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.  

 

Discipleship in the Time of Coronavirus

中村佐知(JCFN理事、霊的同伴者、キリスト教書翻訳者)

How are you doing? The US was a few steps behind Japan in responding to the coronavirus pandemic, and several states are now under Stay at Home Orders. Schools, churches, restaurants, convention halls, and any places for gatherings are now closed. Even when we go out for grocery shopping or for a walk, we are told to strictly keep a distance of 6 feet away from each other. The turn of events over the last ten days were so fast-paced that everyone is at a loss. As Japan enters into a new school year, will the schools reopen?  Will people finally be able to go back to work? 

As we were suddenly thrown into this situation, I can imagine that many are feeling quite anxious. This morning, I was reading an article titled “Discipleship in the Time of Coronavirus” and came across this passage. 

“What is the way of Jesus in such a time as this? First, we must remember that we are disciples of the living, ascended, and enthroned Jesus. …… The Jesus who said, “And surely I am with you always, even to the end of the age,” remains/abides with us by his Spirit. When we are tempted to isolate and turn inwards, we need to repeatedly turn our gaze to the availability of Jesus. Throughout our days we need to develop the habit—now more than ever—of finding encouragement and comfort in the real presence of Christ’s love (Phil 2:1). ……. Our Lord, savior, friend, and lover is paying attention to us, the human situation, our needs, and the needs of those around the world. We need to pay attention to him—fixing our eyes, setting our minds, abiding—while we attend to the news, our needs, and the needs of those around us.”

What we choose to pay attention to and focus on will influence our emotions,  cognitions, actions and attitudes. (see Philippians 4:8) The author of the above article recommended several disciples such as breath prayer (Japanese only), stopping occasionally during the day to turn our hearts to the Lord, and praying and meditating on the Lord’s Prayer in the morning, noon and evening. For those who are taking this course, those spiritual disciples are probably already very familiar to you. Even in regards to the coronavirus, may we seek the Lord for discernment to clarify the boundary line between the things we can and should do, as well as things that are beyond us that we need to entrust into God’s good hands, since worrying about it won’t do any good.  

The author of the article says,

“Returning one’s gaze to the competent gaze of Jesus throughout one’s day is not simply a nice idea. Discipleship to Jesus is a learning way (Matt 11:28–30). With Jesus’ leading and the aid of his people down through the ages, we make tangible plans to reorient our minds to Christ and his Father’s kingdom resources in the midst of daily life.”

Even when we are anxious and fearful of what lies ahead, or when we are exhausted by the sheer number of things to attend, may we still turn our eyes to the presence of the One who is with us in the midst of them to encourage, help  and protect us. May we be able to comfort those around us with the shalom of the Lord that is within us. I hope that the spiritual disciplines (*) that we have been learning about through this course will be helpful you to do so.  

 

*Please refer to the spiritual disciples that I have mentioned in the JCFN blog in the past. 

 

Post  articles on the eLearning course “Boundaries from the Point of View of Spiritual Formation” (Japanese only) 

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