prayer

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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.   

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A Prayer for When I Feel Scattered

God, sometimes I feel scattered, blown about by the wind. My brain is going in a thousand directions at once, like leaves on a blustery autumn day. Stress and worry overwhelm me. I can’t get a grip on where I am or what I am doing or even what my priorities are. Everything feels so important that I spend my day frantically “doing,” but I feel defeated because the most important things still are not done. On days like this, I lack focus and perspective because I am not connecting with you. I am just doing to do, as a means of trying to control my stress and manage my anxiety about my overwhelming to-do list, when – in actuality – I’m not controlling or managing anything at all.

Enable me to slow down…pause…breathe…

Speak into the disarray of this blustery day and say: “Peace, be still.” Bring stillness to the chaos. Help me to let go of everything I am holding onto with clenched fists. As I open my hands, help me open my heart to you. Renew our connection as you draw my awareness to your presence within me, the calm that comes when I am attentive to you. Empower me to rest in your presence for as long as I need to.

Then, help me to consider: Who am I called to be? What tasks are mine to do? What can be left undone?

When it is time, enable me to begin again with open hands, a renewed heart, and an attentive mind. And if I am blown by the wind, may it be the wind of your gentle, guiding Spirit showing me the way…not toward productivity, but toward wholeness and life with you. Amen.

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A Prayer for When You Just Can’t

We all have days when absolutely everything feels hard. Maybe because it IS hard, or perhaps because so many things have been challenging for so long that we hit a wall. And we feel like we just can’t do it, but we don’t have the choice not to (fill in the blank with whatever this is in your life). I’m fully in favor of mental health days and prioritizing self-care. This prayer is for the days when what is required of us far outweighs our ability to care for ourselves. We all have those days, and we live through them. I wrote this prayer on one of those days. Maybe you need this prayer today. I hope not. If not, tuck it away somewhere for the day when you just can’t.

God, I just can’t today. I am weary from chronic stress, exhausted from lack of sleep, run down from too much for too long. The mental load is crushing. I lack patience. Everything feels hard. I don’t have much to give. And yet, the day before me requires energy, the ability to be present with others, creative problem solving. I need to give, to be, to do. And I feel like I can’t. Not today.

I need a break. But today, other than this time in prayer, respite is unlikely.

By your Spirit, stretch this moment. Make minutes feel like hours. Enable me to have the energy do just what I need to do today, and no more. Show me the tasks that can wait, or that someone else can do, or that don’t need to be done at all. Help me to say no, and to ask for help. Enable me to focus only on what is mine to do. And through it all, remind me to breathe.

Open my eyes to moments of respite and delight in the midst of my day – a hot cup of coffee, flowers in bloom, the sunshine on my face, kind words, a loving embrace. May those small gifts be means of your grace this day, moments of provision and abundance to sustain me when I least expect it. And at the end of the day, enable me to rest – to quiet my mind, body and soul – in preparation for restorative sleep, so that tomorrow when I awake, I will know that by your grace, I can. Amen.

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Walking in the Wilderness

There was a time when I didn’t take walks alone very often. With children to keep up with, walks were usually an exercise in multitasking as much as they were actual exercise, and they were rarely peaceful. Now, I frequently take walks alone, just because. A need to get out of the house during the pandemic and an increasing focus on self-care are the reasons I began taking walks alone, but I have maintained the practice because walking has become a sustaining spiritual practice for me.

In the spring of 2020, as the time approached to leave the church where I had served for 9 years, it became clear that I no longer had a home base for my path in ministry, or my own discipleship. I was setting out into the wilderness. I would no longer be hanging around my campsite, with short forays into the woods and back to camp. I was packing up and walking away, with no plan or destination in mind, no timeframe or set distance to travel. I had provisions for my journey and skills for procuring more, but no specific plan.

That was when I began walking on a regular basis. 

I realize now that walking was an intuitive spiritual practice, even if I didn’t know it at the time. I thought I was seeking movement, a little time alone – and I did achieve those things – but unexpectedly, my walks became important times of reflection and discernment. Walking nourished me, like a cool drink of water or a restful night of sleep.

I hadn’t truly considered my path, in my life or my ministry, in a long time. As a teenager and early twenty-something, I contemplated and considered my path often, making decisions strategically with the hope of following a certain path. As I settled into local church ministry and started a family, my sightline became shorter. Instead of focusing on the horizon, I became focused on the here and now, on avoiding tripping over the rocks in my path. But I had begun to look up again, farther in front of me, and what I saw in the distance did not align with where I felt called. I needed to change directions, to take another path. What followed was the decision to change my work situation, to pack up and leave the campsite, setting out into the wilderness.

As I walked the streets of my neighborhood and the trails of nearby parks, I found myself imagining a path through the woods as a metaphor for my ministry. Walking in the woods, a person can go a long time without seeing another human, or even a trail marker. For many months after leaving the church I was serving, that’s exactly what happened on my metaphorical path. I simply walked along the trail, enjoying the fresh air and exercise, appreciating what I noticed and learned along the way. It was invigorating to be in the wilderness. I just wanted to keep walking; I didn’t want to stop and set up camp, to encounter anyone, to approach a crossroads. 

