This morning I was reading (for work) an article about suffering for an upcoming issue of the Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care (a great resource if you haven't seen it before). In fact, I've been reading a lot about suffering as the entire issue is dedicated to this theme. But something in today's article really impacted me when I read:
"It would appear that nothing is off-limits when it comes to expressing our suffering to God. Yet some sectors of Christianity do, in fact, see some of these expressions—especially those indicating anger at God or doubt regarding his actions—as off limits. Sufferers may respond with guilt when these feelings toward God emerge, or feel cut off from God when these things cannot be expressed directly to God. Their faith may be questioned and their continued suffering seen as a deficit in their Christian maturity." - Liz Hall, "Suffering in God's Presence," Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care, forthcoming 2016
I had to read it again: "Sufferers may ... feel cut off from God when these things cannot be expressed directly to God." Essentially, suffering in silence. And how quick our society is to call the victims of abuse of all kinds into the light of community, of not hiding, of expressing their tragedy for healing and accountability of the oppressor. Yet, how often in our Christian communities are we tempted to hold in our anger, confusion, or pain from God? The same article notes that although 40-percent of the Psalms are lament, only 4-percent of Psalms regularly used in Christian churches are lament.
In my own walk with God lament has been like mana (the heavenly food that sustained the Israelites in the Old Testament). I recall distinctly the first intentional time I called out to God in my pain. It was a simple thing that un-corked a well of pain inside me. In my senior year, while walking to sixth period where I was TA for a Bible class, I slipped on spilled water outside the classroom door and landed square on my butt in front of the entire hallway of students making way to their next class. As soon as I hit the concrete floor it was like something inside me shattered and all the pain I had been holding flooded out.
The teacher, the most gentle and compassionate one on campus, rushed to me to make sure I was okay, and once confirmed, let me know I had permission to take as much time as I needed to take care of myself before returning to class. I tear up now even recalling his tenderness. I rushed to the bathroom, cried hard and silently from the embarrassment and all the other emotions that surfaced: pain from a tension filled home life, loneliness, and a lack of hope.
When I returned to the classroom, I sat at the teacher's desk. No papers to grade to distract me. It was a slow TA day. Although the storm inside me had calmed, there were still waves of thoughts and feelings slushing around inside. Almost instinctually I grabbed a tablet from my messenger bag and a pen and began journaling furiously for the first time in my life.
I had kept journals before, the "Dear Diary" type of many pre-teen girls, but this was different. This was raw, and honest, and I later realized a prayer of lament. Though I didn't have words to describe it then, in reflection I realized with each angry, hurt-filled word I felt seen. I felt like God was with me; nodding his head at the unfairness and pain in my words and experiences.
Thirty minutes later the bell rang, class was dismissed, and I felt lighter. I felt heard. The tension at home or the vagueness of my future weren't resolved, but I no longer felt alone.
So today, when I read this article author's words I remembered this incident all those years ago - and how God met me in my lament. How I felt held and loved and so close with God -- perhaps the opposite of what many, maybe you, feel when pain surfaces in your life if you don't feel permission to be completely honest before God.
Maybe today you're sensing God's invitation to share a little more with God in your prayers. Or maybe you feel invited to express your disappointment, anger, or pain with God. Or maybe your invitation is to consider the idea of lament and how it might impact your journey with Jesus.
Wherever God is inviting you, I pray for the courage for us all to live into the life and relationship of grace we have with God through Christ. And may our prayers ever more reflect both the good, the praise-worthy, and the hardship and pain of life.
It's one of those things I keep running into, which makes it feel significant. I first stumbled onto it when crafting an art and prayer workshop for a ministry team at RealitySF a couple of years ago. It lingered when I ran my first art and prayer workshop here at home a few months later. Then it popped up in spiritual direction sessions with directees. It's the pattern of transforming processes: to observe (see), reflect (notice), and then respond.
Even now it strikes me that this is the process of art-making. We observe something that inspires us, we reflect on the act of our creation from that inspiration (planning what we will make), and then responding in the act of creation.
It's interesting to me how each step is so necessary to the outcome of transformation. If we didn't stop to observe, our responses would be more reactionary and less impactful to us. If we only stopped to observe, without pausing for reflection, we would engage only analytically, leaving our hearts untouched. Starting with seeing we engage our bodily senses; moving into noticing we use our minds to understand what we see and how it impacts us; then engaging the heart we respond from how what we've seen and noticed feels to us. Each step in the transformative process requires the prior step, and each step walks us deeper into our hearts.
