To Leaders in 2018: Why You Must Lead Us in Lament (and How)

As church leaders look to words like joy, peace, love, and hope in this first month of the new year, I pray we will all see that in order to walk toward the most robust definitions of such words, we must first walk toward lament. We must deal with our past that has brought us to where we are as the Evangelical Church of America. We cannot just shrug off last year while saying, “We’ll do better this year.”

I’m asking Christian leaders to make room for authentic hope by giving up on counterfeit positivity.

Shalom Requires Lament

Shalom—that alternative spiritual community that sees every human flourish—is ultimately what we are hoping to usher in as Christians. But as Soong-Chan Rah says, “Shalom requires lament.”

Certainly, Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) gets this too. He talks about how when one visits South Africa or Rwanda, apartheid and genocide are openly talked about. However, in the U.S. slavery and lynching are not talked about. The EJI is currently building The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a memorial to victims of lynching from all across the United States. In an article from Christianity Today, Stevenson says, “I am not interested in punishing America with this history. I want to liberate us. I want to find the path that gets us to redemption. And we can’t get there if we are unwilling to give voice to the truth of our past.”

If we don’t lament the truth of our past, we will never heal.

As a new foster mom, I am seeing the importance of teaching about a God who cares about a wounded past, about a God who suffers. “Sometimes we cry, and God cries with us,” is a line I often read from Desmond Tutu’s children’s book God’s Dream. It is a line that seems to comfort my teary-eyed foster daughter in the moments her biological family seems so far away. My own biological children have been virtually immune to such a theology, and for that, I must lament.

When Leaders Fail to Lament, They Surrender to the Status Quo

What happens when appreciation of the lament as a form of speech and faith is lost, as I think it is largely lost in contemporary usage? What happens when the speech forms that redress power distribution have been silenced and eliminated? The answer, I believe, is that a theological monopoly is reinforced, docility and submissiveness are engendered, and the outcome in terms of social practice is to reinforce and consolidate the political-economic monopoly of the status quo.Walter Brueggemann, The Psalms and The Life of Faith.

Is this not where we currently are as a nation? Is this not where we have allowed ourselves to come?

We currently have a theological monopoly that reinforces itself by maintaining what Brueggemann calls the royal consciousness—the status quo of Empire that takes root in the minds of those who live in it. American Christianity has eaten the bread of royalty.

We need prophets in 2018, and we need prophetic lament. We need Christian leaders who are brave enough to offer the alternative consciousness—what Brueggemann calls the opposite of the royal consciousness. Brave enough to walk into suffering, not away from it. Brave enough to mimic Jesus.

This is a call for Christian leaders who exert influence over others in worshipping, in writing/teaching, and in preaching to press into lament in 2018. We need prophets in 2018; we need prophetic lament. This is a call for Christian leaders who exert influence over others in worshipping, in writing/teaching, and in preaching to press into lament in 2018. Click To Tweet

A Call to Leaders to Lead Us In Lament

To Worship Leaders

This is a call for worship leaders: Don’t just sing well-known tunes of praise, but grapple, wrestle, and offer a new song with new lyrics that can usher us into suffering rather than away from it. Usher us into the presence of a God who suffers (and celebrates), rather than a counterfeit, privileged god who is always celebrating.

This is a call for lyricists to come forward in the church. We do not have to repeat the famous songs of Bethel or Elevation. There are new songs within us waiting to come forward like a flower ready to bloom. Maybe these songs are already being sung throughout the week privately, but they are not given “worship” status on Sunday mornings. We do not sing them communally. This is a call for the church to recognize the creative people who sit in its pews.

And this is a call for new liturgy. Yes, even 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 have all omitted many lament Psalms.[i]

To Writers and Teachers

This is a call for writers and teachers alike: Be intentional about what you are reading and who you are listening to. We must listen to marginalized voices and hear what they are lamenting. We must. Their lament instructs us in the ways this world is not yet as it should be. If we are going to usher in an alternative consciousness, we will not be able to do so by finding our entire reading list on the New York Times Bestseller list. Nor will we find it on the book award list of Christian publications. If all we are reading are books a dominant Christian culture has told us to read, we will not usher in the alternative consciousness.

Learn to write about and teach on lament. Don’t wait until your story has a “happy ending” before you share it. The last church I attended would often share tithing letters congregants wrote to the pastor who would read them from the pulpit. Usually the letter would entail the formulaic story: the congregant was having economic issues but purposely tithed rather than using the money elsewhere. A few months down the road, the congregant got a job promotion.

It’s not that this isn’t a good story; it’s just not the whole story. When we start with suffering and leave many details out and then end with celebration, we reinforce the idea that God is a god of prosperity only.

But God is just as present in our suffering as he is in our rejoicing. It is just as much a miracle when we give the little we have as when we give significantly more because we got a job promotion. Life is not a series of positive and negative events that eventually bring us to constant goodness. Life is a constant, repetitive swing of good and bad, joy and suffering, peace and pain.

Let’s share about our struggles in full detail without wrapping them up with a cherry on top. Let’s talk about how God is with us when our selfishness flares up once again as our lack of patience with our children makes us regret something we said. Let’s be real. Let’s not jump to the counterfeit happy ending. Rather, let us watch for how Christ perpetually brings authentic, robust hope in every single circumstance.

To Pastors and Preachers

It has been apparent that over the last year of Trump’s presidency, many white evangelical pastors have chosen royalty over Christianity—seeking power over humility, seeking prestige without regard for the price being paid. As Rah says, without lament, our dominating triumphalism gives us an unbalanced theological reflection. It further polarizes the “haves” with the “have-nots.” Without lament, we are led by a royal consciousness to be kings rather than being led by an alternative consciousness to be prophets.

The call of a pastor is not a call toward kingship—though in a cultural Christianity that is raising up a new generation of spiritual leaders who seek out fame, satellite churches, and bestseller books, it seems we have elevated it to that.

The tension for pastors is real. Most preaching is done from platforms and at podiums where they are literally elevated. Preachers are gifted and are often sought out for that giftedness.

But lament has the power to connect them to the ground they walk on before they reach the podium. As they lead in lament from a position of power, they remind us—as Christ did—that divine power finds its richest source and fulfillment in humility, in lowliness, in a smelly stable, and a borrowed tomb. They remind us that suffering has much to teach us, not merely after the fact, but in the midst. God doesn’t always carry us through pain, but he walks alongside us.

Without lament, we desire immortality and forget that Christianity calls us to mimic and serve a Deity who wounded himself and died in seeking humanity. The King of Kings became human for our sake.

For the musicians, songwriters, teachers, writers, and preachers, let us be a people who walk toward suffering, not away from it. And let us be those that lead others on that same path—away from earthly royalty and toward divine shepherding.

Prophets of shalom were first students of lament. Prophets of shalom were first students of lament. @GenaLThomas Click To Tweet

We must learn this art of lament if we are to speak prophetically to our nation that so desperately needs an alternative consciousness.

[i] From Denise Hopkins, Journey Through the Psalms, as quoted in Prophetic Lament by Soong-Chan Rah