From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Conference speakers say prayers of lament imply trust and belief

Date 6 Jun 2002 15:55:12 -0400

Note #7194 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:


Hope and helplessness

Conference speakers say prayers of lament imply trust and belief

by Alexa Smith

MONTREAT, NC - While "lamentation" may sound to some like an expression of hopelessness, the ironic truth is that hope is the crucial component that differentiates authentic prayer from mere complaining.

Otherwise the words wouldn't be uttered at all, according to a dais-full of speakers at the Montreat Conference Center's third annual "Reclaiming the Text" conference" May 27-31. The event's theme was "Recovering the Language of Lament."

"You wouldn't bother to pray these prayers if you didn't believe in a God who heard them, and, in hearing, could respond in an effective way," said Walter Brueggemann of Columbia Theological Seminary, the prominent Hebrew Bible scholar who helped create the conference and who served as one of its five keynoters.

"There is Jesus's complaint on the cross, 'Why have you forsaken me?,' but hope is found in the words, 'My God, my God,'" Brueggemann said in an interview with the Presbyterian News Service, emphasizing that the two seemingly contradictory ideas are inextricable.

However, Brueggemann admitted that many Christians feel uncomfortable about scolding God or lamenting that He seems absent or indifferent to their sufferings or those of others.

"Laments characteristically do not have confessions of fault," he said. "The mood is much more protest. But mainline folks would much rather be at fault than raise questions about God's truthfulness."

Discomfort with the idea of questioning God - or crying out to God to do something to stop suffering - is part of the ancient Hebrew tradition and the later Christian one. The question is how to find that language again - how to get used to living in the tension where hope and helplessness intersect.

"To recover the language of lament is to learn to pray as if there is no God around anywhere who can or will do anything about our situation - except possibly make it worse," said Patrick Miller, a professor of the Old Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary. "And it is to pray as if God is always listening and can be trusted to help.

"Sometimes the question dominates, as in Job; sometimes the confidence dominates, as in many of the Psalmic laments. ... But the story of Job makes it clear that the questions are just as true to the conversation with God as the statements of confidence.

"We cannot ever forget the judgment of the Lord that it is Job, not his friends - Job with his protests, not the theologians with their answers - who 'has spoken rightly of me.'"

For Christians, Miller said, lament has an incarnational purpose.

"When the New Testament hears the laments in Jesus's voice, this is not simply a prophetic and messianic move," he said. "... For what this means is that all the cries for help that have come forth and still come forth from human lips, all the laments that we have uttered and will utter. are taken up in the laments of Christ."

He insisted that Christ's death on the cross accomplished more than atonement for human sin.

"The lament is also critical for understanding the work of God in Jesus Christ," he said, "for it is the chief clue that Christ died not simply as one of us, but also as one for us - both with us and in our behalf. It is in hearing the voice of lament on the lips of the dying Jesus that it now becomes crystal clear: Jesus died for our suffering as much as for our sins ... 

"The reading of the death of Jesus in relation to the prayers of lament means that the power of resurrection is not over sin alone, but also over death and all its many manifestations in human life," Miller said. "To recover the place of lament is not finally simply a matter of our own prayers, but of learning at the deepest level the meaning of God's vindication of the suffering of Christ in the resurrection. It is as much our hope in the face of pain as it is in the face of sin."

Another speaker pointed out that similar ironic trust is evident in the songs of slaves in the pre-emancipation United States - laments sung in daily life to call on God for help in the face of pain.

Wilma Bailey, a professor of Hebrew and Aramaic Scripture at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, led a workshop that explored what she called the "sorrow songs" of the ancient Israelites and enslaved Africans in this country.

"Both communities hoped to move the heart of God as they expressed their grief," she said. "They both hope that God sees the situation and is willing to do something. Ultimately, lament has a positive purpose."

Bailey said the slave songs camouflaged anger and accounts of abuse for fear that they could be overheard by their overseers.  Yet the songs attest that enslaved Africans put their hope in the same God who led Abraham into a homeland, set the Hebrew slaves free and protected Daniel from the fires of the furnace. 

"The message is: If God could do this back then for the Israelites, then God could do the same thing for us today," she said.

That is precisely the theological leap the keynoters argued said today's lamenters need to make.

According to Brueggeman, lamentation becomes "credible speech" when communities are able to tell the truth about themselves and the world - and that happens (only) when certain theological underpinnings are in place.

First, there must be a God "large enough" and "strong enough" to allow people to speak in imperatives, he said, noting that Hebrew writers often say, "you" in addressing God. Second, there must be a "grounded fidelity" where "issues of infidelity" can be raised, as when people believe that the covenant is genuine and conveys guarantees from God about how the world works.

Brueggemann said that "the body" must be able to recall or imagine a "fully functioning" creation and must be willing to speak against violations of the covenant. "The temptation to silence is immense," he said. "... Silence is the great vehicle of the empire with which the church is often in collusion. ... Our business is to break the call to silence."

Miller said he was struck twice this year to hear a lamenting voice break through into regular worship. On each occasion, he said, a worship leader "broke down" while lifting up to God the suffering of children in parts of the world plagued by violence. 

"I realized then," he recalled, "that in both instances I had heard what I so rarely hear in our worship ... a genuine anguish in praying to God for God's presence and God's deliverance in the face of the trouble of the world."
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