Roman Roads: How Long, O Lord?



Read: Psalm 13

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? (Psalm 13:1-2a, NRSV).

“How long?” Some version of that question is on everyone’s mind these days.

  • How long until I can go visit my grandma?
  • How long until I can go back to work?
  • How long until we can hug each other?
  • How long until we can go to church, have a party, eat at a restaurant….?
  • How long until we can plan the wedding, the graduation, the funeral….?
  • How long until we find a vaccine?

Me, I’m just looking forward to taking a walk. Here in Rome, we have been in a strict state of lockdown for the last two months. The only time I am allowed outside my apartment is to walk to the grocery store. That’s a five minute walk—seven if I live dangerously and take an indirect route. But next week, the restrictions are due to be relaxed. We still can’t travel far, we still can’t eat at a restaurant, and we still can’t get a haircut. But glory, hallelujah—we can finally take a walk!

I have to admit, I watched the news coverage from the States this week with a fair amount of incredulity. Civil liberties notwithstanding, there is something deeply disturbing about the image of armed protesters lining the gallery of Michigan’s state capitol building (Michigan Protests). As political analysts have pointed out, some of these events are being fueled by conservative advocacy groups. But to be fair, we need to acknowledge the genuine frustration that is being expressed—albeit inappropriately.

It’s one thing to be frustrated with your governor; it’s another thing to be frustrated with your God.

But part of the “good news” in Psalm 13 is that we are encouraged to express our frustration to God. We’re probably going to want to leave our guns at home, but confrontation is still on the agenda. The psalmist’s tone is barely even polite. “How long, O LORD?” he/she demands. “Will you forget me forever?” Notice that this outburst is pointed, but not specific. The good news about that is that it invites us to fill in the blanks with specifics of our own. When the psalmist talks about having “sorrow in my heart all day long,” we get to name our sorrows. When the psalmist complains about generic enemies, we get to shake a very specific enemy virus in God’s face.

Complaints then turn to petitions. “Fix this!” the psalmist demands. This is our cue to enumerate all the things we would like God to fix. Don’t hold back. God has time. One small caveat might be in order, however. I have always found it wise to conclude my list with, “Thy will be done.” We don’t always know what is in our own best interest, after all. (Some of the requests I made in high school were particularly ill advised…)

Now comes the hard part: praise. Yes—praise. It may be the last thing we are in the mood for at this point, but almost all of the Bible’s laments end up there. “I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation,” the psalmist says. It might feel a little false at first, but even a half-hearted effort may move us toward trust. It’s a way of saying, “I know you’ve got this.”

Only God knows the answers to all of our “how long?” questions. But psalms like this one teach us how to lay our frustration at God’s feet. At the very least, we’ll feel better for it. And who knows—God may respond in surprising ways.

Ponder: Write your own lament using the pattern of Psalm 13: Protest/Petition/Praise. Then put your lament away where you can find it a month later…a year later…a decade later. You may be surprised at the ways God has responded to your prayers.

Listen to Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen by Mahalia Jackson. Note the way this lament leans toward praise at the end.





Introduction to the Roman Roads Series

As many of you know, I am spending my sabbatical in Rome, Italy. Thanks to the coronavirus, it is turning out to be something less than a “Roman Holiday.” While a pandemic was not part of my original itinerary, it does lend a unique perspective to my writing these days. I offer these reflections along with my prayers for the health and safety of our world. May God bless and keep you all!