Why Should the Church Now Weep?

Why Should the Church Now Weep? February 3, 2016

By Joe James, who is the associate minister at the Southside Church of Christ in Rogers Arkansas.

Part 1: Lamenting Our Violence

Some of you avid Jesus Creed readers may remember my story I shared here a few months back about my almost killing my neighbor. You can read that story here.  I do not bring that story up to resurrect the debates about the justifiableness of violence.  I bring it up now in order to talk about prayer.

But not just any prayer; the ancient Hebrew tradition of praying lament to God so prevalent in our Psalms.  Today, I am launching a mini-series here on the psalms of lament, and why I am so passionate that now is the time for the American Church to recover a critical discipline.  This is why I think the church should learn to weep.

In Israel’s prayer book, the Psalms, lament makes up the largest portion of any one type of psalm.  Some 40% of the Psalms are songs of lament.  Yet, so much of our more contemporary music (yes, even the oldest hymns in your hymnals are contemporary) lacks this sort of expression to God.  My own faith tradition, the Churches of Christ, have only some 10% of our hymns that express lament to God.  I think it is tragic in its consequences.

In his classic book “The Message of the Psalms” Walter Brueggemann breaks the Psalms down into 3 categories:

  1. Psalms of Orientation for when life is in balance.
  2. Psalms of Disorientation that lament injustice in the world.
  3. Psalms of New Orientation that celebrate God’s restoration in the world.

And it is critical to point out that, when Israel sang, they usually sang songs of disorientation (lament).  They did this because they experienced so much disorientation.  But what about us?  Are we not surrounded by chaos?  Are we not neck deep in evil today?  I think so.  But what if we are not actually “experiencing” that darkness?  What if living a life of faith as an American Christian has turned from experiencing and lamenting the brokenness of the world and moved toward anesthetizing, insulating and securing ourselves from the pain of the world?

Brueggemann says this about contemporary Christian hymns:

It is a curious fact that the church has, by and large, continued to sing songs of orientation in a world increasingly experienced as disoriented… It is my judgment that this action of the church is less an evangelical defiance guided by faith, and much more a frightened, numb denial and deception that does not want to acknowledge or experience the disorientation of life. (The Message of the Psalms, pg. 51).

 I don’t know about you, but I think Brueggemann is on to something.  Case in point, violence.

2015 was a violent year in America.  There have been several high-profile shootings in the last few months.  As I am writing this piece, the San Bernardino shootings is the latest in a line of horrifying massacres on our soil.  America now is at a place where we average more than one mass shooting per day.  But this isn’t a post on gun-control.  It is a post on prayer.

There is a scene in the gospels where Jesus is being arrested the night before his crucifixion.  Judas and a troop of Roman guards arrive in the Garden of Gethsemane to arrest him as an insurrectionist.  Jesus goes peacefully, but Peter thinks this is a moment for justifiable violence.  Peter grabs his sword and strikes a guard on the ear cutting it off.  Peter surely was about to be killed right there on the spot, but Jesus intervenes, heals the guard, and says this to Peter:

“Put your sword away, for all who live by the sword will die by the sword.”

Jesus acknowledges an important principle at play in our world.  Violence, while perhaps at times justifiable, is never redemptive.  It is always a vicious cycle.  And I have a hunch.  American Christians do not so much have a theological problem with understanding the justifiable violence vs. pacifism debate, as we do a prayer problem.

Think about it: did Peter reach for the sword because he was backward, small-minded and hateful, or did Peter reach for the sword because he slept through the Jesus prayer of lament in the garden?  Perhaps Peter resorted to violence not because he was weak on theology, but because he was busy dreaming of vengeance while Jesus had invited him to weep with him in the shadow of the cross.  Maybe if he had been attentive to the work of lamenting with Jesus over the impending violence of the cross, he would have heard the startling words, “Not my will, but yours be done.”

So there is this new thing called “prayer shaming.”  And I get it.  I really do.  We want to DO something. But I think we need to recover prayer as a way of shaping us into people who have something done to them.  Prayer is work.  Weeping over the violence of the world is disorienting and painful work.  But I believe until we dare to lament the violence around us as a people, we will continue to reach for the sword, even if we know it will never save us.

