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A Time to Weep -- During Advent

Lament is a sign of both honest faith and resolute hope. When we worship together, we bring with us our experience in the world, from our most profound joys to our most painful sorrows. Like the Old Testament psalms, thoughtful liturgy allows us to express the whole range of our experience in ways that are fitting to the message of the gospel. To use a phrase of Nicholas Wolterstorff, professor of philosophical theology at Yale University Divinity School, thoughtful worship expresses "the trumpets of joy, the ashes of repentance, and the tears of lament."

Lament is especially crucial in times of crisis, interpersonal violence, natural disasters, and death. Not to lament during these difficult circumstances would be dishonest (see part 1 of this series of articles in RW 44). At such times lament is the natural result of our honest faith.

But many worship services are planned and led in the routine of life, in the midst of common joys and sorrows. Why lament then? Again, because honest faith demands it. If our hearts and eyes are open to the world around us, we will not only want to thank God for signs of justice, peace, and love, but also lament signs of brokenness and despair. One daily newspaper or one television news broadcast depicts enough pain, injustice, and violence to warrant lament. Every pew full of worshipers is bound to include someone who is driven to church more by tears of sorrow than by shouts of joy. Not a Sunday goes by when members of the body of Christ somewhere in the world are not persecuted for their faith. For all of these reasons, lament should not be reserved only for times of acute crisis. It should be one of the habits or disciplines of faithful prayer.

How might lament function in regular Sunday services? How do we go about it? The answer is found, I believe, in the two large structures that shape public worship in countless congregations: the Christian year and the pattern of Lord's Day worship. One fruitful way to approach liturgical lament is to consider how it fits in these already existing structures.

Lament as Advent Prayer

Consider first of all the large pattern of the Christian year. Time and time again we journey from Advent expectation to Christmas adoration, from Lenten soul-searching to Easter praise. This yearly journey provides ready-made moments to give voice to the cries and acclamations of people at every point in the journey of faith. Indeed, one of the richest benefits of a well-celebrated Christian year is that it provides not only a balanced diet of biblical readings and theological themes, but also a balanced diet of the Christian affections in the life of prayer.

Out of the whole Christian year one season that is especially fitting for liturgical lament is the season of Advent. This might not be our first guess. After all, lament seems far removed from holiday cheer. Yet, because it is a season of longing expectation, Advent is a fitting time for lament. It is a season not only to look forward to the coming of Christ at Christmas, but also to look forward to the coming kingdom of Shalom at Christ's return. Advent is the season in which we read from Isaiah all of the beautiful passages about that coming kingdom, where lions lie down with lambs, where valleys are exalted, and where all nations will be led from darkness to light. Advent, to use the technical theological term, is an eschatological season, one that is closely related to the end of the world.

One common (if little appreciated) theme in Reformed writings on the nature of corporate worship is that our worship should be oriented to the coming kingdom. Dutch theologian Arnold Van Ruler once called Sunday worship "an eschatological intermezzo" that sets our sights on the coming kingdom of God. Swiss theologian Jean-Jacques von Allmen, arguably the most profound Reformed liturgical theologian of the twentieth century, spoke of worship "as a glimpse, in this transient world, of the world to come." And South African Reformed theologian John De Gruchy says of the Lord's Supper that "nowhere else is hope so central, the hope which refuses to accept the present disorder and which longs and works for the coming of God's justice and peace." Christian corporate worship is a harbinger, a sign, a foretaste, a herald of things to come. And Advent is the time of the year purposefully devoted to acknowledging and realizing this dimension of worship.

Worship that is oriented to the coming kingdom leads naturally to two central expressions: intense groaning and expectant hope. Notice how Paul describes these two expressions in Romans 8:18-27. When we think about the coming kingdom of God, we can't help but long for an end to warfare, abuse, hunger, violence, illness, and death. Liturgical lament is our expression of this longing. As such, lament is not whining or complaining like that of the fickle Israelites in the desert. Rather it is the expression of the groaning that we feel as we long intensely for the coming kingdom of shalom.

While explicitly eschatological prayer need not be limited to Advent, Advent is a fitting time for calling attention to the future-orientation of our faith. By praying eschatologically and by pointing out to worshipers how and why we are doing it, we cultivate, however slowly, an eschatological spirituality. We cultivate the kind of faith experience Paul describes in Romans 8. Advent can teach us to pray, even to lament, with our faces turned toward the future.

Lament and Intercessory Prayer

The classical pattern of Lord's Day worship is another large structure that nurtures the full range of affections in liturgical prayer. Taken as a whole, Sunday morning liturgy, like the psalms, expresses a wide range of emotion. In the course of well-celebrated Sunday worship, we praise, lament, give thanks, and intercede. Telescoped to its bare essentials: we gather with thanks, come before God in humble submission, offer unbridled praise, hear the Word with thanksgiving, respond with confession, offer intercession, share the meal of our participation in the works of God in Christ, and leave with dedication and promise. This pattern is a microcosm of our life before God.

