How the Practice of Lament Can Help Churches Heal
Pastors / Leadership
By Mike Leake, Crosswalk.com
Grief always goes somewhere. And we have had plenty to grieve within the last couple of years. We are hurting as a people. Our world, our nation, our communities, our local churches, our families, and our individual selves. This hurt inevitably shapes us.
There was an episode of MythBusters I saw a few years ago involving a water heater with no safety valves. All the pressure continued to build up and the water heater turned into a rocket that blew through two stories of the house and flew several hundred feet into the air. It was destructive. That water heater is an illustration of what happens when we do not have a good biblical way of dealing with our pain and grief. It builds and then it blows. If this is true for us as individuals how much more as a collective?
What Is the Practice of Lament?
Thankfully God has not left us without a way to deal with our grief. This “release valve” is the practice of lament. The Hebrew word for the book of Psalms means praises. It is the Hebrew songbook. 150 psalms and at least 60 of them are psalms of lament. That means 40% of the songs are about bad situations and praying that God will deliver you from them. To put that another way, 40% of the songs in the songbook God has given us are biblical complaints.
Psalm 22 is one of those. This was the Psalm that Jesus prayed from the cross. It was how he registered his faithful complaint. There is a faithful way to lament and bring our complaints and there is a faithless way of complaining. In the Scriptures, whenever people do not engage in lament they tend to engage in unbiblical grumbling. God has given us the means by which we are to explore our grief and walk through our pain.
Speaking of the frequency of laments in the Bible, Christopher Wright says:
The point we should notice (possibly to our surprise) is that it is all hurled at God, not by his enemies but by those who loved and trusted him the most. It seems, indeed, that it is precisely those who have the closest relationship with God who feel most at liberty to pour out their pain and protest to God without fear of reproach. Lament is not only allowed in the Bible; it is modeled for us in abundance. God seems to want to give us as many words with which to fill in our complaint forms as to write our thank-you notes.
I believe this forgotten discipline might be the very thing your church needs in order to turn the corner as we continue to try to heal from a pandemic.
The Practice of Lament in My Own Church
I pastor an amazing church. The people are loving and truly focused on Jesus. Before the pandemic, we were growing rather steadily. We were also planning a mission trip to Mexico. Our church is very missional. But COVID brought everything to a screeching halt. 2020 was brutal for our congregation. We had several deaths. It felt heavy. It seemed as if a dark cloud hung over us.
As restrictions started to lift and we were able to get back to some sort of normal, we found that we were all struggling to get back on mission. That dark cloud seemed to still hang over our congregation. We weren’t fighting each other, but we were languishing. We were in between a state of depression and thriving. I wanted us to thrive.
I will admit that on one particular Sunday I was really frustrated. I wanted us to get back to normal and to do so quickly. I was tired of the cloud. I wanted us to be excited again. But then, during our prayer time, I sat beside a man who was weeping the loss of his dear wife. Then another woman who had a devastating situation happen to her. By the time I made my way up to the pulpit I had been given a vision of mounds and mounds of grief. We couldn’t get back to normal without dealing with our collective trauma.
What Needs to Happen in Order to Heal
Those who are experts on dealing with trauma tell us that there are three big things that need to happen for healing:
- I need to tell my story.
- I need to tell my story safely to another human.
- I need to tell a new, different story with other humans.
Can you think of a better place for this to happen than in the local church? Is there a better story than the gospel? God has given us not only the gospel but also a language of lament which can help us shape our stories. We decided, then, to structure a few services of lament.
How to Incorporate Services of Lament in Your Church
1. Express your lament. First, I taught on lament and invited people to write out their own lament. I used Psalm 22 as a guide. I noted that the first component of a lament is to make your complaint. Tell the Lord exactly what you are feeling. Put emotive words together. You can see in Psalm 22 how the psalmist feels abandoned, lonely, forsaken, hurt, etc. It is helpful for us to put words to these things. It’s okay to tell God exactly why you are frustrated and hurting.
2. Tie hope to God. After the complaint, almost every psalm of lament then makes a Godward turn. It is here that you begin to tie your hope to God’s character.
Yet, as you can see in Psalm 22, sometimes this only adds to the confusion. Why is it that the one who is trusting in the Lord is feeling so cast down? The psalmist’s situation does not feel consistent with God’s character. And so, he asks those questions of the Lord, but he does so in a way that is seeking resolve. The one lamenting is acknowledging that the only sure and certain help will come from the hand of the Lord.
3. Ask for deliverance. Most psalms of lament then ask God boldly for deliverance. There are many different requests throughout the psalms—many are for God’s presence. Some are specific. Ask God specifically what you are wanting Him to accomplish in your life. This often reveals where our hearts are as well.
4. Praise God. Then the psalms of lament end in praise. This is where lament is meant to drive us. We acknowledge our pain, bring out all the ugliness of what we are feeling, and give it to the Lord. This is what Peter called “casting all your anxieties upon him.” We praise Him even in the middle of the storm. This is what God has given us in order to tell our stories with one another. This is incredibly healing.
As our people engaged in these stories of lament, we began to see some of the clouds lift. In a few weeks we will attempt another service of lament, this time we will have some of our people share their own stories. We’re finding that as we walk through this process, simply getting our story out on paper and sharing it with another human has been profoundly healing.
Our churches need this. We need to learn how to walk through this collective trauma together. We need to hear the stories of pain so that we can shout over them stories of redemption.
Related Resource: Listen to our FREE podcast, Teach Us to Pray with Christina Patterson. You can find all the episodes at LifeAudio.com. Listen to our episode on desperate prayers right now:
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