October 2, 2006. March 2, 2007. April 16, 2007. These three dates have forever changed the lives of certain people in very public ways. On the first date, a 32-year-old husband and father of three children ended the lives of five Amish children and himself in Nickel Mines, Penn., while critically injuring several other children. On the second date, members of the Bluffton University baseball team, from Bluffton, Ohio, were involved in a bus accident, tragically taking the lives of five young men, the bus driver and his wife. On the third date, a young adult male killed 32 students and faculty and himself on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, Virginia.
Each tragedy received a good deal of attention in our news media. Sadly, the children, grandchildren, parents and friends left behind are forever affected. Yet many unexpected tragedies occur on a daily basis in our towns, country and throughout our world. For adolescents connected to such painful events, the wounds created will impact them as they grow older. The scarring memories will not go unnoticed. As pastors and youth ministry workers, young people look to us to help them deal with their grief and shock. We offer a listening ear, plan a service of remembrance and participate in ritualistic acts, commemorating the lost lives.
At the same time, adolescents today are more likely than a few decades ago to commit suicide, suffer from mental heath illnesses such as depression and eating disorders, live in homes with parents who have been remarried due to divorce, and feel the pressure of a society that demands success at early ages. Adolescents today face many challenges as they discover who they are and what they want to do in life.
Overall, I believe that we need to better enable young people to encounter all the significant losses they will experience, whether it stems from unexpected tragedies or less visible developmental happenings. Grief is a normal part of life, and it expresses itself differently among people. How will we journey with adolescents in their many experiences?
I propose that we engage practices of biblical lament with our young people as they live not only through major devastations, but also those of their everyday reality. Lament brings the particularity of one’s suffering to voice; it offers structure and language for expressing that pain, and it provides an opportunity for healing to possibly occur. The experience of any kind of suffering, no matter the degree, makes people vulnerable. For many adolescents, certain levels of suffering, isolation, confusion, doubt and pain are everyday experiences.
What is Biblical Lament?
The biblical tradition of lament includes those prayers and expressions of complaint, anger, grief, despair and protest to God. Old Testament scholar Kathleen O’Conner suggests they are prayers that “erupt from wounds, burst out of unbearable pain, and bring it to language. … They take anger and despair before God and community. They grieve. They argue. They find fault. … Although laments appear disruptive of God’s world, they are acts of fidelity. In vulnerability and honesty, they cling to God and demand for God to see, hear, and act. … [I]n the process of harsh complaint and resistance, they also express faith in God in the midst of chaos, doubt, and confusion.”
We may be more familiar with laments found in Psalms, since nearly half of these prayers can be categorized as lamentâ€”by far the largest category of psalms. Nevertheless, how often does our success-driven culture permit us to explore our vulnerabilities? Can you imagine if half the songs we sang and prayers we uttered in worship were laments? Have our youth ministry efforts over-emphasized praise to God to the neglect of truly facing our fears, doubts, pains, struggles and weaknesses? Might we think God does not appreciate those times of vulnerable suffering because it may be perceived as having a weak faith?
I am concerned that if an adolescent population only knows how to pray to God through the genre of praise, it will be in danger of neglecting other forms of biblical prayerâ€”particularly when suicide, abuse, depression, eating disorders, cutting and other adolescent expressions of a pain-filled life are present. Can such people authentically offer praise to God if they have never first talked with God about their hurts, losses and sufferings? Do we as adult spiritual caregivers model an anemic Christianity that denies true happenings of adolescent lives?
I believe laments are some of the richest expressions of prayer. They often end with resounding joy and praise, but only because they have known sorrow and deep despair. They are prayers that exude a deep trust in God’s faithfulness, but only because they have walked through the valley of the shadow of death.
Structurally, biblical laments generally follow a three-act flow. In the first act, people get angry at God (or some injustice) and express their raw emotions. The author then moves into the second act by remembering a time of God’s faithfulness. By the third act, praise is once again sung to God.
Imitating the format itself may be a vehicle for an individual or community of faith to move beyond their predicaments to a new level of trust and confidence. However, not all biblical expressions of lament follow this pattern. For example, Psalm 88 starts in “the pit” and ends in “the pit”; it only engages the first act of lament. Lamentations is an extreme example of lament, quite raw and explicit in the aftermath of a national tragedy. The many voices cry out to God, yet God’s voice does not respond.
Engaging Youth Using Lament
One way to engage young people is to have them compose their own prayers of lament. For example, a three-step, timed prayer-writing exercise I have led with many youth takes six minutes to complete (two minutes per step). The first step permits youth to get angry at God or some other unfair reality and vent their raw emotions. The second step encourages them to remember a time of God’s faithfulness or when they felt God’s presence. The final step invites youth to offer praise and thanksgiving to God.
It is important to note that we do not know how long it took the biblical authors to write their laments. Even though there is often a structured flow, we dare not assume we can simply pray through this formula and be at a different place a few minutes later. Perhaps it took the original composers days, weeks, months or even years to appropriately praise God. This three-step prayer exercise is not intended as a magic formula for youth to avoid their pain by rushing to praise.
There are adaptations to this particular prayer exercise you may wish to consider for both individual and corporate settings. Vary the amount of time for each act. Encourage youth to read their prayers aloud in a group setting. Have pairs jointly compose them. Allow them to illustrate their three actsâ€”artists and those with learning disabilities may welcome this approach. Work with clay to sculpt their prayers. Worship services could be designed that structurally mimic the lament pattern.
Youth leaders may also encourage their youth to practice lament outside the group setting. They could write songs, poems or short stories based on the framework of biblical lament, and then later be invited to share their pieces to the rest of the group at a common time.
Lament could be incorporated into the regular rituals, rites of passage and turning points practiced by the church, even if the next step of life seems good. For example, obtaining a driver’s license and leaving for college are celebratory moments of a young person’s life. However, there may be anxieties associated with these joyous occasions that often go unacknowledged.
With many of these ideas, it may be assumed that the actual reason for lament stems out of a young person’s experience. However, spiritual exercises of lament recently experienced tragedy.
Facing Up to Our Pain
Practices of biblical lament will enable young people to communicate their obscure emotions, murky frustrations and ambiguous questions of doubt related to areas of faith. Lament offers a framework for those ambivalent stirrings inside young people. Theologically, this type of prayer exercise offers to youngpeople an image of God as One who is ever-listening and receptive to their honest selves. At a time when many young people search to belong and seek out meaningful relationships, lament cultivates an understanding of a God who is loving, accepting and caring.Adolescents can know that God is not One who revels in the suffering of humanity, but One who allows people to cry out in ways that encourage Him to listen and see the present pain.
Employing practices of biblical lament is often considered during times of major crisis, as it should be. However, I believe it is equally important to perform biblical lament with young people due to losses encountered in everyday life. Young people are desperately looking for safe places to release their inner tensions. Rather than turning to destructive practices of cutting, eating disorders, alcohol and drug abuse, lament can be a constructive alternative. However, it will take courageous spiritual adult leaders to forge the way, which may also challenge us to face our own unresolved pain and scars.
Bob Yoder is the husband of Pamela and father of Josiah and serves Goshen College, a Mennonite college in northern Indiana, as campus pastor and assistant professor of youth ministry. Recently, Bob completed a Doctor of Ministry project titled “Lamenting Youth, Believing Youth: The Role of Biblical Lament in the Faith Formation of Mennonite Adolescents.”