge: The Gritty Spirituality of the Psalms for a Broken World”) in the School of Divinity, History, and Philosophy.

Lament was was one of the topics I had addressed in St. Andrews and it was the topic Grant specifically requested for my Aberdeen visit. Not only did this topic relate to the interests of many graduate students, but the lecture was attended by Brian Brock, Lecturer in Moral and Practical Theology, who has co-edited an important volume of essays called Evoking Lament: A Theological Discussion (T & T Clark International, 2009), in which he has a chapter on Augustine and lament.

I had a great discussion with students in a variety of fields, including biblical studies, systematic theology, and practical theology on the value of the lament psalms for the church’s processing of pain and suffering, in prayer to God.

Meeting Grant Macaskill in the Islands Group at SBL

I had originally met my host Grant Macaskill (who is an excellent New Testament scholar and ethicist) at the Society for Biblical Literature (SBL) meetings a few years ago, in a session on Islands, Islanders, and the Bible. Although most of the presenters in these sessions were from either the Caribbean (like myself) or the Pacific islands, Grant did a beautiful paper called “Gaelic Psalmody and a Theology of Place in the Western Isles of Scotland.”

His paper and mine (which was called “Islands in the Sun: Overtures to a Caribbean Creation Theology”) were both published in Islands, Islanders, and the Bible: Ruminations (Semeia Studies 77; Society of Biblical Literature, 2015).

The Jamaica-Scotland Connection—Past and Future

Grant and I managed to carve out time for some preliminary talks about a possible doctoral program in theology that Aberdeen might co-sponsor with the Jamaica Theological Seminary and the Caribbean Graduate School of Theology.

Having been made aware of the possibility of a joint PhD with Aberdeen by my colleague Easu McCaulley, I had been deputized by these two schools to begin the conversation; Grant and I discussed some intriguing possibilities about how we might go about developing a workable doctoral program in theology between Jamaica and Scotland.

It is not well known, but Jamaica and Scotland have numerous historical ties, including our flags. It turns out that the Jamaican flag was modeled on the Scottish flag, due to the advice of Rev William McGhie, a Church of Scotland minister who was living in Jamaica at the time of independence. This has led to an organization called Flag Up Scotland Jamaica, that is dedicated to developing ties between the two countries.

When my lecture was over, Grant put me on the train to Durham, which was the start of a long, but leisurely trip, from Aberdeen through Edinburgh, then on into England.

What happened in Durham is the subject of my next post.

A Speaking Tour in the United Kingdom

I am getting ready to head to the UK to give a series of lectures, mostly on eschatology (but with a few other topics included as well). The first stop is in Scotland, with most of my time spent moving southward through England.

I was initially invited by folks who run the Thinking Faith Network (in Leeds) to speak on the topic of my eschatology book, A New Heaven and a New Earth. Given that I would be coming all the way across the Atlantic, they worked out a series of other speaking events for me in the UK.

It is a bit of a grueling schedule, so I would appreciate prayers from anyone who feels so led, both for my sustained energy and that my talks would be helpful to those in attendance.

If you are going to be in the areas where I’m speaking, you are invited to attend any of the public lectures.

So far the following locations and events have been confirmed.

St. Andrews

Two public lectures sponsored by the Logos Institute for Analytic and Exegetical Theology and the School of Divinity (St. Mary’s College), at the University of St. Andrews.

  • April 20 – “A New Heaven and a New Earth: For God So Loved the World.” Thursday afternoon lecture (4:00 pm), Lecture Room 1, St. Mary’s College, University of St. Andrews.
  • April 21 – “Voices from the Ragged Edge: The Gritty Spirituality of the Psalms for a Broken World.” Friday afternoon lecture (4:00 pm), Lecture Room 1, St. Mary’s College, University of St. Andrews.

Aberdeen

Durham

  • April 25 – “Unbinding the Aqedah from the Straightjacket of Tradition: An Inner-Biblical Interpretation of Abraham’s Test in Genesis 22.” Old Testament research seminar for postgraduate students in the Department of Theology and Religion, Tuesday afternoon (4:00-5:30 pm), Seminar Room C, Abbey House, Palace Green, Durham University.

