This is part of a little Lenten Reflection book I wrote/edited for the United Church of Canada. Trying to process recent days it occurred to me that others might find the reminder of a resource in our tradition helpful.
Introduction to Laments
According to scholars the lament is the most common form of prayer in the Older Testament. Its use is certainly not confined to the Book of Lamentations. Given this reality it is odd that Protestant spirituality makes so little use of this pattern. The purpose of this little book is to give readers – individual and group – the opportunity to experience the power of the lament. The beauty of the lament is that it quite deliberately encourages the worshiper to pour out the anguish of current existence in very real and concrete ways all the while affirming a loving and trusting relationship with God.
Without the laments several distortions of our spiritual life can occur. We may succumb to the urge to keep our prayers polite and “nice.” Most of us have at least one acquaintance who is terribly uncomfortable when anything dark or negative slips into the conversation. They may be a wonderful person but they are not the one to whom we would take our soul’s deepest aching. Without the lament form our prayers may, however unconsciously, turn God into that sort of friend, who cannot bear to hear the troubles of our lives. And we are poorer for that.
A second function of the lament is to restore balance in our emotional life. The common contemporary Protestant reaction to issues is often detachment or guilt. Both of those reflect an orientation towards personal involvement. Thus, if we don’t feel personally involved, we may remain detached and disconnected with individuals or issues. On the other hand, if a concern touches our emotional core the only response we feel is available is to experience guilt. There is a place for guilt when we are at fault personally and directly. It acts as one of the stages towards reconciliation and healing of relationship. But what of situations where we are not at fault? A socially conscious Protestant reaction of guilt may be counter-productive. It may foster resentment: “I wasn’t there, I didn’t do it. Why are they trying to drag me in?” Such guilt may freeze our response and leave us unable to move forward. Lament, properly understood, allows people of faith to express to God the full range of our grief that such horrors can occur. Even amongst people of faith and good will, the unintended consequences of our actions can violate the Divine Will and mar the face of creation. Lament then allows us to express the conviction that God was and is present in events, the victims, the survivors, the perpetrators and the wider society as we seek for ways of reconciliation, personal transformation, and just healing.
Lament also functions as an encouragement to the full expression of our emotions to God. Protestant believers are often caught in a difficult situation. In our sermons and our hymns we affirm that God knows everything and that “even before a word is on our tongue, God knows it altogether.” (Psalm 139:4) On the other hand, we are often schooled that complaining to God or even seeming to blame God is inappropriate. A distorted relationship develops. Some may even come to believe that there is something wrong with them or with their faith since no one around them appears to struggle with the same emotions. Where do we go, as people of faith, with sentiments labeled negative? The relationship fostered by the lament allows for the full expression of grief and pain, broken hearts and broken dreams – if those are the honest expressions of our faith at this time.
Laments act as “songs of disorientation.” They allow the worshiper to declare to God that all is not right with the world. When the church sings only “songs of orientation” (God’s in heaven and all’s right with the world) our faith seems more or less unreal and disconnected to those who are seeking resources for the living of painful days.
It should not be imagined that the lament merely leaves us wallowing in our pain. As you consider the psalms we look at during lent, you will probably notice a pattern emerging. This is not a rigid template. Sometimes the elements are ordered differently. In some psalms the proportion of space or words given over to the different components rises and falls. But in a lament, we generally find the following and often in this order.
- Address to God. This is usually in fairly intimate and direct terms, the expression of a faithful worshipper addressing one to whom they are used to praying.
- Complaint. The worshipper tells God what is wrong in no uncertain terms. Often the language is very powerful. If the hyperbole offends us it may help to recall that the author is seeking expression that will fit their experience. God is not considered too sensitive to hear the full range of human anguish.
- Petition. On the basis of the complaint God is urged to act. Often this comes in the form of a bold command as if the speaker were asserting rights that they have for assistance from the divine throne.
- Motivation. Most laments set out some reason for God to act. These can range from the noble to the manipulative. Perhaps the speaker is innocent, so God’s character demands action. It may be that the author invokes God’s kindness to previous generations and insists on consistency. In other places the psalmist might bluntly inform God that the dead do not offer praises so it’s in God’s interests to preserve this life!
- Imprecations. Some of the laments display unguarded language that is often suppressed in polite conversation and prayer. This is the voice of deep hurt and pain coupled with the discourse of resentment and vengeance. The stunning fact is that Israel did not purge this communication directed towards God but considered in faithful.
- Praise. A lament is not truly concluded until the author moves to praise. This is the unique gift of this prayer form. Having poured out the anguish of heart and the wounds of body, spirit or reputation, the psalmist concludes in the conviction that God has heard and will act. There is sufficient confidence in the relationship for the author to praise God for what is anticipated but not yet received. This section of the psalm may be an assertion that God is not remote or uncaring; it may be a vow to perform some act of worship or devotion; or it may be a form of doxology, where the God who has been complained about is now acknowledged as generous, faithful and saving.
The core of Israel’s worship – and the psalms were intended for use in worship – was the dynamic of speaking and being answered. The laments remind us that true prayer is no one-way exercise. Israel can give its pain-filled life to God in demanding speech confident that God will respond. That response is also in speech and the liturgy declares the Divine intention to transform fear into hope and bring new life. As a result, the one who prays the psalms is not left wallowing in despair because God’s life-affirming, fear-banishing, justice-enabling reality is unshakably affirmed.
c2020 I. Ross Bartlett