From Silence and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent
Unto thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul. O my God, I trust in thee: let me not be ashamed, let not mine enemies triumph over me. Yea, let none that wait on thee be ashamed: let them be ashamed which transgress without cause. Shew me thy ways, O Lord; teach me thy paths. Lead me in thy truth, and teach me: for thou art the God of my salvation; on thee do I wait all the day.
Remember, O Lord, thy tender mercies and thy loving-kindnesses; for they have been ever of old. Remember not the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions: according to thy mercy remember thou me for thy goodness’ sake, O Lord. Good and upright is the Lord: therefore will he teach sinners in the way. The meek will he guide in judgment: and the meek will he teach his way. All the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth unto such as keep his covenant and his testimonies.
Psalms of lament have a certain structure to them. They include a recognized cry for help, an expression of the psalmist’s circumstances, a plea for the forgiveness of past sins, an expression of trusting God, and a prayer that God will vindicate the psalmist in some way. Psalm 25 is a psalm of lament. Normally when we think about Advent we conjure up preparations for Christmas and beginning the busyness of the holiday season. We are all supposed to be of good cheer. We anticipate the birth of the Christ child and remember God’s crazy love for us. But if we pay attention to the many stories within the Advent narrative, we might find that there exist necessary spaces for lamentation. A barren Elizabeth and a childless Zechariah were familiar with lament, even as they continued to pray for God’s favor.
In its peculiar way lamenting is an act of faith because it speaks to our understanding that things are not as they should be. Women should not be barren. Family lines should not have to die. The elderly should always have someone to provide them with good and loving care. Zechariah and Elizabeth worshiped a God who also knew of lament. How many times did the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob lament over Israel’s faithlessness? Lament happens when we take relationships seriously and find ourselves disappointed by others or even by our own actions. Surely Zechariah and Elizabeth believed they had a genuine relationship with God and that God took their worship and their prayers seriously. To cry out for help, to acknowledge the disappointment and challenge of our situations is not incompatible with faithful waiting. As we wait, we express deep faith by continuing to speak out to God and one another of the things that are not as they should be.
Perhaps the more difficult part of lamenting comes in maintaining some element, no matter how small, of trusting that God is living and able, trusting in the inherent goodness of God, and recognizing that God too understands that in a broken world, things are not always as they should be. Lament in this manner is one more attempt at faithful living. I find it achingly beautiful to imagine God lamenting alongside Elizabeth in her state of barrenness. Which leads us to consider how we pray for one another and what role we can play in one another’s lives when lament seems a good and necessary act of faith. In America, we live in a pain-avoidance culture that rarely sees any meaningful significance in sitting with discomfort. When something feels bad, society and corporations have conditioned us to self-medicate with media, food, or shopping. It may take discipline and practice to learn to appreciate the importance of lament for our soul’s and our community’s health. What could it look like to delve deeply enough into our unique, individual, and communal pains so that we can faithfully write our own psalms of lament as a prayerful offering to God?
Compassionate God, do you mourn when we mourn? Do you call us to learn to better name and lament our unique deep sorrows and communal pains? Show us how to be present to one another without glossing over pain and sorrow. Amen.