The need for Lament…

Survey the landscape of American Christianity on any given Sunday and you’ll find plenty of evidence that God is on the throne, we’re walking in victory, and Satan’s utterly crushed.  There are lots of praise choruses about our victory and God’s goodness, along with clapping and shouting “praise the Lord”.   It’s the winning team for certain, at least if noise and bravado is any indicator.

Unfortunately, it’s not.  Have you seen the movies from the Youth Rallies during the reign of the Reich?  The singing and enthusiasm would make most Pentecostals appear as stoic Lutherans in comparison.  Singing slogans about victory doesn’t make them true, and the sad fact of the matter is that for many of the people singing, the words of victory ring hollow to them.  They sing about triumph over sin, but are mired in addiction.  They sing about God’s power in the world, while their spouse is in the last stages of cancer.  They sing about peace, while their neighbor’s kid lost his leg in Iraq.   For millions the words, if the singers stop to ponder them, seem hollow at best, perhaps even a lie.

I’ll go on record as being for praise music.  I like it, and play it on my ipod sometimes in the car when I’m driving alone.  But if the Psalms offers the full range of emotions, I’m wondering if it doesn’t also offer a decent example of the proper proportion between praise and lament.  If it does, then we’re way too heavy on the praise side of things.   By minimizing lament, we’re teaching people to process the real world in a different way than the saints who’ve gone before us, teaching them to plaster over their grief with a dose of loud singing, or snappy ‘feel good’ songs.  The distance between these pleasant tunes and the emotions of a heart that’s broken, or fearful, is large enough to stretch someone’s faith to the breaking point.

In contrast, a look at church history shows us that those who take their complaints, fears, failures, and doubts to God, will find real answers, real transformation.  Abraham:  “What will you give me, since I’m childless?“,  Moses:  “...please kill me at once“, David, “How long O Lord?”, Paul, “we despaired even of life.” I could go on with Jeremiah, Job, John the Baptist, and many more, but you get the point.  For every dance on the far side of the Red Sea, there’s a question, a weariness, a complaint.  There are, to hearken back to this past Sunday’s teaching, honest to God questions and struggles, wrestlings that in the end might well leave us wrung out, but intimate.

The problem is that few were told about the ‘wrung out’ part when they came to faith.  This is because too often we’ve sold people on some sort of hybrid Jesus.  There’s the real Jesus part having to do with his death on the cross and then there’s Jesus CEO, enabling us to climb the success leader, or Jesus Therapist, assuring us of successful marriages, or Jesus CFO, assuring us of wealth, Dr. Jesus, assuring us of great health, or Jesus military commander, protecting us from IED’s.  These ‘add ons’ speak more to our desires for health, wealth, and happiness than our calling as disciples, because the reality is that stuff happens – to Christians.

When it does, I hope the struggling saints don’t walk into a worship service three weeks in a row without hearing, somewhere in the gathering, that those who mourn are blessed, or a song of longing, or a prayer of waiting and crying out.  Lacking that, they’ll eventually presume that this well dressed, clear eyed, upwardly mobile Jesus doesn’t have much to say to them.  They’d be right, but they’d only be rejecting the success Jesus of American dreams.  The real one was called the man of sorrows.  I just hope there’s still room for him in church.

I welcome your thoughts.

About Richard Dahlstrom

As Pastor of Bethany Community Church in Seattle, Richard teaches with vision of "making the invisible God visible" by calling people to acts of service and blessing. It's working, as a wilderness ministry, homeless shelter, and community meals that serve those living on the margins are all pieces of Bethany's life. "We're being the presence of Christ" he says, "and inviting everyone to join the adventure." Many have, making Bethany one of the fastest growing churches in America in 2009 according to Outreach Magazine.

  • http://www.ultranurd.net Nicolas Ward

    Hey, we totally sang a song with acoustic guitar and clapping at my Lutheran church last week! :oP

    Okay, sure, the rhythm was about half what it should have been, and we won’t do it again for another 4 or 5 months…

    On a more relevant note, I feel like there are plenty of jeremiads from American Christians, they’re just performed mostly in the public sphere and directed mostly at other people. Some are more obvious (taking the form of protests and such), and some are more subtle (that vague vibe of a churchgoer having “figured it out” and being able to lord that over a neighbor who is unchurched).

    I don’t think the lament has left us completely, it’s just been moved outside the church community to target everyone else.

    • Dan

      I agree with you in many ways Nicolas. Good points.

  • Pam

    In my experience, the deepest suffering can take us to dark lonely places. It’s there that the comfort and company of Jesus can become most real if we allow him to join us. His loving comfort raises us up to try again and we respond with praise. Suffering, sorrows and questions return and we go to those lonely dark places again, and Jesus meets us, again… and again… and again. Each time I return to the place of lament my Lord meets me reviving my heart and returning me to praise.

