Welcome to The Restorative Table! This is a short series on prayer and contemplative practices. For those of you I have not had the opportunity to meet in person, my name is Brandi Hebert and I am a seminarian at United Lutheran Seminary. I am grateful for the opportunity to engage with you and explore prayer and spirituality together.
This is the written form of a spirituality vlog that is posted @TheHouseNextDoorNJ on Facebook. I began this series on my personal Facebook page two weeks ago and in the first of two separate videos I discussed the power of prayer as a spiritual practice that has the power to reform us during times of anxiety and distress and lead us to gratitude. The only thing necessary to beginning a life of prayer is to bring your full, authentic self to the table. I also mentioned that prayer can take on many forms and become as easy as breathing. The root word of spirituality is from the Greek pneuma which simply means to breath. However, it can be helpful to craft an intentional time of prayer and consider what rituals might be helpful to you in creating that space for prayer.
Given the circumstances in which many of us in the United States find ourselves living day to day into this national emergency, I thought it important today to talk about the power of lament as prayer. Ruth Haley Barton at the Transforming Center describes the tradition of lament as prayer as “expressions of complaint, anger, grief, despair, and protest to God.”
Prayers of lament are opportunities to bring all those emotions to their fullest expression and lift them up or hand them over to our Higher Power.
Prayers of lament can guide us to radical acceptance of our circumstances and the opportunity to turn our minds towards the possibility of hope and change, whether it is change of our circumstance or change in our perspective towards those circumstances.
Dr. Marsha Linehan, psychologist and developer of dialectical behavior therapy, describes radical acceptance as the complete and total acceptance with our body, heart and mind of our current reality. It is important to note that acceptance does not mean validation. In radical acceptance, we can accept the reality of our circumstances while still acknowledging the injustice. In her work, Linehan describes the “turning of the mind” as a mental turning towards a road of acceptance. In acceptance, we can discover new possibilities for our lives. And I would like to suggest that within possibility we discover a God that is love. For a God that is love must necessarily be grounded in possibility.
There are many wonderful examples of prayers of lament that move from crying out to God with all one’s anger, hurt and frustration, radically accepting one’s circumstances and asking for justice in the midst of that pain and then turning one’s mind towards a God of love and hope and trusting that Love with a capital L will prevail. Does that trust and praise of Love cancel out the anxiety, frustration or despair? As my friend and colleague, Monique Byum, answered that question, “No, it holds hands with it.” Transcendent Divine Love accompanies us along all our life’s journey in every circumstance, both the hilltop experiences and the valleys. The spiritual practice of prayer and a prayer of lament connects us mindfully with all those emotions, but particularly creates a safe space of grace for those emotions which we deem negative to be expressed. The metaphorical shoulders of the Source of All Creation can bear your anger and frustration and hold all our joys and our sorrows. Through prayer as a spiritual practice we are formed and re-formed to offer our own shoulders then to others in which we bear each other’s burdens together in mutuality. Therefore, in times such as these as we live through a national emergency, a prayer of lament is also a movement towards standing in solidarity with others who are suffering. And it can have real implications for how we understand community locally, nationally and globally. Perhaps then we can ask ourselves, what might it look like to stand in solidarity with suffering, even when a national emergency has not been declared?
Interestingly, Linehan’s work has some grounding in the Buddhist tradition and prayers of lament are very much a rich tradition of both the Jewish and Christian faiths. Within the Christian scriptures, the book of Psalms is a powerful collection of poetry as prayer including many prayers of lament. Psalm 42 in particular is a beautiful poem prayer. Here’s one except: “Why are you downcast, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.” This excerpt is taken from the NRSV translation of this text, however, the Divine is gender neutral, so please feel comfortable substituting whatever pronouns work for you.
One last resource I would like to introduce you to before we close with a collective prayer that incorporates lament and that is a book titled The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. It was published in 1995 and written by a man named Jean-Dominique Bauby. After suffering an unexpected and rare stroke to his brain stem, Jean-Dominique awoke after a twenty-day coma to a life of complete paralysis. His brain was fully intact and completely unimpaired however he was immobilized and only able to see through his left eye and communicate through blinking his left eye. This is the book he wrote in that state before his death a year later in 1996. The gentleman who gave me this book over twenty years ago noted in the inscription that this is, “a powerful book about the strength of human will” and while I agree, I also found it to be a powerful story about spiritual journeying during times of suffering. During this time of social distancing and sheltering in place, perhaps his story can be an inspiration to us all about the form and function of prayer, lament, radical acceptance and the turning of one’s minds towards possibility in relationship with ourselves, with others and in ongoing discernment of Divine Presence.
To close, please join me in an attitude of prayer as you see fit:
O God, Source of All Creation, we give thanks and praise to be gathered together at this table. We lament the spread of the COVID-19 virus that is impacting our lives and the lives of so many causing so much pain. We are angry and frustrated with feelings of sadness and grief that threaten to overwhelm us. God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change; the courage to change the things that we can; and the wisdom to know the difference. Trusting in a God that is Love that will prevail, let it be so.
At whatever table we gather, whether online or in person, it is my prayer that you are nourished and restored.
PSALM 42: As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me all day long, “Where is your God?” These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go to the house of God under the protection of the Mighty One with shouts of joy and praise among the festive throng. Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God. My soul is downcast within me; therefore I will remember you from the land of the Jordan, the heights of Hermon—from Mount Mizar. Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me. By day the LORD directs his love, at night his song is with me— a prayer to the God of my life. I say to God my Rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?” My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me, saying to me all day long, “Where is your God?” Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.
Special Thanks to Chaplain Reverend Amy Seat and the Religious Ministries at Princeton Penn Medical Center.