A Feature Review of
You Can Talk to God Like That: The Surprising Power of Lament to Save Your Faith
Reviewed by June Mears Driedger
Last year I wanted to lament about the conflict over masks as displayed in the local grocery store, over the unstable WiFi, and over the closed public library. I wanted to lament these things, but I assumed laments were only worthy of Big Issues, and not my cranky-grumblings. In the book You Can Talk to God Like That: The Surprising Power of Lament to Save Your Faith, Abby Norman writes that lament is appropriate, even encouraged, for both the cranky grumbles and the Big Issues. Indeed, God desires our lament to tell God the truth of our lives.
Throughout the book, Norman reminds us that the Bible calls us to lament, instead of happy-clappy worship services experienced in current churches. She writes, “Lament is necessary for a full relationship with God, our community, and world” (9). We are encouraged to “bare our souls, our deepest hurts to God” (10).
This book is divided into three sections: “Lament to God”, “Lament in Community”, and “Public Lament as an Agent of Change”. Each chapter concludes with a “Practice Makes (Im)Perfect” with suggestions to practice some form of lament. Norman provides a structure to write a formal lament based on Psalm 22 early in the book (23), but states throughout the book that our laments can take any form including a letter to God, a journal entry, or a spoken prayer.
The thematic strands holding this book together are “seeing and being seen” and “hearing and being heard.” Both are ways of being known by and knowing others. This connectivity draws the reader to the gospel text Matthew of 13:16, “Let those who have ears hear; those who have eyes, see,” (paraphrase).
Significantly, Norman references the complicated Old Testament story of Hagar, slave of Sarah. As told in Genesis, Sarah struggled with infertility and worried about the birthright of Abraham. To resolve the birthright, Sarah ordered Hagar to have sex with Abraham which resulted in Hagar’s pregnancy. But after the miracle of Sarah’s own pregnancy and birth (for her child to claim the birthright), Abraham expels Hagar and her child into the desert wilderness. As Hagar waited to die, Norman describes the scene, “God shows up …God has a lot to say to Hagar. God promises so much to this woman who has nothing, who is sort of expecting, or maybe even hoping, to die in the desert. God gives Hagar so much hope for her future and the future of her son, and then she faces God and names God “El Roi,” which means “The God who sees me” (39).
We are assured throughout the book that because God sees us and knows us, we are given the wherewithal to lament, to talk honestly about life, no matter how trivial we consider our own pain, sorrow, and fear. Because God knows and loves us, we live in freedom with God, allowing us to be truthful about ourselves and about our lives. Norman writes, “We are allowed to bring our broken bits to God.” (18)
For Norman, listening to the pain of others—without interjecting our own agenda—is essential for knowing people and communities which are different from us and our communities. She notes that statistically, we know people who are like us, sharing the same values and experiences. These monocultural relationships creates a particular sensibility that the world operates one way and different experiences are either disbelieved or difficult to understand. In order to intentionally build relationships beyond our circle, we need to “have ears that hear.” She states:
“Sometimes the best way for us to understand our neighbors’ pain is to lament with them. In order to understand what our neighbors are going through, we need to be able to hear them. We need to be able to sit with their lament. Then we need to be able to lament with our neighbor, because we are hurting when our neighbors are hurting, whether we know it or not. We are all connected. By understanding our neighbors (especially the ones who are not like us) and their unique experiences of suffering, we can join in their lament and ask God for a better world for everyone” (92).
Both seeing and hearing requires us to be in relationship—seeing God in relationship with oneself, hearing more of God and in relationship within our communities and more broadly, the wider global community. These relationships are built and nurtured through seeing and hearing.
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann describes laments—particularly those found in the psalms—as emerging from times of “disorientation.” Norman describes the breadth of disorientation in our current culture—religious and secular—and nudges readers to talk to God about the disorientations in clear, frank, openhearted language. She assures us that we indeed, “can talk to God like that.”
Norman’s writing is friendly, open-hearted, vulnerable, and authentic. She draws from her own life experiences including living with an undiagnosed chronic illness which was eventually diagnosed as fibromyalgia, and then mysteriously healed. Norman begins the book with a question from her mom, “Are you mad at God?” Norman said “Yes,” and her mother admitted her own anger with God. She writes about her own career challenges and disappointments particularly in regards to her path to ordination within her denomination. Importantly, this book on lament is accessible to all readers and provides clear language to talk about God and suffering,
The theology of the book is strong and healthy: God is God and sometimes we do not have answers to suffering. Nevertheless, we can trust that God loves us, delights in us, and desires to be in relationship with us. And since God knows what is in our hearts, we might as well be honest about what is going on in our hearts.
Norman concludes her book with a benediction, like a thoughtful pastor at the end of a church service, offering readers a blessing of encouragement to live our lives in deep relationship with God, ourselves, and our communities with eyes to see and ears to hear. And, in turn, we offer all that we see and hear to God.