January 19, 2021

Disorientation: The Dead Tree Gives No Shelter

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By Chaplain Mike

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water…

• T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland

We continue our series on the seasons of the spiritual life by discussing times of disorientation. Scriptures which describe the experience of disorientation evoke those occasions in life when the bottom falls out. The ground beneath our feet, once firm, starts shaking, we lose our bearings and fall into a pit. Like the psalmist we yell from that pit, “Out of the depths I cry to you, LORD!” (Ps 130:1) Illness and other forms of personal distress, financial problems, relational conflicts, “wars and rumors of war,” and “fightings without and fears within” make it seem as though God has abandoned us, or at least hidden himself for awhile.

We hurt. We question. We doubt. We may despair even of life itself. We are lost!

The wilderness (or desert) is a primary metaphor for disorientation in the Bible, and this is fitting, for the word describes a state of losing direction or relationship with one’s surroundings. A disoriented person is confused about where he is and where he may be going. The world has become a barren, hostile place with no clear path to follow. The conditions are inhospitable. Shelter from the relentless heat is hard to find. We get thirsty. “The dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, and the dry stone no sound of water.”

In contrast to the “quiet waters and green pastures” of the Shepherd Psalm, we join the psalmist, lost in the wasteland.

O God, you are my God,
and I long for you.
My whole being desires you;
like a dry, worn-out, and waterless land,
my soul is thirsty for you.

• Psalm 63:1 (GNT)

The spiritual medicine indicated for seasons of disorientation is the psalm of lament. Though the Hebrew word for the Book of Psalms is “tehillim,” which means “praises,” it is obvious that these praises are hard won, for the individual lament is the most common form of psalm in the book. “Weeping may last for the night, but a shout of joy comes in the morning” (Ps 30:5). Ultimately, praise is the result of having found one’s way through the wilderness. The Psalms exemplify the theology of the cross that characterizes the entire Biblical story, seen most clearly in Israel’s exile/return and Jesus’ death/resurrection/ascension. And lament is the language of prayer that runs through the whole narrative.

  • Individual lament psalms were presumably composed by people who went to the temple or priest to pray in a time of trouble.
  • The prayers were addressed to God in a time when he seemed absent, uninvolved, and unconcerned with the suffering the person was experiencing.
  • To the one praying, it seemed as though God’s promises were failing, for what he saw in his life bore little or no resemblance to those promises.
  • The two main questions of the lament are, “Why?” and “How long?” It must be stressed that these are questions of faith, for the supplicant is taking his prayer to God and complaining about the unresolvable contradictions he sees between God’s revealed will and the apparent triumph of sin, suffering, evil, and death. It may not be a form of faith with which we are familiar or comfortable, but it is faith nevertheless.
  • The lament is a form that allows the disoriented to refocus their attention on God, gives voice to their pain, supplies an orderly structure in which to corral the chaos in their lives, and provides a path and a process by which a suffering individual may meditate, think, and pray his way through the wilderness.

The classic lament form is seen in Psalm 13. The psalmist’s complaint is followed by a passionate petition for God to act. Then he confesses his trust that God will come through for him and makes a vow of praise, to be fulfilled when God has answered.

How long, O LORD? Will You forget me forever?
How long will You hide Your face from me?
How long shall I take counsel in my soul,
Having sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long will my enemy be exalted over me?
Consider and answer me, O LORD my God;
Enlighten my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
And my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
And my adversaries will rejoice when I am shaken.
But I have trusted in Your lovingkindness;
My heart shall rejoice in Your salvation.
I will sing to the LORD,
Because He has dealt bountifully with me. (NASB)

Lament is tragically absent from most contemporary American Christianity. Despite the fact that the major book of prayer/song in the Bible is dominated by laments, we have not learned to pray in this way. We do not encourage complaining to God about what he is doing, even though this was the habitual practice of Biblical faith. We forget that our Savior himself was a “Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,” and that he himself cried out publicly that he felt abandoned by God on the cross. Furthermore, we do not mourn over our sins, contemplate the mysteries of suffering, and struggle with the limitations and flaws of our humanity. We glide along the surface of faith, content to have clinched the deal, happy to follow the spiritual system of the moment.

Take a look at the Top 25 worship songs sung in churches in the U.S. as reported by CCLI. The only one even approaching a lament in character is “Blessed Be the Name of the Lord,” by Matt Redman, but it speaks primarily of the praise that comes after having been through the lament process. The Psalms, on the other hand, are unafraid to speak with utter honesty about what it is like smack dab in the midst of the wilderness:

Why do you reject me, Lord?
Why do you turn away from me?
Ever since I was young, I have suffered and been near death;
I am worn out from the burden of your punishments.
Your furious anger crushes me;
your terrible attacks destroy me.

