In this difficult season, I offer these reflections on lament, and some suggestions for leading a congregation in the practice of lament. They may be used during a traditional Blue Christmas or Longest Night service, as an end-of-the-year practice after a particularly challenging year, following a community or national tragedy, or any time a congregation and community faces corporate grief.
The book of Lamentations. I’ve read it before as expression of grief and sadness – lament. But this year, I have discovered more than that in its pages.
I’ve come to understand Lamentations as resistance poetry. Job is silent in the face of suffering; the author of Lamentations – likely the prophet Jeremiah – will absolutely not be silent. Lamentations insists – insists – that God pay attention to the pain and turmoil. It argues against trauma endured. It gives powerful voice to protest.
Protest, I admit, is not language that comes naturally to me.
Some years ago, at a conference for women in church planting, female church planters were invited to share their experiences during a service of healing. Many of them told stories of being discounted, dismissed, not taken seriously. They told stories of being vocally rejected by church members and denominational systems because they were too young, too old, mothers, single. It could have easily enough become a gripe session, but it didn’t, not this time. It was simply honest. Real.
And then one women attending said, “You all need to learn to protest. I learned it from my mother’s knee; I can tell you didn’t. And you need to.”
It was honestly a new concept to me – that there was a skill, a language, a rich, theologically-grounded tradition of protest. She was right. What I remember growing up was not how to protest injustice. I remember much more being immersed in “nice” culture – disagree if you must, but be nice about it. Don’t rock the boat too much. Keep the peace. Don’t draw too much attention to yourself.
In reading and re-reading Lamentations this season, I’m learning the language of theological protest. Some of you already know it well; perhaps others, like me, need a primer.
In the first chapter of Lamentations, amidst wailing and grief over the fallen Jerusalem, is this little phrase:
Look, Lord, and take notice! (1:11b, CEB)
It is an insistent, impatient demand
, like a child clamoring for a parent’s undivided attention. Now
, God, pay attention to what is happening to us! Right now, all around us – do you see this?
Look, Lord, and take notice!
Goodness, I so often feel like saying that to God right now.
Look, Lord, and take notice! Look, Lord, and take notice of those who are sick – and alone – and dying. Look, Lord, and take notice of exhausted caregivers, and clergy, and doctors and nurses and teachers. Look, Lord, and take notice of racism that kills, and indifference that allows it to happen. Look, Lord, and take notice of anxiety that grips, fear that paralyzes, depression that threatens to swallow us up.
And the prophet gets personal:
Pay attention, Lord, for I am in trouble. My stomach is churning; my heard is pounding within me because I am so bitter. (Lamentations 1:20, CEB)
Our lament gets personal too. Pay attention, Lord. Pay attention to all that I carry within me – anxiety, exhaustion, uncertainty. Look, Lord, and take notice of my clenched jaw, my aching back, my sore muscles tight from constant tension. Pay attention to my restless mind, my fretful sleep and my sometimes resentful or angry heart. Look, Lord, and take notice of me.
Look, Lord and take notice! We are hurting, we are angry, and doggone it, you’d better pay attention!
Lamentations is burning, fiery, fierce. It models loud, unapologetic protest.
It also makes a powerful statement of faith. The very act of protest, of demanding God’s attention – reveals a deep-seated, never-wavering faith. Nowhere does Lamentations doubt God’s presence or God’s power. It blames God. It lashes out at God.
But it does not, ever, border on unbelief. The prophet is certain God is listening to his cries – makes sure of it, in fact! Demands God’s ear! Insists that God tune in and listen up. He tells God:
I’ll never forget the trouble, the utter lostness, the taste of ashes, the poison I’ve swallowed. I remember it all – oh, how well I remember – the feeling of hitting the bottom!
(Lamentations 3:19-20, The Message)
Lamentations really is a lovers’ quarrel. It’s an insistence that God live up to God’s own promises of love and care. After laying out all the horror he’s endured, the prophet reminds himself and
God of this:
But there’s one other thing I remember, and remembering, I keep a grip on hope: God’s loyal love couldn’t have run out, his merciful love couldn’t have dried up. They’re created new every morning. How great your faithfulness! I’m sticking with God (I say it over and over!). God’s all I’ve got left.
