Looking Back at 2020 with Lament and Repentance

Emmaus Road

This week, I am sharing some spiritual practices for reflecting on the previous year and stepping forward into the new year.

Looking Back: Lament

Sometimes, however, when we look back over the year, particularly in this devastating last year, even while we’re trying to give thanks, we remember experiences, events, or relationships that we’d rather not have experienced. The options or more than we’d like to name: that diagnosis, that job loss, that divorce, that death, that financial hit, that relational rupture, that opportunity that disappeared…perhaps even all of 2020.

In times like this, our gratitude is mingled with sorrow. There is a space for this in the life with God that is exemplified in the psalms of lament. Lament offers us the space to express our sorrows and griefs in the presence of God.

Psalm 13 is one example of lament. The first few verses say:

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
(Psalm 13:1-3a)

Lament is a valuable way to look back at the past year. Sometimes we need to name the painful areas of our lives in the presence of God without papering over them with false positivity or wishful thinking.

Writing about lament, Martin Luther said:

“What is the greatest thing in the Psalter but this earnest speaking amid the storm winds of every kind? . . . Where do you find deeper, more sorrowful, more pitiful words of sadness than in the psalms of lamentation? There again you look into the hearts of the saints, as into death, yes, as into hell itself…. And that they speak these words to God and with God, this I repeat, is the best thing of all. This gives the words double earnestness and life.”[1]

I want to give permission to each of us to look back over our year with God and lament. We may need to name something in our life as a source of great sorrow or wounding, and also bring it to God from the depths of our souls.

Perhaps you may do this verbally or, as I often do, you may want to write out your own personal psalm of lament. There is something powerful about laying it out in words, and giving that to God in prayer.

Looking Back: Repent

But it is not just painful things that have happened to us that we must bring to God, but also the painful things we have done that we must bring to God. We do this so that we can name them, confess them, and turn from them. The biblical word for this is repentance.

Psalm 51 is an extended prayer of repentance that is well known. It references a time of deep crisis in the life of King David, when he has committed adultery with Bathsheba, had her husband, Uriah, killed, and then tries to cover it all up. Nathan the prophet confronts him about it. Psalm 51 is the repentance response that David offers in response to his failures.

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin. (Psalm 51:1-2)

Here is the naming of wrongs David has done. And it is followed by the request for forgiveness, cleansing, and turning away from sin.

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me. (Psalm 51:10)

We all recognize that there are things in the past year that we have done to others and ourselves – ways that we have fallen short of God’s best for us. Let me suggest that it is not the best thing we can do to carry these things into the next year with us as a burden. It is important to lay them down in prayer with God, like burdens laid at the foot of the Cross.

Jesus taught His followers to pray, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us” (Matthew 6:12). Although I think this is a good practice daily, I also believe the end of the year is a good time to draw near to God and name our sins – our wrongs – before God, to ask for forgiveness and cleansing, and to turn from them in our hearts.

Something I’ve done in the past is to write certain sins on  notecard or piece of paper, and then (safely) burn them as a sign of these sins being forgiven and cast away by God.

We receive assurance in many places in Scripture that God is forgiving, most notably in 1 John 1:9, which says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”


[1] Martin Luther, Word and Sacrament, Luther’s Works, vol. 1, ed. E. T. Bachmann (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1960), 255 –56.

Looking Back and Stepping Forward: a new year’s message

 

This past weekend at Eastbrook, I preached a message, “Looking Back and Stepping Forward,” which was a stand-alone message for the new year. I shared some practices – looking back at the past year and stepping forward into the new year – that have helped me most over the years to close out one year and begin another.

The message was rooted in the psalms, drawing three practices for reflection (giving thanks, lament, repentance) and three practices of anticipation (focus, dedication, praise) together as a rubric for standing at the threshold of changing calendar years.

You can watch my message from this past weekend and follow along with the message outline below. You can also engage with other sermon series here or download the Eastbrook mobile app for even more resources or opportunities to connect.

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Praying for Forgiveness [30 Days of Prayer]

Summer of Prayer Ads_Banner“And forgive us our debts” (Matthew 6:12a)

The fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer centers upon our relationship with God and with others. Specifically, it is a request for forgiveness. This request forces us to recognize that often we are not the sort of people we would like to be, others would like us to be, or God would like us to be.

Unfortunately, we are often dishonest in our lives, and this dishonesty can sometimes creep into prayer. Dishonest prayer does not lead us anywhere helpful, but inadequately hides us from God like Adam and Eve sheltering behind fig leaves. Jesus’ teaching on prayer, however, confronts us with the bare reality of who we are and who we are not.

When David was confronted by the prophet Nathan after his adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah, he turned from hiding his sin to uncovering it before God. Psalm 51 is the record of that uncovering within prayer, which we call confession.

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin. (Psalm 51:1-2)

This psalm expresses the cry of a heart that knows its debts and calls out for mercy. John the Apostle offers words that respond meaningfully to our confession of our sinfulness: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). So, let us run to Our Father, holy and merciful, uncovering our sinful indebtedness with boldness and humility in prayer.

Search through my soul, O God.
Reveal my hidden sin.
Cut through my self-deception,
and cleanse me from within.
Apart from You our souls are lost.
We’re blind to our wrong ways.
We trick ourselves to walk a path
that leads to our disgrace.
So lead me on the path of life,
and purify my soul.
I kneel before You;
I give myself to You.

[This post is part of the “30 Days of Prayer” devotional. Read other posts here.]

||40days|| week two: acknowledge our brokenness

When I moved into a new house, there were some problems with the driveway. Because of ground settling, the slabs were angled toward one corner of the house. Our house inspector identified the problem and told me that if we didn’t remedy the situation in some way, there would likely be water seepage into the house along that corner.

I had a decision before me. First of all, I could acknowledge that the driveway was broken, and then do something to fix it. Alternatively, I could ignore the driveway issue, thus leaving it for a later date when, more likely than not, the problem would become a much larger and more expensive issue.

The same is true of our lives. Because of sin in our world and our experience of it in our lives, we all have broken areas in our lives. Sometimes it is brokenness in the way we relate with others, when we continue to lash out at people because of how other lashed out at us. Other times we experience brokenness in patterns of action, where we give in to painful addictions as a way to feel good about ourselves.Read More »