Search this site
My Book

Entries in lamentation (4)


Short Thoughts On Lamentation (Part 2)

We're in a series of posts during Lent on the topic of lamentation in worship.

2) Lamentation is the prayer language of suffering.

Scripture recognizes seasons of human experience: "For everything there is a season; a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance..." (Ecc 3:1-4, ESV). When we read the Psalms, we gain the sense that they provide prayers for these various "times." They offer a complete array of emotional prayer languages.

How does one pray joy? Through praise. (Psalm 100)

How does one pray prosperity? Through thanksgiving. (Psalm 30)

How does one pray personal need? Through supplication. (Psalm 86)

How does one pray for the needs of others? Through intercession. (Psalm 5:11-12)

How does one pray their guilt? Through confession. (Psalm 51)

Praise, thanksgiving, supplication, intercession, confession—these are all languages of prayer for various circumstances. They are the various pigments of prayer to be painted on the wildly colorful canvas of life. 

So how does the Christian pray her suffering? She prays it through lamentation. Lamentation is how suffering expresses itself Christianly. To be sure, there are other ways that suffering could be prayed to God. One could accuse God. The Bible has something to say about that, though (James 1:13). One could aim despair "at" God. The Bible also seems to address that (Rom 9:10-11). One could hurl up curses to the heavens. Though this very suggestion by Job's wife didn't appear to get much approval (Job 2:9). We might consider these types of prayers "non-native" prayer languages for the Christian, bastardized dialects borne in the areas outside the borders of Zion, in the compromised regions where other tongues have commingled with the original language.

So it appears that though there are many ways to return our suffering to our sovereign God in prayer, the Christian way is through lament. It is the purer language of suffering, whose wording, grammar, and syntax best fit creature crying to Creator. Interestingly, just because we differentiate this language from that of accusation, despair, and curse, it doesn't seem to diminish the mother tongue's colorful nature. There's plenty of shouting. Every time we read "Arise, O God!" in the Psalms, we should hear it as a scream (e.g. Psalm 3, Psalm 10). Much to the chagrin of therapists that discourage hyperbolic language in relational conflict, exaggeration seems to be allowed: "Why do you cast us off forever?" (Psalm 74:1). There's even a bit of provocative taunting thrown in there: "Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself!" (Psalm 44:23). And there's certainly a lot of moaning and groaning (e.g. Psalm 31:10).  

Lamentation as a language, therefore, doesn't sound proper or refined. It's probably less like smooth French; more like gritty Arabic—lots of gutterals, lots of spit. It is clear, true, raw, and beautiful in its own messy kind of way. 

Like any language, unless you grow up with it from birth, it takes practice and study. And it just might be, too, that lamentation requires a "cultural immersion"—moving into territories where that language is the dominant language. 

Lent just might be that annual opportunity for such an immersion.


Short Thoughts On Lamentation (Part 1)

Jumping off from last week's post, we're allowing the context of Lent to provide an opportunity to offer seven thoughts on lamentation. The first is this:

1) Lament trains our spiritual muscles for the day of testing.

Part of the concern about incorporating lamentation into corporate worship and one's private devotional life is that we're not always "there." We're not always in a place where lamentation feels natural or right. Lamentation is for those who are suffering, oppressed, and downtrodden, and perhaps that's not our experience right now. Briefly noting that this is a very privileged thing to think or say (there are many whose lives are nothing but movement from one sorrow to the next), we still recognize that this is true on the ground, in many of our experiences serving and worshiping in our local churches. "If we engage in lamentation in corporate worship, or if I engage in it now devotionally, it will feel forced and will stick out like a sore thumb." We can call this "untimely lamentation"—lamentation that doesn't fit with where we're at.

We need to recognize that sometimes, for us, lamentation in a given moment will be untimely...more like going to the gym and less like running the actual marathon. Leading thinkers in the spiritual disciplines tell us that those disciplines work like this—they train our "spiritual muscles" for the day of testing much like training at a gym prepares us to actually get on the field and beat the opponent. Lamentation, even when we don't feel like it or think we need it, offers our souls that kind of training.