But each step can feel like coming undone; maybe even a bit like sliding down a slippery slope in our souls, into depths we don't actually want to discover. And it can be painful. It can be so, so very hard to sit still long enough to really see the truth of our hearts. Yet, this is the invitation Jesus offers. He invites us to see the places he already sees; he invites us with him to explore the truths in our hearts. He calls us to the deep places of longing and loss, the place he is already loving us.
May we have the boldness and grace today to respond to Jesus invitation, and to see more fully and accurately his love for us.
Raised in the evangelical tradition I was more familiar with Easter than this season called "Lent." I was comfortable with somber Good Friday services, and celebratory Easter Sundays. Then I learned about Lent, and how it is a time to reflect on our longings, our losses, in a way that leads us to confession at the feet of Jesus. Sometimes getting to his feet I found I needed a little help, a gentle push to move forward. I needed someone to remind me of the love of God amidst all this grief.
From these experiences, and through gathering materials I've found helpful, we're offering this half-day Lenten retreat guide. It's filled with prayer practices, journaling prompts, and reflective invitations. It can be used individually, or with your community group. It can used on a half-day away at a museum or over a weekend up on the mountain. It was created with flexibility in mind.
It was also created to remind you how much God loves you. Using Scripture, art, and thought provoking journaling experiences this PDF guide offers you the opportunity to open your heart to God through these practices and to prepare to celebrate the hope we have in Christ Easter Sunday morning.
If this idea excites you, or feels like the last thing you want to do but you feel invited by God to do it anyway, click below to learn a bit more and view a sample page. The PDF guide is designed to be flexible in use and time, so feel free to take a half-day to yourself or a weekend away with your community group.
If you have any questions about this retreat guide, or how to best use it, feel free to contact us anytime. We'd love to hear from you.
I first learned this prayer by Thomas Merron while in seminary. It flooded me with a sense of release, relief and gratitude. I love the humble admission found in it that Merton expresses in desiring to do God's will, but with the reality that he may be not perfectly doing so--and yet at the same time is reassured of God's continual grace and pleasure in him inspite of his fumbled attempts to please God.
Thomas Merton, from Thoughts on Solitude.
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that, if I do this, You will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
What word or phrase from this prayer captures your heart today?
Prayer journaling was something I started upon accidentally in high school. One day had felt particularly tragic after a fall in front of all my peers in between changing classes when everyone saw me hit the ground. I burst into tears almost immediately, but the kind of quiet sobs I didn't want anyone to see. My teacher, thank You Jesus, was gracious and kind -- a very grandfatherly teacher who saw, immediately understood the emotional dynamics of such an embarrassment to a 16-year-old-girl, and excused me from my post as a class assistant to go cry in the bathroom. And cried I did.
Eventually I made it back to class, but wasn't "up to par" you could say--with my bruised ego and the lump forming on my knee. I sat at my post, at the teacher's desk in the back of the classroom, every few minutes feeling tears well up in my eyes. I didn't know what to do, and it "just so happened" the class I was TA'ing for was a Bible class, but I felt a rush of words and emotions pushing their way out and I felt like I had to do something.
I pulled out a tablet I had tucked away in my book bag. It was a drug store tablet with tape binding on top, and roses on the cover. I pulled out a pen and furiously began to write and pour out what was inside me. I began to feel better little by little the more I wrote. I didn't realize it at the time, but what I was doing in that moment was praying in my journal. It didn't feel like a practice of prayer, or a spiritual discipline, in the midst of my muffled cries--but nonetheless it was. And from that point on it's been a fairly regular practice in my spiritual life.
All these years later I come back to journaling my prayers to God when I don't know how to sort out my feelings, or when my thoughts feel foggy. In seminary I ended up writing a research paper on it and found out my experience wasn't new. It was profound for me, yes; but it was not unique in its power to connect with God and myself through praying in my written words in my journal.
One thing I learned while writing my paper on prayer journaling that I read in a book was that this prayer practice helps us say in private what we otherwise might say out loud and regret. I attest to that one. My journal has held my pain, but it's also held my anger, my fury, my disgust, my reactive words, the violence of my heart. It has also held my most secret dreams, and fears. My journals are a reflection of my journey with Jesus, but just as my journals have held these tender and broken parts of me, I've experienced Jesus hearing my words, receiving my pain, tending to my wounds as I write.
I realize not every spiritual practice is for everyone all the time; but I feel this practice is worth a try. It's worth an experiment to give it a go and see what happens. You might be surprised at what you find.
If you give it a go, will you share with me what happens? Whether you love it, hate it, swear to never do it again or feel indifferent, I'd love to hear your experience in the comments.