The Power and Beauty of Lament
An interview with Soong-Chan Rah.
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PreachingToday.com's editor Matt Woodley recently interviewed Dr. Soong-Chan Rah, the Milton B. Engebretson Professory of Church Growth and Evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, IL. Rah is also the author of Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times. Matt talked with Dr. Rah about the importance of preaching on lament.
Matt Woodley: In your book Prophetic Lament you tell a story about your first sermon series you did at your church plant in Boston—a six-week series from the Book of Lamentations. You called it a "seemingly illogical choice being both from the Old Testament and a downer of a book." So why did you start with the book of Lamentations and what happened as a result of that series?
Soong-Chan Rah: I teach church planting, and if you read a lot of the literature on church planting one of key phrases that we use is "seeker-friendly." We don't want to chase people away, but rather attract people into the church. That is why this series was a "seemingly illogical choice." Who would begin a church plant by preaching from Lamentations? But I saw a need for this series and the community we were reaching. So I approached this series from two angles.
First, I was looking at this series as an outline for the kind of church we were trying to be and the kind of church that we were trying to emphasize as a community in the city. So we were intentionally an urban church, intentionally in an underserviced community. Yet at the same time intentionally reaching out to the college students in the area. We were in Cambridge so we were close to Harvard and MIT. I felt that the themes of Lamentations on suffering, urban themes, justice themes, lament, were important themes to address when dealing with urban ministry and ministry in underserviced communities. So we felt that the context of our ministry called us to engage this topic.
In urban ministry many times this idea of triumphalism comes through in our churches. Like we're going to fix everybody's problems; we're going to address issues with our knowledge and wisdom. Our community was already made up of overachievers to begin with—that's how they got into schools like Harvard and MIT—so what they needed was the balancing of that kind of triumphalism, success-driven narrative with a dose of lament that is oftentimes underrepresented. So our context required a different type of approach: That when you are ministering in the city, especially a community with overachievers, the reality of lament is necessary.
Second, there was a generational issue because the young people we were working with were highly churched but they were tired of the baby boomer model. This model focused on all the great things the church has done and the great buildings the church built. This was based off of a triumphalistic, exceptionalistic narrative that I think American evangelicalism bought into about 20 years ago. The rallying cry was, "We're going to build massive churches, and we're going to have X-number of people in our building, and we're going to do these things to fix the world." I think young people get a little both wary and weary of that kind of pep rally-ish type of preaching, because it doesn't feel like reality.
I recently preached to a group of college students and I preached on lament out of Lamentations. I was really struck by how these 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds were resonating with what I was saying. Oftentimes our young people are dealing with a lot of angst, pain, and suffering that they've squashed down because that's what the church tells them to do. But a book like Lamentations gives freedom to those for whom life is not that rosy, perfect, and triumphalistic. It gives the permission and opportunity for young people to actually express their struggles, suffering, and pain.
You mention the importance of lament. You talk about the two poles of praise and lament. I think most preachers get what praise is but talk about lament. As you approach lament as a preacher, what do you need to know about it as a genre?
First, I would mention the Psalms, 40 percent of which are psalms of lament. In our churches today we disproportionately underrepresent lament in our worship. Second, we don't access and connect to the lament in our preaching or in our Scripture readings. So the Psalms that we all know and are familiar with come out of the theology or context of celebration. That those of us who have good things and are living in comfort, safety, protection, provision, privilege, we want to sing the triumphant songs of victory, praise, and celebration. Lament on the other hand arises out of a community that suffers, that sees the world not as a place where you flourish but maybe a place where you barely survive. So the tone of lament is going to feel different than the tones of celebration. In a triumphalistic society we gravitate towards these triumphalistic Psalms that say, "Yes, Lord, we are doing great," or "Thank you, God, for all the blessings you've given." That is appropriate at times, but what we forget is that a significant portion of Israel's history, liturgy, and worship life, and a significant part of people's lives today, are actually more likely to be reflected in lament.
Lament arises out of suffering; it is when folks are struggling with the reality of their lives because they can't pay their bills, can't put healthy food on the table, the heat is about to get shut off, their son has been killed in a drive-by shooting, their father has been jailed for a minor offense, their mom has lost her job, or their grandmother is sick with cancer. Those are very real scenarios, and the Bible actually responds to real life. So lament is the proper response to suffering. We jump so quickly to everything's going to be okay, everything is awesome, everything is going to be fine. We forget that the Bible actually allows us, and in fact encourages and maybe even commands us, to stay in those places of suffering, to speak the honest truth, "Lord, this is how I'm feeling, God, this is the pain I'm experiencing," instead of jumping so quickly to "God is so good, God loves me, God's going to take care of me." So I think lament is the honesty that sometimes we lack in the church.
When you see the Psalms you see phrases like, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" You see laments that reflect a sense of abandonment, shame, and brokenness. The reality is our lives are not always filled with triumph and victory; our lives are oftentimes filled with suffering and pain, and lament in the Bible allows that, it legitimates our suffering. It says it's okay to feel that pain, it's okay to even articulate that out loud. It's okay to articulate that in your corporate worship. In fact, it's something that God wants you to do. So I think the genre of lament because we have had such minimal access to it, we don't realize how important it is to Scripture and that it speaks to a very powerful human reality that the Bible actually responds to and gives us a chance to express that human reality. So lament, I would say at its root is truth-telling.
