Wednesday, August 17, 2016

faith in search of lament

If our picture of the Christian life is primarily shaped by the evangelical church service, what is missing? How might it be skewed?

This is the question I posed to myself after a campfire chat with a faculty colleague.

The Scriptures contain the full range of expression that animates the life of faith, and we develop the capacity to live faith-fully by patterning our own expressions after these.

Lord, teach us to pray. 

But for our church services we typically take a select few of these elements and canonize them, leaving others nearly untouched.

We sing praise.
We greet one another.
We preach the Word.
We exhort.
We take up an offering for those in need.
We pronounce a blessing.
We remember the Lord's death by celebrating communion.
Occasionally we baptize.
We pray for the sick.
Now and then we pray for our nation's leaders.

What's missing?

We generally don't confess our sin (at least not out loud, to each other).
We don't seek refuge.
We don't complain.
We don't wrestle out loud over what's wrong and broken in our world.
We don't lament.

That is a problem.

It's a problem because the lack of confession and lament leaves us with a monotone, anemic faith. We miss out on the richness available to us in the Scriptures, and we lose touch with reality. Our faith becomes compartmentalized rather than a fully integrated part of our selves.

Put another way, Job and Jeremiah and David and Habakkuk and many other biblical writers model for us the language of lament. Do we think we no longer need these vehicles of expression?

What would it look like to incorporate the language of the Psalms -- not just the praise psalms, but the laments, too -- into our services? How can we create a reverent space where the groans of the human heart may be articulated?

How might it feel to leave things unresolved -- to refuse to tie a neat bow on it all at the end of the service because we as a community have become accustomed to letting God do the answering and not to answer for him?

Here I'm thinking of Elihu, the "friend" who shows up out of nowhere in the book of Job. After Job's complaint is laid out before God, Elihu rushes in to answer on God's behalf. Like the other three "friends" who respond to Job, Elihu is angered by Job's words (Job 32:1-5). He feels a strong need to defend God and put Job in his place, rushing in to fill the silence with correction. But when the Almighty does reply, Elihu's words are swallowed up in the storm with everyone else's. Literarily, the lesson is clear: God doesn't need us to answer on his behalf. God can speak for himself.

When we rush to the answer we lose the depth that comes through sustained waiting. To brood over our grief -- to articulate our deepest longings for God to do something -- positions us to experience God's answer more profoundly. Ignoring our wound, we miss out on the opportunity for healing.

Lord, teach us to pray. 

Sure, now and then we're brave enough to complain to God on our own. Why did you let this happen? God do something! But communal lament -- lament as a body -- is a lost art. If we could find the voice of corporate lament it would open up new avenues to enter into one another's journey. Rather than fixing each other, we could join each other side-by-side in articulating the heart's cry.

Why should we be scared of lament when the Scriptures devote so much time and space to it? Why do we feel it's irreverent to complain when complaint is the backbone of books like Psalms, Lamentations, Habakkuk, and Job?

Life hurts. Missionaries get stabbed. Cancer returns. ISIS prevails. Lives are lost in meaningless altercations. Believers are falsely accused. When grief, complaint, longing, sorrow, and confession are kept to ourselves, out of sight, the muscles of our faith atrophy, and we lose the art of responding faithfully to our trials. It's a missed opportunity for our community to grow together in love.

One of my students, Beth Erickson, created this beautiful graphic poster of Habakkuk's lament in light of the recent racial tensions in America. I share it here with her permission. This poster is an example of one way we can begin to incorporate lament into our worship.

Every year, Jewish communities read the entire book of Lamentations aloud together. When I did this with my class on the Old Testament Prophets this summer, the effect was powerful.

Lord, teach us to pray.


  1. Relationship with God should begin with lament, maybe not initially, but certainly early on, and the thread should continue as long as we live in a place where we are targeted as belonging to Him by strong spiritual forces. IMHO. Like the poster. Is Beth's text from the Bible? I can't see a reference if there is one

    1. Ann,
      Thanks for your comment! The text on Beth's poster is from Habakkuk 1:2–4. Blessings!

  2. Thank you for writing this. Yours is a rare voice these days.