Protest makes way for hope. To name what ought not be
also, inherently, calls to mind the world as it should be. Our lives as they should be. If we demand God’s attention to this
that is not right, we are also acknowledging that
as a better way, the way we wish for – the way we hope
Amidst the protest, God brings hope: I remember how awful things can be, but I also remember God’s love. God’s care. I remember God –
and remembering, I keep a grip on hope
And then, the prophet rests, secure in God’s presence. Waits for that hope to take root. Waits for God. Waits:
When life is heavy and hard to take, go off by yourself. Enter the silence. Bow in prayer. Don’t ask questions: Wait for hope to appear.
Lamentations 3:28-29, The Message.
This Advent, I pray that you find your voice in lament; that you discover that even in the face of our protest God remains faithful; and that you make room for silence and wait for hope to appear.
Leading Congregations in Lament
If you need some help thinking about how to lead your congregations in the hope-renewing practice of lament, here are some suggestions:
- Preach or teach on it. Give people a theological and Scriptural foundation for understanding the practice of lament as different from complaining. Lament acknowledges grief, sorrow and anger honestly and without shame; it also helps us frame those emotions and the experiences that prompt them in light of God’s love. If you need help getting started, this blog is adapted from a sermon I wrote this fall; feel free to adapt or use it as is.
- Offer opportunity to practice individual and communal lament. Here are prompts from the book of Lamentations that may be used as journaling prompts for individuals, or as prayer prompts in a virtual or in-person congregational gathering. You may wish to rearrange the order, or select different prompts. The Psalms and the Prophets offer many possibilities.
It may be helpful to begin by lighting a candle (or inviting folks to light one in their homes) or otherwise acknowledging in some tangible way God’s presence with you during the practice of lament.
Then follow through three movements: Lament, hope, and silent listening. (Or, whatever movements fit the prompts you’ve selected.)
“Look, Lord, and take notice!”
First, we cry out for God’s attention in the places that are hurting most. Often when we receive prayer requests, we follow each request with the response, “Lord in your mercy, receive our prayer.” In our practice of lament, we will instead follow each prayerful lament with the congregational cry, “Look, Lord, and take notice!”
Offer prayerful time in which individuals are invited to speak their laments briefly out loud. After each, the gathered people respond verbally, “Look, Lord, and take notice!”
Or, invite people to journal their laments, starting or ending each with, “Look, Lord, and take notice!” in their writing.
“We remember, and keep a grip on hope…”
Second, we remember the promises of God that we cling to, the beautiful moments, the memories that carry us through difficult times, the words of Scripture that anchor us in the storm.
During a second time of prayer, invite people to name out loud (or in their journal) the things that allow them to keep a grip on hope these days. Name the memories, the moments, the Scriptures that lift them up.
The congregation or the leader may follow each with the verbal response, “We remember, and keep a grip on hope!”
“It’s a good thing to quietly hope from help from God.”
After naming our griefs and our hopes, allow some time to be quiet and listen for God’s response. When we practice lament, we pour out what is pent up inside us; now Lamentations encourages us to enter the silence and wait for God to fill us back up.
Encourage people to sit quietly together and listen for God’s presence. If it is not a group that is accustomed to silence, let them know ahead of time how long the time will be and that it may feel awkward at first. In a gathered worship service (virtually or in-person), 2 or 3 minutes is probably enough to start. A prayer group that is used to some silent reflection together may go 5 or 10 minutes in silence together.
If there are children participating, you may want to briefly talk with them about how to “make silence.” We keep our mouths quiet; find a comfortable position where we can hold our bodies still; we may want to hold a soft or quiet toy in our hands; it may help to close our eyes. Encourage them to pay attention to what they notice when they make silence, and what they think or feel during that time.
After the appointed time for quiet, bring the group out of silence by playing a song to end. Yes, I Will
by Vertical Worship works well, as does the traditional hymn It Is Well with My Soul
Depending on the setting, you may want to end the lament practice by offering time for conversation about the experience of practicing lament together, or ask what people heard or received from God during the time of silence. In a worship service, the song that ends the silence can serve as a transition to the next part of the service.