Tag Archives: conflict resolution

An Awkward Feast

turkeyYesterday’s BBC headlines opined that this could be the most awkward Thanksgiving ever. Following months of heated debates, antagonistic facebook posts, and threats of leaving the country from both sides, American families may find it difficult to sit around the same table and talk with each other again.

I have to admit that I have been shocked by the nastiness this election dredged up in all of us. I heard in our conversations a heartlessness and cruelty towards the opinions and interests of others that should have shamed us, but didn’t. In fact, we modeled for our kids (and for the watching world) that it is perfectly acceptable to mock, slander, verbally attack, and basically dehumanize whomever we disagree with. It is almost as if, for a suspended period of time, we chucked out all our Christian morals about the fruit of the Spirit and supported the humanist assumption that all is fair in love, war, and politics.

In the wake of all that, how do we regather as families, churches, and communities who have been torn right down the middle by our political battles? Do we simply pretend like we didn’t say the things we said? Do we confront each other with “I told you so”s or “I can’t believe you would”s? Or do we simply avoid each other, silently retreating from those we have come to see as the enemy?

Having watched Christians on both sides of the emotionally-charged fence navigate the aftermath of the Scottish Referendum and of Brexit, I would suggest that we approach this Thanksgiving feast the way Christians throughout the ages have been called to approach our Eucharistic feast.

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God… Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
Ephesians 4:29-32

More important than preparing our turkeys, we need to start by preparing our own hearts, asking ourselves, “In what ways have I contributed to the problem? What attitudes or assumptions have I held on to that may be unnecessarily distancing others? Have my rants and jokes and snide comments communicated the love Christ bears for them?” If we start by working the planks out of our own eyes, we may have a better chance of seeing each other with renewed compassion.

…remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
Ephesians 2:12-13

Zooming in on ourselves is a critical first step for creating humble pie, but zooming out allows us to remember why we bother with a feast in the first place. We come to the Lord’s Table because we are broken and needy refugees, desperate for His healing touch, His cleansing blood, and His life-restoring presence. We come because our relationship with Him gets strained or distant and is in constant need of renewal. When we come confessing our sins and sincerely seeking His face, He never turns us away or hides behind distancing excuses. He places Himself in our hands, once again offering us the opportunity to both delight and hurt Him (which we inevitably do). And because of Christ’s conciliatory posture, we (who just as often behave like His enemies as we do His friends) can again be at peace with God.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility,by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.
Ephesians 2:14-16

And as sweet as this peace with God is, it is not complete until we share it with each other. After all, communion was never meant to be a private dining experience. I am not the only one He invites to His table! If I claim to love God, then I must love those whom He loves. If I care about what is important to Him, then I will invest myself in reconciling the relationships that He poured out His blood to make peace between.

For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household…
Ephesians 2: 17-19

I hear Christians from opposing political camps talking as if they can no longer share fellowship with each other. For many it is the pain and betrayal they feel from those who seem to have blatantly compromised their Christian values by the way they have behaved or voted. For some it is simply the inability to understand why certain issues would be such a big deal to the exclusion of others. Regardless, as those who have been invited to sit together at God’s table, it is simply not an option to hold on to our relationship with Him without also working to reconcile our relationships with each other.

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
Ephesians 4:1-3

We might be tempted to wonder why God would include at His table such an odd assortment of guests. What with our disparity of cultural values and political positions, not to mention emotional temperaments, personal perspectives, and communication styles, how can He expect us to all sit together and enjoy a peaceful conversation? It may be that we have to do a lot of teeth-gritting as we put up with each other, praying frantically that the Spirit will override the divisive reactions which naturally come springing out of our lips and replace them with His own fruit.

God never promised that diversity would be easy, or that unity would come naturally. Overcoming barriers of caste, gender, race, nationalism, and political persuasion to gather His people from every tribe, tongue, and nation into one happily dining family is nothing short of a miracle. It takes constant forgiveness (even of those who don’t know they need it) and vigilant sensitivity to the fears and pain of others.

