by Henry Friesen
Almost exactly nine years ago my family and I were in Saskatoon attending the evening prayers and the funeral service for one of my older brothers. As he and his family were members of the Antiochian Orthodox Church, both services involved the liturgy of scripture, songs, prayers and acknowledgements. The open casket with my brother’s body was there and all of us had time to view him and pause for a few moments with the body.
I remember how long the Friday night service felt to me and how long a very similar service felt the next day. Toward the latter part of the funeral service, while friends and family were again filing past the body, a young woman began to sing a beautiful and haunting song. As she sang and continued to sing, verse after verse, I had this moment of insight as to what was happening and what I was being offered. She was simply singing of a sadness that we were all feeling; the length of the song and its beautiful yet mournful tune was simply expressing this sadness in song. There was no hurry. There was no “happy refrain”. There was no embarrassment or a need to “get things over with.”
We are in currently in an uncertain time, a time when the normal routines of school, jobs, public gatherings, family get-togethers and communal worship services are gone. On top of that we are confronted by the news of so much pain and suffering all over the world and in our own country that there are times when might well be overcome with a feeling of helplessness or perhaps even despair.
And then it comes to us that we ought to pray, that surely this is the time to pray. But then we wonder, how do we pray at a time like this? And what do we pray for? Perhaps your first response is like mine: I need to pray for those who are suffering and for those who are taking care of them. I need to lift up the broken-hearted and petition God to grant mercy to the most vulnerable in our city, country and the world. This is a good response and surely what the love of God within us, compels us to do.
There is however another kind of prayer that I think this situation calls for. It is a prayer that addresses the deeper questions and fears that come on us in a time like this. Such questions as “why God?” and “why this pandemic?” and “where are You God?” are not unusual at all even as we pray for those who suffer. The kind of prayer I am talking about is a “lament”.
Strictly speaking a lament is “a passionate expression of grief or sorrow.” In a culture such as ours where being positive and happy are of primary importance, who wants to think about “lamenting” much less practice it? I would suggest that now is a time to recover this practice and we as Christians are in a great position to do so for the Bible, unashamedly, gives us examples of people who do lament and in the Psalms, in particular, gives us many, many examples of lament.
It is not a stretch to say that laments are part of Christian worship; a full 40% of the Psalms are “Lament Psalms”, either individual laments or communal laments. Listen to the Psalmist in these two examples:
2 Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am pining away; heal me, O LORD, for my bones are dismayed.
3 And my soul is greatly dismayed; But You, O LORD—how long?
4 Return, O LORD, rescue my soul; Save me because of Your lovingkindness.
6 I am weary with my sighing; every night I make my bed swim, I dissolve my couch with my tears.
1 How long, O LORD? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?
2 How long shall I take counsel in my soul, Having sorrow in my heart all the day? How long will my enemy be exalted over me?
3 Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; Enlighten my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death.
There are a couple of important things to note about these laments in addition to the fact that they are a normal form of expression that the Psalmist and his community use.
Firstly, a lament acknowledges the pain, the feelings of disorientation and distress that the individual or the community is experiencing. It does so openly and clearly. There is no sugar coating nor denial and no minimization of the difficulty and of the anxiety that he/she/they feel. Nor is there a hurry to have it all fixed or a rush to “praise God.”
A second element of a Biblical lament is that it occurs in the context of a relationship with God. It is not as if the Psalmist is yelling at the sky or banging his head against a tree or wailing to an unknown force. It is clear that the Psalmist knows God personally and in fact, if you read carefully, part of the frustration is that the very God who has been gracious and a source of comfort, is the one who now seems to be absent. Integral to a lament is the voicing of this frustration, this sadness and this sorrow.
By their very nature, the Psalms of Lament do not hurry along, just like the long, long dirge I listened to at my brother’s funeral did not hurry along. It took a while for me to relax in the presence of the dirge because after three minutes I thought it should be over and we should get on to something more hopeful. And when I relaxed and sat with the sorrow and the disorientation I was feeling at the loss of my brother, I gave room for that sorrow and allowed my heart to feel all the frustration and sadness that came with the passing of my brother. And I did all of this with the recognition that I was doing so in God’s presence and with the memory of many gracious experiences of God’s goodness. In that context, I could lament freely and begin to tell myself that despite this sorrow, God would be with me always and that one day He would rescue me from this time of grief.
I have found it helpful to read some of the Psalms in times of uncertainty and anxiety; they give voice to what I am feeling but do not lead me to feel sorry for myself or to move down into despair. Rather, they remind me that I am in this relationship with God, that God is good and loving and that He is not only able to hear my pain but will also bring me through to a better day.
Psalm 143 (NASB)
1 Hear my prayer, O Lord; give ear to my supplications!
Answer me in Your faithfulness, in Your righteousness!
3 For the enemy [in this case, the pandemic] has persecuted my soul; he has crushed my life to the ground; he has made me dwell in dark places, like those who have long been dead.
4 Therefore my spirit is overwhelmed within me; my heart is appalled within me.
6 I stretch out my hands to You; my soul longs for You, as a parched land.
7 Answer me quickly, O Lord, my spirit fails; do not hide Your face from me,
or I will become like those who go down to the pit.
8 Let me hear Your lovingkindness in the morning; for I trust in You;
teach me the way in which I should walk; or to You I lift up my soul.
9a Deliver me, O Lord, from my enemies;
10b Let Your good Spirit lead me on level ground.
11 For the sake of Your name, O Lord, revive me. In Your righteousness bring my soul out of trouble.
12 And in Your lovingkindness, cut off my enemies and destroy all those who afflict my soul, for I am Your servant.