Lessons in Lament

BreeBy Ric Hudgens, a sermon at Second Baptist Church, Evanston, June 28, 2015

Text: Psalm 30 (Fifth Sunday of Pentecost, Year B)

What does it mean in this Kairos moment that we have a God moved by our lamentations?

The events of recent months are too familiar to need rehearsing. We are living in a kairos moment. The ancient Greeks had two words for time: chronos and kairos. Chronos was chronological or sequential time; the time that we track on our watches and cellphones. Moment by moment time.

But kairos is a different kind of time. Not a sequential time but an opportune time, not a determinate time in which only a few things can happen, but an indeterminate time in which anything might happen.

A kairos moment presents opportunities for initiatives and undertakings that might be lost if not acted upon immediately. A kairos moment is when the undercurrents of history seem to break to the surface and you realize that you are part of something much bigger than what’s happening near your own little boat.

It is indicative of a kairos moment when self-proclaimed Christian freedom fighter Bree Newsome scaled the flagpole in Columbia, South Carolina Saturday morning and took down the Confederate flag with the words “You come against me in the name of hatred, repression, and violence. I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today.” This is a Kairos moment in our nation and we don’t know how long the window of opportunity will remain open. But there is a movement underfoot, a mighty restlessness, an upheaval of the Spirit.
So as I come to the Bible I am drawn to the lectionary passages for this week coming from the book of Psalms and Lamentations, and particularly this morning to Psalm 30.

Did you know that over one-third of the Psalms in the Bible contain complaints directed toward God and pleading with God to intervene and come to our aid?

Have you ever stopped to reflect upon how the Biblical saints sometimes called God out for seeming to abandon them?

It has always amazed me that there are so many Biblical examples of people bringing their complaints directly to God; and that God, rather than take offense or rebuke them, receives them, responds to them and even seems to lift up their example for others to imitate and follow.

What does it mean for our lives today in this kairos moment that we have a God who is moved to action by our lamentations?

And so I want to try to offer a word this morning which is both pastoral AND prophetic.

It is a word addressed to all of us at some time or another in our lives when we are thrown into an abyss of utter confusion and despair.

It is a word for us when the ground is shifting under our feet and the old maps no longer describe the new land.

It is a word for us as a community in a time during which many of the lies that have held us captive for too long are being exposed to the light of day.

And so we turn back to the narrative in Psalm 30. I call it a narrative because there is a story being told here. This Psalm sounds like a testimony. It says they used it for the Temple dedication, but clearly it was written as a psalm of thanksgiving upon the recovery of someone from a very dire and seemingly hopeless situation.

In verses 6-7 we get to the beginning of the story. There was a time of feeling secure, a time of self-confidence:

surely I have made it now,

“I will never be shaken”.

God is in heaven and all’s right with MY world.

But then the unexpected. Seemingly from out of nowhere the situation turns from complete self-confidence and presumed security to devastation and despair. It feels as if surely God has turned God’s face away.

The hinge of the passage, that upon which the situation turns, is in verses 8-10. “To you O Lord I cried, and to the Lord I made supplication.” It is that transaction that I want to draw your attention towards this morning.

She makes her complaint to God: “What profit is there in my death or if I go down into the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?” There is an audacious humor to these words. O God, if all you are really about is having people sing praise and worship songs all the time then how will abandoning me accomplish that? Who will sing to you after I’m gone? Who will take my place in the choir?

But there is something else going on here. This is a cry of desperation, a cry of confusion, a cry of utter disorientation. She had achieved a secure place, safe she supposed from all harm and danger, but now has entered a place of shadows and borderline despair. Where is God? Is God even listening? Will God do anything? When will God do something?

It is these questions that are at the heart of lamentation. And lamentation is our topic this morning.

“Sometimes lamentation is the most important things we can do.”

How do we respond to the catastrophic? Our losses can deafen, blind, and harden us. Many of us even flunk out of the school of hard knocks. What makes the difference? Why are some of us good students of suffering and others of us are not?

Could it be as Richard Rohr has suggested that sometimes we roll the stone away too soon? We skip over lamentation in order to rush to alleluia? We are perhaps too afraid of sorrow or too afraid of giving in to sorrow and we stifle and suppress our pain and try to pretend that what seems catastrophic is really just one more thing. Not a kairos moment, but just another moment.

