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Leadership Journal

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Learning to Lament

Learning to Lament

How my church's violent neighborhood led us to discover the power of lament.

"The murder capital of the U.S."

That's the dishonorable distinction my city earned last year when the FBI reported that Chicago had passed New York for total number of homicides. It is strange to live with this violent label. Most days we go about the work of business, school, and church. The threat of another young person's unnecessary death fades behind life's regular pleasures and distractions. But then the phone call or text message or social media update brings news of another death. Suddenly the long sad story behind another murder emerges, the details similar to and different than every other story for which our city has become known.

On a recent Saturday, while beginning our monthly prayer walk around the neighborhood, a church member pointed to a makeshift memorial beside the street. Candles marked the spot where a young man had been gunned down earlier in the week. I looked down the street from the memorial to the park district gym where our church meets for worship, imagining our church gathering the following morning. Each Sunday we pass these barely visible but unforgettable landmarks—trees, playgrounds, and intersections that remind us of death.

Every congregation faces moments of pain and loss: cancer strikes, the town's largest employer shuts down, another tornado appears, a drunk driver swerves. Every congregation and every pastor must respond to these moments, hopefully with biblically formed imaginations and Holy Spirit enforced courage. There is, however, a palpable difference between facing these occasional moments and living in the midst of regular and visible brutality. How do we respond when tragedy works its way into our skin?

Lament in Scripture

The Israelites asked a similar question. "How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?" (Ps. 137:4). It was a question born of despair and desperation. It was a question asked in exile and with tears. The psalmists and prophets asked these kinds of questions frequently and offer us a vision of faithfulness in the worst sorts of circumstances.

As I come to love and care for our church's neighborhood and as I hear the stories of chronic inequity and loss within and without our congregation, I have turned to these stories and songs of exile. Here I have found words and practices for a people who have known great loss but who are learning that even the greatest losses are not the end of their story.

The Bible provides a word that helps us imagine faithfulness when the tragic moments begin piling up. Lament is what the Israelites do in exile as they wonder about God's presence. Lament is what the people do when they listen to Ezra read God's forgotten law. Lament is Nehemiah weeping and fasting upon hearing about Jerusalem's disgrace. Lament is Mordecai's sackcloth and ashes, his loud and bitter wailing in response to Haman's plan for genocide.

Lament is a cousin to grief and repentance with a key addition: identification. Pointing to examples like Moses and Jeremiah, Old Testament scholar John Goldingay writes, "The sufferer's agony, discouragement, opposition, and protests become the mediator's. We pray 'as' them, as if we have become them." We lament, that is, on behalf of the ones who suffer.

Personal identification was natural for a people who shared history, culture, and religion. But for we who aspire to independence and autonomy such identification is strange, even incomprehensible. I recall the young, white man who, after hearing of the ongoing racism experienced by African-American members of our community, admitted, "I feel bad for you, but I don't know how to enter this with you." His sympathetic response was appreciated even as it was clear that he lacked the theological imagination to enter more deeply into the pain of his brothers and sisters. He didn't know how to lament.

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.

Lament is the beginning of a bridge across old divides. My distance between neighbor and God is shortened.

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.

Again, consider Nehemiah. In addition to lament, his prayer is also full of worship and petition. He is able to identify with the pain and sin before him and simultaneously praise God and ask for courage and deliverance as he moves forward. Lament neither overwhelms him nor does it paralyze him from acting. Through his lamentation Nehemiah becomes an actor in the story and he is compelled to respond in faith.

The words and concepts of lament may be unfamiliar to many of our congregations, but it is a language we can begin to learn rather easily. Pastors can comment on events in the community that call for lament. Certain Psalms can be adapted for corporate prayer and responsive readings to teach us this ancient language.

Members of our churches can share their stories, inviting the rest of the church into their experience and perspective. The language may be new, but our ancestors in the faith have set a precedent and example that we can follow.

We celebrated communion on the Sunday after learning of the young man's death near our gym. After praying the liturgy and before receiving the bread and wine, our small congregation filed onto the sidewalk and made our way to the place of the murder. In small groups we prayed for our neighbors, for the one who pulled the trigger, and for the young man's grieving family. We did our best to lament, to step into the ugliness and confusion of the situation. A woman confessed that she has benefitted from the same structures that made this man's death a statistical likelihood.

We wondered aloud about a faithful response and then we returned to our gym and heard the familiar words: "the body of Christ, broken for you; the blood of Christ, shed for you." And then we sang songs of praise and salvation before turning to our potluck. Our lament was woven through a morning of worship, service, and celebration together. Lament brought worship into immediate focus, reminding us of our involvement with and call to a waiting and aching world.

David Swanson is the pastor of New Community Covenant Church [Bronzeville], a multi-ethnic church on Chicago's South Side.