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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Soong-Chan Rah on individualism

I have been thinking that individualism is a form of idolatry in our world today. It is about fashioning God our the image of the “I”. Individualism allows us not to take responsibility of corporate actions and social evils. It gives us the excuse not to love our neighbour as ourselves. It makes us think that it is okay to be selfish.

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In his book The Next Evangelicalism (Downers Grove: IVP, 2009), Soong-Chan Rah skilfully describes what individualism looks like. Here are a few quotes from this great book.

In an individual-driven theology, individual sin takes center stage. Individual sin leads to a sense of personal guilt: I, the individual, did something personally wrong and I feel guilty about my actions. I am responsible for my personal, individual actions and nothing more. Therefore, I can personally confess my sins and be absolved of my individual sinfulness and my personal feelings of guilt. Because the individual is only responsible for an individualized and personal guilt, there is no sense of shame for corporate actions that are also expressions of human sinfulness. (p. 40)

Our reduction of sin to a personal issue means that we are unwilling to deal with social structural evils, and this reduction prevents us from understanding the full expression of human sinfulness and fallenness. (p. 40)

However, lacking an understanding of corporate sin, we are unable to feel, perceive or understand the impact of the shame of corporate responsibility. (p. 40)

Our excessive emphasis on individualism keeps us from dealing with the implication of corporate sin—it exonerates us from addressing corporate sin that may be evident in our social and political engagement. (p. 41)

Satan has been able to create a social system of injustice that ultimately demeans the value and worth of the individual. We are so busy trying to justify and deny the reality of personal, individual prejudice that we ignore the larger issue of a corporate shame that arises from a structural, systemic evil. This reduction of sin to a personal, individual level ultimately hinders the fullness of the gospel message. (p. 45)

 

Two great books I came across in 2013

Several bloggers have posted their favourite books in 2013. Here I will mention two books I read last year. There were many good books, but the following stood out for me.

The first is Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes. It is a very readable book written by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brien. Richards is a biblical scholar and was a missionary in South East Asia for many years. I find this book exceedingly useful. It helps people in the West to read the Bible in its original context, through recognising the Western cultural lens they inevitably use when they read the Scripture. As a bi-cultural Asian-Australian, the book helps me to understand how my Aussie friends read the Bible. The authors’ cultural awareness provides crucial insights for all of us. If you are serious about understanding the biblical texts, this book is a must to read.

The second book is Soong-Chan Rah’s The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity. Rah critiques American Evangelicalism from his perspective of a Korean-American. Rah is not afraid to speak boldly about what he calls “Western cultural captivity” in America. I have to admit that I am not as bold as Rah, and I can’t imagine myself writing such a book. But at the same time I resonate with his feelings as an Asian living in Australia. Rah is a respectable Evangelical in America, being an Associate Professor at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago. He serves on the board of Sojourners, and holds an MDiv and a DMin from Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. His DMin thesis is “Towards a Post Modern approach to Urban Ministry.” I highly recommend Rah’s book.

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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.)

Cultural intelligence for a changing church

This is a clip presented by Regent College, Vancouver. Here is a great line cited by Regent on Facebook.

“How much of your local church is Scripture, and how much of that is just celebrity, big-shot evangelical consumer culture that we’ve developed for ourselves?” (Soong-Chan Rah)

I do resonate with Soong-Chan’s message in the clip. He comes across as a good thinker, with a passion for the Scripture and authentic Christianity. He has had experience with poverty. He also a cultural heritage that is valuable not only for himself but everyone of us. Take a couple of minutes to watch this clip.

4th Mary 2013 I read the following excerpt of the video from a blog post today. (The blog post can be found here.)

We ended up retreating into our own ethnic communities w/ very little interaction across these different boundaries… and I wonder if we do that with the Gospel as well… at the end of the day we retreat into our own sequestered communities… Cultural captivity means we operate under theological / sociological assumptions… shaped by cultural forces… practicing faith in such a way that we don’t realize how much is Scripture / and how much is the celebrity, big shot evangelical consumer culture we have developed for ourselves… we make superstars out of individuals who might not have much to say… and we end up diminishing the role of immigrants, women, senior citizens… we don’t hear from them.