Prayers of lament wedge their way into the American psyche from time to time, much of it in the form of music. One thinks of Mahaila Jackson's rendition of "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," Lauryn Hill's version of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song," and Eric Clapton's "Holy Mary:"
Holy Mother, where are you?
Tonight I feel broken in two.
I've seen the stars fall from the sky.
Holy mother, can't keep from crying.
Oh I need your help this time,
Get me through this lonely night.
Tell me please which way to turn
To find myself again.
Holy mother, hear my prayer,
Somehow I know you're still there.
Send me please some peace of mind;
Take away this pain.
I can't wait, I can't wait, I can't wait any longer.
I can't wait, I can't wait, I can't wait for you.
Holy mother, hear my cry,
I've cursed your name a thousand times.
I've felt the anger running through my soul;
All I need is a hand to hold.
Oh I feel the end has come,
No longer my legs will run.
You know I would rather be
In your arms tonight.
When my hands no longer play,
My voice is still, I fade away.
Holy mother, then I'll be
Lying in, safe within your arms.
An ancient form of prayer and also a way of navigating loss and despair, laments carry those who long for comfort from raw honesty, through struggle, to the reaffirmation of God's goodness. They can be found in both the Old Testament and in the New, particularly in the Psalms and in the book using the same word as the basis for its title, Lamentations.
But we are not very good at lament. Instead, we react to profound loss in ways that often leave us spiritually and emotionally trapped: We live in denial, running from our losses. We get stuck, unable to re-learn the world around us, or we struggle with loss, confined to the tools for grieving that we can invent for ourselves in the moment.
There are a number of reasons that make it difficult for us to avail ourselves of lament:
One, we often lack deep, spiritual communities in which we can share our losses and lament. Prayers of this kind, as they are found in Scripture, were often the prayerful work of God's people. The individual may lament, but the individual never laments alone, and while vulnerable, wise companionship cannot restore every loss that we experience, it can carry us when we are unable to carry ourselves.
Two, we have turned our back on the significance and power of liturgy. That doesn't mean that we don't need liturgy or ritual. Anthropologist, Margaret Meade once observed that when we reject ancient rituals, we simply replace them with inventions of the moment, which often lack the depth and power of rituals refined over millennia. Lament, as crafted by that past, has that kind of power and it also has distinct benefits: It reminds us of the necessary steps to re-learning the world. It participates in the emotional and spiritual wisdom of the many, preferring the strength of ancient wisdom to momentary invention.
Three, we lack the history of the relationship that undergirds prayers of lament. In the Old Testament, the struggle that the writers of lament describe is never navigated in a vacuum. They explore their anger, disorientation, and even despair in a world made safe for those raw emotions that is sustained by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The history of that relationship is also the basis upon which those who lament lift their appeal. In today's church that relationship and its history is often missing from the life of our religious communities. This isn't a matter of historical knowledge, although that is part of it. What is missing is a strong sense of a relationship with the God who has nurtured and sustained the communities of which we have been a part.
Whatever the causes of its neglect, lament is an important part of our spiritual heritage with profound importance for refuge and healing that merits exploration