    Lament and praise…you’re right Richard that they are both needed. Our lives take us to places that require true lamenting. In time, our God lifts our heads so that we can praise him again.

    There are days I feel the reality of “a sacrifice of praise.” It’s hard to praise Him at times, but the act of praise is good for me and restores me even in my dark hours.

    “Kýrie Eléison” gives voice to the lament. It’s been put to music for centuries and still brings solace to my heart.

  • Jesse

    One of the most difficult and hopeful passages in the Bible is Psalm 137. It strikes me as one of the most gut-wrenching expressions of despair and need that I’ve read outside of the Passion.

    Yet what I take from it is hope. If God listens to this despair that is part of the range of emotions that he has given us, then surely he can heal us of our despair and hurt. It tells me that I am never alone even when it may seem that way.

  • http://twitter.com/NorthstarInvest Leif Stenfjord

    Oh. Wait. what about prosperity and The American Dream? …Lament? Like isn’t that a sin or something? A lack of faith?

    Seriously though, right on Pastor Richard. It seems to me like our nation should not only be lamenting but maybe considering some sackcloth as well. With the proliferation of the prosperity gospel our culture seems to have bought into it lock-stock-and-barrel and can’t figure out what it is we have done to deserve the current economy, although others seem to believe it is this “gospel” that could be at the heart of the problem.
    The Atlantic actually asks the question, “Did Christianity Cause the Crash?” . See: http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200912/rosin-prosperity-gospel .
    If this “gospel” is the truth it seems that repentance is left out of the equation as these blessings of ones desires having absolutely nothing to do greed, eny & lust. After all, David desired Bathsheeba and was “blessed” with her as his bride….I guess we leave out the debt he paid for this with the rest of his life and family. Somewhat like getting a mortgage with poor credit and for more than you can afford, are you really willing to pay the price? David paid the price,but he also repented and lamented his foolish decision…probably more than once!

    Our men’s group discussed this morning how Christ calls us to be salt & light to the world.With this, it seems to me that we are also called to be real. Christians do face hardship, adversity and the burdens of this world just as the rest of humanity does. One only has to look at the Christians that died in Haiti or elsewhere that disprove the prosperity message. It’s how we endure these things that sets us apart, not the lack of them.

    Lament? You bet! …and turn it over to Christ who will help you with your burdens.

  • http://jeff.lilley.7@gmail.com Jeff

    Richard,
    Well said. I also believe the church is a place that must talk about the pain and problems.
    Remember that part, “when did we see you hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, or in prison?”
    It seems each of these are people in despair, they are likely to lament. Jesus says “I was hungry, thirsty, a stranger…”
    It seems if we want to find Him, we should seek Him amongst those who lament.
    Maybe we are most likely to find Him when we lament.

    I’m guessing, but I think when He says “Depart from me,” they will lament.
    Why don’t I feel similar pain when I depart from Him?
    If He brings pain and suffering into my life, or to those near me, it nearly always drives me back into His arms.
    Maybe we are most likely to find Him when we lament.
    Still, I am so quick to avoid lamenting; that may be another reason I sometimes avoid Him.
    Excuse me while I turn up my praise music to chase away this heaviness in my heart.
    Thanks Richard for your thoughts…

  • Kevin

    I think that we come to Christ in order to learn how to suffer, not to have our suffering assuaged. In that regard it seems that the North American church has embraced a therapeutic worldview, rather than one shaped by the Gospel, whereby we come to community in order to feel good about ourselves, to live in the grace of the resurrection while insulating ourselves from the reality of the crucifixion.

    Are we a church that can come to worship by means of Psalm 88?

  • Margaret

    During your sermon on Sunday morning I wrote a note to my husband that read, “Was Richard eavesdropping on my “meltdown” this morning?” He snickered, having sat with me before church listening to my drivel about my “lack of faith”.
    But then something amazing happened. A quick “still small voice” interrupted and I heard the Lord say, “No, but I was”.
    To be honest, I believe that I may be a little too prone to the lament part of the walk but even in this He is faithful to comfort me- before reminding me firmly that there is much to be grateful for and to not fall into a mind-set of self pity or get overwhelmed with all that is broken in the world.
    Thanks Richard for the constant reminder that “showing up” is half the battle.

