Lament remained a largely personal practice for several years. But, I slowly began to notice the importance of communal lament. Some losses are personal. Other losses are communal and need to be lamented as such. This became even clearer when the pandemic hit in 2020. Many religious leaders lacked the basic vocabulary needed to speak to the fear and pain being experienced by the body of believers.
I recently preached on Psalm 88 for what must be the 10th time. I’ve preached it more often than any other Psalm because lament is good news to people who are suffering. I don’t have to hide my sadness from God. I don’t have to pretend to be happy with the way that God’s plan is going.
I grew up believing in a sort of prosperity gospel of the emotions. In the normal prosperity gospel, God will make you healthy and wealthy if you have the right sort of faith. In the prosperity gospel of the emotions, God wants to make you happy. If you aren’t happy, there is probably something wrong with your faith. The prosperity gospel selects a handful of verses about wealth and health and uses those verses to erase the broader testimony of scripture. The same is true for the prosperity gospel of the emotions; it takes some verses about joy and happiness, ignoring the bigger picture.
But to ignore the bigger picture is to ignore the fact that the Bible teaches that Jesus was fully God and fully human. He had a perfect relationship with the Father. Yet he suffered, wept and lamented: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Jesus was no Stoic.
My journey with lament started well over a decade ago. In college, a friend noticed that I was depressed and he recommended Psalm 88. I thought that he was joking. A few years later, in seminary, I confided in a mentor that I couldn’t really feel anything towards God. I thought about God a lot, but the emotions were gone. Praise songs that used to fill me with joy now left me feeling empty. The mentor suggested that I read Psalm 88 out loud to God once per day until I could feel something again. It (slowly) worked!
Lament remained a largely personal practice for several years. But, I slowly began to notice the importance of communal lament. It started with the realization that many Biblical laments are collective, seemingly meant for use in communal settings. Some losses are personal. Other losses are communal and need to be lamented as such. This became even clearer when the pandemic hit in 2020. Many religious leaders lacked the basic vocabulary needed to speak to the fear and pain being experienced by the body of believers.
Starting with the kids in my youth group, I began to do more lamenting in group settings, including writing prayers that followed the structure of lament Psalms.
Biblical lament tends to follow a very simple structure.
- Statement of Trust
- Promise of Future Praise
You can simplify this, rearrange the parts or even skip entire portions. Psalm 88 has only an intro and then a very long complaint. It doesn’t even ask for anything!
The complaint might be the hardest part for us because for many of us, complaining can feel downright sinful. Yet, Jesus explicitly encourages us to do it. In the parable of the persistent widow, Jesus encourages his followers to be persistent in their complaints. One can recognize that God is a JUST judge, and still have the right to complain as if God were not just. God’s plans are good, but we don’t have to pretend that we’re happy with them.
Real lament comes from a place of faith: “God, we believe that you are good, but we are having a hard time seeing that goodness right now. God, we trust in your plans, but the plans aren’t working out for us right now. God, we know that you are just. That’s why we ask you to do justice in our lives and in the world.”
If you are angry at God right now, join the club. If you are frustrated with how God is handling Covid, you aren’t alone. Please write your own lament Psalm and share it with someone you love. If you are a worship leader or a pastor, consider doing this as a staff, as part of your corporate worship service, or even encouraging your members who are grieving.
Here is mine:
Introduction: Dear God, you are the Great Doctor. We turn to you, asking for healing.
Complaint: How long, oh Lord, will the hospitals fill up? How long will we suffer like this? Will this wave be the last? Or is there another one still coming? We’re worn out, God. We want things to go back to normal. We’re tired of the death and the sickness.
Request: Bring healing, oh God. Please, let this be the last wave that pushes our hospitals to the edge. Bring relief to the doctors and nurses, bring relief to the teachers and the small business owners. Ease the anxiety in your church. Help us as we struggle to live in your truth and love.
Statement of Trust: You have been faithful in the past. You have been with us through past challenges.
Promise of Future Praise: Save us, Lord, and you will get all the glory. Parties and potlucks around the world will be held in your honor. Come rescue us.
In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.