In thirty years of seminary teaching, I attended chapel on campus a thousand times or more. Of all the prayers offered—by professors, students, staff, and campus guests—I remember exactly one: “God, our dear friend Georgia died, far before her time. We don’t understand why, and we want you to know how angry and filled with sorrow we are.”
The raw emotion in these words was one reason why this prayer has stayed in my memory for more than a quarter of a century. Its unconventional form was another. For some who heard the prayer, even more surprising was that it was offered by a professor noted for the hard logic of his process theology with its doctrine of God that defied the ideas that many students and faculty alike had learned in the semi-conservative, naïve Protestantism of our earlier years.
Students were accustomed to hearing that the Whiteheadian God of the classroom was someone you could pray to, but until that day in the chapel some had not believed it. Now they could. We realized more fully than we had before that the test of our theology is not the conventional question “does it preach?” but instead a much more difficult question “does it pray?”
There was nothing new about this kind of prayer. Even if we had not read the literature ourselves, another professor also deeply colored by process thought (even though his discipline was what in those days we still called Old Testament) could have pointed us to the Psalter and to the large body of scholarly literature describing “psalms of lament.” To use the words of Artur Weiser: “In the laments the most profound problems of life are tackled and ultimate decisions are contended for in prayer. The question, age-old yet ever new, of whether, and, if so, in what manner, destiny and God and guilt and destiny are related to each other recurs in many variations and is answered in different ways.” Weiser continues the discussion is his dense academic prose, but his point is important.
The lament is our way to work through the most severe challenges of life at a level that is foundational both to our intellects and to our emotions. Weiser makes it clear that these Hebrew prayers—these laments—lead to “affirmations of trust” and these lead to “psalms of confidence.” They serve as evidence of the creative power and vitality which has been at work in this sphere of Old Testament faith” (The Psalms, 83). They also lead to psalms of thanksgiving, which express the confidence that despite the deep distress, the fear of death, the opposition of enemies, the failures of family and friends, God is present as the one who can be trusted to hear, understand, love, identify with, and ultimately to sustain us through all things.
Prayers of lament are important to Christians today. There is much that goes wrong in the world, much that seems to counter everything that we believe about God and the world which God declared to be good. Our worship becomes authentic—and, in the spirit of this series, we could say unconventional—when we tell God what we think.
In this regard, however, the Psalms are a better example than the prayer of my professor colleague. In the Psalter, the autobiographical details have been subsumed into language that is general enough that all worshipers understand the distress and bewilderment and fear. Similar experiences of their own slip into their emotional consciousness and they, with Paul, find themselves offering prayers in “sighs too deep for words.”
These prayers are completed when our confidence has been restored through lament, confidence, and thanksgiving, and we are able to express prayers of intercession and petition. In these prayers, we reveal our hopes for a world in which sorrow and suffering are overcome and the paradise that God intended becomes a reality.
Prayers of this kind serve as the transition from the believable explanations that our sermons provide to the dramatic rehearsal at the eucharistic table of the world that already has begun and, we dare to believe, will someday—in this age and the next—be all in all.
In order for prayers in public worship to express the depth and range that I am proposing, they have to be prepared with care. People who speak these prayers are lending their mind, heart, and voice to the congregation As best they can, they say to God what they believe the congregation as a whole wants to say. In laments, they remember the suffering of the days just past, and in prayers of confidence and hopeful anticipation, they ask that the powers for life, which show forth most fully in Jesus Christ, crucified and triumphant over the grave, will drive away the despair and reestablish trust and hope.
The only theology worth preaching in progressive churches is a theology that is fulfilled in prayer.