• Psalm 88:14-16

Quick! Someone write a catchy tune for that one.

Seriously, I believe restoring the lament to our prayer lives and our worship would be of tremendous help to the church today.

  • First of all, singing and praying laments in worship would remind the entire congregation that there are people in our midst going through seasons of disorientation. Practicing lament would allow the burdened to give voice to their sufferings and encourage the rest of the assembly to minister to brothers and sisters in need.
  • Second, learning and practicing the lament form would train us to pray with more honesty and would help us become wise about the processes that are required to work through the disorienting effects of sin, sorrow, and trouble in our lives.
  • Third, including lament in our practice of faith might humble us and make us more realistic about the pain of life in this world. We might also become more reticent to make triumphalistic claims that easily morph into prosperity-gospel hype and short-circuit the process of genuine spiritual formation.
  • Fourth, lament can shape our lives in the pattern of Jesus and the cross, putting a cruciform spirituality back at the center of our teaching about the Christian life.

The Apostle Paul stated his goal in life in these terms: “All I want is to know Christ and to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings and become like him in his death, in the hope that I myself will be raised from death to life” (Philippians 3:10).

If we want to know Christ’s resurrection power, we must share in his death. We must pass through seasons of disorientation, which are an unavoidable aspect of life in this fallen world. They are also part of what it means to enter into Christ’s sufferings. The lament is the form of prayer by which God guides us through the wilderness and reorients us once again.


*Note: Today’s artwork from the website of yvonne meissner.


  1. I was very glad to see this entry. I think you are correct about lamentations. Though it’s not exactly a trendy topic, I am currently in a small group that is working on a book called “God on Mute”– about prayer when it seems that God is silent or hidden. I have found the book to be very interesting so far. It deals with complaining to God and talks about Jesus in Gethsemane.

    Personally, I have found that lament in my own prayers has drawn me closer to God. I used to be afraid to complain in my prayers, as if I would make God angry with me. I grew up in a church where I was literally told “Who are you to question God?” As an adult, I think I am finally realizing that God can take my questions, and even answer them. If being a Christian means being in a relationship, it does mean being able to ask questions and voice feelings.

  2. Thanks for these words. Yes, where has the genre of lament gone in the pop-spirituality that so often identifies us today? Not to be ignored or under-played, disorientation is a significant part of following in the footsteps of the Crucified and Risen One. Fortunately, God does bring us out of the wilderness wanderings, and orients us towards the Promised Land.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Yes, where has the genre of lament gone in the pop-spirituality that so often identifies us today?

      It’s been thrown under the bus of Shiny Happy Joy Joy — don’t you know Christians are Always Victorious?

      (Just like North Koreans dancing Joyfully with Great Enthusiasm before Comrade Dear Leader.)

      I don’t know about you, but half of my short stories are laments of one sort or another. Especially the spontaneous ones — those are almost All Lamentation, All The Time.

      • +1 🙂

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Just for you, Eagle, (plug) here’s one of my spontaneous-fantasy Lamentations (end plug), that somehow got bootlegged (illo and all) onto somebody’s blog. (I still don’t know where they got it, but the story’s where I got my current pseudonym. And it qualifies as a tragic Paranormal Romance. Click if you dare!)

          • “When to be called ‘Virgin’ is an insult, to whom can a unicorn appear?”

            Indeed! Interesting story you wrote there, HUG (or should I say “Ken?”)

            Also interesting that the person who bootlegged your story left the “All Rights Reserved” written right there too.

            I dared…i clicked…I read…I responded.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            When there are several “Kens” commenting on a blog, you have to use a unique handle.

          • I enjoyed your story, HUG. Sad, but sad in a beautiful way and well-written. (Just thought I should clarify that as “interesting” can mean a lot of stuff!)

  3. I would like to hear a few songs written that start off with lamenting and end in praise, Chaplain Mike. Look at poor Job. Talk about lamenting and complaining! He even told God that he would like to bring God to court and find him guilty. But, God spoke to Job after all the lamenting that Job did. God was more pleased with how Job responded to all the grief Job suffered than he was with Job’s friends who kept telling Job that it must be his own fault that he was suffering from all these things. God never really told Job why he suffered, but it was enough for Job that God “showed up.”

