Thursday, July 23, 2020

Lament's Crucial Role in the Ministry of the Church

In my last post, I discussed three misconceptions about lament. Now I'd like to highlight four reasons why lament is essential to the ministry of the church. I'll be drawing on the excellent work of a Ugandan author, Emmanuel Katongole, catholic priest and professor at Notre Dame. His book, Born from Lament: The Theology and Politics of Hope in Africa, is one of the best on this topic.

Did you know that laments outnumber any other type of psalm in the Bible? This may come as a surprise because most of us rarely hear lament psalms in church. The truth is, they make up 40% of the book of Psalms! (See Katongole, 104)

Not only that. By my count almost 25% of the psalms include "imprecatory" language, which is when the psalmist prays for God to bring harm on his enemies. For reasons I'll share below, I believe that these psalms are for Christians, too. Why can we not get along well without lament? Here are four reasons:

1. God's character is the basis of lament.
As Emmanuel Katongole reminds us, 
"At the heart of Israel's social, political, and religious life is the central conviction and experience of Yahweh as a saving God. Yahweh is not only the creator of the world and sovereign ruler of nations; Israel is God's chosen nation, which, through a covenant relationship, enjoys God's special favor and protection. For biblical Israel, therefore, safety and security are found not in military strength or wealth or technological advantage, but in the covenant relationship with Yahweh. Thus in the moment of crisis, because they believed that God can, should--and indeed, would--do something to save them, they complained, mourned, wept, chanted dirges, and cursed." (Born from Lament103-104)
This point is especially true of imprecatory psalms (the ugly, violent-sounding ones). If we cut out the violent parts of the psalms, we deny part of God’s essential character. YHWH’s self-description in Exodus 34:6-7 highlights divine mercy, but it also says of God: “forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (NRSV). The God of the Old Testament is YHWH, the covenant-making and redeeming God who rescues and saves, who demonstrates love and who takes sin seriously.

Would we prefer it otherwise? Would we prefer a world where rampant evil goes unchecked? Where corrupt despots get rich by oppressing others? Would we prefer for people to be allowed to destroy each other’s lives and reputations by spreading false rumors about them with impunity? Or are we grateful that God wields his power in loving ways by putting a stop to injustice? 

If we believe that God takes sin seriously, then we can accept the Bible's invitation to pray that he will act to bring the unrepentant to justice. 
2. Jesus modeled lament.
The book of Hebrews tells us that even Jesus lamented. "During the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission." (Hebrews 5:7)

Jesus' tearful prayers did not disqualify him. He was still "without sin." And here the author of Hebrews says that his lament was evidence of "reverent submission." Remember that on the cross Jesus prayed Psalm 22:1: "My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?" This, too, was a faithful way to pray in the midst of his darkest hour. If Jesus is our model, then lament is an indispensable part of faithful discipleship.
3. Without lament, our worship spaces are less safe.
We live in a world full of brokenness at every level ranging from international to intensely personal. The people walking through our doors (or tuning in) on a Sunday morning are the same people who are enduring hardship throughout their week. If our church services are mostly a pep rally or an exhortation to "trust more," and fail to reckon honestly with brokenness, we essentially send people elsewhere to find solutions to their problems. Introducing lament in corporate worship creates space to be real -- to bring our pain to God and cry out for healing.

When we don't acknowledge pain in church, we get less of God and less of each other. As my friend Amy Oden recently put it, "I find more of God when I am most angry with him." Expressing our true emotions in his presence opens us up to meet him in deeper ways. It also opens us to each other.
Why would we deny this opportunity to our congregations? I can think of one reason why: FEAR. We fear that if we create space for lament, people will be offended or discouraged. But in reality, the opposite happens. By restricting our prayers to praise, we deny people access to the full message of Scripture. We lose people who think that their lives and emotions are too complex for the church. If your congregation is likely to be offended by lament, then they have not embraced the whole counsel of Scripture. Teach them what the Bible says about it. Cultivate a space where people can pray how they feel and in so doing discover that they are not alone.
4. Lament is the foundation of social justice.
The consequences of neglecting lament go beyond our local congregation. Not only will individuals not feel that the church is a safe place to bring their whole selves, but the church will lose its ability to impact the wider culture by addressing societal brokenness. 
Katongole explains, "In the end, the loss of lament signals of loss of passion for social justice. A church that has lost its nerve to lament before God will likely lack the nerve to confront oppression and be prone to support the status quo. But that is also the reason why an attempt to recover the language of lament is about solidarity with those who suffer" (183).
The historic failure of white evangelicals to lament racial injustice unveils the root of our problem--we see racial discrimination as something happening to somebody else and being done by somebody else. By identifying with neither the perpetrators nor the victims, we maintain distance. As long as we are distant we cannot be part of the solution. Unless we see crimes against people of color as crimes against our fellow humans, we excuse ourselves from taking action.  
If we cannot corporately bring to God those problems that overwhelm us, where will we bring them? If we are not comfortable creating space for our brothers and sisters to pray and weep, how can we even begin to work with them to find solutions? If their grief does not become our own, on what basis will we build unity? Where else will we find the resources to address whatever threatens to undo us? The first step in imagining a different kind of future is to grieve together and to grieve deeply over what has been done and what is being done.
If we want to (1) know God, (2) follow Christ, (3) minister to broken people, and (4) make a difference in a broken world, then lament is essential. On its own, lament is not enough. It is not the whole answer. But without it, we lose our grip on the resilient hope of the gospel.