But this is exactly the awkward social situation into which He invites us to come and dine. And as our stubborn love keeps us together at the table, the miracle of His grace gets put on display for a watching world to see.

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When Hope Comes Hard

aLife’s harsh realities have a way of squeezing the stars out of our eyes. When I encounter a young couple dreaming of their happy future, my smile comes bittersweet, already feeling the pain they will inevitably encounter but also savoring the naïve hope they can enjoy for now.

For those who have already been around life’s block a few times, hope doesn’t come so cheap. We know that things rarely turn out the way we expect, and allowing our hopes to rise again entails the risk of exposing them to another crash. The inexperienced might call us skeptics, but we can hardly afford to be otherwise.

We want certainty; He offers Himself.

But as people of faith, how do we reconcile our awareness of life’s pain with hope in God’s goodness? The easy way out (and one I have repeatedly given into) is to mentally separate these categories, relegating God’s intervention to the realm of the spiritual and maintaining our self-protective pessimism towards life in the “real world.”

So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.” When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.
John 11:3-6

This is the dynamic I observe in Martha’s guarded response to Jesus after her brother’s death. She had every reason to hope that He would have come quickly to heal Lazarus. After all, wasn’t that what He went around doing for everyone else? Of course He would come for the one He loved. But He didn’t.

Faced with such deep disappointment, Martha had a difficult choice to make. She had already lost her brother; she didn’t want to lose her Lord, too. And yet how could she make sense of His unresponsiveness to her heart’s cry? How could she reconcile her faith in His goodness with His failure to prove it?

When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
John 11:20-22

Martha went out to meet Jesus, relieved to be with Him again but steeling her heart against the further disappointment His presence might bring. She couldn’t help but state the obvious: it was His fault her brother had died. But rather than dwell on the gaping wound in their relationship, she quickly covered it over by affirming her faith in what she knew to be theologically true.

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
John 11:23

As usual, Jesus knew the struggle going on in her heart and put His finger right where it hurt. He didn’t just want vague statements of her faith in His sovereignty. He wanted her heart, in all its broken, disillusioned messiness. In a claim that could have seemed almost taunting in light of His recent track record, Jesus promised the very thing Martha was too afraid to hope for. Her brother would live again.

Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
John 11:24

Still attempting the valiant feat of holding on to faith while dealing with disappointment, Martha came up with the safest possible spin on what He had just said. Her theological training came in handy, allowing her to state with certainty what the written Word had already guaranteed. She could look forward to the distant hope of resurrection but could not bear to think of something closer to home. Spiritualizing Jesus’ promise allowed her to affirm its truth while not letting it destabilize her immediate expectations.

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; 26 and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
John 11:25-26

And as always, Jesus understood. Rather than push the point of what He was going to do in the situation at hand, He met her where she felt safe to go. His claims about Himself were the basis of all that He did. If she was willing to state her belief in who He was and the way He works on behalf of His people, what more was needed?

“Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”
John 11:27

Martha rose to the occasion, just as Peter had. Despite her struggle to see His goodness in the here and now, despite her inability to claim that He would fulfill her deepest longing, she stated her categorical faith in Him. The rest would be resolved in the minutes and eternity to follow. But for now, Martha had found a bedrock on which to rest her hope: Christ Himself.

Like Martha, many of us live stuck between yesterday’s disappointments and tomorrow’s hope. We know God is able to intervene now and we know He will be faithful to make things right in the end. But what hope can we claim for how He will act in between? As He did for Martha, Jesus responds to our hidden fears with a call to trust in who He is and how He works, not just in the distant future but also in the here and now.

We want certainty; He offers Himself.

Bridging the Gap: Confessions from a Member of the White Race

attachmentConfession. Forgiveness. Reconciliation. Trust.

