Lament: Cry of Suffering,
Prayer of Faith
By Linda Witte Henke
The primal, existential wail of an infant, often expressed in quick succession to its first breath, is what Frances Klopper names as the most elemental form of lament. 1
Although Lament is featured prominently in scripture, in many Christian circles it has fallen into disuse. N. T. Wright identifies several factors contributing to the decline in the use of lament’s: 2
- In the common vernacular, the words lament and complaint are used interchangeably, opening the door to a perception that lament is akin to self-indulgent whining -- moaning and groaning about life’s hardships rather than facing them with head-on bravery.
- Cultural and religious biases contribute to a perception that lament is a rebellious protest against God, an expression of defiance that is understood to be both inappropriate and dangerous.
- Expressions of lament are sometimes perceived as a lack of faith in God, an absence of trust in God’s providence.
Wright, who encourages Christians to resist the temptation to offer explanations in times of crisis, suggests that lament is an entirely appropriate response to our human inability to understand the “why” of human hardship and suffering. Wright offers these correctives to perceptions of biblical lament: 3
- Lament is a form of praise. It is an appeal to God grounded in confidence in God’s character as it has been self-defined through commitment to justice, righteousness, mercy, and steadfast love.
- Lament is proof of relationship. In the Psalms, for example, Israel expresses its lament within the context of the covenant relationship in which God had always been faithful.
- Lament is a pathway of intimacy with God. Israel, in breaking open its hearts before their covenant God, affirms and reinforces a sense of kinship with and belonging to God.
- Lament is a prayer for God to act. The Hebrew word for “hear” (shema) appears 79 times in the Psalms. Lament is a form of prayer that is not passive but active, a prayer for God to be God in the time of crisis or need. It is an expression of faith-full confidence in God.
- Lament is a participation in the pain of others. Lament is a prayer for solidarity in suffering, both God’s solidarity with us and our solidarity with the suffering of our neighbor. Lament heightens awareness that suffering binds us in shared humanity. This form of lament is modeled when, even in suffering death on the cross, Jesus prayed in solidarity with all who suffer.
Wright’s understanding suggests that restoration of lament in Christian liturgical practice is certainly appropriate. But how might this happen?
A good way to begin is by familiarizing ourselves with the structure of the biblical psalms of lament. Robert Phillips describes these common movements within the structure of the biblical psalms of lament: 4
- Address: a brief statement of faith that conveys a sense of urgency and desperation (Psalm 22:1, 13:1-2)
- Complaint: the use of metaphors, symbols, and/or images to describe human emotions, to forge connection with God, and to evoke God’s validating and empathic response (Psalm 102:3-11)
- Petition: an articulation of the request that identifies a specific, urgent need (Psalm 51:1-2, 10-12)
- Confession of Trust: reflection on difficult situations from which God has previously delivered and restored, coupled with hope grounded in experiences of God’s healing in the past (Psalm 59:16)
- Vow to Praise: a clinging to hope that is expressed as trust in God and commitment to praising the One being held responsible for deliverance.
- Lament: a grief-filled cry to God in faith, conveying desire to maintain relationship with God.
Gail Ramshaw offers these foundational suggestions for incorporating lament into communal worship: 5
- Take time to differentiate between personal and communal lament. While both are valid, Ramshaw points to a problematic tension on a continuum that includes giving voice to lament that is so specific that it speaks only to a few, giving voice to lament that is so generalized that it relates to no one, and giving voice to lament that is general enough to speak to everyone in language that has the capacity to evoke both broad and diverse responses.
- Explore how experiences of lament are expressed differently among cultures, denominations, and local faith communities. Differentiate between inclinations to hold deep sorrows inside and freedom to give full expression in communal settings. Encourage acceptance of these diverse patterns for experiencing and/or expressing lament.
- Acknowledge the inclination of most faith communities to move with haste from sorrow to joy. Ramshaw reminds us that lament for loss and/or suffering is a journey that cannot (and should not) be rushed.
- Reflect on biblical perceptions of suffering and hardships as God’s punishment. Be intentional about reframing this understanding, especially as it relates to natural disasters, wars and violence, oppression and slavery, illness and global pandemics, etc.
What are some concrete ways to reshape understanding of lament and encourage openness for incorporating it into the congregational life, ministry, and worship of God’s people?
- Offer an adult formation series on lament, to include biblical study of lament, sharing by participants of their own experiences of situations that are a cause for lament, and encouragement for participants to create personal expressions of lament (a poem, a short story, a piece of artwork, a photograph or collage, an arrangement of flowers, a scarf or garment, etc.). Invite participants to share these expressions of lament with one another.
- Schedule a time to informally sing together hymns within your own tradition that reflect a tone of lament, African American “Sorrow Songs” (also known as “Negro Spirituals”), and newer hymns of lament. Consider interspersing the hymns and songs with brief biblical accounts of lament. Allow time (either as a whole or in smaller groups) to share individual responses to the experience. Conclude with a prayer of thanksgiving for God’s gift of lament and a petition for openness to making fuller use of that gift.
- Embrace the practice of beginning every bible study, small group, committee meeting, etc. with a round-the-circle sharing of “Kyries” (concerns and laments offered to God’s merciful care), followed by a round-the-circle sharing of “Glorias” (joy and thanksgiving for what God is working in each person’s life). This simple practice acknowledges the fullness of our human condition and has the capacity to cultivate spiritual intimacy among siblings within God’s family. It is also readily adapted to almost all age groups.
