We have been taking lots of walks lately. I don’t only mean ‘we’ in the sense of my 5-person family.
Our neighbourhoods at-large seem abuzz with friends and families escaping the confines of their homes for some exercise and fresh air.
While many aspects of our culture are at a standstill, nature seems to keep on ticking along uninterrupted. The trees refuse to social distance while their branches still dance in the breeze, the birds aren’t on lock down, and the grass and plants continue to grow and produce.
Creation proclaims its aliveness in the Creator.
It occurs to me something similar is true for our interior worlds. While so many aspects of what was ‘normal life’ grind to a halt, our spiritual lives, with the rest of the cosmos, continue to shift, grow, and develop. The Spirit’s work hasn’t stopped.
Still, some of our most familiar and traditional places and ways of engaging the Spirit have been upended, and that leaves many anxious, uncertain, lonely, and asking the question:
What can spiritual life and growth look like in seasons of crisis?
Our first answer might naturally be to ‘pray’. This is a great answer. Quite possibly, this is the best answer. For some, however, it might also bring up another question, a more fundamental question: How? How do we pray, or serve, or worship, or grow in moments like this?
This series will seek to respond to these questions by exploring a few time-honoured practices of prayer (practices for our interior world), worship (practices of outward expression), and acts of service and love (practices that move us toward family and neighbours).
For some, engaging these practices will feel like walking down a familiar, well-worn path, and for others they may seem like uncharted territory – not unlike the world in which we currently find ourselves. I think it is important to state at the outset, that none of these practices are better, holier, or truer than the others.
As the great philosopher and Christian thinker, Dallas Willard often said,
“The disciplines [spiritual practices] of the spiritual life are not godliness; they are wisdom”.
These practices in and of themselves do not bring us closer to God. But, as we engage them with honesty and humility, our hearts become cultivated to more readily receive divine grace which is so desperately needed for our transformation into Christ-likeness.
So, however and wherever you find yourself during this unique moment in history- “Welcome!” I humbly invite you onto this magnificent, surprising, difficult, joyous, life-losing, and wonder-inducing journey that is the work and grace of the spiritual life.
Week One – The Prayer of Lament
I spent the majority of my twenties touring the States and a few other countries drumming for various Christian and Country music artists. Those years provided a wealth of memories and life experiences. However, experience and memories were about the only wealth it offered. Even in Nashville (a.k.a. Music City) surviving as a musician-for-hire can be an art form of its own. This is especially true when you are terrible at managing money, and I was TERRIBLE at managing money.
I would arrive home from tour, and my mailbox would be a cornucopia of sadness splaying its bounty of bills onto my front lawn. Given my level of monetary astuteness, I responsibly filed my stacks of bills in the rubbish bin and obliviously went about my day. Crazy as it sounds, there was a real sense in my mind at the time that as long as I didn’t look at these bills, they would go away; if I didn’t name the issue, it somehow didn’t exist.
This phenomenon is not new.
In the worldview of ancient Israel, the act of naming held great significance. The Hebrew verb “to call” (qara), not only has the power to name but summon.
The biblical story of creation tells us that when the Creator “calls” he gives clarity of form and function to what he has created. His act of naming calls into their purpose the Day, Night, Skies, Land, and Seas. He also brings the animals to the man to “see what he would call (qara) them”. (Gen 2:19-20) It is as if there is something in the naming process itself that brings definition to the indefinite and makes the vague concrete.
I think most of us have those things which we would rather keep beneath the surface and unnamed. Maybe like my touring days, it’s a financial struggle, or perhaps it’s the ache in our bodies that we don’t get checked because we can’t face the diagnosis, or the “elephant-in-the-room” which changes the atmosphere of a relationship but that no one is willing to address.
In moments of crisis (like the Coronavirus), we can also have reservoirs of emotions, grief, fear, sorrow and loss sitting just beneath the surface, but that we have not named, or to which we have given expression.
Perhaps this is because we grew up in a home where emotions were dismissed or even dealt with harshly, and so we learned to stuff them, knowing that if we began poking the reservoir, it would burst.