These words scroll endlessly down my screen as I read my Ugandan and Rwandan students’ essay submissions from this month’s Spiritual Formation unit. They have been asked to write about the people they find it the hardest to forgive and about situations in which they need to take steps towards reconciliation. My screen is full of stories of betrayal, slander, violence, and theft. But many of these stories are not just about individuals; they involve whole tribes or communities who carry complicated, time-accrued grudges towards each other.

I can sit at my less-than-tidy desk miles away from East Africa and try to mentally untangle the cause-and-effect web of historic animosity between these conflicting groups, but one thing is abundantly clear. At some point, someone from one of the groups has to stop pointing the finger and start admitting where their people have been wrong. Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away. And leaving it as it is will only result in further segregation, mistrust, and retaliation.

It’s crazy what I can see so clearly in someone else’s country but am blind to in my own! As I read the headlines about ongoing race conflicts in the U.S., I am struck with the fact that the same dynamic is at work. As a white member of the American middle-class, I am wired to think individualistically, to think of my status as something that I alone determine and am responsible for. But my individualistic mindset has blinded me to the fact that I am part of a race, a group of people from whom, for better or for worse, I have inherited my appearance, my social position, my identity, and my worldview. I may not be overly conscious of my race (looking for the Caucasian box on application forms always strikes me as a bit odd), but that is more a testimony to my having grown up with my race being the dominant one than it is to my being color-blind. I can afford the luxury of not thinking about it!

But for American blacks, especially in my beloved South, race is something they are never allowed to forget. The days of slavery and legal segregation may be past, but (often not-so-subtle) snubs, derogatory comments, and biased treatment from people of my color serve as daily reminders that they are not only different but also despised. Media-coverage of incidents of unfair police treatment and spiteful hate-crimes has only recently brought to white awareness what has been the ongoing reality for American blacks: that they are still treated as second-class citizens in their own country, and that even the “nice” whites hold pre-judged assumptions about the intentions and moral character of the black race of which they are presumed guilty until proven otherwise.

I could throw up my hands in defense and exclaim: “I’m not a racist!” But even if I could honestly claim that I have never avoided the seat next to a black stranger in a subway or clicked my automatic-lock button as I drove by a hooded black man at night, the inescapable fact is that people of my color have perpetuated the ongoing divide between whites and blacks. I may not condone their actions, but they still represent my “kind.” And until enough people from my race go out of their way to demonstrate a message to the contrary, their message of hatred, mistrust, and division will stand as a representative banner over us all.

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, …then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
Philippians 2:1-7

As uncomfortable as it is for me to suddenly discover myself on the side of needing forgiveness rather than being the one asked to give it, I recognize that this is exactly the position I need to adopt if true reconciliation is ever to take place. If a few people can represent my race with their hateful comments and violent actions, then can I not step into the gap they have created and verbally acknowledge the wrongs of my people, both past and present? I may not be guilty, but we are. And beyond guilt, I feel a profound shame over this aspect of my cultural inheritance.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, …. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.

And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge… As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
Ephesians 2:14-16; 3:17-4:3

So it’s my turn to practice what I teach. Lay aside my rights. Promote others’ interests over defending my own. Take up Christ’s ministry of reconciliation and humbly do what it takes to break down the barriers of hostility between groups of people for whom He died. If that means listening sympathetically to the hurt and frustration of my black brother, then I consider it a privilege that he would be willing to open his heart to me. If it means confessing the ways in which racist assumptions have influenced the way I think and asking my black friends to help me see life through their experience, then I can only pray that they will find me worthy of their trust.

Confession. Forgiveness. Reconciliation. Trust.

We’ve got long way to go. But thanks be to God, we’ve got a great Mediator already on the job. May His Spirit reign in all our hearts, bringing peace that defies history and love that surpasses human understanding.

Jesus is my Protest (or why I lowered my fist and raised the cross)

A powerful statement by one of my personal heroes who addresses issues of race and reconciliation with all the grit and the grace needed to say things how they are and to still speak with love.

