Reclaiming Lament

Artwork: “Han” by Shin Happens

Somewhere along the way we got it wrong: we began thinking of lamentation as an optional exercise, instead of a requisite discipline.

In our world of nonstop news cycles, status updates, and social media feeds, lamentation is a revolutionary act. We rarely make intentional choices to slow down and to lament what is happening around us. But in the face of daily tragedy, lamentation is the practice of staying engaged after the cameras and publicity move on. It summons us to immerse ourselves in the pain, agony, and despair of the world, our communities, and our own sinfulness.

We lament because paradoxically, the cure for the pain is in our engagement of it.

Lamentation prohibits us from becoming numb and apathetic to the pain of our world and to those we shepherd. Lamentation begets revelation, giving us eyes to see the death, injustice, and oppression which we become immune to. Lamentation develops our ears to hear the torture, anguish, and weeping which has become white noise in our world.  To live without lament is to live an unexamined life.

Lament and Memory

Scripture suggests that lamentation is a liturgical act, which reorients and transforms us. When we lament, we declare what is true about the world, what is true about our humanity, and what is true about God.  Lamentation is an acknowledgement that things are not as they should be, that our world is full of pain, death, and injustice. Lamentation is also a confession of our humanity- a concession that, in our own strength, we are inept to combat powers, principalities, and spiritual wickedness. And lamentation is an invocation for God to intervene with righteousness and justice, because only God has the power to truly mend the world’s pain and brokenness. Through lamentation, we experience uncensored communion with God, visceral worship where we learn to be honest, intimate, and humble before God.

There are four foundational pillars of lamentation: remembrance, internal reflection, confession, and repentance. The first step in the journey to lamenting rightly always begins with remembering rightly.  Scripture implores believers to “remember” 166 times. God repetitively instructed Israel to remember that they were once slaves, foreigners, and exiles. As a people liberated by God’s grace, Israel’s remembrance was intended to shape and dictate their purpose, praxis, and relationships.

When Israel forgot, they turned from God, became self-centered, practiced idolatry, and enacted injustice. Israel’s social amnesia–forgetting God’s command to “not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice,”– led to disobedience and ultimately the erection of social systems and structures which institutionally privileged some while discriminated against others. Remembrance, therefore, is vitally important. It anchors our identity and compels us to make connections to the past. It provides context and greater clarity for our present and future.

If we are honest, a primary failure of Western Christianity is its ahistorical nature.  History summons us to confession, lamentation, and repentance concerning our role in and apathy regarding our nation’s history of injustice and exploitation. Lamentation compels us to prophetically expose what the powers that be seek to conceal and deny. Taking history seriously would make the lamentation of exterminated, demarcated, and violated bodies obligatory for the church.

Moreover, history reveals that oppression is always institutionalized and structural. Scripture illustrates this from the days of Pharaoh, to the reign of Caesar. The sinful manifestations of a hardened heart have never been confined to interpersonal interactions. We must confess that institutional injustice is a hallmark of our nation’s history and as a church, we have failed to confess and lament this reality. We have frequently conformed to the pattern of this world and have not been transformed by the renewing of our minds. Consequently, in forsaking lamentation,[i] we have become just as prone to engage in segregation, discrimination, and enacting injustice—either overtly or covertly–as others. Injustice, and its enduring presence–manifested through racism, sexism, classism, mass incarceration, and militarism–are all primary consequences of our failure to live in remembrance and lamentation.

History roots us in a posture of humility and compels us to faithfully sustain a discipline of lamentation. Without considering history, lamentation seems unwarranted. Yet by remembering rightly, we see how sin has distorted our relationship with God, our neighbors, and creation, and we are led into lament. Lamentation beckons us to discern how we can recalibrate our relationships in light of the gospel. When faithfully engaged and authentically enacted, lamentation keeps us accountable to our baptismal vows, reminding us of our need for God, one another, and the Holy Spirit’s guidance.

Reclaiming Lament during the Lenten Season

As we enter into this Lenten season, a season of preparation for the global Church, we composed this multiethnic resource to help us do the hard work of internal exploration.  This resource is offered up as a love offering to the Church! It is aimed at helping the body make sure that our ministry and theology are historically rooted.  Additionally, it is aimed at helping the Church engage the pain of this world, not just intellectually but also emotionally, in unity with the pathos of God. It is presented as a model of what creating space for, and a culture of, lament could look like.

For each day of Lent, we have identified a historically significant event in our nation, and highlighted, as well as framed it for us, to consider what it means for us individually, and corporately. Some of these events are well-known, and others relatively less so. Some are hundreds of years old, and others are current. And while this devotional is not meant to be a comprehensive racial history of the U.S, we hope that these stories provide glimpses into our nation’s troubled and sinful history, so that we may acknowledge the Church’s need to lament our history, to repent from a place of our own racial particularities, and to look to Jesus for solidarity and hope.

In our daily devotional, we have also included Scriptures and historic prayers for reflection and response. While it may be easy to read these stories from history and “consume” them as merely information, our prayer is that each day’s devotional would create a space for a worshipful, prayerful, and even emotional response. We acknowledge that these devotionals will lead some of us into lamenting our position as the oppressor, others will lament our position of experiencing generational oppression, and still others will lament feeling somewhere in-between. However you enter, we encourage you to make space for actual responses of lament. We invite you to sit in the pain and tension of these stories and how they interact with the story of God in Scripture. We challenge you to stand in solidarity with other believers across many generations who have cried out faithfully to God in the face of great pain and struggle.

While the resource is not perfect or complete, it is intentionally multiethnic, and historically diverse. It is intended to illuminate how the past informs the present, and how the mosaic nature of the Kingdom of God calls us to see our narratives as interconnected. We pray that this resource is fruitful, thought provoking, and praxis-inducing!

[i] Dr. Soong-Chan Rah’s important book on Lamentation (titled Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times) cites an in-depth study conducted by Denise Hopkins on the use of lamentation in our nation’s major liturgical denominations. Her study concluded that in the Lutheran Book of Worship, the Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer, the Catholic Lectionary for Mass, the Hymnal of the United Church of Christ and the United Methodist Hymnal, “the majority of Psalms omitted from liturgical use are the laments.” Rah also cites a study by Glenn Pemberton who elucidates this is not just a mainline denominational problem, finding that while lament constitutes 40 percent of all of the psalms in the book of Psalms, lament only constitutes 13 percent of the hymnal for the Churches of Christ, 19 percent of the Presbyterian hymnal and 13 percent of the Baptist hymnal. Moreover, Rah notes that Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI), which tracks the songs congregations incorporate in services, found that just 5 of its top 100 songs qualified as lament songs. These statistics lead Rah to conclude that “the absence of lament in the liturgy of the American church results in the loss of memory.” He goes on to say that “we are reluctant to stay in the narrative of suffering, lament and pain.”

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