What is most on your heart this morning? The continuing chaos in Washington, DC? The beauty of this place? Violence in the Middle East? Joy at seeing friends you love? Your health, or that of your family or friends? The beauty of this morning’s sunrise?
There are really only two kinds of prayer: “HELP!” and “YES!” The cry for help arises out of loneliness, fear, hunger, abandonment, grief, shame and sorrow, and all the other human kinds of pain and suffering. That prayer may be for yourself or the people around you, or for this broken world. The prayer that says Yes! comes in the move from Wow! to Thanks! It begins in the Oh, my God! response of awe at the depth of love we experience, or the wonder of creation, the vastness of space, or the birth of a child. We give thanks for what is, for hope in a time of grief, for this community, for work to do and the will to do it, for food on the table and a place to sleep.
The psalmist is praying in all those ways – help! as in how can we possibly remember and praise God when we feel so abandoned, here in exile, lost and forgotten? How can we give thanks for that? Yet even in the midst of that great lament there is hope: Yes, he says, we will remember Jerusalem, this community will insist that God is with us and will deliver us, even when we feel most lost and hopeless.
Someone (Walter Brueggemann?) has said that all worship begins in lament, in that prayer for help. Worship contains the recognition that God is beyond our mortal understanding – and the confidence that God is also as near as our breath. In that there is hope, for God knows our suffering and has entered into it bodily.
That city of lament described in the first reading, that experience of exile, seems very near to us right now. How long, O Lord, will it be before your people remember your command to love you and to love our neighbors? How long are we going to continue grinding the poor into the dust? Can’t the suffering get a little help from a friend? Where is that friend when the need is greatest? And yet, even in the midst of that dark night the holders of candles are taking it back, tapers alight with the spirit of hope, reflectors of the radiant image of God, offering Christ-light in the darkness.
Those lights are the awe-struck and the thanks-givers among us. Some are poets and artists and musicians, who know the wonder of the holy deep within and labor to communicate it in ways others might intuit. Thomas Wolfe evoked that hunger for returning:
All things on earth point home in old October;
sailors to sea, travelers to walls and fences,
hunters to field and hollow and the long voice of hounds,
the lover to the love he has forsaken.
There is hope to be found in the journeying, and it begins with remembering.
The letter to Timothy remembers the love known in him and his ancestors, and charges him to rekindle that light of hope and love and possibility. The writer remembers his love for Timothy, pictures his grief, and yearns to see him. He even anticipates the joy he’ll find when they meet again. What moves us from lament to gratitude and hope?
Sometimes it’s just the discipline of daily faithful living – persistence, and keeping on keeping on. That’s what Jesus points to in this gospel when he says, do what you’ve been commanded to do. For his hearers, that command can only be ‘love God and love your neighbor.’ Remember who you are, whose you are, and what your job is. There is a promise that when we do we’re going to discover the feast. Turning to, attending to the work at hand, is the way home, the route to the love we have forsaken.
Yet when the daily drill grows mind-numbingly dull, it may be time to complain. In a very real sense, until we start whining, grumbling, and moaning, we can’t recognize what is wrong. After Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, they got sick and tired of wandering in the desert and started murmuring – what is this wild goose chase, who is this nut taking us on a snipe hunt, let’s go back to slavery in Egypt – at least there we ate regularly! Later, when they were exiled to Babylon, they don’t just whine, they go on strike – they sit down and cry and refuse to sing. The lament has to be voiced – prayed aloud, even LOUD. If we really pray it, bring it to conscious awareness, especially in community, echoes begin to return to us in hope. When the Israelites murmured in the wilderness, they began to be reminded of the groaning they endured in Egypt; they recollect that food didn’t taste so wonderful when salted with slavery. Desert living may not have been easy, but they were free, and on the road to a land of greater promise. They remembered gratitude and they marveled at pillars of fire by night and clouds by day. In Babylon, the absence of song evoked yearning for remembered joy.
When you and I can voice the lament, rather than automatically responding “everything’s just fine, thank you,” we open the door to hopeful response. We become vulnerable to the possibilities of the mustard seed. The convenient response, “I’m alright” is really saying, “I am all right, and self-sufficient, and see no need or possibility of anything else.” It is closed to hope. The situation in Congress right now is almost a caricature of that, “we are ALL RIGHT.” It’s not alright, it’s a mess, and our ability to name the pain pushes back the darkness just a bit. For it is in naming the lament that we discover a shared community of yearning. Yearning opens the door of our heart to the working of the spirit. As another poet put it, “hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.” Lament brings yearning, yearning leads to hope, and hope moves to thanksgiving and awe. Sing the blues, and remember where your hope is founded.
What is your lament? Can you put it in a brief sentence? It might be as simple as “I hurt” or “I’m afraid of…” or “I yearn for a world at peace.” Take a minute to reflect until you can. When we offer our prayers in a few minutes, add your lament, out loud if you dare. There is opportunity for wow! and thanksgiving as well. A prayer of confession often follows – it’s a common prayer, an opportunity for all of us, together, to lament what has gone wrong in our lives. Even that word confession speaks hope – it literally means, “with faith” that God is at work, even in the darkest night, even in the valley of the shadow of death.
Name your sorrow, and hear hope in return. That is what the peace of the Lord is all about. And then comes the banquet – the thanksgiving feast, the taste of heavenly supper, the hope of the world in the body of Christ, in your hand and sitting next to you.