Thicket of the Jordan

And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.­ –John 12:32 Long before Freddie Gray lingered between life and death in a Baltimore hospital, with an as yet unexplained broken back, I knew America to be the same, broken and inexplicable. I understood as much when, as an eight-year-old, a call to a wrong number earned a slur that would be my constant companion in the years to come. Did my voice already betray me as different and somehow inferior? I had perceived a certain disdain for my complexion, but my voice too? Reminders of this inexplicable brokenness would recur at the unearned frisks and traffic stops that peppered my teenage years. We were not fools; we knew the difference between our school books and those on the other side of town. We visited their laboratories and cafeterias. Even at a young…

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Editing Childhood

“What’s the point of going back? I don’t want to get stuck in the unpleasant memories of my childhood. I just want to get over it and move on.”

I sat across the picnic table from my friend and witnessed the conflict raging within her. Her mind wanted to be in charge, to determine what she thought about God and how she felt about herself. But her heart just wouldn’t cooperate. It kept sending her mixed messages: “God loves you. How could He? You are valuable to Him. Impossible! I’m unlovable, nothing but a worthless failure.”

As we picked together through the earliest memories of her life story, it became readily apparent to me where those messages were coming from. A terrified little girl, frantically attempting to sweep away the broken leftovers of her step-father’s drunken rage. A deeply impressionable child, consistently failing to prevent his destructive anger, forever falling short of being able to protect her mother from its violent effects. But try as she might, she couldn’t fix the problem. She couldn’t be good enough to pacify her step-father, couldn’t perform well enough to earn her mother’s love.

The scars of our past can become part of the beauty of our present.

Those messages of inadequacy and un-lovability were so deeply lodged in her soul that no amount of mental discipline or right theology had managed to root them out. But God was not content to leave them there. Just as He had done with countless others who came before her, He was taking her through the agonizing process of digging down through the layers of her life, unearthing the painful memories that she had kept carefully locked away and bringing her face-to-face with the damaging experiences that continued to define her.

Joseph named his firstborn Manasseh and said, “It is because God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household.” The second son he named Ephraim and said, “It is because God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.”
Genesis 41:51-52

Joseph had been just as resistant to this process as my friend was. He didn’t want to remember his childhood, the constant insults of jealous brothers, the sick family dynamics of competing mothers and treacherous sibling relationships. How could he enjoy the memory of his father’s overt favoritism when it had only made things worse for him with his brothers? How had that love protected him in the end when their jealous rage cost him all but his life?

The one stable relationship that had carried him through his tumultuous childhood and trying adulthood was the one he still shared with the invisible God. God had heard the abusive messages that his brothers assailed him with and had countered them with His own dream-time messages of affirmation. God had seen the indignity of his slavery and had shown up to make him successful in all his work. God had felt the isolation of his imprisonment and had kept him company through his darkest days. And in an unprecedented turn of events, God had raised him up into a completely new life, complete with a new name, a new family, a new community, and a new job.

When Joseph’s brothers arrived, they bowed down to him with their faces to the ground. As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he pretended to be a stranger… Then he remembered his dreams about them and said to them, “You are spies! You have come to see where our land is unprotected.” …
They said to one another, “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come upon us.” … They did not realize that Joseph could understand them, since he was using an interpreter. He turned away from them and began to weep…
Genesis 42:6-9, 21-24

Joseph had no desire to go back. But the one element of his past that he most wanted to avoid, God brought to meet him. Face-to-face with the brothers he had spent years trying to forget, the pent up emotions of his childhood came bursting forth. Under the layers of his power suit and prestigious position, his picture-perfect family and charmed social life, Joseph was still that traumatized little boy, desperate for his brothers’ acceptance, helpless in the face of their betrayal. The most successful man in Egypt broke down and wept.