Mirfield

Leeds

Two public lectures in the Life Matters series, Thinking Faith Network, Leeds. Click here for a flier about both talks.

  • April 28 – “Why Are We Here? Our Sacred Calling in God’s World.” Friday evening lecture (7:30-9:00 pm),  Quaker Meeting House, 188 Woodhouse Lane, Leeds.
  • April 29 – “Voices from the Ragged Edge: The Gritty Spirituality of the Psalms for a Broken World.” Saturday morning lecture (10:00 am-12:00 noon), Quaker Meeting House, 188 Woodhouse Lane, Leeds.

Oxford

Cambridge

Oxford

Cheltenham

  • May 3 – “A New Heaven and a New Earth: For God So Loved the World.” Wednesday evening public lecture (6:00-7:30 pm), University of Gloucestershire, Room TC001, Francis Close Hall Campus, Swindon Rd., Cheltenham. You can download a flier here.

Bristol

Is It Okay to Question God?

Many Christians have been taught in church that it’s not proper to question God. In some cases, church members are criticized for even questioning their pastor.

But the Psalms have a very different perspective—especially the psalms of lament or complaint, which comprise one-third of the Psalter (about fifty psalms). Over and over, various psalmists honestly bring their concerns to God, often in the form of critical questions.

Of course, we can ask questions in a very pious, subdued, and respectful way. Or, like many of the psalms, we can just throw our questions, audaciously, at God.

The Audacious Questioning of Lament Psalms

Perhaps the most famous is Psalm 22, which opens by asking: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” No niceties, no “Dear God, I come to you in praise and thanksgiving.” Just an outrageous question, which is really an accusation.

Lament psalms are actually a form of prayer we are already familiar with; we usually call this supplication or petition. In such prayers we tell God about the problem that is bothering us (the complaint) and we ask for help (the petition).

But lament psalms push the envelope further.

They are not a polite form of supplication; they can be quite abrasive, even accusing God of being part of the problem. This is the point of the question addressed to God at the start of Psalm 22; and it is typical of lament psalms to voice their complaints in the form of rhetorical questions.

Likewise, the petitions go beyond what we might consider proper. One psalmist asks God to stop abusing him (“Remove your whip from me; / I am worn down by the hostility of your hand”; Psalm 39:10) and even to leave him alone, as if God’s very presence was oppressive (“Look away from me, that I may smile again”; Psalm 39:13).

Jeremiah’s Lament

But one of the most powerful—and daring—prayers of lament in the Bible is found not in the Psalms, but in the book of Jeremiah. Throughout the book, the prophet Jeremiah voices a series of lament prayers to God, culminating in the anguished prayer of chapter 20.

I recently spoke in chapel at Roberts Wesleyan College on Jeremiah’s prayer in Jeremiah 20:7–18; my secondary text was the 1986 song “Dear God,” from the British group XTC.

Jeremiah starts his prayer rather impiously by accusing God of deceiving him, and goes on to explain that God did not live up to his promises to support him as a prophet; his point is that despite God’s promises of protection (see Jeremiah 1:8 and 1:19), he has been persecuted for bringing God’s word to the people. At the end, he wishes that he had never been born.

A Contemporary Lament Song

The song “Dear God” is a secular analogue to Jeremiah’s prayer. The entire song is addressed to God (it is in the form of a prayer), and blames God for causing so much suffering in the world—and there’s quite a list of such suffering. The song ends with the singer telling God that he doesn’t believe in him.

My assigned topic for this chapel talk was: “Is it okay to question God?”

My short answer was and is that it is indeed permissible—not just to question God, but to challenge God. Maybe your pastor can’t handle that; but God certainly can.

In fact, the lament psalms and the prayers of Jeremiah teach us that God wants us to bring all the disorientation of our lives to him, to be brutally honest with him in prayer. And that was the focus of my chapel talk.

Ultimately, God took all the pain of the world into himself on the cross, to give us back redemption.

In comparison to that, what’s a little questioning?

If you’re interested, you can view my chapel talk on questioning God on You Tube.