Maybe we learned to sit on these feelings by a culture that taught us, by-and-large, the values of self-sufficiency, personal power, and the inherent dangers of being truly vulnerable.
It could also be that the particular faith communities we came from gave us the prayers of promise and victory but also forgot to teach us the prayers of frailty and suffering.
The Prayers of Lament, which are found throughout the Bible, are prayers of anguish, grief, and protest. The poet of Psalm 88 cries,
“Why O Lord do you reject me
and hide your face from me?
From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death;
I have suffered your terrors and am in despair…
You have taken my companions and loved ones from me;
the darkness is my closest friend.”
Or Psalm 42:3 who exclaims:
“My tears have been my food
day and night,
while men say to me all day long.
“Where is your God?”
These are not the language of discourse or analysis, but poetry. Poetry invites us into the experience and the intensity of what is felt in ways analysis cannot. The poetry in the book of Lamentations expresses the catastrophic grief and sorrow of a people in exile. Exile forcibly removes us from what used to be home. While exile can be geographical, it can also be mental, emotional, and spiritual.
In her commentary on Lamentations, Biblical Scholar, Kathleen O’Connor writes:
“Lamentation names what is wrong, what is out of order in God’s world, and what keeps human beings from thriving in all of their creative potential. Simple acts of lament expose these conditions, name them, open them to grief and anger and make them visible for remedy. In its complaint, and anger, and grief, lamentation protests conditions that prevent human thriving and this resistance may finally prepare the way for healing.”
This kind of radical expression can easily make us in the West uncomfortable.
Allowing ourselves to express fear, grief, anger and outrage can leave us feeling exposed and ashamed.
Often our first instinct is to bury our frustrations and our humanity before God assuming he will be disappointed if he sees it.
Like Adam and Eve, we want to hide. Adam was ashamed of his naked state, afraid of the death penalty that was looming, and yet God came, not to condemn his nakedness but to give a gift precisely because of it.
Our interior worlds matter.
The things that we refuse to name have a way of hijacking our lives. If we do not learn to attend to the depths of our humanity, it can have severe effects on us and those around us. In contrast, when we remain open and vulnerable, willing to be honest enough to name and take ownership of precisely where we are, we find that the same God who covered the ones hiding in the Garden, comes and covers us as well.
Prayers of lament are not a momentary lack of faith.
The many prayers of lament throughout the bible show us that great declarations of faith also include cries of doubt and confusion.
Great faith is not the absence of pain, hurt, or discouragement but the bold confidence to give it full voice.
Lament brings dignity to the experience of human suffering and tragedy in a world outside of the Garden, where we await the fullness of New Creation. The fact that our sacred scriptures include prayers of lament not only gives us comfort that we serve a God big enough to hold the outer cosmos but one who is loving enough to hold our inner one as well.
- The language of lament comes from the heart, but its expression can need the energy of a full-bodied experience.
- Find one of the many prayers of lament found in the scriptures that speaks to the inner cries of your heart and read it aloud as your own prayer to God.
- Memorise parts of the passage and find a space where you can freely kneel, lay flat, or shake your fists at the ceiling.
- Allow yourself to feel whatever comes. Don’t dismiss the sadness, anger, confusion, disappointment or sit in judgement of them. Bring your feelings to Jesus, exactly as they are without editing them.
- Take a deep breath, knowing that in the naming and releasing of your inner experiences you have been heard, and are profoundly loved and accepted by your Creator.
- Invite God to speak to you in that space or simply sit in the silence, resting in His presence.
Prayers of Lament
For example: Psalm 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10, 12, 13, 14, 17, 22, 25, 26, 27, 44, 58, 60, 74, 79, 80, 83, 85, 89, 90, 94, 123, 126, 129; Lamentations 1-5
O’Connor, Kathleen. “Lamentations.” In The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, 1011-76.
He is an avid student of theology and biblical studies and is the founder of The Inside Job where he serves as a Spiritual Director and Enneagram Coach for men of all ages.
To contact Phil or to find out more about his work, please visit: www.philipcoxSD.com