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Monday, September 14, 2009

In Favor of the Lament Prayer

The professor of Old Testament I studied under while in seminary, Sam Ballentine, wrote a book called Prayer in the Hebrew Bible. One of the forms of prayer he discusses is lament. It’s probably very unfamiliar to American readers. We praise. We confess. We ask for God’s help (in healing, in times of need, in times of duress). We seek God’s leadership and guidance. But, I believe lament is wholly unknown to the vast majority of American Christians.

Ballentine make a case for the importance of offering lamentations. Some of the books of the Bible where laments are heard most poignantly and pointedly are Job, Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Habakkuk. However, lament is not restricted to these books. Even the Psalms, maybe the most beloved of OT readings for evangelicals, contains this form of prayer. In fact, there are more lament Psalms than praise Psalms.

Here, I offer some of Ballentine’s comments toward the conclusion section of his book. I hope you find Ballentine’s words edifying and challenging. I hope what he has to say will drive you to read Job and the other books I mentioned.

“God’s presence is witness to divine intention to reward faithful obedience, as the prophets proclaimed, but fidelity does not guarantee God’s presence. This is the hard lesson of the book of Job. God’s hiddenness does confirm the indissoluble linkage between sin and punishment. On this truth the entire Biblical witness is unequivocal. But the pain and hurt that sunders the soul claims as its victims the just as well as the unjust. This too is the hard lesson of the book of Job. The present God is the hidden God and the hidden God is still God.” (Sam Ballentine, Prayer in the Hebrew Bible, p.287).

“When the church practices the ministry of lament, it proclaims the Biblical truth that life is finally open-ended, not settled or closed or bound. Even east of Eden, where limitations and impossibilities seem status quo, change, new beginnings, and surprise are possible. Questions are harbingers of change. In the practice of lament the church engages most daringly in the ministry of questioning. Whatever the reality of the institutions, the cultural forms, or the sacred dogmas that define life in the present, accurately placed questions can shatter their claim on people. Questions dare to imagine that things can change, that nothing, not even God, is locked into static, unalterable sacredness. In this sense questions always call for re-calculation, refiguring, rethinking, imagining that one has more than one way to comprehend to cope. For victims of grief and despair, the license to question is the key to hope that something different and better is still possible.” (Ballentine, Prayer in the Hebrew Bible, p.289)

“It is the stuff of lament to address God with hard and accusing questions. The Biblical witness is that God does not resist such speech; indeed, God takes it seriously, and it is effective. But the Biblical record is equally clear that God seldom answers questions, at least not in the way they are asked. Often the dialogue between God and humanity is painfully one-sided. God is expected to hear, believed to be receptive, but when questions end, faith must bear the burden of the silence that follows. … Are we willing to rethink God’s power, God’s compassion, God’s justice? Let us not stop short of ultimate questions – Are we willing to rethink the very reality of God? … We must admit that to engage in such questioning is to risk losing one’s faith. When one loses faith, where can one turn? Perhaps the greatest irony of the Biblical witness and perhaps also its most impenetrable legacy of prayer is that when one loses faith in God, it is precisely to God that one turns.” (Ballentine, Prayer in the Hebrew Bible, p.292, 294).

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