Honest Desperation: A Second Look at Lament

This essay is cross-posted from a new project called The Audacity, run by my classmate Ely Rhea. After hearing me talk about my thesis research on prayers of lament in worship, she invited me to write the following piece. Please consider checking out the rest of the articles on The Audacity (where I may continue to guest-post in the future!)

I was the only one in the building when I got the call, working late from inside my shoebox of an office on a winter night. When I picked up the phone, I learned my dad had been laid off, from a job he’d had since before I was born and had planned to keep for another decade yet.

After I hung up the phone, I found myself unable to focus on work tasks. Instead I tried to pray, but I couldn’t come up with any words that made sense in this situation.

So alone in my office, with no one to hear, I let out an angry, guttural, wordless shout. At that moment, I could think of nothing else to say to God.

***

p/c Jinterwas

p/c Jinterwas

It is so much easier to be happy, as a Christian, than it is to be sad. Or at least that’s how it seems sometimes. Our music is full of joyous praise; our prayers are full of thanksgiving for the blessings of God. And when we are in need or trouble, we pray for God to be with us through the suffering, for God’s will to be done.

But where does that leave me, yelling at the walls in my shoebox office? And where does that leave all the people who are suffering far worse? As I sit down to write this post, for instance, I’m bombarded with news articles and heartbreaking pictures from the Philippines after the disastrous typhoon. Finding “God’s plan” in this tragedy seems almost impossible. Can we speak of blessings and joy against this backdrop of destruction? I certainly can’t. I still have no words.

Sometimes people find themselves able to quickly make this leap from tragedy to trust. They can speak confidently of “God’s plan” even when it doesn’t seem evident. But for those who are deep in the throes of anger, grief, and pain, we need a kind of prayer that doesn’t force us to be happy right away.

For me (a worship and music scholar) this becomes most evident in the music we bring to church. Earlier this year, after the Navy Yard shooting, my priest asked me for advice on a song to sing for the end of the year. I looked through every hymnal on my shelf but had a hard time finding the proper song. The best we could do is find songs that promised it would be all right in the end: “There is a balm in Gilead,” or “It is well with my soul.” All will be made right in the end, of course; that is part of the truth of the Gospel. But often those songs don’t make any sense in the middle.

***

It’s not like people never pray like this—never express their harsh emotions to God in ways like this. In fact, if you look closely in the Bible, you’ll find many voices who do exactly this. They are not afraid to bring their anger, their fear, their raw grief before God.

Biblical scholars call this a pattern of lament. They find it scattered throughout the Bible—mostly in the Psalms, but also in other wisdom books like Lamentations and Job—even in the New Testament when Jesus cries out from the cross.

These scholars notice that lament follows a particular pattern. It begins with pleas for help and complaints against God—but it doesn’t stop there. There is almost always a “but” or a “yet,” a turning point, in each lament. At this point the speaker determines to call on God, vowing to praise God again on the other side of this suffering. Most laments end with an expression of trust. They remind God of divine promises, but also express faith that those promises will be fulfilled.

Noted scholar Walter Brueggemann has expressed his frustration with the lack of lament in contemporary usage. Without the form of speech and prayer that is not afraid to question God, Brueggemann argues, we lose essential dimensions of our relationship with God. If we only know how to speak to God in words of praise—if we don’t have any practice asking questions or expressing messy emotions—our relationship can never be a two-way street.

Lament, then, can keep us talking when we can’t find any words that make sense. It keeps us in relationship with God. And though the lament dares to question God, it also lays the groundwork for a broader and more powerful picture of God, a “dangerous, available God [that] matters in every dimension of life.” A God who is not far from me in my dark quiet office, or from the victims of the typhoon.

Lament gives us permission not to be happy all the time. It gives us permission to express our messiest emotions. With that possibility, we can reach the turning point in our own prayers—we can move, with the psalmists, from complaint into trust. If I’d had words of lament on my tongue at the time my dad got laid off, maybe I would have had something to say to God after all.

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