Means of grace

Lent liturgical seasons Means of grace prayer spiritual practice

Lamenting for Lent

The season of Lent has arrived, whether we are ready or not. But since preparation is the purpose of this season, we don’t have to begin the season “ready.” Perhaps it is most helpful to begin this season in a posture of openness to what God will do. If we are open, we create space for God to work in our lives. Whether you engage in an intentional Lenten practice or not, a posture of openness to God is important in this season.

This year I am lamenting for Lent. Why? Because there is so much to lament – in my personal life, in the lives of loved ones, and in the world. For me, lament feels essential right now. Intentionally engaging in the practice of lament compels me to respond to hard things differently than I might otherwise. When I practice lament, I enter in and engage things that bring grief and sorrow by offering them to God. While I might be inclined to become mired in my feelings, or, depending on the circumstance, be tempted to disengage, lament enables me to feel my feelings and do something with them. Lament compels me to engage when it would be more comfortable not to. Lament enables me to be open to God.

What is lament? 

I first became familiar with the concept of lament in college and seminary courses that studied the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. Lament or lamentation, according to The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, is “a religious cry of sorrow or mourning.” Certainly, I intuitively engaged in the practice of lament before I knew what it was. But learning about lament gave this type of prayer meaning and form, example and justification. While others may have defined my prayers as “self-absorbed” during my teenage years, I believe they were lament. I was honestly and vulnerably offering to God that with which I was struggling, expecting God to do something with it. After all, isn’t that what lament is?

Lament became an intentional practice for me in seminary when my Old Testament professor, Dr. Ellen Davis, gave an assignment on praying the Psalms. We were instructed to not just read them, pray them. And not just the psalms you like, all the genres of psalms, even the psalms of lament. It was while engaging in that assignment that I learned what lament truly is. I discovered that when I prayed the lament psalms written by others, I lamented not only my own circumstances, but those of others: situations long-past and those in the news today, those relevant in my own life and those entirely foreign to my personal experience.

Lament became my response when I heard about hard things in other’s lives, in the news, and experienced them in my own life. Whether I prayed one of the biblical psalms of lament or lamented in my own words, I offered the hard thing to God in as many words or images or tears or groans as I had. Then, I waited for God to do something with it.

Lament is an Act of Faith

After all, lament is an act of faith. It’s not just complaining. While it may begin there, lament is complaining addressed to God. Someone who has a lot of complaining or whining to do could do that with a friend or write about it in a journal, without addressing it to God. In the practice of lament, those expressions of negative feelings and emotions become prayer. The practice of lament requires vulnerability and trust combined with hope. Isn’t that what faith is?

“In its peculiar way lamenting is an act of faith because it speaks to our understanding that things 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…”

Enuma Okoru, Silence and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent

Lament doesn’t stop with prayer. When we offer lament to God and expect God to do something with it, we are asking for a response from God. Lament also requires our openness to what God might ask of us, because sometimes what God does will change us or involve our participation. That is when the practice of lament becomes more than prayer. When we lament, we never know what God will do, but we always expect something to happen. It might be the opposite of what we expect.

“God cares that I am in pain and can be expected to do something about it. That is a remarkable assumption when you think about it, which we hardly ever do – that the God who made heaven and earth should care that I am hurting. Yet it is the only thing that explains this strange style of biblical prayer…”

Ellen F. Davis, Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament

In the psalms, lament often makes way for praise and thanksgiving. Well-known Psalm 22, which begins with:

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
   Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?”

concludes with:

“To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
   before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
   and I shall live for him.
Posterity will serve him;
   future generations will be told about the Lord,
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
   saying that he has done it.”

Clearly: God hears, God cares, and God responds. That is why I am practicing lament, as an act of faith, and opening myself up to whatever God will do. However you choose to prepare during this Lenten season, may you do it with a posture of openness to God. Blessings on you in this season.   

Epiphany liturgical seasons Means of grace

Tomatoes for Epiphany

I’ve never eaten homegrown tomatoes during the season of Epiphany – until this year. Tomatoes are usually abundant in summer. Even in Texas’ lengthy growing season, if the August heat hasn’t completely scorched the plants, it is rare for tomatoes to bear fruit through the month of October. This year, we had a steady supply of tomatoes fresh from our garden in June, which was wetter and cooler than usual. Then, production decreased during the heat of the summer before increasing again in the fall. We savored tomatoes from the vine in October, expecting them to be our last.

However, central Texas had an unseasonably warm fall and early winter. In November, we were sharing just-picked tomatoes with friends the week before Thanksgiving. In early December, we anticipated a freeze and picked everything left on the vine: red, orange, yellow, or green. The temperature dipped into the 30’s and I assumed the tomato plants would gradually die. I ignored them while we appreciated the gradual ripening of the tomatoes on our kitchen windowsill.

One day in mid-December I went to the compost bin in our garden area and noticed that the tomato vines were alive and still producing! I picked a handful of ripe cherry tomatoes before realizing that there were several large tomatoes developing, as well. We began to pick tomatoes again as they ripened, always expecting them to be the final fruit of the season. Before Christmas, we picked the remaining tomatoes again and our family was thrilled to have tomato salad with our Christmas dinner, an unusual treat! On New Year’s Day, anticipating a significant freeze, we picked the remaining tomatoes for the third time. That really was our final harvest from these vines. By the next morning, the plants had frozen and crumpled into gray heaps in the garden beds. But their prolific fruit remains, and we are continuing to enjoy it.

Tomatoes on our kitchen windowsill – January 6, 2022

The tomato growing season this year was more than six months long! What an unexpected gift, especially after the way the season began. When our tomato plants were just babies beginning to take root, most of the plants were crushed by hail in mid-April. When I returned to the garden center to purchase more and start again – late in the season – the available plants were much larger, and some were already bearing fruit! I never could have guessed then that I’d still be harvesting from those late-season half-price tomato plants on New Year’s Day!

Now it is Epiphany, the understated season following Christmas when we celebrate the revelation of Jesus Christ as the son of God. The tomatoes that surprised me with their abundance throughout Advent and Christmas continue to line our kitchen windowsill and make regular appearances at meals. They are a precious and joy-filled reminder that the mystery of Christmas is not bound by the calendar. The unexpected gift of Jesus, God with us, is not packed away with the Christmas decorations. Jesus, the incarnation of grace, remains with us now and will continue to surprise us. Like Jesus, these tomatoes defied expectations and were not bound by a season on the calendar. And although the plants from which these tomatoes came have died, their fruit keeps on giving. That, in itself, is grace.

While we have enjoyed plenty of fresh sliced tomatoes this year, we have also delighted in the transformation that occurs when the alchemy of herbs, spices, heat, and acid combine to form something new: bruschetta, salsa, pico de gallo, tomato sauce. While tomatoes are essential to each recipe, the other ingredients are indispensable also. What a delicious representation of the community of faith, in which diversity is valuable and essential. When each person shares their unique gifts, we are better together, and we are never the same when one is missing.

Even when the tomatoes are gone, the memory of this unusual growing season will stay with me because these tomatoes have become a means of grace. They served as a catalyst that enabled me to draw near to God and rest in God’s abundant provision in my life during a challenging season. Their gradual ripening is a visible reminder of sanctification, the gradual process of moving toward the wholeness that comes with loving God and neighbor. Most of all, these late-season tomatoes have served as a reminder that when we least expect it and all seems lost, grace will break in again and again to nourish and sustain me when I need it most.