Friday, March 3
“Put on sackcloth and lament, you priests;
wail, you ministers of the altar.
Come, pass the night in sackcloth,
you ministers of my God!
Grain offering and drink offering
are withheld from the house of your God.
Sanctify a fast,
call a solemn assembly.
Gather the elders
and all the inhabitants of the land
to the house of the Lord your God,
and cry out to the Lord” (Joel 1:13-14).
In a sermon preached in the chapel of my seminary, a courageous student observed that our community was a very hard place to be if you were sad. People who were hurting or depressed were likely either to be ignored, or worse, to be jollied: to be told to cheer up and trust in Jesus—as though sorrow and pain were somehow a denial of faith. I fear that mine is not the only Christian community guilty of this offense. As Donald Gowan ruefully observes, “Christian worship tends to be all triumph, all good news (even the confession of sin is not a very awesome experience because we know the assurance of pardon is coming; it’s printed in the bulletin). And what does that say to those who, at the moment, know nothing of triumph?” (Don Gowan, The Triumph of Faith in Habakkuk [Atlanta: John Knox, 1976], 38).
True repentance leading to new life requires lament: not only our own authentic lament at the realization of our sin, but also our providing space for, and attending to, the laments of others. Walter Brueggemann writes that the loss of lament in worship means “the loss of genuine covenant interaction because the second party to the covenant (the petitioner) has become voiceless or has a voice that is permitted to speak only praise and doxology” (Walter Brueggemann, “The Costly Loss of Lament,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 36 : 60). No wonder Joel urges the priests, “Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord” (Joel 1:14). By stifling lament, we shut off the genuine interaction that a living relationship with God presumes.
Prayer: Oh God, we confess that in our discomfort with lament, we have silenced the oppressed in our communities—and our personal struggles and fears as well. We have insisted that everyone in our services smile and be happy, and so have condemned our worship to insipid shallowness. Teach us how to lament, and to let others lament, so that we may rediscover the authentic covenant relationship into which you call us. Through Christ our Lord, who listened to the cries of others, and was not too proud to cry out on the cross, Amen.