February 21, 2013

Lenten Laments

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever?

How long will you hide your face from me? 

How long must I bear pain in my soul,

and have sorrow in my heart all day long?

If you don’t know it already, take a look at Psalm 13. Out of 150 psalms (prayers) in the Hebrew section of our Bible, roughly one third of them are laments like this one.
LAMENT: a passionate expression of grief or sorrow;
a song, poem, or prayer expressing such emotions.
Heartfelt lament takes a little getting used to, in part because an intense prayer like Psalm 13 asks us to risk offending God with our deep complaints about the injustice and brokenness often present in this life. In the words of Eugene Peterson, “Untutored, we tend to think that prayer is what good people do when they are doing their best.” But it turns out that lament is no offense to the God we meet in Jesus, at least not if we are to trust our teacher’s example. At the lowest point in his ministry, amid the shame of a catastrophic cross-ending, it was the language of Psalm 13 on which our Lord leaned to name the cursed abandonment of (our) death (Mark 15:34). To put the matter crudely: If Jesus can lament, why not his people, too?

Of course, no one is suggesting more gripes for the sake of gripes. Lord knows there is enough of that already. (No, really. The Lord knows. Woe to us when we confuse our boredom and entitlement for real harm.) But the Lenten season is as good a time as any to practice the grace of lament. Start with Psalm 13. Practice those words for yourself or your family if you find that your way to the Father seems blocked by pain, injustice, or the lingering decay of body and spirit. Or -- and this is where lament becomes a ministry -- practice Psalm 13 or something like it on behalf of those in the world who need it most: the battered, the abused, the lost, the tortured, the persecuted, the forgotten ... to name but a few.

In this way, learning to lament is learning to pray for the world through the prayers of our dying Jesus. It is to dabble in the mystery of crying out to a Trinity who, after the cross, is already more acquainted with the world’s sorrows than we are. It is to work on exchanging the personal benefits of middle-class religion for the sacred burdens of Christian discipleship.