    • Joanie, a song we have been singing at our church is called, Unfailing God. Here are the lyrics:

      Though my eyes may fail me
      I will follow after You
      Though You promise seems forsaken
      I’ll remember the world’s in Your hands
      You’ll find me singing

      You are unfailing God
      Your love’s unending
      And Your word is eternal
      Firm in the heavens its stands

      Though sorrow’s my condition
      And pain holds back no blow
      Though this be my darkest hour
      Your lamp is leading me home
      You’ll find me singing

      Eyes can’t see but I feel You near
      I know You’re working through my tears
      I trust You Lord I trust You for You never walk away

      You can hear the song here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YYNeQsqn-Y0

    • Another song we have been singing is a statement of God’s faithfulness even when life sucks. It is called, YOu Never Let Go, by Matt Redman:

      Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
      Your perfect love is casting out fear
      And even when I’m caught in the middle of the storms of this life
      I won’t turn back
      I know you are near

      And I will fear no evil
      For my God is with me
      And if my God is with me
      Whom then shall I fear?
      Whom then shall I fear?

      Oh no, You never let go
      Through the calm and through the storm
      Oh no, You never let go
      In every high and every low
      Oh no, You never let go
      Lord, You never let go of me

      And I can see a light that is coming for the heart that holds on
      A glorious light beyond all compare
      And there will be an end to these troubles
      But until that day comes
      We’ll live to know You here on the earth


      Yes, I can see a light that is coming for the heart that holds on
      And there will be an end to these troubles
      But until that day comes
      Still I will praise You, still I will praise You

      Video link here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y83-vMeWc9E

      • I used to listen to this when I was in a combat zone. That and read the 27th Psalm…it was before things started to nose dive….

    • It doesn’t really end in praise, but I always liked U2’s “Wake Up Dead Man”. I think it conveys the frustration of not hearing from God when we want to very well.

      Jesus, Jesus help me
      I’m alone in this world
      and a f*cked up world it is too
      tell me, tell me the story
      the one about eternity
      and the way it’s all gonna be

      Jesus, I’m waiting here boss
      I know you’re looking out for us
      but maybe your hands aren’t free
      your Father, He made the world in seven
      He’s in charge of heaven
      will you put a word in for me

      listen to your words they’ll tell you what to do
      listen over the rhythm that’s confusing you
      listen to the reed in the saxophone
      listen over the hum of the radio
      listen over sounds of blades in rotation
      listen through the traffic and circulation
      listen as hope and peace try to rhyme
      listen over marching bands playing out their time

      Jesus, were you just around the corner?
      did You think to try and warn her?
      or are you working on something new?
      if there’s an order in all of this disorder
      is it like a tape recorder?
      can we rewind it just once more

  4. “My whole being desires you;
    like a dry, worn-out, and waterless land,
    my soul is thirsty for you.”

    Yes, psalmist…me, too.

  5. Thanks you for presenting this. Walter Bruggeman’s book ‘The Message of the Psalms’ is a wonderful study that introduces the pattern you are highlighting (orientation, disorientation, etc.). He’s a joy to read on this.

  6. Where have the lamentations gone? We live in America; the Can-Do country. We worship at the throne of free market capitalism which dictates that only the fit and robust survive and thrive. We make no place for the downtrodden and downcast for deep down, we feel that they just aren’t trying hard enough. Christians too often think that by embracing lament, the market will leave us and we will be left shouting that we “coulda been contenders!” because everybody loves a winner. By embracing lament, we might be seen as, dare I say it, whiners who won’t pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      So instead we make the Sign of the Dollar along with John Galt.

      • You got it!

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Oh, it gets better:

          You DO know Ayn Rand went all Harley Quinn/Bella Swan over one of the most brutal child murderes of the Roaring Twenties, don’t you? Here’s an essay about Rand and her Edward Cullen. (sparkle sparkle)

          • Sadly, this doesn’t really surprise me any more than the “family values” politicians and their ilk who are on spouse #3 or 4, or worse. Or like the “family values” congressman nearby who was caught in an affair with the woman who appeared with him in his abstinence videos.

  7. Brian Doerksen has set Psalm 13 to contemporary song – I don’t think it has seen much airtime.

    He also laments in his new song “Will you love me in the winter?”

  8. I grew up singing from the Psalter Hymnal in church. The older I get, the more I have heard the contemporary stuff, the more I long to sing the psalms again. Many of them voiced the kind of lament you are referring to. Also, CM, I agree so much with your point about how so many christians seem to think it is necessary to speak in “triumphalist claims that easily morph into prosperity gospel hype”. I find that so much in what I experience as a hospital chaplain. It certainly is often a challenge to encourage those who profess faith in Christ to not short circuit the process of real and geniune spiritual formation during their suffering and trial. Seems like its harder in a hospital setting to minister (or be geniune) to christians at times than to those who are unbelieving.

