I know it's not Ash Wednesday. It's not even Lent: a time in our church calendar where we are given space to mourn, lament, and prayerfully think about the problem of evil and sin in this world. Yet I will be preaching on lament this Sunday because there has been so much violence and saddness manifested in the world this summer that the people of God need to take this heaviness to God in worship.
Scott Hoezee wrote an excellent blog yesterday entitled "The Sad Summer" addressing the very things that we will take to God in worship. He named many of the events, and topics, that we will be praying for and interceding on behalf in worship. I was particularly struck by the paragraph that Scott talked about children in vulnerable situations and comparing this with Theresa Latini's wonderful piece "Top 10 Signs that You're a Mother of a Newborn." He wrote:
In all of this, it is the suffering and the death of the children that all but smother my spirit. Last week in her first blog since returning from a bit of maternity leave, Theresa Latini wrote a lyric piece on the wonder of being a mother and the splendor of a new child. And what Theresa wrote there is very much how life is supposed to be. But in too many parts of this world children are in a very different situation. As Pulitzer-prize winning author Sonia Nazario (author of the newly relevant Enrique's Journey) has reminded us, the children fleeing to the U.S. from Honduras really are fleeing for their lives as the drug cartels have taken over and are now forcing 12-year-olds to become either junkies or drug dealers or both. And instead of helping these desperate kids, we have turned them into a political football who have a good chance of being shot by Rick Perry's National Guard troops or ballyhooed as criminals and worse by Tea Party folks whose "America First" attitude puts a big piece of duct tape over Lady Liberty's "Give me your tired, your poor" plaque.
Meanwhile, why do children have to be blown to bits while hiding out in a school? Why do they have to fall 33,000 feet because someone thought it was a good idea to give idiots one of the world's most sophisticated missiles?
I think of my childhood of running around and getting muddy in a pretend fort in the back of my grandmother's house. I had the luxury of using my imagination while never being at risk of any real threat with the exception of a bee sting here and there from my grandmother's garden. Many of the children we see on the news don't need an imaginary fortress of safety they quite literally need shelter from much greater threats than the garden bees. My justice radar goes off so quickly inside me and I think how is this fair? The reality is, it's not. So we pray for justice and the mercy of God our Creator.
I love the lament Psalms. Just under 50% of the Psalms have lament themes in them. That's a lot of honest prayer. That's a lot of ungilden communication with God. That's a lot of angry and sad words to God. Where do we go when we are pissed off at the injustices in this world? We go to God. I think lament prayers come from the most faithful for it takes a lot of faith to cry out "My God, my God why have you forsaken me?" This is not a prayer of abandonment of faith, this is the prayer of someone who has entered the depths of faith.
If honesty, unfiltered thoughts, are the noticeable features of a lamentation then the backbone of the prayer is a deep and faithful trust in God. Think about it, if one did not have a hope in God, why would one even bother to offer their laments? The backbone of lamentation is hope. We lament to find hope again. What we don't lament will never change.
John Witvliet, in his 1997 Reformed Worship article entitled "A Time to Weep", says the basic structure to a lament prayer is:
- Our lament begins with invocation, a startling confession that even in times of crisis, we approach a personal and accessible God.
- Then, our lament freely addresses this personal God through the picturesque gallery of images used in direct address in the psalms.
- Our prayer continues with bold lament. We bring our most intense theological questions right into the sanctuary.
- Then our prayer continues with specific petition: heal us, free us, save us.
- Finally, our prayer ends with expressions of hope, confidence, and trust, however muted they might be by the present situation.
Carol Bechtel taught me how to love the Psalms, and boy do I. They are so human to me and I need the humaness of spirituality quite often. I need the human God in Jesus. The cool thing about lamentation is that we don't have to just pray the Psalms we can actually write our own lament. John Witvliet's guidance provides a helpful structure for us to pray our own complaints. I have many journals filled with lamentation for global catastrophes and personal annoyances. Lament gives us a place to put our anger and complaints. Instead of repressing our anger (how awful!) and instead of blasting it on our Twitter feeds to passively deal with (also awful) let's take our anger directly to the source of all creation: God! Trusting that God is as merciful and full of steadfast love as the Old Testament writers convey we can come to God and pray "How long, Oh Lord, will fighting in Gaza continue? How long, Oh Lord, till domestic abuse is no more? How long, Oh Lord, will the church fight about who is truly Christian? How long, Oh Lord, till racist systems are no more? How long, Oh Lord, till peace? Truly, how long, Oh Lord?"
This Sunday we will cry out to God on behalf of our fellow humans around the world. This Sunday we will use this season of Ordinary Time to grow in our practice of lament.
My colleague in NYC, Peter Armstrong, reminded me of Sufjan Steven's "Oh God, Where Are You Know?" I often need music to worship and to express what groans inside of me. I leave this song for your listening. Sufjan so wonderfully sings a lament for us to partake in. On behalf of the world, and behalf of our personal grievances, we turn to God in lamentation trusting to find hope time and time again.