I learned what a lament was during my university days. At that time, it wasn’t a matter of having studied a form, it was the matter of discovering that certain Psalms in the Bible helped me process through things that were going on both inside me and in my life.
The teaching had been simple. A way to relate scripture to what was going on in your life was to find a passage in the Bible that resonated with what was going on and start writing phrase by phrase, verse by verse but not to write the words on the page. Replace the words there with the events or feelings you were experiencing. Let the words themselves lead you to the understanding of how God was speaking to you through the verses. Trying that out would develop a new level in my thinking and writing as I began to see analogies to life in what I read.
It was many years later that I would learn that the Laments in the Psalms were actually a very specific form of writing consisting of 4 distinct parts. Because they were heart cries and responses to life, they were not always written in a strict adherence of order but there were specific elements that mattered. Life would continue to teach me why.
Whether or not you know what I mean by the Bible Laments, most of us have an idea of what it means to lament. Many of us, though, don’t realize how much we have watered down its meaning. Just opening Google with the word yields this definition:
noun: lament; plural noun: laments
1. a passionate expression of grief or sorrow.
“his mother’s night-long laments for his father”
synonyms: wail, wailing, lamentation, moan, moaning, weeping, crying, sob, sobbing, keening; jeremiad; complaint
“the widow’s laments”
2. a song, piece of music, or poem expressing sorrow.
synonyms: dirge, requiem, elegy, threnody, monody; keen
“a lament for the dead”
3. an expression of regret or disappointment; a complaint.
“there were constant laments about the conditions of employment”
verb: lament; 3rd person present: laments; past tense: lamented; past participle: lamented; gerund or present participle: lamenting
1. mourn (a person’s loss or death).
“he was lamenting the death of his infant daughter”
synonyms: mourn, grieve, sorrow, wail, weep, cry, sob, keen, beat one’s breast
“the mourners lamented”
antonyms: celebrate, rejoice
a. express one’s deep grief about.
b. express regret or disappointment over something considered
Noun, meaning 3, is often as far as we are willing to allow a lament to go – “an expression of regret or disappointment; a complaint.” We give recognition to lament’s place in grief but often expect it to stay at the intensity of this part of the definition – quiet, some weeping maybe, a few sobs, some sorrow. We are uncomfortable with the synonyms associated here: keening, moaning, wailing, jeremiad – strong expression of something that is not short lived. Where is the faith in that? The antonyms listed here say it all. How can we be living victorious lives if we are indulging in something that is anathemas to celebration and rejoicing?
Many years later I would learn what laments really were and how they have the power to begin with the deepest meaning of the word and lead us to the place of praise.
There are three distinct phases in a lament. I have learned to word them as follows:
1. Saying it to God like it really is. The very act of addressing God is an act of faith. If you read the Psalms, the writers expressed doubts and disappointments, anger and frustrations. They didn’t apologetically stand by waiting for God to strike them with lightening for dare talking to him that way. They keened. They moaned. They spelled out their problem with how God seemed to be running things. It was not clean and pretty and well pressed. It was dirty and angry and complaining. And this was in a public act that got placed in a very public book that would outlive them. The emotions are not always comfortable but they are real and raw and lay the speaker open for God to see inside. For those who can handle this terminology, in a way, you are telling God off.
The thing to realize is, if you truly believe that God is as great as he is then God knows what is in you anyway. Why play religious pretend games with the Almighty? There might be a place for prettiness in hymns or performances, but a lament is the nitty-gritty of life. If truly spoken, it comes from the dirt level of who you are. It is the repetitive high pitched voicing of the agony of losing something or someone you love whether it is a disillusionment with God, a real person, or something in you.
2. Asking the questions, saying what you want from God. Here is when you begin to make a decision. Does this God you are talking to really care about you? Can God really love you and help you even though your thoughts and feelings aren’t as reverent as you have been taught they should be? Does God only want the show without the reality of the person within?
So you lay it all on the line. God, this is what I want. This is what I need. This is what I think you should do with the problems in the world. If you are still at the head level, this will probably come out as a specific sign on the dotted line kind of list that God better deliver or your faith in the Almighty is on the line.
If you have reached to the deepest level, then the raw emotions you are experiencing will have surfaced in the words and you will have come to the understanding of the depth of your need. Your scraped-raw emotions will reveal the deepest longings in your heart. In talking to God, you will not so much reveal these deepest longings to God but to yourself.
3. Remembering Why you believe it is worth talking to God about all this, why you believe he can answer. In the Psalms this often was a remembering of what God did for the people Israel but sometimes was as simple as remember that God gives the blessing of sleep. For me, this held a remembering of the lights that shone in the dark places of my life. It became a growing chain of moments when God shone through. It’s earliest moments were the memory of a butterfly with a broken wing and a young woman who allowed a child to stand holding her hands and rocking on her toes while the woman sang in a choir. It would pass through stories I heard from others as well as stories I lived. It would come to encompass Glaphré, Sue Monk Kidd, Parker Palmer, Henri Nouwen and other who wrote and shared God’s movement in their lives through times of doubt and darkness.
It would include those times that my words or actions were allowed to make a difference in the lives of others. The songs written from my own pain would become calling cards for others dealing with depression to help their families see their faith in the dark. It would encompass poems written in times of strength that would speak words into times of darkness. It would encompass journelled prayers, chance encounters, windows of time when someone saw what was going on and reached out. I would hear it in the birds, in walking the way of the cross in a local monastery chapel, nature would sing God to me. Chance encounters, deep proddings at certain moments would add to the list, encounter with something that couldn’t be explained in logical terms.
This does not mean my depression and anxiety moments disappeared. Even as I write these words I am dealing with a visit of these two not so welcomed guests. But their presence, though humbling and, sometimes feeling humiliating, don’t mean God is gone nor that I don’t believe in God. Praying the laments has taught me to see the one who walks with me through storms even when his movement is hidden in the rolling waves (Psalm 77). It has taught me to recognize the other in valleys of shadow (Psalm 23) or simply my connection to God (Psalm 143***).
4. A statement of present or anticipated praise. Some writers stop with the third step. Whether or not they do, this 4ths step is an important part of what makes a lament meaningful in the life of those who believe in God. What makes this step so important to be aware of is that the praise here is not always in instantaneous thing. It is a stating of reality for those who truly believe what they have rehearsed in the third step. At the end of a lament is an implied or explicitly expressed declaration of praise, maybe not now, but someday. It is a knowing God even when all you see is shadows on a wall. It is believing just because you have a record that, for you, says God is true and can do what you truly need in your life.
“Lord”, it ends, “it may be dark right now and I may not be able to find my way. I still remember and I know that you have brought me through in the past. And each time you have done this, what I have gone through has been redeemed by the opportunities that come my way to make a difference in the lives of others. You have done this before. You can do it again. Though the way is dark right now and fears and disillusionment threaten to win, I will praise you someday for what you will do in my life through what I am dealing with right now. Amen.”
*** The following is a video I put together from photos, such as those above, I had taken and a computer generated playing of the melody I wrote to Psalm 143, NIV. It is my voice that reads the text.
Other writings on this topic: (This list will be for my own use, but I share it here for others who might benefit. It is a work in progress.)
“My God, My God, Why?”, Stacey Gleddiesmith, Reformed Worship: Resources for Plannng and Leading Worship, June 2010, http://www.reformedworship.org/article/june-2010/my-god-my-god-why
“DARKNESS IS MY CLOSEST FRIEND: USING THE PSALMS OF LAMENT TO ADDRESS GRIEF ISSUES, http://www.nacsw.org/Publications/Proceedings2007/SmithTDarkenessClosestFriendE.pdf