Lament as a Spiritual Discipline

Dr. Sachi Nakamura,
JCFN Board Member, Christian Books Translator, and Spiritual Director

There are many sorrowing and trying things in this world. Maybe someone has done something hurtful to you, or you have done something hurtful to others or to yourself. Or, as unfortunate as they are, some things just seem to happen where there is no one to be blamed for. Maybe those are the result of systematic injustice . 

Sadly, there are more than a few things in this world that bring pain to our lives. What shall we do when we are feeling pain and sadness? We often taught on the topics of praising God and thanksgiving, but what about on lamenting?

Lament is a Biblical action. About a third of the Psalms are called Lament Psalms, which describe one’s pain and sadness. Michael Guinan, a Catholic priest said, “Lament is not a failure of faith, but an act of faith. We cry out to God directly because deep down, we know that our relationship with God counts; it counts to us and it counts to God.” We do not build up and despair at the sadness within us, but we cry out to God. We can do so because we know that God loves us and cares for us, hears our cries and is with us always. However, lament does not guarantee that God will give an answer to our cries and pleas. Rather, it may bring us to come to terms with the fact that there is no reasonable answer. In other words, to lament is to acknowledge that there is no one who can ease our pain, comfort us and ultimately fulfill us, other than God Himself. 

God sees our sufferings and pain. He hears our cries of sorrow. Crying out loud does not necessarily take away the pain. There is no guarantee that we will find solace about the injustice we are facing. However, God will meet us through the tears we shed and He will cry with us. Our tears and God’s tears will become like a stream that waters the dry land, from where a new life that belongs to the Kingdom of God will come to sprout. 

The Bible surely tells us to give thanks and rejoice always. However, I don’t think that it means that we should simply accept the evil and injustice of our world as something good or insignificant. Rather, we can give thanks and rejoice because we know that God will ultimately make things right and redeem what was lost and broken. Thanksgiving and rejoicing that keep out lament is like the false prophets saying, “Peace, peace!” Jeremiah said, “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious.‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace (Jeremiah 6:14).” However, God is not someone who will treat our wounds in a careless way. Therefore, I would like to share about lament as a spiritual discipline.  

Lament is mentioned a lot in the Bible. One-third of the book of Psalms is composed of lament, and the entire book of Lamentations is about doing that. The book of Job also mentions lament a lot. Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane and his cry from the Cross can also be understood as lament.  

Let’s take a look at some psalms of lament (for example Psalm 6, 10, 13, 17, 22, 25, 30, 31, 69, 73, 79, 86, 102, etc.,). It is amazing how openly the authors bring up their cries and pleas to God. When we look at those Psalms of lament, we will notice that there is a basic format to them. 

 

  1. ProtestThe author starts out by bringing their current situation, a painful event in the past, emotional pain, or a plea before God. The author protests to God by saying, “This horrible thing or that sad thing happened to me. I am going through a really hard time now. I am in so much pain. God, what are you going to do about it?” If there is something or a complaint to state to God, the author does not hold back from bringing it up openly. 

  2. Petition:Next, the author brings forward his own request before God. What do we want God to do in the situation? What are we asking Him for? 

  3. PraiseFinally, the author confesses his trust in God. Because God is abounding in love, mercy and faithfulness, and loves justice and fairness, he puts his trust in God, praises and gives thanks to the Lord.   

 

Those 3 processes are said to be the format of psalms of lamentation. 

There are several ways we can practice lament as spiritual discipline. 

The first way is to choose a psalm that seems to resonate with your situation and pain, and read that out loud before the Lord as your prayer. 

The other way is to choose a psalm that you resonate with, then take a phrase from it and customize it to your situation, and use it as a prayer before the Lord. 

Another thing you can do is to write your own original lament. It might be helpful to use the basic format of psalms of lament that was mentioned earlier. However, you do not have to follow that pattern. Since it is not something that you will be showing others, you don’t have to try to sound poetic. What is important is to bring your honest feelings directly to God. Whether it is sadness or anger, God is able to take in your emotions in its entirety. When writing your own lament, you may want to borrow the words of David, Job or Jesus. Actually, using their words can be helpful as you may be able to identify with them. “Lord, how long?”, “My heart is full of suffering”, “I am worn out from crying out”, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It might be helpful to bring your pain to God along with some of the characters in the Bible. When you write your lament, you don’t have to feel like you need to also come up with thanksgiving and praise. I think it is better to wait until thanksgiving and praise naturally comes out of your heart. Because we know that God will not carelessly treat our pain as the false prophets did, we do not have to rush the process either. Instead of going through it in a hurry, take your time until thanksgiving and praise naturally flows out from your heart. The point of this spiritual discipline is to honestly bring your cries and pleas before God, and to tell God what you want Him to do. 