- Look for ways to deepen understanding of and appreciation for the liturgical Rite of Confession as a lament over sin that vocalizes our longing for God’s intervention. Explore how this place in the liturgy might hold promise for occasional incorporation of carefully selected alternative confessional rites that invite personal and collective examination around such societal sins as racism, human and ecological violence, indifference to neighbor, etc.
- Since the psalms of lament are rarely included in the Revised Common Lectionary, be intentional about identifying occasions when they might be appropriately incorporated into worship. Mindful that sorrow is uncomfortable and that we are inclined to move hastily from sorrow to joy, consider allowing a time of silence for the assembly to “sit together” with its own pain and in solidarity with the pain of others.
- Mine the weekly lectionary texts to identify places where the biblical narrative includes accounts of grief, loss, illness, suffering, adversity, etc. Look for appropriate ways to briefly name these as causes for lament in bulletin announcements, Prayers of Intercession, sermons, etc.
- Explore the resource of newer hymns (some of which are powerful expressions of timely and relevant lament) and identify one or two that are well-suited for incorporation into your congregation’s repertoire. Introduce them with intention and sensitivity.
- Identify a small cadre of people to prayerfully consider when events or circumstances within and beyond your community warrant a special service of lament and to support congregational leaders in crafting and offering such services.
- Explore how pastoral awareness to congregants’ daily lives can lead to opportunities when simple rites can mark the significance God’s presence amid experiences of personal loss, grief, suffering, sorrow, etc. This author’s service as a Lutheran pastor heightened her awareness that, as rich and as wonderful as communal Christian worship is, it is rarely able to address daily-life experiences of congregants. Her development of simple “rites” of Celebration (of an engagement for marriage, of a pregnancy, of a new home, etc.), of Consecration (of new career or job, retirement, preparation of a will, etc.), of Encouragement (for entrance into adoption process, confession of wrong-doing, for dissolution of marriage, etc.), and Comfort (in time of natural disaster, when violence is experienced, when life support is discontinued) were eventually published as a book. 6
Exploration of the appropriateness and/or desirability of re-introducing expressions of lament into the life, ministry, and worship of God’s people is not complete without consideration of one remaining obstacle: resistance to the idea that human lament has the capacity to “change God.”
This author’s personal conviction that lament changes both us and God is shaped by these reflections:
- Lament calls us to honesty about who we are and to whom we belong. Lament reminds God of the baptismal covenant by which we are claimed as God’s own and named as heirs with Christ to God’s mercy, justice, and steadfast love.
- Lament unleashes the grief, anger, frustration, and desperation ingredient in human experience, driving home our utter dependence on God. Lament refreshes God’s memory that we are wholly reliant on God because God created us to be so.
- Lament creates within us a God-shaped void that is a place of openness to God’s will and way. Lament creates opportunities for God to fill that void with the power of God’s loving presence.
- Lament for our own situations and circumstances sensitizes us to the situations and circumstances of others. Lament enables God to draw us into fuller partnership in God’s inbreaking reign of mutual love for God, neighbor, and creation.
While incorporating lament into the congregational life, ministry, and worship of God’s people certainly comes with challenges, doing so also opens the door to deeper relationship with God and fuller participation in God’s work in the world. ■
1 Klopper, Frances. “Lament: The Language for Our Times.” Presented to Annual Meeting of the Old Testament Society of South Africa (OTSSA), October 10, 2007. Published in the OTSSA Journal, 2008.
2 Wright, N. T. (n.d.). “Five Things to Know about Lament.” N. T. Wright Online. Retrieved March 1, 2021.
4 Phillips, Robert. “What Is Lament? Why Is It Important? Why Is It Good?” Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta (https://episcopalatlanta.org). May 19, 2020.
5 Ramshaw, Gail. “Learning Lament: Crafting and Scheduling Laments for Communal Worship.” Institute of Liturgical Studies. April 13, 2021.
6 Henke, Linda Witte. "Marking Time: Christian Rituals for All Our Days." Morehouse Publishing, 2001.
As A Mother
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, heightened awareness of the plights of “mothers and orphans” led me to the powerful words of Isaiah 66:13. The words of this Isaiah text provide the background “texture” for this digital collage, printed onto brushed aluminum, as well as the biblical focus.
The Healing of the Nations
I am often drawn to the Tree of Life as an image for Christ in our lives and our world. The Revelation text that links the Tree of Life to the “healing of the nations” spoke poignantly to me during the COVID-19 pandemic, when we were especially mindful of the world’s need of so many kinds of healing. The background “texture” for this digital collage, printed onto brushed aluminum, is the text of the hymn, “Here in God’s Garden,” the musical score of which appears in the heavenly body behind the tree image. The biblical focus is Revelation 22:2.
The disorienting nature of the COVID-19 pandemic left me feeling like I was living in unfamiliar territory. One of the losses that I felt most keenly during this time was no longer being able to gather as part of a faith community to sing the Lord’s song. The background “texture” for this digital collage, printed onto brushed aluminum, is Genesis 11:1-9 (the account of the disorientation that occurred at the Tower of Babel). The biblical focus is the Hebrew text from Psalm 137:4: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” ■
UCCMA members can access more artwork by Linda Witte Henke at www.uccma.org/journal.
Linda Witte Henke
After a career that has encompassed service as a parish pastor and an art practice focused on the creation of commissioned liturgical art for churches and church agencies, Linda Witte Henke now devotes her energies to developing digitally designed liturgical resources for congregational use.
Learn more about her ministry at www.lindahenke.com.