  9. I love the quiet but stubborn lament of the David Crowder song, “All I Can Say”:

    Lord I’m tired
    So tired from walking
    And Lord I’m so alone
    And Lord the dark
    Is creeping in
    Creeping up
    To swallow me
    I think I’ll stop
    Rest here a while

    And didn’t You see me cry’n?
    And didn’t You hear me call Your name?
    Wasn’t it You I gave my heart to?
    I wish You’d remember
    Where you sat it down

    And this is all that I can say right now
    And this is all that I can give

    I didn’t notice You were standing here
    I didn’t know that
    That was You holding me
    I didn’t notice You were cry’n too
    I didn’t know that
    That was You washing my feet


  10. posts about content like this is what drove me away from institutional christianity. disorientation has seemed to define much of my experience, and trying to figure that out within certain christian circles proved to be dreadful. i got so tired of the plastic smiles, the empty concern, the vapid assurances, the rebuke for questioning and wrestling and the condemnation for being depressed, uncertain and scared. this topic is so crucial, and in my flight from churchianity i have come to realize that it is way more widespread that anyone is willing to admit and/or discuss.

    i find this song to be a source of authenticity and truth when none can be found within the christian circles that are available at the moment:


  11. A pastor told us it was sinful to lament. He recently had a depressive breakdown.

    Lament, combined with praise is good for the emotions.

  12. Looking through some old papers today and came across a devotional I printed out, probably from 2008 or 2009. I do not know where it came from, or who wrote it:

    The Psalms are heart shaped, deeply personal expressions of the inner life of the psalmist, most often David. They are the journal of a man pouring out his love for his God. And often, I find, it is brutal, gut-wrenching, violent. David is dark. He is despairing. He is desperate. He is in love.

    Biblical writers talk much of the spritual discipline of lament. It is the act of taking the time and emotional sweat to recognize the deepest brokenness of our souls, and then mustering the courage to embrace it before God.

    Lament is an act of love. It recognizes that in order to truly love, one must be truly honest (there’s a shocker to most religious types there! *my addition*) David knows that if he wants his love affair with God to be true, he must be honest about his anger with God, his accusations of God, his confusion with the perplexing way God sometimes goes silent.

    Lament is way of honoring God, of taking Him seriously. It is, as Eugene Peterson says, a way of “making the most of our loss without getting bogged down it it- [it] is a primary way of staying in the story. God is telling the story, remember…….He doesn’t look kindly on our editorial deletions.

    Finding this today, after all these years, it’s no wonder I saved it!!! To be honest before God…….if not……why even bother?!?!?!?! Amen!

    • In addition…….if we are told we “shall not” lament, or express our honest concerns with the Father (as if He doesn’t already know them!), we are doing ourselves a complete diservice! God came to us, remember, He knows our frame, he understands we will sometimes go through seasons of the valley. Hiding it, denying it, masking it is only dishonoring Him and allowing ourselves, to once again, be seekers of approval of men. Lord have mercy!

      Our absolutely amazing and astounding God is far more capable of handling our emotions, no matter how dark, than most Christians can. Let us go to Him, allow Him to do His work in us, so we may be that for another going through a valley of darkness.

  13. I have a hard time lamenting in a meaningful way lately. Whether it’s something broad like wars and rumors of wars (a timely concern) or more specific like a personal problem, I often don’t know what to pray for because I can’t even articulate what “success” looks like. Lately I have been having to rely on the intercession by the Holy Spirit, because I am at almost a complete loss of words. I do know (and feel) that God is close, thankfully, but it is a weird place to be in.

    • David Cornwell says

      Romans 8:26:

      “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.” (NIV)

    • Libby writes, ‘I often don’t know what to pray for because I can’t even articulate what “success” looks like. Lately I have been having to rely on the intercession by the Holy Spirit, because I am at almost a complete loss of words.”

      Me, too, Libby. I particularly like your: ” I can’t even articulate what ‘success’ looks like.”

  14. Randy Thompson says

    “The wilderness (or desert) is a primary metaphor for disorientation in the Bible, and this is fitting, for the word describes a state of losing direction or relationship with one’s surroundings. A disoriented person is confused about where he is and where he may be going. The world has become a barren, hostile place with no clear path to follow. ”

    Yes, but. . .

    The Holy Spirit “led” Jesus into the wilderness (Luke 4:1, Matthew 4:1). Mark puts it a bit more dramatically: “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12).
    Moses meets God in the wilderness (Exodus 3:1ff).
    Elijah goes to the wilderness to meet God (1 Kings 19).