Lament can also be used not only to bring personal pleas before God, but also the pain of a community or the suffering that the entire society is going through, such as in times of natural disaster, terrorist attacks, or a pandemic that we are now experiencing. 

God desires for us to take responsibility for the things that are within our own boundary. I believe that the Lord himself is inviting us to name, face, and bring our sorrows and pain before Him. Can you hear the gentle and merciful voice of the Lord calling, “Bring them here to me.” 

May God bless you.  

Breath Prayer

Dr. Sachi Nakamura(JCFN Board Member, Christian Book Translator, Spiritual Director)

This month, I would like to introduce a spiritual discipline called “Breath Prayer.”

Breath prayers are simple and short prayers that are repeatedly recited in your heart as you breathe in and out. It is a simple yet powerful prayer that can be prayed anytime and from anywhere. Breath prayers help us to turn our thoughts and focus back to God and restore our souls when we are feeling confused, anxious, and weary. It can be done anywhere, such as during our commute, while doing household chores, or in our walks. Practicing breath prayer can remind us that the Lord is with us throughout our day. Paul may have had this kind of prayer in mind when he said, “pray without ceasing.”

 

The history of breath prayer is said to go back to the fifth or sixth century.  At that time, there were people known as the “desert  fathers” and “desert mothers,” who lived secluded lives in the Egyptian desert. The prayers that those desert fathers used to pray were passed on to the Eastern church, and became known as the “Jesus  Prayer”. Jesus Prayer is a short prayer consisting of saying, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me,  a sinner.” It is said that they used to pray this as they breathed for tens and hundreds of times each day.  

 

Breath prayer consists of two phrases. As you breathe in, you pray the first phrase. Then, as you breathe out, you pray the second phrase. Since it is hard to do this prayer out loud, we pray in our hearts. For example, if we are using the Jesus Prayer, it will look like this: (while breathing in) Lord Jesus, (while breathing out) have mercy….”

 

When you are actually praying, you do not pray out loud. In Greek, the word for “breath” is pneuma. Pneuma can also mean “spirit.” The Holy Spirit is also called Pneuma. As we slowly breath( pneuma) and prayer, we can become aware of the Pneuma, who lives within us. We are reminded of the presence of the Holy Spirit that lives within us to comfort, encourage, empower and instruct us.   

 

There are no rules for what kind of phrases can be used in breath prayer. 

 

Let’s look back to Jesus’ interaction with the blind Bartimaeus in Jericho. Bartimaeus shouted to Jesus, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”  Then Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?”

Imagine Jesus gently asking you, “What do you want me to do for you?” What will you ask Jesus for?

“Lord, have mercy on me.”  

“Lord, help me.”

“Lord, be with me.”

 

Another good way is to choose a short Bible passage and use it for meditation in your prayer.  

 

For example, you can pray and meditate on the phrase “The Lord is my Shepherd,” as you breathe. 

Take a big breath as you say in your heart, “The Lord is…” Then, slowly breath out saying, “my Shepherd.” 

 

Or, you may also pray the name of the Lord, Yahweh as you breathe. “Yah,”  “weh.” Again, “Yah,” “weh”.

 

As you breathe out, try to let out the worries, fears, or frustrations in you, or anything that may be pulling you away from God.  As you breathe in, try to take in God’s love, grace, mercy, and the life of God that sustains you as much as you can.   

 

I really hope that you will try this breath prayer for yourself.  

 

To Understand Returnees (8)- When a person feels, “I will come back to this Church.” #2

For the booklet download:  LINK

The previous articles links.

Forward

  1. Who Are Returnees?
  2. How can I approach them? –“Are Returnees Space Aliens?” #1
  3. How can I approach them? — “Are Returnees Space Aliens? #2
  4. How can I approach them? — “Are Returnees Space Aliens? #3
  5. How can I approach them? ー”Are Returnees Space Aliens? #4
  6. How can I approach them? ー”Are Returnees Space Aliens? #5
  7. When a person feels, “I will come back to this church” #1

 

When a person feels, “I will come back to this Church.” #2

Well, we are in Japan!?