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For more on lament, see my interview with Remnant Radio. 
For more on imprecatory prayer, see my blog post for the Political Theology Network.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Announcing . . . Companion Videos for 'Bearing God's Name'

I've been holding in a secret for almost six months (which might be a record for me). I've dropped a few hints, but wasn't allowed to say anything official until now. TODAY is the day I finally get to tell you about it!

Back in January, I was invited to fly to Chicago to film a video series based on my latest book. We filmed the entire series on the campus of Wheaton College (where I got my doctorate) in a single, grace-filled day. It was surreal to return to the very place where I discovered the truths that I share in Bearing God's Name: Why Sinai Still Matters. It was so meaningful to be on site, rehearsing the content that has captured my attention for almost 10 years, so that I could share it with all of YOU. I'll show you the building where it all happened.

We recorded 10 short videos, one for each chapter of the book. If you're not a reader, these videos will convey the essential content of the book. If you've already read the book, these videos will reinforce the key ideas and help you share them with your small group.

You can check out the trailer here.

As a special bonus, I'll even take you with me to the Marion Wade Center on the campus of Wheaton College, where you'll see the desk on which J. R. R. Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings and the wardrobe handmade for C. S. Lewis and his brother by their grandfather. (If you've already read the introduction to Bearing God's Name, you can probably guess how this relates to the book!)











Beginning today, you can access my video series and many others for personal enrichment or to explore with your small group. The project was envisioned and executed by an exciting new initiative hosted at Northern Seminary called Seminary Now.

Seminary Now is a new, on-demand streaming video platform that provides exclusive Bible, theology, and ministry courses from today’s leading teachers, ministry practitioners, and authors.

Like Netflix or Masterclass, subscribers get unlimited access to all courses—available on smart phone, tablet, and TV devices. You can earn also a certificate from Seminary Now by completing a learning track. 

Visit SeminaryNow.com for a free preview of the new course offerings. Here's the best part: when you join, you can not only access my videos, but also every other course on the website. Join today and access exclusive content from yours truly, Scot McKnight, John Walton, Brenda Salter McNeil, Ruth Haley Barton, and many more. At checkout, receive a limited-time 15% discount (pay only $17/month or $153/year) with coupon code TAKE15. Or check out the group pricing for your staff and lay leaders.

This is a fantastic opportunity for an individual, couple, or small group that wants to dig deeper into Scripture and learn from some of today's top thought-leaders.

Please forward this opportunity to others who you think would be interested in this new resource and like and share SeminaryNow.com on social media: Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Three Misconceptions about Lament

Things are bad in this world of ours. An awful lot of hard stuff is going on. If there was ever a time to cry, this is it. But many Christians shy away from lament because they believe lament is somehow sub-Christian or perhaps they think it won't do any good. 

I've identified three reasons Christians avoid lament. All three are misconceptions. We'll tackle them one at a time:

(1) Lament shows a lack of faith.

If we really believe that God is good and powerful and that he will win in the end, then we would not need to lament, right? Singer-songwriter Michael Card disagrees. In his book A Sacred Sorrow: Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament, Card says this: 
"Lament is the deepest, most costly demonstration of belief in God. Despair is the ultimate manifestation of the total denial that He exists." (55)
In other words, if you did not believe in the existence of God, there would be no reason to lament. It would do no good. It's because we do believe in God, and trust him as the only one who is able to make things right that we present our most desperate requests to him.

In fact, the Bible offers many examples of faithful men and women who bring prayers of lament to God. Those prayers made it into our Bibles without condemnation. Some of them were included in the book of Psalms, the prayer book of the Bible. Their presence in Scripture implies that we are invited to pray laments, too.

