Frederick Schmidt: Rare Prayer: Cries of Lament


According to Rebekah Ann Eklund a "lament is a persistent cry for salvation to the God who promises to save, a prayer that in a situation of suffering or sin," is lifted "in the confident hope that this God hears and responds to cries, and acts now and in the future to make whole."  "Lament," she notes, "calls upon God to be true to God's own character and to keep God's own promises, with respect to humanity, Israel, and the church."

Eklund's book (and the dissertation on which her book is based) explores the role of lament in the Old Testament, where it is common.  But she goes on to note that - in spite of assertions to the contrary - prayers of lament can be found in the New Testament as well and, in particular, in the life and teaching of Jesus.  Hence the title of her new book: [Jesus Wept: The Significance of Jesus' Laments in the New Testament.](

Hopefully, some of Eklund's work will eventually appear in a more widely readable format and at a cost lower than its for-scholars-only-price-point.  But, in the meantime, her work has me thinking about the role of lament in our own lives.

There is a school of thought, of course, that argues lament is inappropriate.  The logic that holds that such prayers can't be found in the New Testament also holds that the grief which prompts prayers of lament are equally out of place in the Christian life.

This, of course, is nonsense.  Jesus offers prayers of lament at the tomb of Lazarus and in the Garden of Gethsemane.  With Henri Nouwen, I would also argue that - far from rendering us immune to grief - the Christian experience of life in Christ brings the incongruity of death and suffering into sharp focus.  Paul did not argue that Christians don't grieve.  He argued that we don't grieve without hope.

Therein lies the all-important difference between the kind of lament that arises out of the biblical tradition and prayers of lament that begin and end with a simple rehearsal of grief.  However tortured, painful, or raw, prayers of lament are raised with deep, if not trouble-free confidence in the goodness of God and out of the profound conviction that - God being God - things should be and will be different.

Why prayers of lament and why now - in today's church?  Why recover this rare form of prayer?

One, prayers of lament register our awareness of the disparity between our life's circumstances and God's will.  Be it a prayer prompted by our own behavior, by the cruelty of others, or by mute forces of another kind, lament sharpens our moral and spiritual senses, alerting us to the distance between our circumstances and God's loving will for us.

Two, prayers of lament prompt us to explore the nature of the loss experienced.  In a world where we briefly, if ever notice the suffering of others, prayers of lament require our attention.  They also provide a place where the full weight of that loss can be rehearsed.

Three, prayers of lament create an opportunity for us to identify with the loss of others, or appeal for companionship in our own loss.  As such, they are the healing work of the body of Christ - which is not a refuge from suffering, but a source of refuge and strength in the middle of it.

Finally, and perhaps, unexpectedly, prayers of lament can mobilize us.  To be sure, the first stages in a prayer of lament are marked by an honest, raw rehearsal of what most deeply troubles us.  But the inner logic of lament is also an identification with the healing work of God in our world and in us.  Whatever strength we may have, whatever moral energy we can muster, whatever capacity we might possess for love and compassion is given focus in prayers of lament.  They invite us to grieve what has been lost or is out of order in our world. But the logic of such prayers also prompts us to consider the will of God and, in contemplating the will of God, they provide a way forward, if we are prepared to listen for what we learn there.

Spiritual resources of that kind are the best possible argument for recovering this rare form of prayer.

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