“Bringing our Pain to God” (Michael Card)

We’re afraid of other people’s pain. Like Job’s friends, we’re afraid when we don’t have answers. Job doesn’t get any answers for his sufferings, but he gets God.

–Michael Card, from this great article on Biblical lament in worship.

He’s got an album called The Hidden Face of God, which you can hear at Grooveshark for free (or click on the album image to the left). It kicks off with a great Gospel-flavored track called, “Come Lift Up Your Sorrows.”

Words on the Word Interview with Leslie C. Allen, Author of Liturgy of Grief

Not long ago I reviewed Leslie C. Allen’s Liturgy of Grief: A Pastoral Commentary on Lamentations. The book gently yet steadily coaches the reader in processing grief, expositing and drawing on the rich Biblical tradition of lament. I interviewed Dr. Allen this week.

You write, “Contemporary Western culture provides little space for grief.”  Why do you think this is?

A very good question. Perhaps, in reflection of a technologically advanced and relatively stable society, our culture expects comfort, convenience, and control, and won’t face up to anything contrary. Medication is assumed to be the answer to psychological as well as physical ills. So we feel embarrassed by grieving (and dying) people.

How can churches and worshiping communities better attend to the grieving processes of their community members? In addition to Lamentations and the rest of the rich Biblical tradition, are there other resources available to worship leaders and liturgists to better help them guide their communities through experiences of grief?

One example comes to mind. When I moved my home and started attending a new church some years ago, I found the associate minister’s morning prayer each Sunday was prayed on behalf of those present who were suffering in various ways. It was a different prayer each week, always wide reaching and beautifully crafted. I (and doubtless others) appreciatively felt she was praying for me, at a time when I needed prayer but found it difficult to pray.

You say, “‘Why?’ in the complaint psalms is never an intellectual request for information but a loaded rhetorical question that conveys emotional bewilderment and protest.”  Is there ever an appropriate time for the pastor/chaplain to address questions like “Why did this evil happen?” through a more deliberately theological-philosophical lens?  If so, how does the chaplain discern if and when it’s appropriate to go there?

C.S.Lewis’s The Problem of Pain evidently brought him no help as he penned A Grief Observed. Lamentations felt free to eventually tackle theological issues, using prophetic revelation as the guideline, whereas we and those we try to help are not living in the immediacy of such a situation when prophecy was being directly fulfilled. And Lamentations is able to give a variety of answers, perhaps in the hope that some at least would be found helpful. If a grieving person truly seeks an intellectual answer, one may tentatively broach some thoughts to be tried on for size. Otherwise, it is better considered when the emotional passion of grief does not intrude.

You mention the New Testament story (Mark 4:35-41) where Jesus’ disciples ask, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”  Especially given Jesus’s reply (“Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”), how can we who worship God know when it’s appropriate to lament or complain in prayer and when it’s not?  This is the “how far is too far?” question with relation to lament and prayer!

If our prayers are to be real, we must pray from where we are, emotionally and in other ways. We miss a tone of voice in the written form of biblical revelation. I suspect Jesus’ reply was mainly meant as reassurance, rather than rebuke, like the examples of “Do not fear” in Isaiah 40:9; 41:13, 14; 43:1-2; 44:2, etc.

I happened to read Allen’s book just before the Colorado movie theater shootings. Reading it inspired me to find and pray two lament prayers in response (here and here). As a Professor of Old Testament and hospital chaplain, Allen in his book provides the reader with good space for grief and Biblically-inspired means to lament.  A Liturgy of Grief is available here.

Prayer in the liturgy: Is it worth it?

Today’s post comes from Timothy Dean Roth, author of The Week That Changed the World: The Complete Easter Story (amzn). There are few people whose words inspire, challenge, and fill me with a sense of God’s presence more than Tim’s. His book has been an excellent aid to my experience of Holy Week these last two years. He’s given me some of my best sermon ideas. Etc., etc. He’s a great dialogue partner and friend. As Words on the Word addresses themes of worship and liturgy on Wednesdays, Tim asks today: “Prayer in the liturgy: Is it worth it?”