Deeply moved at the sight of his brother, Joseph hurried out and looked for a place to weep. He went into his private room and wept there.
Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone leave my presence!” So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him…
Joseph had his chariot made ready and went to Goshen to meet his father Israel. As soon as Joseph appeared before him, he threw his arms around his father and wept for a long time.
Genesis 43:30; 45:1-2; 46:29

But Joseph’s tears were not an unproductive reversion. They were a healing stream, finally allowing the wounds of his past to be exposed, finally allowing the façade of his present to be made whole. He needed to hear his brothers’ confession, to see their distress over the pain they had caused him. He needed reassurance of his father’s love, evidence that the members of his family had learned to relate to each other in tenderness and compassion. Convinced at last that it was safe, Joseph was able to re-engage those relationships whose proximity had caused deep wounds, but whose absence left a deep hole.

Our tears are not an unproductive reversion. They are a healing stream, finally allowing the wounds of our past to be exposed, finally allowing the façade of our present to be made whole.

Sadly, not all of our painful memories find such happy resolution. My friend’s relationship with her mother continues to be characterized by criticism and rejection. But pulling back the curtains on her past has allowed her to see herself for who she really is: a child deeply loved by God, even in the midst of being horribly treated by her family. Even more, it has allowed her to experience her truest Father’s unconditional acceptance and adoring love in ways she never could before.

Damaging childhood memories cannot be erased. But revisited under the expert guidance of the Holy Counselor, the scars of our past can become part of the beauty of our present.

Messy Worship

Years ago a grief counselor told me that until I expressed my anger towards God, I would not fully heal. I remember responding with horrified disagreement at such an irreverent idea. Getting angry before God was the worst scenario I could imagine. He was my Maker, Redeemer, and Sustainer. I existed for His glory, not He for my convenience. What right did I have to question God or to allow myself to even consider being upset with Him? How could venting my fickle emotions at Him possibly honor Him?

God doesn’t want our “sacrifices” of worship and service apart from true intimacy. What pleases Him most is whole-hearted, full-on relationship, even if it comes with complicated emotions and awkward altercations.

When I consider the way David related to God, though, I get a different picture of what kind of relationship God wants to have with us. My favorite psalms to pray used to be the ones in which David was worshipping God in the splendor of His holiness, overflowing with praise for His goodness, faithfulness, and mercy. But the many other psalms in which David questioned and complained and ranted at God unsettled me. I didn’t quite know what to do with them, so I chalked them up to David’s weak humanity and decided I would “do better” in my relationship with God. No matter how much I hurt or struggled in life, I was determined to keep praising God and to never besmear His holiness with my messy emotions. How self-righteous of me to think I could improve on the man after God’s own heart!

I said, “I will watch my ways and keep my tongue from sin … ” But when I was silent and still, not even saying anything good, my anguish increased. My heart grew hot within me, and as I meditated, the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue: “Show me, O LORD, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting is my life. You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you. … I was silent; I would not open my mouth, for you are the one who has done this. Remove your scourge from me; I am overcome by the blow of your hand. … Look away from me, that I may rejoice again before I depart and am no more.”
Psalm 39:1-5, 9-10, 13

David understood something about God that I didn’t. He had struggled through overwhelming trials and devastating disappointments, trying to remain polite and respectful towards God. But the silence was killing their relationship. As long as David kept his doubts and frustration pent up inside, they kept him from relating whole-heartedly with God. When he finally voiced his unspoken questions and disrespectful desires to God, he could be fully reconciled to the Lover of his soul.

I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. …
Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but my ears you have pierced; burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require. Then I said, “Here I am …
Psalm 40:1-3, 6-7

The raw ranting and deep disillusionment of Psalm 39 is inevitably followed by the sweet resolution and deepened intimacy of Psalm 40. After reflecting on God’s gracious response to his desperate cry, David states what he discovered that God really wants from him: pierced ears. These were the symbol of a servant who had willingly given himself, heart and body, to his master and, in so doing, had entered into a permanent, familial relationship with him. God didn’t want David’s “sacrifices” of worship and of service apart from true intimacy. What pleased Him most was a whole-hearted, full-on relationship, even if it came with complicated emotions and awkward altercations.