One especially fitting moment for liturgical lament is the prayer variously known as the "prayers of intercession," the "pastoral prayer," or "the prayers of the people." In classical Christian liturgy, this prayer follows and responds to the proclamation of the Word.

In some ways, lament and intercession are very similar. Both acts identify situations and events that are out of place in God's kingdom. Both acts acknowledge the power and guidance of God. Both acts can be offered on behalf of other people, in solidarity with those who suffer or are wronged.

Yet they are also different. Lament is stronger, more poignant. Lament looks at what's wrong square in the face, names it for what it is, and protests against it. As in the psalms, lament pauses to plead "Why, O Lord, have you abandoned us?" before interceding "Come to save us." Lament prevents intercession from becoming something we take for granted, something we offer glibly.

This is not to suggest that our worship should be morbid. In fact, one of the great benefits of honest lament is the way it transforms our praise. Deeply meaningful and painfully honest intercessory prayers change everything about how worship is perceived. Honest lament can make our experience of hope even more palpable. In fact, one of the great benefits of incorporating lament in intercessory prayer following the service of the Word is the effect this has on the celebration of the Lord's Supper. At the Lord's Supper, we pray the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, a prayer that is like an epic poem reciting God's deeds in history. This thanksgiving takes on deeper meaning when it follows intense prayers of intercession and lament. Honest lament makes our joy at the Lord's Supper more profound and heartfelt.

Interceding During Advent

If Advent is a moment in the Christian year well suited to lament, and if the prayer of intercession is a moment in the order of service that is appropriate for lament, then one good place to begin with liturgical lament is with the Advent prayers of intercession.

Here are three practical ways of making this work:

First, use psalms of lament as models or guides for prayer.

Psalm 80 is a traditional psalm for Advent. Its refrain, "Restore us, O God; make your face shine upon us, that we may be saved," is the perfect model for our own Advent prayers. And its primary images {of God as gardener and shepherd) are found in many scriptural texts often read during Advent. The meaning of Advent is best realized when we sense the analogy between Israel's hope and our own: we, like Israel, yearn for the coming of Messiah and the full arrival of the kingdom. By using this psalm and others like it liturgically, we identify ourselves with Israel in a tangible, liturgical way. (See the model for using Psalm 80 as a guide for Advent prayer, p. 25.)

Second, pray with an eye to the future.

Sometimes our prayers are focused exclusively on our immediate needs. Advent is a good time to broaden the horizon of prayer, to look ahead to the coming kingdom. This can happen in two ways: first, through expressions of resolute hope in the face of situations of despair, as we pray "O come, O come, Immanuel" in full awareness that "captive Israel mourns in lonely exile here." This is the prayer of eschatological petition. Second, it also happens when we thank God for acts of justice, integrity, and shalom that are signs of the coming kingdom. This might be called eschatological praise. Consider the following suggestions:

  • Begin each congregational prayer and every church-sponsored Advent and Christmas celebration with the quiet singing of "O Come, O Come, Immanuel." At the beginning of the season, discuss how this is a fitting hymn to sing when thinking about the coming kingdom of God. Note how it names many reasons for lament (mourning, division, warfare), and how it also expresses deep hope that the coming Messiah will bring an end to those reasons.
  • Imagine using the following concise introduction to an Advent intercessory prayer: "Today in prayer, we give thanks for the birth of a new child to the Smiths, we ask for healing for Jill, for Larry, for Michelle. Especially today, in Advent, our prayer is oriented to the future. Because we believe in the Advent gospel, our prayers today feature three key words (and children, I challenge you to listen for them)—'hope,' 'longing,' and 'promise'. . . ." Then offer a prayer that features these words and the future-orientation they imply.
  • To complement this liturgical practice, consider asking junior high church school students to write brief descriptions of what they imagine God's kingdom might be like, perhaps as they study passages like Isaiah 11, 60, or 61. Then turn these statements into prayers. One student might write, "In God's coming kingdom, none of my friends' parents will go through divorce." This could easily be turned into Advent prayer, "Lord, we lament the pain of divorce—for both parents and children. We long for the day when families will be whole." (This is also a tangible way to involve children and youth in the worship life of the congregation.)

Third, make prayers of intercession as concrete as possible.

Old Testament theologian Claus Westermann argues that "prayer in public worship would lose its force without these experiences outside the sanctuary: such prayer is only given life by the movement inwards from outside and back again into daily life" (The Living Psalms, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1984, 7). Each time we read a newspaper or watch the evening news, we are preparing for liturgical prayer. Likewise, each time we join in liturgical prayer, we are preparing to read the newspaper and watch the evening news. Concrete liturgical prayers help worshipers sense the connection between everyday life and Sunday worship. Consider these ways of making your prayers concrete:

  • Introduce intercessory prayer by a simple, unadorned reading of headlines from a recent newspaper. Pick five headlines from the Saturday paper, read them thoughtfully without comment, and then offer a prayer of lament and intercession or a prayer of thanksgiving for that situation— whichever is appropriate.
  • Include within intercessory prayers a verse of a hymn or song that specifically laments reasons for which creation groans, such as environmental abuse, natural disaster, warfare, or domestic abuse. See, for example, "A Congregational Lament," (PsH 576), "The City Is Alive, O God," stanzas 1-2, (PsH 597); "Our Cities Cry to You, O God" (PH 437).
  • Give particular attention to concerns and problems identified in the Scripture readings and sermon for that service. Most sermons identify some aspect of human experience that is not right, that does not yet reflect the coming kingdom of God.