There is also a very personal, individual angle on lament as well. As we are considering preaching on lament, there are individual people in our congregation that are suffering, probably in many different ways. So how does our preaching connect with them and their life?
One of the most beautiful things about lament, and the book of Lamentations in particular, is that it goes back and forth between a personal lament and corporate lament. It also moves towards representative lament where someone is crying out on behalf of the community, but it's a very personal experience. That a person is experiencing pain on behalf of the community, or is expressing something that the community is feeling but that individual is experiencing it in a very pronounced way.
In a hyper individualistic culture like American society, the individual experience doesn't spill over into the corporate experience and vice versa. We have a very strong bifurcation of categories—this is individual and this is corporate. But Scripture doesn't operate that way, and lament specifically doesn't operate that way. The first person lament is powerful because it tells the story of the community, and the community's lament is powerful because it speaks of the experience of the individual. That's what makes Lamentations so powerful. It goes back and forth between first person and third person and from singular to plural. What's experienced by the community amplifies what's being experienced by the individual.
A part of our problem in our accessing of different types of lament is that we create these strong dichotomies. We don't realize that when a person is speaking of pain that person's pain should shape and contribute to the corporate experience of worship. Then the church's response in corporate worship of lament should also profoundly influence that individual's experience of personal lament. Our hyper individualism creates extremely segregated categories between individual and corporate worship. Part of our liturgical worship response has to be how does that individual experience contribute to the whole, and how does the whole experience contribute to the individual's experience.
How does the sovereignty of God come through in the genre of lament, and then how do you preach that without taking away the whole point of lament, which is this validating our disorientation and our pain and our brokenness?
I think part of it is we jump too quickly to the resolution and we don't allow for the church to stay in the pain for any period of time. For example, in the Psalms, one of the most powerful Psalms that we know is Psalm 23, which is a positive, loving, encouraging Psalm. It talks about how the Lord is our Shepherd, it goes on and on about his care for us and his love for us. But Psalm 23 actually has to be understood in the light of Psalm 22 which says, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken, me?" Psalm 22 doesn't necessarily end with an easy, simple resolution. So you have these two distinct Psalms but they're back-to-back.
We don't need every lament to resolve with a happy, joyful tune at the end. Or do we say there is a moment where we complete that lament and the lament won't necessarily have that happy resolution. But that's a very important part of human reality, that there are moments we stay in that, there is no quick resolution. There will also be moments when a new song is sung and that's the difference. A new song is sung in Psalm 23, but that doesn't diminish the old song of Psalm 22. Psalm 22 is still an important Psalm to be sung, but it also allows for the balance to both.
The problem now, of course, is that we only read Psalm 23 and we never read Psalm 22. So in the church when it comes to preaching on that day-to-day level, I think by preaching Lamentations and offering that on occasion and as a balance to its absence for so many years, we really do allow our congregation to feel. We allow our congregation to weep, mourn, and express their suffering. One of the best things that a pastor can do—and I was a pastor for 15 years—is allow your congregation to come to the Lord with their pain, to come to the community of God with their pain. A lot of people are walking away from the church because there are people that are hurting that feel they can't bring their pain, they cannot bring their pain to the church or even before God.
By allowing for a place for lament in the church, whether it is the lament offered by the worship team, the preacher, or a member of the congregation, you're giving permission to engage in a spiritual practice that is absent in most churches. By introducing lament you give permission to the church to say this can be a part of my life. There's a liberation that comes from knowing that my suffering is allowed to be expressed in the church. It does not have to be swept under the rug; it does not have to be hidden. There are moments we jump up and celebrate because it's Easter Sunday, but then there are also moments when we mourn and lament because it's Good Friday.
One of the things we talk about a lot at Preaching Today is how to connect your preaching text to the bigger story of redemption and salvation in Jesus. So where's the good news of Christ in lament, and how does a preacher bring that into his or her sermon without tacking it on to the end?
That is the danger of cutting too quickly to the answer. One of the more important things that a preacher can do is actually lead or guide the congregation into places where that quick and easy resolution is not how we wrap everything up. The gospel message is clearly not a shortcut. Jesus on the Cross is not a shortcut. So if we offer those shortcuts in our preaching then we are actually doing disservice to the gospel. There was a cost to our salvation, there is a cost to our discipleship. So part of that is recognizing that lament is not so easily resolved.
It's one of the things I look at in the book, and my series on Lamentations. Lamentations 4 is almost turning the ideas into thoughts and it seems it is a recapitulation of the first three chapters. So it's frustrating because where you thought—especially with chapter three kind of being the height of the book—everything was worked out and then in chapter four all of a sudden you get the themes recapitulated. It feels so frustrating, but that is the way our life works. If we are so quick with the answers then I think we are doing a disservice to our congregation. They know that life doesn't work like that. Life doesn't work like a sitcom that resolves itself in 30 minutes. So to come to that quick, let's just trod on and then God is good, type of answer at the end of every sermon is really doing a disservice to our congregation.