  • http://www.livejournal.com/users/jadeejf Beth

    I appreciate so much those who note the hardness and difficulty of the world. My experiences as a child growing up in an evangelical Christian church did not prepare me for knowing how to handle suffering as an adult. I think this is a message that needs to filter down to the middle schoolers and high schoolers, many of whom struggle with very adult pain (which I was fortunately insulated from most of the time). I don’t know enough about Bethany’s youth ministries to know whether this is addressed there, but I’m very thankful that it’s at least acknowledged in public venues for adults- even some of that would have benefited me as a young adult. Thanks :)

  • Greg

    Hey Richard,

    Well said, my friend. I love this blog and I love your heart and convictions. You are unique in that way.
    I’d like to share a sliver of my own story because I think it raises some interesting questions that piggy back this blog post.
    I am a guy who recently decided to take a leave of absence from the church community, partly because I’m worn out from being immersed in it for 20 years and I’m giving myself space to question my faith again. But mostly because I now find myself drawn to a different community. It involves this outside culture of people who bear deep wounds brought on from their church experiences in the past. Plus, I identify with them because I’m one of them, too. These friends of mine would dare not step into a church again because it would essentially be like stepping back into a relationship with an abusive parent. Surrounding myself with these folks sheds great sadness on me and yet frees me in sharing my own wounds with them, acknowledging that I’m not alone. As many of them say, I know that God accepts me and I’m quite certain that the church community doesn’t. Yes, wounds can be irrational and yet their presence alone can provide a much needed story to be heard. I’ve found great joy in hearing them, I guess.
    One of the things I adore about this community of the wounded is that it is based in listening to each other (a missing practice in the church and the world) all while having the safety to be honest and vulnerable. Perhaps our model is that of AA, except that alcohol is certainly allowed in our time together and we don’t have workbooks:)
    I wrestle with how worship services can provide the same atmosphere- where one can feel safe, listened to, and not alone. Could it be that the model of our common worship services encourage nothing more than consumerism, hiding, one-sided theology, forced expression, and an over abundance of noise? Could it be that growing services of 500 people without any interaction in the service except to greet your neighbor for 30 seconds, sing irrelevant songs for a half an hour, and have no interaction with the teach may be contributing to the problem?
    I’m well aware that worship services are not the full embodiment of church, yet if we are truly honest, we know full well that most churches today do not do much to divert their identity away from Sundays. Churches in America grow rapidly because they have one thing in common: very gifted/prophetic teachers. And as a former worship leader of both large and small communities, I know quite humbly that the music more often than not takes a far back seat to the teaching.
    So what do we do about this? Is it really just about adjusting the worship music to balance both praise and lament? Are people really more hungry for purposed worship lyrics or- like the mass communities of the wounded- are they quietly starving to be heard, accepted, and even trusted. I guess I just believe that what is missing most in church is less about the fabrication of worship services and more about whether or not the essential needs of those who attend are being provided. I say all of this out of my own conviction because I’ve encouraged a very dysfunctional model of church for years. I’ve not only been wounded but I’ve certainly caused many wounds, too.
    Without diverting from the original blog post, I would love any thoughts upon this and especially yours, Richard.
    Again, thank you so much for sharing your heart, ideas, and struggles in your posts. That takes much courage that is rare among many pastors!

  • Dan

    This article, although lengthy, is great, and it touches on what Beth is saying, and about how disconnected our kids can be growing up in the church. If we paint a perfect world for our kids, “as long as we have Jesus”, they are ill prepared for the realities of this life we have to live down here. This article very much reflects what I experienced growing up in the church.

    http://waterbrookmultnomah.com/catalog.php?isbn=9781601421517&view=excerpt&ref=CTI728x90_AO_011910

  • http://www.sustainabletraditions.com Jason Fowler

    Hi Richard,
    Brilliant thoughts! I was wondering if we could feature this post on our Sustainable Traditions blogazine.

    We would give you credit, a link back, and if you give us a one sentence bio we’ll include that after the post.

    If you are interested please let me know. Thanks!
    -Jason Fowler
    Sustainable Traditions co-founder

    (on Twitter: @wiselywoven , @sustainabletrad)

  • Pingback: Well said, Richard. Well said. «

  • http://www.geographyofgrace.com Tim Asher

    Hello from Hispaniola. I was in Haiti last week with a network of people exploring this same theme in Port-au-Prince, amidst the devastation. That the modern church seems to be missing the great presence of lament throughout our own Biblical text is a problem in countries like the US, to be sure. But in contexts like Haiti, this omission is very damaging, further isolating already marginalized populations. I’m guessing Bethany has some connections and partners in hard places like P-a-P, maybe the community can bring in their perspectives for a conversation.

    Our network is called specifically to these least, last and lost in hard places, and this lenten season our community of friends across the world have been exploring the theme of lamentation, what a gift to see other brothers and sisters in solidarity!

    I thoroughly enjoyed your teaching when I lived in Seattle, Richard, and a friend just turned me on to your blog. Thanks for your open heart and mind, and for your writing.
    Peace,
    Tim


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