Last week in the Psalms & Wisdom Literature class I am helping out in this semester, we reflected on the nature of lament in the Psalms and its place in contemporary worship today. That same week in my Introduction to Preaching class we talked about being realistic in sermons about the troubles people face in their lives. In both classes we all agreed that the church does better with praise and thanksgiving than with lament. Indeed, many times people feel like there are two things they need to leave in the church lobby before entering the sanctuary: their jackets and their pain. Hang them both up on the same hook and then pick them back up on your way home. Just don’t bring your troubles into worship.
But we also agreed this is wrong. We need to be honest before God and we need to make space to minister to each other in worship. Pastors, in how they pray and preach, can signal that people can and must bring their real questions and struggles and sorrows into worship. The Lord will have a word of grace for them when they do. Worship cannot be honest if we don’t do this nor can worship or preaching get carried out into the week if there is such a chasm between lived experience Monday-Saturday and worship on Sunday.
But back to the Psalms class: the students reflected on the fact that the biblical Psalms of Lament (Psalm 13 is a classic example as is Psalm 42) tend to be generic. You can get a general idea of what bad things are going on in the poet’s life that prompted the psalm/prayer but not a specific idea. And that is part of the genius of the Hebrew Psalter: precisely by staying away from anything overly specific, the laments become like empty vessels into which we can pour the specific content of our lives at any given moment and bring them to speech before God. We never lament in the abstract, after all.
Just here, however, is where we encounter today a different wrinkle when it comes to lamenting in community: when we lament, we tip our hand as to what we care about and get distressed over. And these days that can feel like a dangerous thing. The church, like the rest of society, has become so politicized that a person’s lament over this or that situation can quickly get translated by others as having a partisan edge to it (and may be rejected by others for that very reason). If you lament the plight of refugees, someone will hear that as a tacit criticism of the current President and suddenly a heartfelt lament gets thrown back at the hurting person as a partisan accusation. Or a few years ago if someone lamented what they truly felt was a weakening of our nation’s moral standing as one people under God, someone else would hear that as a critique of then President Obama. And on it goes.
What can we do about this, the students in class wondered aloud. Does it mean we cannot lament in community but only in private lest we be misconstrued, accused of dividing God’s people? Or do we go back to some version of pretending we don’t have any laments in this or that specific area of concern so as not to rock the boat? No, the students suggested, what we need is to be Christian together in the Body of Christ and to recognize that even as Paul once reminded the Corinthians that different parts of the one Body have different functions, so it ought be no surprise that different parts of the same Body might have different perspectives and concerns.
The key is listening to each other, doing our best to join even laments we may not fully share because we are clearly called to carry each other’s burdens. The Bible never tells us to carry each other’s burden except when perhaps the burden in question might reflect a viewpoint that has some political implication. A burden is a burden and it is deeply un-Christ-like to roll our eyes over someone’s concern and lament. Instead we extend ourselves into the other person’s life even as we believe the Holy Spirit does to each one of us at all times.
These are not easy days in the church or anywhere else. Our split-screen culture in which pundits yell at each other on cable news shows gets all-too-easily translated into split-screen congregations in which everyone wants to score points for their side but not really listen to or identify with the other side. That itself is a lamentable situation. It only adds to our pain. But perhaps we can minister to each other’s various pains and sorrows if we try to listen, to make room, try to empathize and so encourage someone else’s lament rather than squelch it. Yes, one could stretch all this and imagine someone’s lamenting something that is truly wrong (lamenting that white people are not as dominant as they used to be, let’s say) and that would need confrontation, not empathy. But barring such a rare extreme, if we try to make the laments of others our own, we may find that we accomplish something that surely the entire New Testament and the Lord of the Church himself desires: thickening our unity in the one Body of Christ.