It was not a typical Fourth of July celebration for me this year. No picnic or fireworks. No lounging at the pool. Instead, I had a sick kid, two sleepless nights, a Harry Potter moviethon, and a few back-logged household projects. By Sunday night, my daughter felt well enough to request that we bake a holiday cake. We whipped up a gluten free chocolate cake covered in chocolate ganache and decorated with red, white, and blue flowers. “What can we write on top?” Eleanor asked. I had hoped to avoid this aspect of cake decorating. I am not interested in superficial flag wavings or greetings that gloss over the very real denial of freedom for some in our midst—not even on top of a cake. At the same time, I am deeply grateful for the ideals that inspired the founding of the United States – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. So, after some deliberation, we settled on “Freedom for All.”
We are still eating the cake (it’s rich). And I notice that I feel a mix of grief and hope with each bite, when I’m paying attention at least. Perhaps we could have written, “Lament,” across the top. (This, I realize, would have given my daughter another story to tell someday about growing up with a pastor-theologian for a mom.)
Lament, wrote pastoral theologian Deborah Hunsinger, is “faith’s alternative to despair.” It is a form of prayer in which we direct our “anguish toward God” (Pray Without Ceasing). As such, it is courageous, honest, gut-wrenching. In lament, we give voice to our shock, outrage, resentment, fear, and, powerlessness. By doing so, our faith and hope are paradoxically renewed.
A friend once said to me, “You know . . . when I’m depressed, I listen to the blues. And eventually I feel better.” I am by no means a blues aficionado. But I knew what he meant: the poetic articulation of sorrow in song can soothe the soul.
Lament soothes, too. But not through optimism. Not denial. Not minimization. Not some kind of reassurance that fails to reassure. Lament soothes through truth-telling. When we lament, we don’t sugar-coat reality. Lament eschews MN-niceness and hollow platitudes about simply getting along with those who enact death-dealing policies and practices.
Lament protests the absence of God in our great distress and reminds God who God is. In so doing, we remember who God is, too. You are our Healer. You are our Provider. You are our Rescuer. Now do it, because we can’t.
Though it may not sound like it, lament is full of hope. Every rant represents a refusal to let go of our deepest longings when we feel most desperate and overwhelmed. Again, Hunsinger writes, “When healing fails, lament is the hopelessness that refuses to give up hope. When injustice prevails, lament is the protest that digs in for the long haul. When humiliation abounds, lament is the self-respect that cries out to a hidden God, ‘How long, O Lord?’”
Lament is an act of public protest—against coercion, injustice, and dehumanization—and prepares us for ongoing protest, the kind of protest that is fierce but not vitriolic. Lament witnesses to the fact that things are not the way we desire, not the way that they should be, not the way God intended for creation.
Retreats provide a container for learning to lament. Rest, silence, meditation, and contemplation—essential components of spiritual retreats—prepare our hearts and minds to speak and pray with greater vulnerability, that is, to pray with raw emotion, gritty honesty, passionate pleading, and sighs too deep for words. We hope you will find ways to retreat where you are so that, when you feel weighed down by injustice and violence all around, you might give voice to your hopelessness in prayer and surprisingly find your hope restored and your heart empowered to continue advocating and caring for all.