When I was in middle school, I went on a summer wilderness trip at Bible camp. At the end of the two weeks of canoeing and backpacking through the buggy Wisconsin woods, I spent 24-hours on a “solo” - a time of prayer, fasting, and Bible reading on my own, equipped with a tarp, some twine, my sleeping bag, a flashlight, water bottle, Bible, journal, and a pen. As I sat in the woods under a pine tree, my laced up hiking boots folded beneath me, I wrote in my journal: When I go back home, I will have a quiet time every day. I will read the Bible. I will pray.
When I got home to my comfortable bed with the striped comforter, I sprawled out on my stomach with my Bible in my hands. I didn’t have a particular devotional to help guide my scripture reading, so I ran my thumbs along the page edges, sticking my thumbnail into a spot at random, opening the page and blindly pointing at a verse. It’s kind of like the Christian’s version of the Magic 8-ball. You swirl it around while asking a question, waiting for the triangle to appear with an answer: “It is certain,” “Ask again later,” “My reply is no.”
My finger landed on the first page of the book of Lamentations. This was a book of the Bible that I had never read before. I had never heard a sermon preached on it or a verse from it shared in youth group. It started like this:
It only got more dour from there, describing the exile of the daughter of Zion, the filthiness of her skirts, her torment. Lots of tears and groaning.
It wasn’t the answer I was looking for when I opened the Bible willy-nilly. It didn’t tell me how to deal with my insecurities or how to find a boyfriend or whether I would ever run Varsity cross-country. There was nothing motivational about it. I slammed the Bible shut, declared myself a failed Bible reader, and proceeded to feel guilty about breaking my summer camp pledge for the rest of the year.
My confusion at the book of Lamentations was due partly to my age and immaturity, partly to the greater Christian environment I was raised in. Lamentations is a book about lament, a lost spiritual practice in most modern American churches. Our hymns and liturgies like to emphasize the triumph of God over sin and death, not wade in the darkness of our world. In the 90s, contemporary Christian music group Newsboys exhorted young Christians like myself to instead:
Being a Christian was about making the Gospel look attractive, and this was rightly done by shining brightly and radiantly with God’s love. Feeling sorrow, telling the truth about the messiness of our lives, atoning for our corporate sins, were not tenets of American Christian youth group culture. When I read the words of the Lamentations at age 14, I felt confused. Why is the city deserted? Why is the daughter of Zion a slave? What does this have to do with my life?
As I have gotten older and had my eyes opened to racism, white supremacy, and inequality, lament as described in the Bible makes a whole lot more sense. The harsh cry of Lamentations is the perfect tone as I consider the sins of society, of which I am complicit. Lament is an outward sign or expression, often done in community, of sorrow. It tells the world that all is not okay. It decries what is unjust, it pleads to God for relief, and it lays the groundwork for hope to eventually spring forth.
With the current political administration banning new refugee arrivals and ramping up deportations, I have felt my despair levels soar off the charts. I have spent countless hours scrolling through my Twitter feed, absorbing the shock and outrage. My sleep has been restless. I can’t stop thinking about all the people that I know who are being impacted, both here and in refugee camps around the world. I’ve gone into hyper overdrive and my system has threatened to crash with outrage fatigue.
As I attend to the daily activities in my life - driving kids to preschool, grocery shopping, cleaning the bathroom - I often wish that my outsides could match my outraged insides. I long to be like the characters in Lamentations who sit on the ground in silence, wearing sackcloth and ashes, their grief unmistakable. But my children need their lunches packed and jobs need to be attended to, so I muscle my way through. Somehow, reading the news about ICE raids and cooking supper have to exist side-by-side. I find myself wanting to tune out, check-out, and pretend all is normal (which I contend is a privilege that many others do not have).
Lament, by contrast, forces me to return to my heartbreak. Individual lament practices can be as simple as wearing black, or abstaining from certain treasured foods, or lighting candles in prayer. These practices serve as a reminder, an engagement, with the world as it is. Lament is grounded in four foundational pillars: remembering the past, internal reflection, confession, and repentance. Lament is a choice, a spiritual discipline, to engage pain rather than avoid it. As Walter Brueggemann writes in The Prophetic Imagination, “Jesus knew what we numb ones must always learn again... that weeping permits newness.” By embracing lament and allowing ourselves to sit, uncomfortably, with the pain of the world, we begin to see with new eyes. We wake up. For many, that has meant turning toward activism. Public protests, my friend Kelley tells me, can also be lament in a corporate form.
I have marched in several protests this past month and every time I’ve felt a jolt of new energy. Joining in with thousands of others who are chanting: “Say it loud, say it clear, Refugees are welcome here!” has never failed to make me cry. It has given me hope when I’ve otherwise felt despair.
Coming together with others in protest has been cathartic, and catharsis is often a byproduct of lament. But for all the encouragement protests have given me, my skeptic’s heart turns a cold eye at the church and wonders at why this form of public lament has become a secular-led movement. I feel outrage over white Christian complicity with the current political administration’s treatment of immigrants and refugees, among others. Where are our Biblical exercises of lament? We are so out of practice.
Yet on Ash Wednesday, which a friend describes as a “day we finally get to be sad in church,” I found my soul encouraged. I slipped into a contemplative service and sang Taize songs about longing, fear, and mercy. Instead of “shining” like in the Newsboys song, I wore a dark smudge of ashes on my forehead as a sign of mortality and repentance. I walked around for a day wearing this symbol, my outsides finally matching my insides. I felt heartened at this corporate practice of lament, resting in the knowledge that church - at least on that one day - knew sorrow and did not turn from it.