Like David, I have come a long way, both in my experience of life and in my understanding of God. I have been broken beyond the point of what parroting simple truths could repair, and I have learned to honor God through a more mature, intimate relationship in which we both speak honestly and listen intently to each other. Of course He is still the high, exalted King and I am still a frail, faulty mortal. But this is the sort of intimacy of relationship that the triune God has initiated with His people: the nurturing Father with His adoring children, the compassionate Friend with His needy companions, the radiant Groom with His beloved bride.

Lamenting Lessons

“I feel so distant from you. My life is a living hell, and I can’t escape it. Miserable. Alone. Overwhelmed. Relentless trials. Ruthless people. I’m not sure I can go on living like this. Disconnected from everyone else. Cut off from you. Why don’t you listen to me? I feel like you don’t care. Don’t you want me to be whole? You are the one in control of my life. You are the one who is ruining it. Darkness is a better friend to me than you are. I don’t understand. I feel like you’ve betrayed our relationship, but I don’t want to quit on us. So I’m telling you how I feel and asking you to answer me.  Yes, I’m complaining, but I‘m complaining to you! I won’t pretend that everything is fine between us, but I want it to be. I’m going to keep telling you about it so that we can work this out. Listen to me!” (my paraphrase of Psalm 88)

O LORD, the God who saves me, day and night I cry out before you. May my prayer come before you; turn your ear to my cry. For my soul is full of trouble and my life draws near the grave. I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am like a man without strength. I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom you remember no more, who are cut off from your care. You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths. Your wrath lies heavily upon me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves. You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to them. I am confined and cannot escape; my eyes are dim with grief. I call to you, O LORD, every day; I spread out my hands to you. Do you show your wonders to the dead? Do those who are dead rise up and praise you? Is your love declared in the grave, your faithfulness in Destruction ? Are your wonders known in the place of darkness, or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion? But I cry to you for help, O LORD; in the morning my prayer comes before you. Why, O LORD, do you reject me and hide your face from me? From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death; I have suffered your terrors and am in despair. Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me. All day long they surround me like a flood; they have completely engulfed me. You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend.
Psalm 88

How do we pray to the one who is wounding us? How do we relate to the God who is orchestrating our mess? We can pretend like it’s not really Him. We can focus on His goodness and live in denial over the pain He brings. Or we can get angry and withdraw. We can turn away and refuse to communicate with Him. But neither of these responses will bring reconciliation to our damaged relationship. Neither will bring resolution to the wound festering within our own soul.

We understand the need for conflict resolution within human relationships, but conflict resolution with God is not really that different. It requires honesty, open communication, and dogged perseverance. It takes unswerving commitment to the relationship and a willingness to wrestle back and forth until both parties emerge heard, understood, and re-united.

Laments are conflict-resolution prayers. They are gutsy refusals to quit on our relationship with God or to settle for a polite, distant co-existence with Him. When we read the whole Bible and not just the nice, tidy parts, we run into lengthy sections of messy people screaming out their anguish to God. Unspeakable horrors. Irreverent feelings. Dangerous questions. All the things that would shock the stockings off our Sunday school teachers, brought right into God’s presence and laid out in the form of a complaint before His holy throne. Are we really allowed to be so bold? With all that is on the line, we can’t afford not to be.

Laments are gutsy refusals to quit on our relationship with God.

Thankfully, God not only allows us to lament, He teaches us how to do it. The Psalms and the prophets provide excellent models for how to voice our complaints to God. He even provides the words ahead of time for His people to use in their hour of despair. When Jesus cried out His agonizing question to God on the cross, He was merely borrowing the words that had been provided for Him centuries in advance through the Psalms.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent.
Psalm 22:1-2

Whether we borrow the words of Scripture or come up with our own words to express the agonized cries of our hearts, we are following in good footsteps. Lament has long been the prayer of the faithful. We could use some lessons in this lost art.

Teach your daughters how to wail: teach one another a lament.
Jeremiah 9:20