We may hear the voice that says, “That being said, sticking to the past events forever and cannot focus on what is in front of a person is not healthy, so would not it be better for the person to have let bygones be bygones?” It could be true. However, experience of living abroad has a powerful influence on that person, and it already became a part of his/her personality. As it is written in Bible, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.“ (Romans 12:15), I think we can help the person to truly “live” the entire life including his/her overseas experience when we accept his/her ideas and feelings, stay there for him/her and treat him/her with the love of Christ.

 

When “In other countries,” is repeated, I feel that my church and the way as a Christian is denied.

If this makes you feel such a way, I do not know how to apologize to you. Whether the person who talks about churches outside Japan is a returnee who does not know church in Japan or someone who knows both churches to a certain degree like us, he/she never means it. When we say it, it comes from our wish that, “please understand the differences. If you understand them, it helps you to understand and welcome returnees,” meanwhile, for the case of returnees, they may do so because of their simple desire to share their experience, the sense of nostalgia, as an expression of reverse culture shock or the frustration at himself/herself not being able to fit in a Japanese church in front of them. They may pour out, “I wish it were like church outside Japan,” even though they know it is impossible, but they are not denying or hoping it to be changed overnight.

 

About “culture and good news”: From a worker involved in cross-cultural ministry called overseas Japanese ministry

Now, I think it is necessary to talk about the ideas on “culture and good news,” which is the premise of this work. In our work of overseas Japanese ministry, we always mention that there is the “true nature of good news (permanent)” and “expression in each culture (changed by culture)” to those who became a Christian outside Japan. When my husband and I studies at seminary in the UK and in the US, how we draw a line between these two was the major theme. Learning of Missiology was a big help. In the modern Protestant missionary history, Western missionaries brought in the culture of their homeland as well as good news to the country where they were. Therefore, the study to distinguish permanent things and things that could be changed by culture (things that are OK to be changed) was advanced. Currently, in the area of cross-cultural ministry, encouraging the expression based on each culture is becoming all the more valuable.

Christianity (Protestant) in Western countries is also Christianity that flourished in the culture. Before that time, Christianity was a culture in Near East and Mediterranean Sea regions. How the good news in Judaism culture recorded in the Bible and the good news in gentile culture are different is the basis when we think. Christianity was already introduced in the UK in the 4th century. As time went by, each era had the way of expressing good news. Mistakes that should not happen, such as confrontation against Catholic, religious oppression and bloodshed because of that, were experienced. Modern English church seems to deal with potential issues with the developed knowledge through the long history. It is not completed at all, but I think there are many things we can learn from them as older brothers and sisters with longer experience in Christianity.

150 years have passed since the good news was introduced to Japan through a missionary form the western nation. Although it was popularized and grew in the postwar period it seems to be still in the phase of “how to protect what was introduced.” We have to find answers as Japanese for issues in daily life and the issues of how to live in the environment with pagan religion by learning theology from Japanese perspectives. Western theology provided us the framework. We have to apply it to our reality as Japanese. That should be put into practice by each Japanese Christian. That is what we are thinking when we challenge our work.

The way and/or ideas of each religious community and denomination and the form of service and/or administration policy have historical necessity and a reason for existence. When a change occurs there, that is the time when a person becomes a living stone of the body of Christ and dedicates oneself, one who loves the body of Christ recognizes the needs of change, find way to change, find answers and put it into actions.

Whether the person is a returnee or not, a newcomer must respect and accept what has developed there, and he/she needs to be a living stone himself/herself. If wishing for a change, as a living stone, one must live together with other living stones, brothers and sisters.

Therefore, when we lead returnees, we try to deliver the message of 1 )it is a mistake to seek for a church that is similar to the one the person has experienced before returning to Japan, in other words, to distinguish the expressions brought by the nature of the good news and each culture, and teach him/her to seek for permanent things beyond culture (Bible, God in the Bible, faith to believe that Christ is the savior, and others, 2)we try to teach, “you never lived in Japan as a Christian. Church in Japan teaches it and supports you. Learn deliberately there.” How our Lord will develop churches in Japan? We are praying that He will returnees as a catalyst, but how would He give answer to it? I would like to look forward to it and protect, and sincerely obey with what is given to us as our role.

to be continued….

Scroll to top