What is Lament? And why Does it Matter so Much?

By Renee James

Very few pastors in my denomination knew what I wanted when I Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 12.00.18 PMasked if I they’d allow me to interview them for a Faith Today feature on why churches needed to recover the lost art of lament. “Lament? Could you explain that? I haven’t come across that word before,” the more honest of them would admit. This went on for over a year.

I stemmed my low-grade panic (it had been over a year!) by writing a study on lament for Canadian Baptist Women of Ontario and Quebec’s 2015 resources package. I titled the program “Recovering Lament.”

Yes. The obligatory poetry, candlelight, darkness and quiet time for reflection made an appearance. But they wrapped a thesis I wanted our women to consider: lament as a prerequisite for authentic outreach. Here are some of the thoughts and questions I invited them to discuss and answer. I invite you to do the same.

Why is lament important?

Walter Brueggemann puts the question this way: What difference does it make to you and I to have faith that permits and requires lament – this particular form of prayer?

What happens when we lament?

When we lament:

  • We enter into a genuine covenant interaction with God. He takes our lament seriously, validates it, allows the language of grief and suffering . . . not just praise and doxology.
  • We raise legitimate questions of justice in terms of social good, social access and social power.
  • We assert that God, this dangerous, available God, matters in every dimension of life.
  • We address God in risky ways . . . as the transformer of what has not yet appeared. He is not a dead cipher who cannot be addressed nor the silent guarantor of the status quo.
  • We reduce the power of pain because we lament together. And we listen to the anguish of another without judgment or censure.

Where is lament needed today?

Intercession

Lament is needed in our intercession on behalf of the oppressed. Newbigin suggests that church is “God’s embassy in a specific place.” This indicates a congregational responsibility to its surrounding community. The gospel does not come as a disembodied message, but as the message of a community which claims to live by it and which invites others to adhere to it. So those to whom that message is addressed must be able to say: “Yes, I see. This is true for me, for my situation.”

Laments challenge us to locate our pain, the pain of others, the pain of the world, and to make it all of it the subject of our prayers. Through lament, the church acts as intercessor for the greater community, especially for the oppressed.

What specific pains and ills in your community could your church be lamenting? Be concrete.

Lament isn’t limited to songs and words of grief and anguish uttered by a group on behalf of others.

What are some specific ways in which your church and your ministry groups could lament for the pains and ills you’ve just listed?

Hope

Our churches should be places of hesed: that is, places of hope, in which emotions may be expressed freely and communally in song and words that glorify God in their expression of both joy and sorrow.

How does our church show solidarity with Christians who feel solitary in their pain?

How does our church show solidarity with the community outside our doors?

Since writing that study, I’ve added another answer to the question of where lament is needed. Joy.

In The Prophetic Imagination Brueggemann writes:

“Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh.” Jesus’ concern was, finally, for the joy of the kingdom . . . But he was clear that rejoicing in that future required a grieving about the present order. There is grief work to be done in the present that the future may come . . . There is mourning to be done with those who know pain and suffering and lack the power or freedom to bring it to speech.  . . . This grief work is a precondition of joy.  . . . Those who have not cared enough to grieve will not know joy.”

Renee James is communications director for Canadian Baptist Women of Ontario and Quebec. Her essay on lament is in the Jan/Feb issue of Faith Today. Subscribe now to receive our lowest price ever (until the end of February). 

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