At times it didn’t even feel like I was going anywhere. My path might have been circuitous; it was certainly meandering. There were days I was comforted by knowing it didn’t matter if I was going somewhere, as long as I remained in the wilderness. Other days, I felt anxious and directionless without a plan. I noticed that even when I passed by a familiar spot, it never looked exactly the same. The woods are not static – weather, wind, animals, and the changing of the seasons all influence the landscape – the context is different each time. Not only were the woods changing, so was I.

That was when I realized that my walks had become a form of prayer. 

My walks had begun to resemble my experiences walking labyrinths. I deeply value the spiritual practice of walking labyrinths. I love that when I walk a labyrinth, I don’t go anywhere but I am always changed in the process. I enter and exit at the same point, wander around a small, fixed area and emerge different than when I entered the labyrinth. Similarly, each time I set out on a walk, I left from my house and returned to my house, not having “gone” anywhere, but changed still.

As I walked, all the thoughts floating around in my head began to converge in a way that enabled me to reflect and discern, to listen to my life and to God. As I walked, I reconnected with my call to ministry. I considered my gifts and passions, turning them over like a stone in my hand, feeling their weight and observing their particularities, those experiences that contributed to their present form. As I walked, I discerned God’s voice leading me in a clear direction, but still, there were no signs. Like a labyrinth, I knew I would find my way out eventually, that the path that leads inward always leads back out. I also knew that on a labyrinth, there is no point in trying to look too far ahead; it is best to keep walking, trusting the path with each step. As I walked, I trusted the path, and I kept walking.

One day, I began to see signposts in the distance. I didn’t know what the signs meant, but I could detect them ahead of me on the path. It seemed I was approaching a crossroads; nothing else would need that many signs. When I reached the first sign, I felt anxious, wondering if other people or perhaps a community lay ahead. I wasn’t sure, after so much time in the wilderness, if I was ready to encounter anyone else. It became clear that this was merely a turnoff, an opportunity to travel a different path for a considerable distance before arriving at a campsite. As I kept walking on my path, the signposts continued to appear. So did the people; I was clearly traveling in a more populated area. I struck up a few conversations, learning that those walking in this area had things in common with me. I stopped here and there and helped others, offering what I had to share. And still, I kept walking.

Soon, I discovered that I was near a community. This area was different than where I had camped before. Perhaps I should take a closer look. It was a smaller community than I was used to, but that might be a nice change; I could get to know people more easily. Everyone I met was kind and generous. As I approached and began to explore, I was welcomed with open arms. I was invited in and included. I learned that in this community all are welcome, and all are accepted. So, I set up my tent and decided to stay.

I still take walks in the woods because time alone is critical for self-reflection and spiritual formation, but I am no longer walking through the wilderness with no destination in mind. When I walk, I leave from and return to the same place. And just like when I walk a labyrinth, I am changed each time. I am glad to have a place to call home again and a church to serve, after wandering in the wilderness for so long. And, I am grateful for every meandering step that brought me here.

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A Prayer for Waiting

Waiting has been a significant aspect of my journey for the last four years. I’ve always had to wait for things to happen, for God to answer my prayers, but not like this. Never in my life have I waited for so many things, all at once, for such a long time. I did not choose to practice waiting, to learn patience in an entirely new way. But the process of engaging in the (involuntary) practice of waiting – as the days turned into months and years – changed me. It is still changing me. I wrote this prayer when the waiting had become too much for too long. Then, I prayed this prayer as I continued to wait. Now I am sharing it because we are all waiting for something. May this prayer be a companion while you wait.  

Waiting is so very hard, God.
As the minutes, hours, days, weeks, months pass by
without response or resolution,
it is easy to become impatient, irritable.

Sometimes, I want to demand an end to all this waiting,
reprieve from the uncertainty,
relief from living in-between here and there,
respite from the space between already and not yet.

Some days, waiting is almost unbearable.
It overwhelms and becomes too much, God.

But then I remember that you live in the space in-between.
It is not uncertain and uncomfortable to you.
You are the God of already and not yet.
In-between is where you do your best work.

This awareness doesn’t make waiting any easier.
Time does not begin to move more quickly.
But I know that I am not alone.
I have a companion on the journey.

Your presence comforts me.
It provides respite, relief, reprieve.
Space to breathe.
It is pure grace.

And I realize that you are forming me,
re-making me while I wait.
Sanctifying me in this liminal space,
shaping me into who I will become.

I don’t know when the waiting will end,
or what is to come when the wait is over.
But I know I will never be the same.
I will not be able to return to what was.

I will simply take a step forward,
and then another; one step at a time.
And you will go with me, into what will be.
I will not step into the unknown alone.

But for now…as I wait…
calm and quiet my soul.
Help me to experience the sacrament of this moment with you,
when I can simply rest in your grace.

Amen.