    It seems to me that the wilderness can be a place where you go, or where God sends you, to get oriented! The “dark night” experiences that inspire lament also serve as a radical pruning of those abiding in Jesus’ vine (John 15). Pruning–cutting–is painful–profoundly so. Yet, even in that, God is there. We’re still oriented, even if (and when) we don’t (and can’t) know that.

    And, there’s Isaiah 40: “In the wilderness prepare the way o the Lord . . .for the glory of the Lord shall be revealed” (Isaiah 40:1-5, and see Isaiah 41:17-19)

    Without minimizing the “wilderness” of the dark night of the soul, and without minimizing the pain of the wilderness experience, I suggest that it too is a time and place to learn to trust God: “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it spring forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. . . to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself that they might declare my praise” (Isaiah 43:19-21). The wilderness times of lament serve to orient us as much as the happy times.

    The ultimate lament was “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Encouragingly, God answered that prayer three days later. We’re called to take up our cross and follow, which suggests that the Lord was (is) telling us that the way of discipleship leads us through the valley of the shadow.

    The profoundest praise comes from those who’ve spent time in the wilderness, or so it seems to me, at least.

    I don’t mean to sound obnoxiously upbeat, but I’ve been in the wilderness, and for all I know I may find myself there again. What I learned in the wilderness was a deeper “orientation” than I had before I went into it, for which I praise God.

  15. One of my lifelines in the 90s was the song “Flood” by Jars of Clay. It was the first christian song that I could relate to at all really. I couldn’t believe there was a christian song out there that had any negativity about life in it. And the music was good too. It wasn’t the usual derivative crappy music that I was used to hearing. I don’t remember if they ever played it on the christian stations back then, I had sort of given up on them anyway.

  16. Thanks, Daniel, for your comments with song lyrics and links to hear them. I don’t really listen to Christian music unless it happens to be part of a “regular” album like Bruce Cockburn and Van Morrison sometimes do. I did see the youtube video of The Third Day’s song “Cry Out to Jesus” and I like that song. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S-WwrL5jCSM I think the photos accompanying the song here are done particularly well, having perused a few of the others at youtube.

    I will have to check out the songs Bev mentioned above later.

  17. Makes me miss Mark Heard even more. 🙁

    John Michael Talbot arranged versions of various lament Psalms, such as Psalm 42.

    They’re out there; they just won’t show up on the CCLI hit parade.

    I think it is quite healthy to lament when one is sad; we are conditioned to put on happy faces and sing happy tunes when we are sad. We’re supposed to buck up and snap out of it, rather than riding out the storm and getting it all out. One can be a “King’s kid” with all of God’s promises and still have a bad day. Being the Son of God did not spare Jesus from suffering and death.

  18. A quote from R.D. Laing in The Politics of Experience:
    “In this journey there are many occasions to lose one’s way, for confusion, partial failure, even final shipwreck: many terrors, spirits, demons to be encountered, that may or may not be overcome. We do not regard it as pathologically deviant to explore a jungle or to climb Mt. Everest. We feel that Columbus was entitled to be mistaken in his construction of what he discovered when he came to the New World. We are far more out of touch with even the nearest approaches of the infinite reaches of inner space than we now are with the reaches of outer space. We respect the voyager, the climber, the space man. It makes far more sense to me …..to explore the inner space and time of conciousness……..We are so out of touch with this realm that many people can now argue that it does not exist.”
    I think, given the task before us, we deserve and must give compassion and aid to our fellow travelers. Disorientation is a prerequisite for ressurection like a valley is to a peak and night is to day.

  19. I think there a number of reasons we don’t incorporate lament in worship. We’re supposed to make God smile with our worship; our praise is supposed to be pleasing in His ear. Lamenting will just bum God out. Then he won’t show up and give us what we want.

    • Yes, Mr. Ox! “Then he won’t show up and give us what we want.” Because it’s all about what we have. If you don’t have, then you aren’t trying, and that is not the American way.

    • “Lamenting will just bum God out.”

      That’s a good one, dumb ox. 🙂

  20. ‘orientation’ (in Western Christianity)
    facing East (the Orient), towards the Holy Land,
    turning towards Christ

    turning away from Christ

    A play on words, from the time when the altars were placed at the eastern end of Churches ‘towards the Orient, the East’

    Maybe, for Christian people in the West, the words ‘orientation’ and ‘disorientation’ have extended meanings. 🙂

  21. Wanted to say thanks for this. The post echoes well what I’ve been feeling the past few weeks, and just reading and meditating through Psalm 13 really does alot in helping me express what I’ve been wanting to express to God. Just have to keep moving forward and trusting in Him…

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