God has given us a curriculum for processing our disorientation. One of the central lessons in that school is called lamentation. We must learn how to lament. When we neglect lament we deprive ourselves of a principle resource for dealing with our pain, our grief, and the injustice of this world.

This is true both pastorally and prophetically, because when we neglect lament we stifle the cry of prophetic critique and political activism in the face of injustice. We need lamentation in our worship and in our prayer to give expression to our legitimate spiritual struggles; but also to rouse our communities of faith to name injustice, to claim agency, and to sustain our activism.

When things begin to fall apart and the center does not hold. When what we once depended upon can be depended upon no longer.

  • When one too many of our young men has been gunned down in the street.
  • When it is not safe for our children to play in a public park.
  • When our young women cannot go to a public swimming pool without the threat of brutality.
  • When a terrorist can enter Mother Emanuel to start a race war, and churches are set on fire after his arrest.
  • Or when immediately after Bree Newsome takes down the terrorist flag that inspired these actions two hours later it was put back up again. ALL THE WAY UP.

We must name it. We must in God’s name protest. We must in God’s name lament.

Lamentation is a form of constructive grief and anger. It is an expression of anointed protest. It takes the mess that life has handed us and gathers it up into a formulated complaint against the powers that be.

In this Kairos moment when our sanctuaries are too silent we hear lamentations from the streets. Our young people know that something must be said, that some voice must be lifted in the wilderness. The anguished cry of our souls must be heard in the land and it can take many forms.

When fifty years ago Nina Simone sang that song about Mississippi (you know the one) it wasn’t just a cry of protest. It was a lamentation.

When Ferguson artist Damon Davis photographed 70 residents raising their hands in surrender it was not just a street art installation. It was a lamentation.

When New York protesters  staged “die-ins” and carried coffins across the Brooklyn Bridge it was not just a demonstration. It was a lamentation.

And when Lauryn Hill took Rogers and Hammerstein’s My Favorite Things and wrote new lyrics under the title “Black Rage” she wasn’t just passing the time. It was a lamentation.

A lamentation says at least three things:

  1. Something is not right about the way things are
  2. It doesn’t have to be this way
  3. I can’t stand it any more.

The Lamentation expresses our pain so that our pain can be acknowledged. Laments announce loudly and publicly what is wrong right now. They create individual and communal capacity not only for grief and loss, but for seeing and naming injustice. Laments name the weeping and the fracturing of relationships. This is the whole point of lamenting. Giving it a name.

Normally lamentations in the Bible are much longer and much more detailed than the few verses here in Psalm 30. In the Psalms we hear a variety of complaints on issues that range from geopolitical conflict, social injustice, to expressions of disappointment with God.

Psalm 42 gives voice to the struggle with depression and misunderstanding: “My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me all day long, ‘Where is your God?’ These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go to the house of God under the protection of the Mighty One with shouts of joy and praise among the festive throng.” There is a heart struggling with pain here and offering all the fears and doubts to God, longing for renewal and restoration.

Psalm 44 for example says “Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever! Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? For we sink down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground.” The Psalmist urges “Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? … Rise up, come to our help.”

I dare not question the sincere forgiveness offered by the family of the victims of the Charleston martyrs. Forgiveness is always necessary for removing bitterness, hatred, and vengeance from our hearts. Forgiveness lets the other person go and refuses to hold them hostage to our own anger and pain. Forgiveness says “God, there is nothing I can do except hand them over to you to figure out some way to redeem them.” Forgiveness distinguishes my part and God’s part and that judgement belongs to God.

But they also offered us examples of lamentation. One of the daughters of the Mother Emanuel martyrs vocalized her pain in court saying, “I will never talk to her ever again. I will never hold her ever again. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people.” And it was only after that lamentation that she said “I forgive you.”

Forgiveness without lamentation can sometimes increase our pain and extend our own harm. It is never too soon to forgive in terms of our need to let go of our urge for vengeance and recompense, but it can be too soon in terms of our own process of coming to terms with our grief. We can sometimes rush forgiveness as if it is some kind of magic formula that will make our pain go away.

Sometimes before forgiveness is extended we need to speak our hurt, we need to give voice to our complaint, we need to make our devastation known. Sometimes before the time is ripe for forgiveness, while the blossom is still closed and the fruit is still green on the vine we need to do something else. We need to make lamentation.