We have churches filled with people whose souls have been wrecked by violence.  We have soldiers with PTSD.  We have people consumed by fear with ubiquity of news reporting the latest in bloodshed.  We have people who live their life preparing for revolution, worshipping at the altar of security.  We have people trapped in domestic abuse.  We have people devastated by the violence of racism and systemic discrimination.  We a mission to the impoverished neighborhoods wrecked by violence.

So here are some important question for American pastors, church-leaders, and worship ministers:  Can we really continue to ask these folks to mask their pain in our assemblies?  Can we really sing sleepy songs of joy when our hearts are filled with grief?  And will our communal singing continue lull us to a dream-world where our deep consciousness dreams of the violence that haunts us?   What are the consequences of American Christians sleeping peacefully through the painful late-night work of praying our lament to God?

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  • Amen. I’ve often made a point to include laments in our Church’s singing. And I’ve taught these reasons based in the Psalms and in the pains of life. I don’t know how we can be the people we are called to be (which, in my experience, includes an emotional maturity and availability) apart from learning to lament with God and his people.

  • Wayfaring Michael

    Providentially–an old-fashioned way of saying through the grace of God–after a great crisis in my life and my conversion, after a number of months of first-time-in-my-life real immersion in the Bible–the first book that introduced me to serious biblical scholarship was in fact Brueggemann’s *The Psalms and the Life of Faith.* It was the perfect book for me at that time because it was based on solid biblical scholarship, but it addressed not other theologians, but those of us in the pews.
    A couple of months later I was fortunate enough to find out about and be able to buy Robert Alter’s *The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary.*

    I start every day with one of the penitential psalms in my morning office, but praying through the Books on Psalms in rotation means I don’t go more than a day or so without engaging with psalms that are either wholly or partially psalms of lament. In a way, those psalms actually encourage me because, as Brueggemann teaches us, there is almost always after the disorientation of lament the hope and promise of grace that leads to reorientation because God loves and therefore forgives those who confess their sins and give themselves to God with humble and contrite hearts.

    A “Jesus loves me” faith that is all sunshine and daisies, and never has to deal with storms, droughts, or (outside my window over the last twenty-four hours or so at times near) blizzards is indeed based on “cheap grace.” Jesus teaches us several times to “fear not,” but he does that among people who live hard and sometimes grief-filled lives. Jesus never promises to eliminate pain and suffering from their lives, but his teachings aim to help them learn how to work through those dark times.

    When we ignore our sisters’ and our brothers’ pain and suffering, we are not being good neighbors, or satisfying either the first or second greatest commandments. Jesus was really clear about that.

    If faith without works is dead, faith and church without lament is empty at best, and phoney at worst.

  • RustbeltRick

    The author insists: “But this isn’t a post on gun-control. It is a post on prayer.”
    Duly noted, but I think until the nation’s pastors demand gun control, their prayers will continue to sound hollow and irrelevant, a means of “masking their pain” with religious noises while doing nothing about the horror that is modern American culture.

  • joedjames

    I think my insistence is that we re-frame what Prayer is: Prayer is a place where people of faith ought to learn to lament their violent tendencies. My anabaptist impulse is not to control or manage society, but for the church to offer an alternative vision of the eschatological society of God’s redeemed people. My point is that if Peter had prayed lament with Jesus in the Garden, he might not have reached for the sword. My hunch is that it is a lack of spiritual discipline that has deformed American Culture. Blessings and Peace!

  • Stephen Williams

    Absolutely T, my tradition barely gets public congregational confession into its worship let alone lament. We are too busy chasing a vision of the victorious life whose emphasis lies in experiencing continuous joy and forms its faithful into plastic smiley personas rather than Jesus followers who are deeply in touch with the suffering of a world that is not yet the home of righteousness. I’m afraid we would prefer a docetic Jesus (one who only appears to be human) one that doesn’t only walk on water but one whose feet never really touch the ground. If Jesus reveals both God and the prototype of redeemed humanity then our formation will remain lopsided until we learn the place of lament.

  • Stephen Williams

    There was a few decades ago a high profile book that named Gods people “The happiest people on Earth”. I love Brueggemanns push back on that when somewhere he calls us the “most truthful people on earth”. We live in a time “Post…modern” where culturally and collectively we harbor suspicions about people whose emotional presentation to the world is always and continuously “happy”. We think what are they “trying” to sell? We have a sharpened radar for the authentic and authentically human. How anemic is the representation of our reigning King when we live in escapist pursuits. Lamentation is a prophetic renewal of the call to be more human and thus more like the divine human Jesus, not less.