If you go to a Church that has a time when a lector reads prayers and the congregation responds after each one-sentence prayer, “Lord, hear our prayer,” you may wonder sometimes whether the Lord really does hear our prayer, especially if you were spacing out and can’t even remember what the prayer was. The answer is that God does indeed hear these prayers, and he responds to them.

Here’s why. These prayers are themselves written by liturgists in a spirit of prayer in response to the needs of the times we live in. The Holy Spirit himself prompts liturgists who are attuned to his voice to write down these prayers. I have never heard a prayer read to the congregation that could be considered outside God’s will (and hopefully you haven’t either), and we know that God favorably answers prayers that are in accordance with his will. We also know that God the Father answers the prayers of the righteous, just like he answered the prayers of his own Son, though only if prayed in a spirit of steadfast faith and without doubt, which is the hard part.

Fortunately for those of us with weak faith, there are some crazy people out there who do believe that when we pray outlandish things like, “That you may increase peace in the Middle East” or, “That you may help all politicians recognize the value of life,” these things are actually going to happen. God hears these people, even if we can’t quite figure out how. What if a suicide bomber changes his mind the day before blowing up a mosque because enough people like the one right next to you sincerely said, “Lord, hear our prayer”? We can’t know how these prayers are answered, but they are. God’s word promises us that. Every little prayer counts, every little prayer brings a little more good into the world and a little less evil, and even the tiniest difference in the chaotic, unpredictable daily stock market fluctuations of good versus evil is worth the effort.

God is going to answer these prayers with or without your participation, so why not participate, why not fully abandon yourself to these prayers? Through these prayers, he’s inviting every one of us, from greatest to least, to join the battle, to actively participate in his work of transforming this world.

Another prayer of lament in response to Aurora, Colorado mass shooting

AP Photo/Barry Gutierrez

Yesterday I posted a prayer of lament for the victims and families of victims of the shooting at the Dark Knight showing in Aurora, Colorado the other day. Here is another lament prayer, compiled by Laurence Hull Stookey from a collection of Scriptures.

Christians do, after all, have a rich Biblical tradition from which to draw in expressing our mournful prayers of lament to God. Below the prayer are citation information and a link to a formatted, print-friendly pdf of the prayer.

If I were leading a congregation in unison prayer or offering a pastoral prayer tomorrow morning for all those affected by the shooting, I think this is what I would use. It’s good “lament liturgy.”

Prayer of Lament

O God, you are our help and strength,
our refuge in the time of trouble.
In you our ancestors trusted;
They trusted and you delivered them.
When we do not know how to pray as we ought,
your very Spirit intercedes for us
with sighs too deep for words.
We plead for the intercession now, Gracious One.

For desolation and destruction are in our streets,
and terror dances before us.
Our hearts faint; our knees tremble;
our bodies quake; all faces grow pale.
Our eyes are spent from weeping
and our stomachs churn.

How long, O Lord, how long
must we endure this devastation?
How long will destruction lay waste at noonday?
Why does violence flourish
while peace is taken prisoner?
Rouse yourself! Do not cast us off in times of trouble.
Come to our help;
redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.

For you are a gracious God
abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.

By the power of the cross,
through which you redeemed the world,
bring to an end hostility
and establish justice in the gate.
For you will gather together your people into that place
where mourning and crying and pain
will be no more,
and tears will be wiped from every eye.
Hasten the day, O God for our salvation.
Accomplish it quickly! Amen.

From Let the Whole Church Say Amen! A Guide for Those Who Pray in Public by Laurence Hull Stookey, pp 94-95 (Copyright 2001 by Abingdon Press). Reproduced by permission. Formatted print-friendly pdf of prayer here.

Scriptures from which the above prayer comes are: Psalm 124:8, Psalm 37:39, Psalm 22:4, Romans 8:26, Isaiah 59:7, Job 41:22, Nahum 2:10, Lamentations 2:11, Isaiah 6:11, Psalm 91:6, Psalm 44:23, Psalm 44:26, Exodus 34:6, 1 Corinthians 1:17, Ephesians 2:14, Amos 5:15, Revelation 21:4, Isaiah 60:22.