Horizons preview: “Into the Light: Finding Hope Through Prayers of Lament”

Anguish, anger, regret, guilt, sadness, loneliness, rage, cries for justice — I have felt all of these in this time of COVID-19 and the protests and the riots following George Floyd’s murder. My anguish is at another unarmed Black person killed. My frustration, anger and rage are directed at those who knowingly oppress and dehumanize others and I cry out for justice. My regret and guilt are focused at my own denial of my own racism, even as I work to be anti-racist. All these feelings are gathered up into prayers of lament. Such prayers are acts of faith.

Biblically, lament includes a wide range of emotions and situations — even into the dark nights of the soul when we feel deserted by God. Laments are the moans and cries of our spirits uttered to God, out of relationship with God and with trust that God can do something to change the situation. Author Lynn Miller takes us on a journey of biblical lament in her study and art in “Into the Light: Finding Hope Through Prayers of Lament.” It is a timely and providential study.

We tend to associate lament with death, a broken relationship and maybe the social isolation of the coronavirus pandemic. There are times when only a mournful song will do. I’m drawn to the sadness in “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” which was made popular by Hank Williams. Miller uses Williams’ song as an example of a contemporary lament with its plaintive music and vivid imagery of even creation grieving. She uses current songs and hymns several times in the study as examples of the cries of lament. The music and lyrics of the songs gives voice to what words simply cannot express.

Miller points out that it is important to distinguish between what lament is and what it is not: “Lament is not whining. … It is not a pat on the head for people who are suffering, oppressed or preyed on. It is not venting or blowing off steam.” Lament is not appropriate for situations over which we have some control and have the power to do something about injustice or suffering.

Of course, we would rather whine, blame or complain than study or express lament. Lament makes us uncomfortable. Lament can feel unfaithful, as if our cries to God represent a lack of trust in God to act. Lament is also too raw, real and messy in a culture that values being upbeat and positive. Lament takes us into a scary place where we acknowledge that we are not in control and certain things cannot be fixed. We twist away from lament and deny its existence. Yet, denying lament is like painting over rotting boards so that we look good on the outside while something is terribly wrong on the inside. Without expressing lament, we cannot do that which repairs us spiritually and emotionally as individuals and as the church of Jesus Christ, because laments are about our real needs.

Delving into biblical lament can help us accept those sad and bereft places in ourselves and in others. We learn that feeling abandoned by God or being angry at God is part of the life of faith, not opposed to it. Even Jesus felt utterly deserted by God on the cross, when her cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When I have been camped out in that desolate place, it has helped me to know that Jesus understands my pain.

Why would we want to study lament? Out of lament can come hope and renewed faith. This is a foundational concept in “Into the Light.” When we bring our whole selves – whether broken, outraged, joyous, thankful or grieving – our prayer lives and our relationship with God are deepened. In communal laments, we as the church uphold each other when we sing that “nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows but Jesus.” In community, we can affirm that despite all evidence to the contrary, God is working even now to heal, to redeem and to deliver. Miller affirms that “laments bridge the space between our faith in God and our not-yet-redeemed world.”

Miller is a Presbyterian pastor, an author and an artist. She holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in fine arts and art history. She notes that lament is a form, a container, a vessel for conversations with God. She has painted the illustrations for each lesson, with splashes of water on each painting symbolizing tears. Miller teaches us the movements within the lament and invites us to write our own laments, which is indeed an element that we have lost but is so necessary for our time.

RosalindBanburyRosalind Banbury lives in Richmond, Virginia, and is a pastor in the Presbytery of the James.

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