Since we started on self-isolation, our family has been reading a Psalm each night over dinner (sort of – we’ve been on iso about 60 days, but we’re only up to Psalm 40!) Our kids have heard ancient Israel’s songs praising God and also ones crying out to God in hardship, and they do those things each evening in our family prayers as well.
I thought perhaps it would be good to build on that foundation with a more structured way of doing lament as well. I reached out to my friend and Psalms guru Rev Dr Melinda Cousins who sent me some info on the structure of lament Psalms in the Bible:
Lament poems have common elements, although not every poem contains all of these.
- Invocation: calling on the name of the Lord (choice to bring this situation to him, not any other god or any other source)
- Plea for Help: asking for what we need, naming the problem
- Complaint: or ‘lament proper’, an exploration of the situation including our emotions and responses to it
- Confession of Sin/Assertion of Innocence: examination of one’s own heart within the situation
- Imprecation: crying out for justice against enemies, bringing our desire for vengeance to God and leaving it with him
- Statement of Confidence/Praise: movement to acknowledgment of trust in God, and sometimes to expressions of praise (cf. Ps 88)
These are obviously some pretty big concepts to talk about with kids, but they are not beyond them! I’m constantly reminded that little ones have vivid emotional and spiritual lives, even if they can’t articulate them. My view is that activities like this don’t plant ideas in kids heads, they help them to say and give language to what was already lurking for them. We dignify children as we help them to do that. The key is to work out how to do it in an appropriate way.
I worked Melinda’s stages into into kid-friendly language with a series of sentences kids could complete.
- Hi God, it’s me…. (invocation)
- Help me God with…! (plea for help)
- It’s bad God! (complaint)
- My problem is…
- It is hard because…
- I feel…
- I wonder if you…
- This is not fair God because… (assertion of innocence*)
- Change it, God! Please… (imprecation)
- I trust you, God! Thanks for… (statement of confidence)
I did this activity with our kids. Since they have already heard plenty of lament Psalms, it was pretty straightforward for me to introduce it by reminding them of a couple and saying that we were going to write our own laments, to talk to God about the coronavirus using the same steps that people in the Bible did.
We then had a short discussion about why it’s OK (good even!) to bring negative emotions to God, and to tell him about things that are hard or bad in the world. They offered that you need to tell God because He can do something about it. I added that God already knows what we’re thinking, so nothing you say will come as a surprise to Him and He won’t be offended. (We all got a chuckle out of this actually, role-playing God being surprised and not surprised.) We noted that since lament Psalms are in the Bible, they must be OK to do, because God put them there!
I had the sentences pre-written on the computer, and got them each to tell me how they wanted to complete the sentences. I told them they could say as much or as little for each one as they wanted. Once they had completed the sentences I read the whole prayer aloud.
They’ve given permission for their work to be shared. Here’s what they came up with:
Hi God, it’s me Elliot. Help me God with corona! It’s bad God!
My problem is I don’t get to see my friends because we have to stay inside. It is hard because I’m not used to this and I really miss spending the day at school with them. I feel sad about missing my loved ones, angry that people are losing their jobs, and scared for the people who might catch it. I wonder if you could stop it. God, do you see them?
This is not fair God because we didn’t do anything to cause this problem, but we still have to stay inside.
Change it, God! Please take the coronavirus away so everything will be normal again (sort of – there might be fewer people in the world.)
I trust you, God! Thanks for keeping us safe. Amen.
Hi God, it’s me Callum. Help me God with corona! It’s bad God!
My problem is that poor people have to go out and they might not have masks and gloves to protect them. It is hard because even staying home is not much good. I miss my friends and wish I could go to school where there are so many fun things to do. I feel scared that people will catch corona. I miss seeing my friends and going in bajajis on the way to school. I wonder if you can take all the bad stuff away. I wonder if you care about the poor people.
This is not fair God because some people can protect themselves and some people can’t.
Change it, God! Please take away the coronavirus and protect the poor people.
I trust you, God! Thanks for keeping us safe and I will say thanks to you God when you take it away and everyone is safe again. Amen.
*In a normal lament, this is an opportunity for self-examination, and reflection on the fact that none of us are righteous. It’s highly nuanced and for a child’s concrete thinking may end up sounding like they are to blame. Children are prone to do this anyway, so I have gone with the assertion of innocence aspect of it. In the context of the coronavirus, that’s the case anyway, and it’s right for them to protest that this is not their fault.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.