Lamentation does not postpone forgiveness because we want to nurse our hurt or feel sorry for ourselves. Lamentation gives us a way to voice our injury so that when the time for forgiveness comes we can be fully and truly healed of the wrong that has been done to us.

Lamentation is the articulation of our grief and pain. It is in fact a form of constructive grief that enables us to begin rebuilding a new world after the old one has been destroyed.

“Lamentation requires a radical trust in God.”

There are many different kinds of lamentation and the practice of lament can be found in cultures around the world and throughout human history.

Biblical lament is not like other kinds of lament and the expectations and requirements for it are different than those in other traditions, or those required for the lamentations of the street.

Biblical lament not only says that something is wrong, that something must be done, or that I can’t stand it any more, but Biblical lament then adds “God! You need to do something!”

It is this direct appeal to God that distinguishes Biblical lament from all other forms of lamentation.

Biblical lament takes protest farther than the most extreme political radical. The radical may stop at the gates of the White House, but the Biblical protest goes all the way to the throne of God!

And because Biblical lament speaks its complaint directly to God it requires a radical trust in God.

We should be continually amazed that the Bible records the lamentations of God’s people. No atheist has ever made a stronger case against the goodness of God than the authors of the Bible! Their lamentations and cries come down to us as part of our heritage, part of our sacred text, and amazingly part of the Word that God inspires in order to instruct and guide us.

In popular language lament is narrowly defined as merely grieving or grumbling. But Biblical lament is an expression of radical trust in the character, power, and gracious intentions of God.

God welcomes our lament for the sake of authentic relationship.

Have you ever seen or perhaps been in a relationship where one person wasn’t allowed to say what they thought? Have you ever been with someone who would not allow you to say what was on your mind, to express your opinion, or declare the burdens of your heart, or even complain because they would never pay attention to you? An authentic relationship requires a back-and-forth mutual relationship. Each party speaks and each party listens. That Christians do this with God – both listening to God and speaking to God – is what distinguishes lament from mere grumbling.

I think we have fear that if we express our grief and pain a bottomless hole will open and we will fall in and never be able to escape. We fool ourselves into thinking that suppressing our pain or silencing our grief will be better because we don’t really believe that God can save us.

When we stifle our confusion, when we are afraid to speak our complaint we live a pretend life before God. We hide our true circumstances and pretend that the deep pain we sometimes feel is not serious, not real, or not worthy of God’s attention. And our relationship with God feels even more distant and we feel even more alone and more abandoned than we did before.

The songs of lamentation draw us out of the silent prison of our individual sorrow into the faithful community of lament. There is a powerful witness in the very existence of Psalm 30. That the testimony of this individual was brought into the sanctuary where it could be heard and embraced and owned altogether as God’s people. That’s what lamentation can do – it can create community, a faithful community of lament – a community that includes God.

In the Biblical view it is our lamentation that creates the space for God to move. I can’t explain it, I won’t defend it, I will just testify that this is the witness of Scripture. What prompts God’s intervention is the lament of God’s people.

We hear it in Exodus 2:23-24 “The Israelites groaned under their slavery and cried out. Out of slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and . . .God remembered his covenant . . . and God looked upon them . . .and God took notice.” Or as the martyr Stephen retold the story in Acts 7:34 “I have seen the mistreatment of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their groaning, and I have come down to rescue them.”

It is this pattern that lamentation hopes to set in motion: this sequence of God seeing and hearing, coming down and bringing deliverance. In the Biblical view it is lamentation that begins the revolution.

And what enables the lament of God’s people is a radical trust in the character of the God who creates, redeems, and sustains us. It is because God’s love endures forever that we can come to God in lamentation when we are devastated by catastrophe. It is because God’s mercy endures forever that we can lay our complaints before God and know that we will get a hearing.

“Sometimes Lamentation is the only way from mourning to dancing.”

Now it is not just the impact of lamentation upon God that concerns us. When the ground has opened up underneath us and we are separated from the land where we once stood firm and unafraid, lamentation is a crucial resource we have for getting across to the other side. It is the bridge from mourning and weeping to a new day of dancing and joy.

Returning to the narrative of Psalm 30 we can trace the two movements that take place. The first is a downward movement from a feeling of total security to a place of total abandonment. The second movement is an upward one from mourning to dancing.