This kind of preparation takes time. It requires the kind of energy necessary to make the prayers of the people one of the "highlights" of weekly Sunday worship, the kind of energy often reserved for a sermon or special anthem.

Yet the challenge is well worth the effort. Prayers that express the full range of human experience are one of the best ways of making worship relevant to the needs of the congregation and to visitors. Honest and direct prayers of both praise and lament are one tangible way of making the psalms our mentors in the life of faith. Honest and direct prayers are a tangible way we can experience more deeply both the groaning and expectant hope that are part of our longing for the coming kingdom of God.

Excerpt
PRAYER OF LAMENT INCORPORATING AND INTERCESSION FOR ADVENT INCORPORATING "O COME, O COME, IMMANUEL"

This prayer of corporate lament and intercession uses short phrases of text, silence, and portions of the familiar Advent hymn "O Come, O Come, Immanuel." Prayer leaders should rewrite the intercessions to express the particular needs and concerns of a local congregation. The prayer concludes with words of assurance from Isaiah 11, followed by the refrain "rejoice, rejoice," which is purposefully held back until the end of the prayer.

Lord God, we long for the coming of your kingdom in Jesus Christ, our Lord. We lament before you the signs that your kingdom has not come in fullness.

We lament signs of brokenness in the community of nations.

[silence]

We lament that Christians are persecuted because they profess the name of Jesus.

[silence]

All sing: "O come, O King of nations, bind in one the hearts of all mankind. Bid all our sad divisions cease and be yourself our King of Peace."

We lament the divorce and breakdown of marriage in so many we know.

[silence]

We lament that many of our friends and coworkers have chosen to ignore or disown the gospel of Christ.

[silence]

All sing: "O come, O Come, Immanuel, and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear."

We lament racism that plagues our community.

[silence]

We lament the physical and emotional abuse of children and spouses in our homes.

[silence]

All sing: "O come, O Bright and Morning Star, and bring us comfort from afar! Dispel the shadows of the night and turn our darkness into light."

[reading from Isaiah 11:1-9]

With resolute hope, despite our sadness, we sing with the angels and all the people of God:

All sing: "Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel shall come to you, O Israel. Amen."

PRAYERS OF PRAISE AND LAMENT FOR ADVENT, INCORPORATING PSALM 80

The following prayer includes the entirety of Psalm 80. Most of the text is assigned to a reader, with the congregation speaking the refrain that occurs in verses 5, 7,19. Attwo points (following vv. 5 and 7), a prayer leader, perhaps a pastor, elder, or other qualified person, offers concrete praises and laments that arise out of the experience of the local congregation. Consider introducing the prayer by saying, "We begin our prayer today using the words of Psalm 80. Israel used this psalm when it expressed its longing for the coming of the Messiah. We use this psalm, just as they did, to express our longing for the coming kingdom."

A prayer like this works best after the congregation has been introduced to the psalm and to the importance of liturgical lament. Consider using this form for congregational prayer for each of the four Sundays of Advent, allowing the congregation to become familiar with the gripping images of God as shepherd and gardener that are prominent in the psalm text.

The final hymn alludes to the horticultural metaphor of the third section of Psalm 80 that compares God to a gardener and Jesus Christ to the plant that springs up from the people of Israel. It is a fitting expression of hope that arises out of Advent lament.

For metrical settings of Psalm 80, see "Hear Us, O Shepherd of Your Chosen Race" (PsH 80), "O Hear Our Cry, O Lord" (PH 206); and "O Thou Who the Shepherd of Israel Art" (TH 349).

For responsorial settings of Psalm 80, see Gather (1994), 69, 70; The United Methodist Hymnal, 801; and Voices United, 794.

Scripture Reader: Psalm 80:1-2

Congregation: Psalm 80:3

Prayer Leader: Lord God, we profess before the nations that you are a God of power,

a God who created the world and all that is in it,
a God who provides a way of hope and salvation,
a God who calls together a community of faith to proclaim your goodness to the nations.

We especially praise you for signs of your work among us, signs of your coming kingdom ... [name specific reasons for praise].

Scripture Reader: Psalm 80:4-6

Congregation: Psalm 80:7

Prayer Leader: Lord God, so often you seem distant from us. Despite our fierce prayers, our community and our world are filled with pain and brokenness... [name specific reasons for lament].

Scripture Reader: Psalm 80:8-18

Prayer Leader: Lord God, we praise you for the Son of Man you have raised up and the kingdom of shalom that he has ushered in. As we long for the coming kingdom, we still pray:

Congregation: Psalm 80:19

Hymn: "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" PsH 351, PH 48, TH 221