At the same time, the power of the gospel message is the power to be able to overcome all evil and all sin, and that there is nothing that separates us from the love of God. So that message needs to be part of our narrative. That way we're not always saying, "Hey, everything is going to work out, everything is going to be great," but we're not always saying, "Hey, this is the way the road is, life stinks." We can't end in either of those places. Sometimes the power of that moment where we can say that God is able to bring hope out of hopelessness is actually the power of the gospel. If we give that too quickly or if we give it in a simplistic formula that does a disservice to our congregation, and that becomes problematic.
It's our responsibility as preachers, as those who have been entrusted with the Word, to tell the truth that is the whole truth, which says, "Yes, there is hope in the world but it does come at a cost, and Christ paid for that cost but that was not simple, it was not easy, it was at a great price." There has to be more depth to a resolution than simply "And God made it so." Although that is true, the complexities of that have to be understood and that's where maturity in the gospel comes. Lament, which has been missing from the equation for so long now, is brought back into the equation and that complicates things, but it also enriches things.
So how have you done this in your preaching?
That's the gift of preaching through a book together over a period of time. If you do a one-off sermon from Lamentations 3 then you are preaching in the middle of the series. But if you're preaching through the book moving from chapters one to five, chapter three introduces hope right in the middle of that sermon series. But then you also are reminded in chapter four that struggle and suffering returns again.
That's what makes patience so important today. Patience that's required for preachers, the patience that's required for congregations, to go through a narrative together. If you miss chapter three you actually miss a very important part of the overall story. But then chapter five also comes with some hope but it's a different type of hope from chapter three. There's a back and forth in the text that is so important that a congregation walk through together.
One part of the gift of a rich passage like Lamentations is that it's never a single note. It's not just the note of despair; the note of hope is amplified because the despair goes so deep. So chapter one and chapter two are such deep notes of despair when that glimmer of hope appears in chapter three, that's a powerful moment for the congregation to anticipate. It would be good if the preacher can build towards that in their sermon, "Okay, the hope's not there yet, we haven't read it in the text yet. But it's coming, it's there, because we know the end of the story." Now, we can't jump to it right now, we can't say, "Okay, now everything's okay again." But we know just like when you're reading through Scripture that if you are in Good Friday you give that hint of what is to come on Easter Sunday. You don't jump too quickly to it and say, "Okay, now Good Friday is done, now everything is okay." No, we still have to go through Saturday, we have to go through the whole experience. But we need to wrestle with that sense of hope is on its way, but we are still in a place of sorrow now. So this comes back to the idea that there is no such thing as quick and easy answers to these kinds of complex problems in the world. There are glimmers of hope and we consistently offer those glimmers of hope, but at the same time we allow the congregation to work through this.
I think even that embodiment of that kind of preaching, that hope is on its way but we're still in the place of sorrow, is much needed in pulpits today. If you are preaching that, that could also be a demonstration of how one endures suffering. That we know hope is on its way. It might not be here this week, it might not be here next week, it might be here three weeks from now, but we still live in that sorrow, that anticipation, that confusion. A sermon series could actually demonstrate that because that's the rhythm of many of our lives anyway.
How has preaching on biblical lament changed you as a follower of Jesus?
Even though Lamentations is the story of a suffering people thousands of years ago and it's a community that's crying out in pain, it allowed me to feel the depth of pain in my own story. As I mention in my book, that really helped me to walk through the process of seeing my mom in her struggles; I was able to see that Lamentations narrative in the middle of a woman who has suffered so much. It gave me permission as a son and as a Christian to see my mom's story in the Bible. Oftentimes, we preach and we read the Bible through the lens of the affluent, educated, privileged male. Here is Lamentations that does not speak from that perspective at all. So it gave me permission to grieve and to suffer and to articulate alongside my mom's story. It has also allowed me to think through what it means to have your father die, and to feel unresolved in that whole relationship.
Those are the kind of things that I think Lamentations and laments throughout all of Scripture allow us to articulate. You begin to see the Scriptures not through the lens of the heroic individual who is going to go out and save the world and conquer the world, but through the suffering and the broken. Lament gives you the ability to articulate your personal story—how someone in your family is struggling with cancer or with Alzheimer's. Your story, your parents' story, and your loved one's story, is in the Bible and the Bible gives honor to that part of the story.
So for me, it gave me permission to speak out and that's what I try to do in my book. I try to be as honest as possible about how these things shed light on my own personal story. But that's what I hope preaching does too: It allows people to see God in their own stories or in the stories of the life of a preacher. It allows the congregation to say, I am in the Bible, the Bible is in me, the Bible speaks to me because not just the triumphant, victorious celebratory winners of the world but the suffering and the hurting of the world are also allowed to speak in the Bible.
Soong-Chan Rah is the Milton B. Engebretson Professor of Church Growth and Evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, IL. He is the author of