The sad neglect of lament in ministry (Soong-Chan Rah)

When I came to faith in Christ in Asia many years ago, suffering was mentioned in almost every church service. The reason was simply that suffering was the daily experience for most  people. Poverty, social isolation, lack of hope, despair, and oppression where commonplace. But in the West today, I find that suffering is not something that Christians want to talk about too much.

In an article written in 2013, Soong-Chan Rah insightfully speaks of the necessity of lament, especially in the urban context.

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Rah points out that prayers of lament can be found in about 40 percent of the Psalms (out of 150). But popular Christian songs often do not include lament. Rah says,

Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) licenses local churches in the use of contemporary worship songs. CCLI tracks the songs that are consistently sung in local churches. CCLIs list of the top 100 worship songs in August of 2012 reveals that only five of the songs would even remotely qualify as a lament. (page 61; emphasis added)

Rah goes on to say,

The American church avoids lament. The power of lament is minimized, and the underlying narrative of suffering that requires lament is lost . . . We forget the necessity of lamenting over suffering and pain. We forget the reality of suffering and pain. (page 61; emphasis added)

True reconciliation, justice, and shalom require a remembering of suffering, an unearthing of a shameful history, and a willingness to enter into lament. Lament calls for an authentic encounter with the truth. Lament must not be ignored for the sake of uplifting praiseworthy stories of success. Lament reintroduces necessary narratives of suffering. (page 62; emphasis added)

Praise seeks to maintain the status quo, while lament cries out against existing injustices. Christian communities arising from celebration do not want their lives changed because their lives are in a good place. (page 62)

Lament recognizes the struggles of life. The status quo is not to be celebrated but instead must be challenged . . . American Christians that flourish under the existing system seek to maintain the status quo and remain in the theology of celebration over and against the theology of suffering. (page 62; emphasis added)

To only have a theology of celebration at the cost of the theology of suffering is incomplete. The intersection of the two threads provides the opportunity to engage in the fullness of the gospel message. Lament and praise must go hand in hand. (page 63)

[A] triumphalistic theology of celebration and privilege rooted in a praise-only narrative is perpetuated by the absence of lament and the underlying narrative of suffering that informs lament. (page 63; emphasis added)

Rah then talks about an integration of lament in urban ministry.

The belief that the cities are places of need, devoid of the gospel, is linked to the success-oriented narrative shaped by suburban models of ministry. (page 67)

[U]rban ministry must embrace the theology of suffering in the face of great pressure to adopt exclusively the theology of celebration . . . our approach to urban ministry must acknowledge the painful story of the church’s dysfunctional relationship with the city. (page 67)

No longer should urban ministry be defined by the transplant who journeys to the city to save it. Instead, the relocator may find their redemption in intersecting with the city. Urban missionaries are not the saviors of the city. Rather, the churches in the city may provide redemption for those whose theology of celebration excludes the essential element of the theology of suffering. (pages 67–68; emphasis added)

The urban church becomes the place where the fullness of suffering is expressed in a safe environment. The church has the power to bring healing. That power is not found in an emphasis on strength but in suffering and weakness. (page 68; emphasis added)

A theological reading of Lamentations calls the church to make room for the stories of suffering. Space is created for healing to arise from the power of stories, particularly stories of suffering. (page 68; emphasis added)

Source: Soong-Chan Rah “The Necessity of Lament for Ministry in the Urban Context,” Ex Auditu 29 (2013): 54–69.

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Lament as true prayer

Some years ago I came across an article written by Dr Diane Jacobson in The Lutheran, July 2005. It is entitled “Lament as true prayer.” Here are some quotes that I really like.

We speak honestly of what we know. God meets us there.

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).

I often think the sighs of the Spirit are heard most clearly in the laments of the Psalms. Praying the laments is difficult. But so often they are our deepest and truest prayers…

Some say God, in utter grace, allows us to express such lamentation until the time we can return to faithfulness. But I contend that the importance and truth of our laments goes much deeper: To lament is to be faithful.

The lament, more than any other form of prayer, speaks directly to God of the reality of suffering. And God knows when our prayers are true.

Consider the book of Job. Job’s speech is rife with lamentation. He rails against the Almighty, throwing the issue of suffering into God’s face, begging for a relationship that speaks to the truth of his loss and pain. Job’s friends are appalled by his words, which they deem unfaithful. The friends reason that humans should never question God’s motives but, in all humility, should accept suffering as the righteous judgment of a just God…

But in contrast to his friends, Job refused to overlook the depth of his suffering. He refused to protect God from his despair. He refused to believe God wasn’t active in the world. Perhaps most importantly, Job continued to speak directly to God, praying for justice, relief and comfort. True prayer, true speech to and about God, never uses theological platitudes to deny the reality of the world.

The power of the lament is this: We come to God boldly, directly, defenses stripped away, with nothing standing between us and the Almighty. Standing thus, we can do nothing but speak the truth from our depth. This isn’t to say that we suddenly have right understanding, only that we speak honestly of what we know. God meets us there.

“Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD. … I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word !hope” (Psalm 130:1, 5).

True prayer, true speech to and about God, never uses theological platitudes to deny the reality of the world.

A time to mourn – Rah’s reflections on Lamentations

I just came a cross a blog post by Soong-Chan Rah entitled “A Time to Mourn” (dated 19th July 2013). Here are some selected excerpts. I will highlight a few things in blue.

Several different studies have shown that our liturgies, our hymnals, and our worship songs lack lament while disproportionately over-emphasizing triumphalist songs of praise. Our worship does not reflect the balance of praise and lament found in the Scripture … Even when lament is found, it is often a quick stop on our trajectory towards victorious praise psalms. We move quickly away from lament to praise because we want a nice, neatly wrapped narrative that meets our worldview.

One of the most important genres employed by the book of Lamentations is the funeral dirge. The funeral dirge reacts to a real death. When a death occurs, we cannot bury our head in the sand and operate out of denial. Something has died and we must deal with that reality.

Lament acknowledges that something is wrong with the world. Lamentations offers a real view of what has happened. It does not sugar coat the fact that God’s people are culpable in a corporate sin that has led to the fall of Jerusalem. It is hard truth telling that we are the reason for God’s judgment. We are the ones that have sinned before God.

Lamentations is characterized by a myriad of voices offering reflections on the tragic fall of Jerusalem … Rather than the strong and the powerful, Lamentations elevates the voice of the widows and the orphans. The marginalized voices hold the truth.

American Christians with power and privilege are often too quick to speak and too slow to listen … The most powerful act of Job’s friends was to rend their garments and sit and listen to their friend. Some would argue that the moment they opened their mouths is when they stopped being helpful friends.

Here, the author, a Korean-American, is reflecting on the recent Zimmerman verdict in the US. Being outside the US, I am not in a position to comment on the issue. But the points he makes in the excerpts above, especially in relation to Lamentations in the Bible, appear to make sense in many contexts and seem to be relevant to Christians in Australia.

(Rah’s blog post can be found here.)