The reality is that if we live long enough, we will all experience suffering in one form or another. Suffering is the great moment of testing, the arena where all the training (or lack thereof) reveals itself. If lamentation has been a part of your worship and prayer training regimen, chances are that it will offer its spiritually muscular response in that moment: "How long, O Lord?" Lamentation is one of the significant muscle groups of our spiritual anatomy. The Psalms spill an extreme amount of ink over the sufferer's cry. Lamentation is significant because suffering is simply unavoidable for every last human being, and the scriptures point out that there is a Christian way to suffer. That way is lamentation. 

So again, if we learn to join in lament, to pray those prayers with other sufferers who perhaps are feeling it more acutely than we are, we learn to put those kinds of words on our tongues: "How long, God?" "Why, God?" "Where are you, God?" "When will you act, God?" And if they're on our tongues on a regular basis, they are more likely to be on our tongues when we need them most.

If you're looking for some gym time, try on Psalm 13 by praying it repeatedly and aloud, or singing this great setting from City Hymns.


The Big Idea of Lent: Jesus Did What I Couldn't Do

The call to fasting and repentance is as ancient as the prophets. Just read Joel 2. There's nothing like a good fast to, like a defibrillator, shock the unbeating heart of our spirit out of its complacency. However, of monumental, make-or-break importance is to recognize that the season of Lent is far more about Jesus and far less about us.

If we fast, we fast to remember the fasting of Jesus in the wilderness, to, in a tangible way, "be found in him." And it is precisely Paul's point in Philippians that being "found in him" means that we recognize that we are found not in ourselves, "not having a righteousness of my own" (Phil 3:9). This is the opposite of fasting to test or flex our spiritual muscles. Now don't get me wrong. Testing our spiritual muscles is a wonderful thing to do; it is part of the Christian's life, in response to the gospel, that we would engage in spiritual disciplines like this. But this is not the "big idea" of the Lenten fast. The big idea of Lent is to embrace this truth: Jesus did what I couldn't do.

Recall that Matthew records Jesus' 40-day temptation in the wilderness (Matt 4:1-11) in order to parallel Israel's 40-year temptation (Num 32:13). What happened with Israel? They grumbled. They made and worshiped idols. They did not rely, by faith alone, on the Word of God. In short, they failed. Matthew sets up Jesus as the new and true Israel...the kind of Israel that Israel could never be. Jesus, succeeding in the wilderness, proclaims to us, "I came to do for you what you could never do for yourselves." The Lenten fast is here to remind us that Jesus came "to fulfill all righteousness" where we crashed and burned (Matt 3:15).

What is the victorious Christian life? Lent answers: Jesus.

All this puts our fast into context—the context of the gospel. If you find yourself tempted this Lent, as we all are, to pat yourself on the back for the good and faithful work you're doing: repent. Change your mind about yourself. You aren't doing as well as you think. You need a righteousness "not of your own;" you need to be "found in him."

One great Lenten worship practice I commend is lamentation, because lamentation is the cry of one who can't find righteousness on their own. And I do mean "righteousness" here in the full-orbed sense of the Bible. The biblical language of "righteousness" certainly speaks to my personal holiness, my pursuit of just actions. And as we've said, we need to remember that we don't have a righteousness of our own. But "righteousness" in Scripture also has to do with justice in the national and global sense.

Lamentation is therefore a double-cry: Things are not right with me, and things are not right with the world. The former is lamentation in the form of personal confession. The latter is lamentation in the form of global confession. Only the victorious ChristianJesus himself—can solve these kinds of problems. Throughout Lent, therefore, I'll be offering a series of seven posts on lamentation, on what it means and how to engage it. And hopefully, even in our lament, as we groan with the Spirit (Rom 8:22-27), may it be yet another way we can find ourselves in Christ this season.


Lamentation: A Necessity, Not an Option

A month ago, I introduced Coral Ridge to her first (at least to my knowledge) full-blown congregational song/Psalm of lament (Karl Digerness' fabulous "How Long O Lord [Psalm 13]"). It got me thinking about the relationship of lamentation to the gospel and how it all works both in corporate worship and in our daily lives. Go over to LIBERATE and check out the post: "Why Lamentation Must Precede Liberation."

SIDENOTE: That piece of art at the top of the post is "The Lamentation" by Ludovico Carracci (c. 1582). I was in NYC at the Metropolitan Museum of Art several weeks ago, and that painting arrested me.