Some long trails made me feel like I was making progress on the “walk” and others wound back on themselves, veering away from the center. If you’ve ever trekked a labyrinth in prayer (or walked a smaller version with your hands), you know that there is only one path but it is not a straight one. This ancient prayer tool is made of serpentine lines winding in and back out again, helping the pilgrim focus. There is no guessing if you are heading in the right direction, no worries about taking a wrong turn. You can just focus on the walk, focus on the presence of God with you.
As someone who loves to know the plan before I begin, not knowing what lies ahead makes me uncomfortable, even anxious. Somehow in that moment, not knowing where I am going or how long it would take me to get there made me feel free instead—free to trust that I would make it to the center when it was time and back out again safely. I didn’t have to worry about where I was going because I could trust that the maker of the labyrinth had laid it out correctly and the whole goal was to just walk.
As I’ve accepted that I am a good halfway through an ordinary span of life, I have become more profoundly affected by the twists and turns of life. Half of them behind me now, I can look back with insight on a life that has turned out where I supposed it should have, though not without much pain and many unexpected detours along the way. Nothing has turned out the way I imagined it would. But I have the benefit now of looking back and recognizing where God was at work.
My own way has wandered through countless forks and roadblocks. Early in my faith, I met the unexpected moments in life with trite answers and pretended it was enough. I swallowed more well-meaning “when God closes a door he opens a window” answers than I could stomach through the years and they began to rub me the wrong way.
Two distinct moments in my life, I can remember raging back against simple answers to life’s complex twists. Barely three months into my dreamed-of life in the Middle East, already rattled by culture-shock, the call that shredded my insides came. My husband entered the room, his face void of color. I don’t remember much except dropping to the shower floor and wrapping the towel around me to absorb the tears when he told me my father had experienced a “widow-maker,” a massive heart attack. That was 13 years ago this winter and my dad is still with us, but our dream of living overseas is not.
We launched out again, believing we were following God’s particular route laid out before us only to find ourselves again in the wilderness. A shockingly similar call came when we were living in Bangladesh. It was my mom’s voice again on the phone, telling me of my brother-in-law’s ruptured brain aneurysm. The same fears arose inside of me, the same feelings of obligation to my family and the need to be by their sides. The same anger—not at God, but at those who would pin the pain my family was going through on God.
The same words ripped through my throat in those startling incidents a decade apart: “My God did not do this!” When others gave me that, “there, there” look and told me it was all a part of God’s plan or that the Lord was testing our faithfulness, anger surged through me..
When I first started practicing Centering Prayer in earnest, focusing on a sacred word to bring my thoughts back to the Presence of God, I daily focused on the word beloved. I was struggling to see anything good in myself. Borrowing from the teachings of Brennan Manning, I imagined crawling up in the lap of my loving Father. Something still felt amiss, though.
Living in Dhaka and learning the marvels of the Bangla language expanded my prayers in a way I never expected. The word for father in Bangla is “Abba,” that same loving name Manning uses for his Father God. “Amma” is the word for mother, but there isn’t a separate word meaning “parents.” Instead, Abba-Amma (or the more informal Baba-Ma) is used to signify parents, the combination of mother and father, the ones who are everything to the child. The distinct-yet-inseparable persons make up all the child needs.
I prayed in this way, calling God my Father-Mother, my good parents, my everything. And I breathed in the belief that I was their beloved.
For a long time, that’s all I could pray: “God, help me see you as good. God, help me understand your love for me.”
I don’t remember when the shift first happened. I just noticed when it had. I would see the face of others I loved while I sat silently anchored by the word “beloved.” I would hold onto the pain I knew a friend or family member was experiencing like I could take it away for a moment. It was as if I could sense God saying, “They too are my beloved; now help them see it.”
The sense of God’s love for me had seeped down deep into my bones and I didn’t need to ask God to show it to me anymore. I could hold out that hope for others. I could see the way we’re all connected to each other. I could clearly see, as Desmond Tutu said, that: “My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours. We belong in a bundle of life....”
The quiet of the morning is broken by the alarm that starts off on the periphery of a dream and shifts to a nagging pull into reality. I stumble out of bed, untangling the little limbs wrapped around my body.
In the dark I can't decipher which child is to my right and who is to my left but I don't want to wake either one. My husband lies across the abyss, cradling the far edge of the bed to make room for our children who found their way between us sometime in the night.
Everything in me wants to return to the comfort of sheets tangled up and to little blond heads waiting to cuddle up against my chest for a couple more hours. Most days that is exactly what I do: I shut the world out for a while longer, find my way back to the quiet and simple hours before the chaos of the day starts to pull me in four different directions away from them.
The days I allow myself to hit snooze I wake feeling defeated, knowing I failed at my first attempt at self-discipline for the day. I am desperate to bend my will to the call of the early morning.
I know I will handle all that chaos better if I prepare myself now, so today at least, I make my way downstairs in the dark, just the light from the moon illuminating the path.
I move through the space, my body waking up before my mind. My muscles remember the patterns without much effort. Downward Dog anchors me back to a place of quiet, both waking me and allowing me to find rest. The dichotomy isn't lost on me. It is the kind of rhythm I am trying to find in the remainder of my day—finding ways to be still inside even when I race around in the raging world....
Why can’t anyone just sit with me and be sad? Why is it that Christians don’t give each other permission to actually feel what they feel?