Michael Card explains it this way: 
"People like Job, David, Jeremiah, and even Jesus reveal to us that prayers of complaint can still be prayers of faith. They represent the last refusal to let go of the God who may seem to be absent or worse -- uncaring. If this is true, then lament expresses one of the more intimate moments of faith -- not a denial of it. It is supreme honesty before a God whom my faith tells me I can trust. He encourages me to bring everything as an act of worship, my disappointment, frustration, and even my hate. Only lament uncovers this kind of new faith, a biblical faith that better understands God's heart as it is revealed through Jesus Christ." (31)
Lament is not faith-less, it's faith-full.
 
(2) Lament is the opposite of gratitude. 

How can we lament when the Bible urges us to "give thanks in all circumstances" (1 Thessalonians 5:18)? Doesn't thankfulness preclude lament? One might think so, but again Scripture shows us that lament and gratitude go hand in hand.

In Psalm 44, the sons of Korah remember with gratitude the way that God has acted on Israel's behalf in the past (vv. 1-8). It's against the backdrop of their gratitude that they can plead with God to rescue them again (vv. 9-25). The character of God expressed in history leads them to trust God's future deliverance:
"Rise up and help us; rescue us because of your unfailing love." (Psalm 44:26)
We need not fear that lament will shut out our gratitude. For reasons I'll explain further below, lament and gratitude actually depend on one another.

(3) Lament will lead to despair. 

Some of us don't want to lament for fear of becoming bitter old souls. We don't want to get stuck. But on the contrary, it is our refusal to lament that leads to bitterness and despair. When we try to carry the grief on our own or manage our own solutions to life's deepest problems, the pressure is too much to bear.

Emmanuel Katongole explains, 
"Pain . . . has the ability to destroy language, to reduce the victim to silence. This silence is a form of powerlessness, a paralyzing form of despair. Therefore, the ability to voice grief, to find words to speak the unspeakable and to name pain, is a form of resistance to the paralyzing silence." (Born from Lament: The Theology and Politics of Hope in Africa, 56)
The pathway to joy requires us to pass through the gateway of lament -- acknowledging that all is not well in the world and that we believe our God is able to do something about it. Until we look our pain and loss directly in the face, we will be unable to let it go. 

Have you seen the Pixar movie "Inside Out"? When it seems like everything has fallen apart, Joy learns an important lesson: the value of Sadness. You can watch a clip here. Joy tries valiantly to cheer up Bing Bong by distracting him, but Sadness holds the key: by acknowledging the pain of Bing Bong's loss and making space to grieve, he is able to move forward and soon they are (literally) back on track.

So let's imagine that I've convinced you that lament is not sub-Christian. You might be wondering what to do next. What if you are just not the "emotional" type? How can you tell if you need to lament? How do you start?

One way to tell that we have unexpressed grief is when we lose our capacity to feel deep joy. I like to think of the spectrum of emotions that we experience as a window. On the left side of the window are emotions that we tend to characterize as negative -- anger, grief, fear --  while on the right-hand side are the emotions we see as positive -- joy, gratitude, delight. 


Photo Credit: Rob Wingate on Unsplash 

Hanging inside our emotional window is a set of old-fashioned drapes. Perhaps you remember the kind. To close the drapes, you pull a looped cord on one side of the window and both drapes gradually close until they meet in the middle. Our emotional life is like this. We cannot block just one side of the window. Closing the left side means closing the right side as well. If we suppress our feelings of grief or anger, we make it impossible to feel gratitude and joy.

I am not a trained counselor, but it's been my experience that if I find it hard to laugh along with others or enjoy a happy gathering, there is likely some unexpressed grief lodged in my soul. We can never recover our joy by imagining away our sorrow. We have to face it. Name it. Pray it. And thereby release it to God. Then we can pull our drapes open and let light back in the room.

That's why I'm so thankful for the book of Psalms. It tutors us in prayer, giving us words when we have none, and modeling the full range of ways to connect with God. If we categorize the psalms into  lament, praise, and other psalms, we find that there are more laments than any other type of psalm. That should tell us something about the life of prayer, and it should give us courage to bring our sorrows to God. 

If you have been feeling numb, you can start by making a list of things that are bothering you. It may be news headlines or it may be personal. Then bring your list to God. Find a psalm that expresses your heart -- maybe Psalm 4 or Psalm 88. Pray those words and add your own. God wants to hear your heart.