Note from CM: Thanks to Scott for this thoughtful reminder about the importance of lament prayers — an especially relevant topic during Lent. You can read more of Scott’s writing at The Prodigal Thought.
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Lament in Silence
by Scott Lencke
The church has entered the season of Lent. This is a focused period of humility, repentance and embracing our own mortality. As my pastor has recently reminded us, Lent is not about asking, “What am I going to give up?” Rather, Lent asks, “Where have I moved away from God and how might I move toward him?”
This may happen within the realm of giving something up, fasting from a particular item that has pulled our heart away from our Father. But giving up something isn’t a magical formula—and we don’t need to give up something just to give up something, to show our own strong will. We are desirous that our hearts be uncovered, which will hopefully push us toward God as we feel our desperation.
Last week I met with my PhD cohort. The University of Aberdeen, from whence I am working on my studies long-distance, houses the Centre for Spirituality, Health and Disability. This particular center has very strong connections with the work of Jean Vanier and L’Arche, an organization that carries a deep labor of love for the disabled community of our world. And, so, if you are aware of recent news within the church world, you will most likely have heard the name Jean Vanier.
I am not as connected to the work of Vanier as much as I am with Henri Nouwen, one of his colleagues. But recent reports have been released that Vanier, who only passed away less than one year ago, had coercive sexual relationships with six different women over a thirty-five year period. This is devastating news for many Christians around the world.
Such news directly connects in with the University of Aberdeen because of the Centre for Spirituality, Health and Disability. Particularly, my supervisor and his colleagues have been absolutely devastated by the reports.
As our cohort met via video conference, my supervisor offered space for us to discuss the news.
We talked through important points worth considering. But, at the end, he reigned it all back in to something much more salient, especially in light of the season of Lent having just kicked off. He reminded us of key components connected to lament.
One element that stuck out most to me was silence. Actually, that’s really all he put forth to us. He noted that, it seems those not involved in certain painful situations will more easily and readily speak their mind, perhaps with very little pause for concern. They will rush to offer opinions because, whatever he or she may say, it has little to no consequence for them.
It all hit like a ton of bricks. We were all left well, speechless, silent.
School shootings take place. Tsunamis hit. Coronavirus spreads.
Who speaks first?
It’s always those who haven’t been personally affected. And they speak loudly.
This is especially heightened in the digital world of today.
The affected will respond quite differently. Those caught up in agonizing circumstances tend to move toward lament. And that lament usually starts off with very little vocalization. Of course, the feelings are there—though perhaps all the feelings are not discernible. There are tears, wailing, shouting, rage and the sort. Yet, in many ways, in the sadness, in entering lament, we aren’t really sure what to say. The ancients would sit for days in sackcloth and ashes, barely speaking at all. Perhaps we could learn from them.
Today we have become desensitized to our pain. If we hurt, we go out and buy something, we eat a lot of something, we delve into the world of our smart phone, we binge on another season. Anything to busy our minds and hearts. Anything to numb the ache. Whatever addiction we can tap into. Most of it is socially acceptable, that’s the frightening thing. We don’t have to commit adultery, burn a building down, cuss someone out. There are much more subversive practices that bury our hearts.
Last week I happened to be reading Psalm 42—and I was struck by the opening words. Much of these will be well-known, but something caught me off guard this time around.
As the deer pants for streams of water,
so my soul pants for you, my God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When can I go and meet with God?
My tears have been my food
day and night,
while people say to me all day long,
“Where is your God?” (vs1-3)
We usually stop at vs2. Thus, the lyrical prayer is seen as someone engaged in a passionate worship session. But vs3 makes it very clear that these words are not describing what we first thought. Things are so bad, so terrible that his tears have been his food day and night. He is crying so much that he knows the taste of his tears over his dinner.
My goodness! What an image.
Lament is the most prevalent type of psalm we find in the Psalms. They are everywhere.
I’m noticing this more and more these days, especially now that Lent has begun.
I am trying to think through what this lamenter was feeling as he scribbled these words down. He continues:
I say to God my Rock,
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I go about mourning,
oppressed by the enemy?”
My bones suffer mortal agony
as my foes taunt me,
saying to me all day long,
“Where is your God?” (vs9-10)
Not your typical lyrics on a Sunday morning. But very biblical.
I can only envision that there was silence leading up to the penning of this psalm. Again, that’s how the ancients approached it officially. Sackcloth and ashes coupled with stillness, quiet. One needs time to put words to our feelings. One needs space to just sit with our misery.
We have a lot to lament these days.
I mentioned some above, but there are others.
Sexual abuse. Politics. Poverty. Hunger. Sex-trafficking.
Betrayals. Job loss. Dissolved marriages. Addictions.
So much to lament.
Will we embrace this intentional period of Lent to feel our loss, experience our pain, become acquainted with our griefs?
Will we sit and listen—if only to our own hearts?
Then we might know how to give voice to what is going on. The honest expression in our words may more rightly spill forth.
Last week, my professor could barely talk about it. I thought he was going to burst forth in tears right in that video conference. And I’m sure he has tasted his tears already. He put something on our radars that left us, again, silent. A holy hush came over us.
Yes, the hope is to come out on the “other side,” as the psalmist also offers:
Why, my soul, are you downcast?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God. (vs11)
But we don’t have to rush to that place. We don’t need to rush.
Sit in silence. Be quiet. Let our heart’s recesses be exposed.
That is the first step in lament.