Ash Wednesday: Practice Truth-Telling

The prayer of lament is first and foremost truth-telling; it begins by challenging the way things are. Lament declares that something is not right in the world. This pain, this suffering should not be. It helps us to name the lies we have been living and participating in.

Lament opens us up to a new vision of how God is present to our suffering. We call on the God who weeps with us, whose groans are our own, and we express our hope in God's tender care.

Lament is a form of resistance: We allow ourselves to be present to God in our brokenness and resist the cultural imperative to be strong and hold it all together. We resist cultural practices of denying death through our worship of eternal youth. We stop pretending everything is okay and put an end to worshipping the status quo.

Lament puts us in solidarity with those who are suffering and schools us in compassion. Only when we have become familiar with the landscape of our own pain can we then enter into the suffering of another. Lament moves us beyond our own narrow perspectives.

In the prayer of lament we help give voice to the oppressed, to hidden suffering, the suffering in silence that happens because pain takes our language away. The prophet Joel says to blow the trumpet and call the assembly, because lament is the work of the community. Gathered together we say that the pain is being heard, that it is valid. Our community votes with its tears that there is suffering worth weeping over.

Finally, lament is the release of power, God's power, the power that is the soul-transforming call of repentance. The paradox of our faith is that we must first surrender fully to these ashes, into the desert places of brokenness, before Easter and its promise of resurrection can fully enter and fill us. In the second reading for today (2 Cor. 5:20b-6:10), Paul invites us to be ambassadors of reconciliation. Lament invites in God's reconciling and healing power.

During Lent, my practice will be truth-telling. I will inhabit my places of grief, the sorrows I have resisted up until now, and allow my unspoken lament to rise up in me like fire. I will turn off the endless noise and chatter that distract me from those places where my heart has hardened. I will be in solidarity with those who have no voice and listen for their silent groans. I will trust along with our spiritual ancestors who wrote and sang the Psalms in the assembly, that when I go to the rawest, most vulnerable places, my soul is then transformed and I can answer the call to repentance with my whole heart.

This Lenten journey is for the sake of life and transforming power. It is not a second chance at New Year's resolutions. It begins with the acknowledgment of that which deadens and kills. Justice, healing, repentance all begin in tears. They will not end there, but there is no detour on the desert journey to Holy Week.

In the Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday (Mt. 6:1-6, 16-21), Jesus warns us against practices that are done for their visibility. He calls us to examine the integrity and intention of our actions. So I encourage you this Lent, to consider continuing to eat chocolate, but make intentional space for your grief.

  1. Give permission for others in your life to express their sorrows. Help to create an atmosphere in your communities that encourages prayers of lament.
  2. Think of a friend or acquaintance who has experienced a loss in the last few months and make time to ask them about their stories, and let them know they will be heard.
  3. Examine the subtle ways that your own actions participate in and perpetuate the pain of the world.
  4. Cry out in public ways; express your lament perhaps in letters to the newspaper and those in power.
  5. Write your own prayer of lament taking the Psalms as your inspiration. Laments generally have a format that begins with an invocation of God's name, then an address of your complaint to God, naming the problems and questions you want to ask. Some laments then have a turning point where they affirm trust in God and a plea for God's help and support. Pray your lament each morning of Lent.
  6. Refuse to say that everything is fine. Practice truth-telling.

Is our image of God big enough to imagine that God can embrace all of our pain? Can we trust that the God who cries out alongside us, whose cry is our own, will also transform us in that space of darkness? Do we not believe that Jesus entered fully into the experience of death before being resurrected?

The readings for the first Friday of Lent begin with Isaiah chapter 58, calling us to "cry out full-throated and unsparingly." It then goes on to name the kind of fasting that God desires of us, which is to set free the oppressed, to share your bread with the hungry, to not turn your back on others in their need. And only then, Isaiah tells us, will your light break forth like the dawn.

This Lent, Christine Valters Paintner offers an online retreat on the desert mothers and fathers.

3/1/2011 5:00:00 AM