This sincere man struggled with lament because the grief was not yet his. This is what lament teaches and allows: we place ourselves in the path of pain that is not obviously our own. When word reaches Nehemiah of Jerusalem's broken walls and the disgrace of the exiles who had returned from exile he prays a strange sounding prayer to my American ears. "I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father's family, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses" (Neh. 1:6-7).
Why is Nehemiah confessing? And how can he identify with the sins of previous generations? A prayer most of us would never think to pray is natural in the mouth of one fluent in the language of lament. In addition to empathizing with the defenseless citizens of an unfortified city, Nehemiah is also able to identify with the sins of his people, the rebellious acts that led to exile so many years before. And so his petition for God's deliverance is a prayer for his own forgiveness and rescue as well. This is what lament does for me: I'm brought into another's pain while my subtle and timeworn sins are slowly uncovered. Lament is the beginning of a bridge across old divides; my distance between neighbor and God is shortened.
While Nehemiah's response to tragedy may seem culturally distant, hopefully our ears pick up familiar notes. In Christ, God identifies intimately with those whose experience and plight could not be more different than his own. There is nothing dispassionate or distant about Jesus' unfulfilled longing to gather the rebellious Jerusalem to himself, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. Our faith centers on God taking on our flesh and then our sin, our experience and then our death. Israel could rely in part on a shared memory and ethnicity when lament was called for; we rely on a shared salvation by the God who identified with us.
Freed by sorrow
Despite this gospel underpinning, in many of our worship services it would be difficult to know that there are great tragedies and battles raging outside our walls. Our prayers and sermons are more likely to address personal issues and grievances than the large-scale idolatry and inequities to which we have become accustomed. We are reminded of God's power and provision without being invited to consider, like the Israelites under Ezra's instruction, our own complicity in the world's pain and struggle. Confession and repentance are saved for those events for which we alone can claim culpability. We steer away from lament, perhaps fearing that it would overwhelm and paralyze us. In fact, the reverse is usually the case.
In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King set out to convince his white colleagues that "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." His identification with the plight of the African-American community in Birmingham compelled him to "carry the gospel of freedom beyond [his] own home town." In contrast, it was the lack of lament over the plight of African-American neighbors that kept the white clergymen and their churches from saying and doing the things their Christian faith demanded. They identified with neither the pain of their African-American neighbors nor the sins of prejudice and privilege that led to violent discrimination.