It has happened again. A person has stepped in and taken lives shooting almost 50 people and killing 26. Sadly it is a headline we know we will see again and again in the coming months and years. We will see it again again and again because at some level we’ve come to a place in our society where we are horrified by these events and unwilling to come together as a society to find actual ways to stop them or at least reduce the number of times we have to grieve.
Part of the divide we see comes in the call for “thoughts and prayers” for those closest to these horrific mass shootings. As the calls go out again for “thoughts and prayers” those who have been demanding gun control have begun a frustrated push back against those who are willing to pray but not willing to pursue gun control. The sense one gets is “Stop that silly praying and actually do something to end the horror.”
I’ve been reflecting on that perspective for a few days and I have to wonder if the problem isn’t quite the opposite. The problem is not that we’ve been praying too much and doing to little, the problem is we’ve praying and lamenting too little.
Deep in the faith of God’s people is the prayer of lament. A prayer of lament is a passionate expression of grief or sorrow lifted up to God. In the Psalms the Psalms of Lament rival the Psalm of Praise. For instance Psalm 5 begins this way,
“Listen to my words, LORD,
consider my lament.
Hear my cry for help,
my King and my God,
for to you I pray.
In the morning, LORD, you hear my voice;
in the morning I lay my requests before you
and wait expectantly.” (Psalms 5:1–3 NIV11)
Psalms of Lament are powerful because in them the Psalmists turn their attention to God who is both the mighty King and their loving Father—it is in him they find their hope. In the lament they identify the crisis at hand, they protest to God about it, and often protest to others and to themselves about it, then they ask God to act even as the Psalmist looks for a solution to the problem and finally the Psalmist usually ends up praising God.
The power of lament in the face of the horrors of mass shootings is that lament forces us to look to God first, the mighty king of the world and our loving Father. We look to him to act in this world understanding that prayer is one of the ways that God gets his work done in the world. This biblical reality is one place where those who denigrate thoughts and prayers get it wrong, prayer is not passive, prayer rightly done in the light of the horrors of a mass shooting is a passionate expression of grief, it is a calling, begging, crying out to God both on behalf of those who have been impacted and for God to stop such things in the future—trusting that the almighty King of the universe can actually do something.
The power of lament in the face of the horrors of mass shootings is also that lament forces us to look at the situation—the people who are deeply grieving, a nation that seems to be unwilling to take on such horrors and most uncomfortably, lament faces us down and asks, “What will you do with all these tears—both yours and others?” Lament never leaves us where we started. Lament reshapes and reforms our hearts and our priorities—for we do not want to weep like this again.
The power of lament also comes in the vision of what God longs for in his world. The only reason we can truly lament is because we have a deep sense that this is not the way it’s supposed to be. A lone gunman shooting from a hotel or inside a church is not the way things are supposed to be. Lament surfaces the reality that and at the same time trains our hearts and minds on the way things are supposed to be. That this is supposed to be a world of shalom. As one person writes:
Shalom: where God is our God and we are his people and he dwells with us, where God is king and his son is Lord, a world where the Lamb is our light, where swords are beaten into plowshares, where abundance is enjoyed by all, where our hurts are healed and the crooked is made straight, where people from every tribe and tongue and nation sing the same songs of praise, where justice rolls down like the waters and righteousness like an everlasting stream.
The difficultly of lament in our culture is at least twofold. One is the news cycle. It is just a few days since the shootings in Texas but already we are on to other things, other news stories (and Las Vegas—well that was so long ago). Lamenting means staying in place, it means letting the sorrow burrow deep into our bones—we are not good at that in a world of 24 hour news cycles. The other is that we don’t like to lament. We don’t like to do it on our own, we don’t like to do it in our small group, and certainly we are not looking for it in a worship service. We want to be lifted up, encouraged, not pulled down into lament. And yet it is in the depths of lament that we find the Psalmist being lifted up into the presence of God.
So my sense is that in the face of the horrors of Las Vegas and Texas and whatever comes next, the problem is not to little prayer, it is not enough prayers of lament. Lament is the beginning of healing and the beginning of find ways to set the crooked straight. And if we discover that we have to lament over and over again, it is the uncomfortable nudge asking, “Why are we still crying, why has there been no change since last you wept?”
Where do we start becoming those who pray deep prayers of lament that cry out to God for his power and move us to live out God’s vision of shalom?