The words to my husband came out more forcefully than I had intended. Everything that had been simmering inside for days was boiling over and he was the unfortunate recipient. He had watched me cry for two days straight as we wordlessly carried the knowledge that someone we loved was hanging onto life moment by moment in an intensive care unit 8000 miles away. He stayed silent because he knew I couldn’t handle anymore well-meaning “let’s just trust God” comments by people smiling and saying it was all going to be okay.
The weight of personal anxiety and family tragedies on top of local and global suffering I was carrying was bearing down on me. I can only pretend living in close proximity to suffering doesn’t weigh on me for so long.
I can try to stuff down the stories of my friend who can’t escape her husband’s anger in a society where women have little voice or power. The eyes of the Rohingya woman who told me about escaping her burning village and trekking ten days to the refugee camp where we sat together burn in my mind. The hatred spewed in my social media feeds. The divisions in our world. More and more, my heart was dying to know how to carry the weight of these things to God. Rote answers and brushing it off wasn’t working anymore.
I held my breath when I started reading Aubrey Sampson’s The Louder Song: Listening for Hope in the Midst of Lament. I held onto a prayer that the timing of these words would be a balm to my heart and a lifeline I could hold out to others I knew who were searching for ways to express what they didn’t have the language to yet.
“Not all suffering is the clear result of something. Not all suffering is reasonable,” I read. “In our deepest grief, we don’t lament to find answers. We lament to stop searching for them. We lament to be still in the unanswerable.” I exhaled, a groan too deep for words that I know Jesus received as a prayer. Finally, I found the words of someone not rushing in to fix or explain it all.
Lament is not an expression today’s Christians know. It’s not something we have learned in our churches or feel we have permission to do. But it is written into the fiber of our Scriptures and God knew we needed a language to lead us to healing. That’s exactly what Sampson explores in her book that chronicles not only personal accounts of walking through grief but how God’s word brings us to the place where we see “God sings a louder song than suffering ever could, a song or renewal and restoration.”
“To lament is to speak to the reality of our formless, chaotic suffering and to ask God to fill it with his very good,” explains Sampson. She mixes stories from her own life and others with Scriptural basis for the prayer form of lament, helping us find our way through suffering to restoration.
If you’re like me, you never lingered too much on the parts of Scripture that focus on suffering. We all want to rush on to the good stuff, the victory. But then when we find ourselves in the midst of suffering (of our own or others) we fumble through the words to express the pain without dismissing the reality of it. We need someone to tell us God can handle our doubts, that not rushing on is okay, and that yes—hope will come, but not without walking through the place we find ourselves first.
One aspect of the book I loved and needed to hear was the focus on lamenting with others. We can do so much damage when we see others in pain and do not know how to walk with them through it. Sampson gives us tools to come alongside others in a way that will ultimately allow God’s healing for us all:
“No matter where you live or where you come from, it is within your power to love your neighbor. As you lament, you reveal the compassionate hope of Jesus to a world in need. Don’t rush to fix. Just listen. Learn. Be present. Bear witness. Humbly acknowledge any biases and privilege you might have. Above all, love others as you lament with them and for them.”
Not sure what lament really means? Check out this post by the author, "What Does Lament Mean?"
Have you struggled with how to express find God in the midst of suffering? How have you found your way to hope in those times? Where can you see a need for lament in your life or in our world?
If you have had an experience with this expression of prayer, can you share how lament has helped you on the way to healing?
I see them every day on the streets—the hungry. They stretch out trembling hands and plead for something to sustain them. A handout is not enough though. It may fill them for the day but they are back at the same bus stop the next morning, empty-handed and asking for more.
I’ve been that person for many days. I come to God with open hands and I ask for more of who He is, some feeling of His presence to carry me. I can’t count the number of books on prayer and contemplation I have read in the past few years. I begin reading with a hopeful heart. This is the one that will jumpstart my prayers,I think, that will tell me where my heart has gone astray in its connection to the giver of life. But I close the book in sadness. I don’t see any changes in myself.
The Furious Longing of God by Brennan Manning has been in my kindle queue for a while and I opened it on a whim last month. When I finished reading it I felt more like that pleading pauper than ever. I saw so much of myself in the flawed character of this alcoholic ex-priest, this man both attracted to and repelled by God. I knew his heart in the way he was never settled, always searching. But he had something in all his wandering that I didn’t—this ability to accepted God’s love fully and not get bogged down in his own failures and attempts to earn the love of the Father.
I wept with longing as I read: “Is your own personal prayer life characterized by the simplicity, childlike candor, boundless trust, and easy familiarity of a little one crawling up in a Daddy’s lap? An assured knowing that Daddy doesn’t care if the child falls asleep, starts playing with toys, or even starts chatting with little friends, because the daddy knows the child has essentially chosen to be with him for that moment?”
I yearn for this kind of trust in God’s affection for me. I want to believe that my attempts towards Him are enough, that in all my lack He is still infinitely pleased with me. I kept coming back to Manning’s words, devouring his autobiography in a few days and then launching into Dear Abba. I didn’t yet see any kind of shift in my prayers but I was so taken with this ragamuffin that I kept reading.
I was invited to a two-day retreat with a few other expat ladies in the South Asian city I’ve called home for nearly half a year. I longed for connection to someone in a place where loneliness is my daily companion. I came again with trembling and empty hands, not sure if there would be anything to fill them...