When you are in the place of abandonment and mourning your former state of security seems like a dream. And it feels mere fantasy to imagine that you can ever escape the pit that you find yourself in. Sometimes lamentation is the only the way to move upward.

In her newly published book Remnants: A Memoir of Spirit, Activism, and Mothering Rosemarie Harding recalls a story from the 1960s. She writes:

Bob Moses tells a story of a woman he knew in the Movement. Somebody in Mississippi had been through so much pain, so much loss, she just fell to her knees in despair, one day. She fell on the floor of her kitchen, cradling bad news or pushing away a fresh memory, and from nowhere anybody could see, a sound rose up. It was within her someplace between her waist and her lungs, a vast place more guttural than the throat, a sacred place. And it was a deep haunting sound. Not shrill. But it rose and was full. The tone rose up out of this woman’s body on the floor, on her knees, and when she was done, everything was alright. She was alright. She had made a road.

Sometimes sisters and brothers lamentation is the only door to a new beginning. Lamentation turns towards the dead end of catastrophe and with the sacred cry of the soul (and God’s help) it makes a way out of no way.

The catastrophic always triggers hopelessness. The trauma of last week’s attack lingers, following upon week after week of relentless assault upon our capacity for hope. How do we avoid a permanent state of bitterness and cynicism – one that forces us into either paralysis or a psychotic acting out? How do we make a way across a chasm of cynicism and despair to a new place where the future dwells?

Being able to express our pain is sometimes the most important thing we can do. We name it so God can claim it, proclaiming a radical trust in God’s faithfulness to us by boldly articulating our hurt in God’s presence.

Lamentation calls us back into community as we bring our testimony of pain and share our feelings of forsakenness with others who understand them and perhaps share them. Lamentation gives structure and shape to our grief by forcing us to express it in a way that can be understood. By giving shape to our grief it puts boundaries around it and thereby communicates to us that there is still hope outside our grief.

And lamentation always presses towards praise. In fact when we come to a place of thanksgiving it is merely the rearticulation of our lamentation. When we come to a new horizon beyond our present circumstances we recognize that our grief was finite but that our joy has no end. When the night begins to fade and the dawn begins to break we realize that this is not the end of our story.

The procession of praise birthed in pain and lamentation becomes the midwife of worship. At our lowest point when we are feeling most alienated, estranged, and abandoned; most needy and convinced that nothing can be done, it is at THIS place that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Resurrected Jesus who overcame the worst that the world could do to him, begins to work to restore and revive.

The procession of praise begins as God welcomes our lamentation and sustains our relationship as the only source of our rest and renewal.

The movement of this narrative in Psalm 30 reflects the structure of our lives; it is our story as God’s people. Our life is filled with “rising up from labored breathing to filled lungs, from hunched shoulders to upright torsos, from Sheol to praise, from mourning to dancing, from death to life.”

The Psalmist once thought she was as secure as a mountain. But then when catastrophe hit she began to fall into what she feared was a bottomless descent. And her testimony this morning church is that when she raised her voice suddenly out of the darkness she was caught by the everlasting arms of God.

Our endings are not as final as we think they are.  Our security can be shaken and we are more vulnerable than we pretend to be, but out of the experience of the catastrophic can come a renewed joy, a renewed hope, a renewed future, and a renewed confirmation that God is with us. Darkness is real, but the absence of God is a fantasy.


This is the testimony of Mother Emanuel – Emanuel which means God with us. And it is the testimony of Second Baptist Evanston which proclaims every Sunday through that sign up above the choir that “God is already here.”

As Bree Newsome came down from the flagpole reciting Psalm 27 I want to remind you that:
The Lord is my light and my salvation

Whom shall I fear?


The Lord is the stronghold of my life

Of whom shall I be afraid?


When the wicked advance against me

Though an army besiege me


My heart will not fear

Even I will be confident


I remain confident of this:
I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.


Wait for the Lord.

Be strong and take heart.


Let the Church say “Amen”


The Work Behind This Work:

Brueggemann, Walter. The Message of Psalms (1985)
Brueggemann, Walter. “The Costly Loss of Lament”, The Psalms and the Life of Faith (1995)
Lee, Nancy C. Lyrics of Lament: From Tragedy to Transformation (2010) O’Connor, Kathleen. Lamentations and the Tears of the World (2002)
Soong Chan Rah. Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times (2015) Swanson, David. “Learning to Lament” Leadership Journal (2014)

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