LAMENT: A Time to Call Out
It’s healthy to recognize that things don’t always go our way. Whether because of our own choices, the choices of others, or even sometimes because of chance – we will experience loss and disappointment. It’s simply part of living the human adventure. When we combine our grieving process with prayer practices, we get something called “lamentation.” When we lament, we can passionately express our grief and sorrow; we can cry out our prayers; we can rend clothing and legitimately ask God why things happened this way. Expressing grief is a sign of strength, and when it is rooted in prayer or worship, it becomes a powerful way of strengthening our relationship with God. Lament is also super, super biblical; there’s a whole book called Lamentations, parts of Job, multiple Psalms, Old Testament Prophets, and even Jesus lamenting over Jerusalem in Matthew 23:37-39 or Luke 13:34-35 are great examples. God knows all about suffering and loss, grief and disappointment, through the life of Jesus. A friend of mine (shout out to Stacey in Colorado!) recently shared that one of the most transformative experiences of 2020 in her youth ministry was a service of lamentation that her church organized in response to violence in her community. She had no idea the worship would be so moving for her youth, but they came and worshiped. After the service, they left energized and ready to seek healthy changes in their own lives and ready to support their community in healing.
Offering opportunities to lament as part of your youth ministry may sound daunting at first, especially if you are more comfortable creating high energy, uplifting events. For inspiration, perhaps consider watching Disney-Pixar’s Inside Out. The main character is an adolescent girl named Riley, who as part of maturing, has to grieve through the loss of her friends and childhood home because of a move from Minnesota to California. She discovers that life can’t be joyful all the time; there is a time and place for sadness and grief. Given the experiences that young people have been part of in the past calendar year (name the trauma – COVID-19-related cancellations, rising racial tensions, economic stress, ever-expanding violence, quarantine, lost social time, loss of freedoms, rearranged family traditions . . . basically 2020 in general!), the young people in your community need time to grieve and lament. So, offer them worship experiences and intentionally designed times to bring their worries, cares, and sorrows to the feet of the Lord.
Several excellent grief and lament resources are already available. We’ll list them below and add a few possible points to consider in your planning.
Existing Lament Resources:
- “LINC: Taking Time to Lament”: Originally published in October 2017 after the Las Vegas shootings, these six pages of Bible study and discussion could easily be modified to fit 2020 experiences.
- “Helping Young People Grieve and Take Action” : From the Fuller Youth Institute, blog published after the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Blog with multiple perspectives from local church youth ministry leaders and links to further resources.
- “Communion in Tragedy”: A general article about lament and organizing a worship service for grieving.
- “Music in Anger and Grief”: Admittedly, traditional hymns, but music is a powerful piece to include during lament.
- “Dismantling Racism: A Service of Lament”: From June 2020, an hour-long worship service that showcases how a service of lament can be organized. This service was broadcast live, and it deals specifically with issues related to racism.
Additional Questions and Thoughts:
How is lamenting different from just a cry-fest? Lamenting is actually a form of prayer and worship that reinforces a relationship with God, as opposed to just revving up tears for a good cry. Read Psalm 13:1-6 as a possible template for a good lament; it showcases four things to include in a lament:
- Address God directly, even if you don’t expect an immediate response.
- Bring your complaint. Be specific and honestly identify the pains and questions running through your mind.
- Bravely ask for help. Don’t give in to despair or deny feelings but instead have hope in God’s promise to be with you.
- Rejoice in and renew your trust in God’s care. We’re navigating this broken world together with God, after all. Our faith should be expressed in times of joy and in times of suffering.
How do I know what young people in my ministry/community/context need to lament? Start with listening. Have conversations with the young people about issues that cause them grief and stress. Consider using an empathy mapping exercise to learn about what your students are thinking, feeling, hearing, seeing, saying, and doing. Pay particular attention to stressors that they are thinking, feeling, hearing, seeing – but not saying or doing much about. Learn about their fears, frustrations, and anxieties and begin your lamentation plans around those things that are directly affecting the lives of young people in your setting. Also, pay attention to local news and stories that are affecting you, your congregation, and schools and clubs in your area.
If something doesn’t seem like a big deal to me, can I still organize a lament? YES! Remember, for some of your teens, this is the first time they may be processing a tragedy (accident, school shooting, suicide, violence, unrest, etc.) that is expanding their understanding of the world and affecting them personally. Adults may have a different perspective on some things that feel life altering to a young person. A service of lament offers a safe and brave space to demonstrate empathy, vulnerability, and reliance on God.
Do you have a basic outline to help me plan a time to lament? Sure, but be creative and use youth and other leaders in your church to build upon this framework!
Welcome: Describe what lament is, provide examples of where it can be found in scripture. Briefly describe how this time of lament will go and what it is intended to do.
Name the Why and the What: Specifically, state and share what brings you together in lament. Consider using news articles, descriptions of destruction or the tragedy at hand, and get specific about how your church/community/young people have been affected. Keep this short and grounded in facts. Avoid guesses and speculation. If you name specific people, get their permission before sharing their names aloud.
Hymn/Song: Choose good ones!
Prayers: Consider guided prayers, responsive scripture reading (Joel, Habakkuk, Job, Jeremiah, or Psalms 5, 13, 35, 42, 137 can be great places to start).
Hymn/Song: Choose wisely.
Intercession: Silent prayers, voice prayers, call prayers aloud, pray with a neighbor . . . Be creative with vocal or tactile ways to pray. Prayer stations, water or oil stations for blessings, lighting candles, and so on could be included. Doing these stations virtually requires additional creativity! Clearly have a way to signal the end of prayer time.
Closing: Closing prayer and benediction. Use prayers that are familiar and common for your setting. Offer the chance for continued conversation or follow up for anyone still called to pray or grieve further.
Again, why offer the chance to lament? Here is a fantastic reflection on lament from Rev. Derek Weber (written in 2019 and reproduced here with his permission):
One resource that the people of God have always had when dealing with tragedy and hardship is Lament. Lament isn’t what comes to most people’s minds when we think of modern worship. The contemporary mindset is more oriented toward praise and therefore lament seems a denial of the goodness of God. However, it is anything but a denial. It is a reaching for hope in the midst of despair.
There is a vibrant tradition of lament as a form of worship even in the American cultural context. Funerals can be a reenactment of lament. Many African American spirituals are laments – such as “Nobody knows the trouble I see.” Lament can even be found in some strands of popular music, from the folk or protest song, to rap and hip-hop —the forms of lament are alive today.
The psalms of lament are the model of this form of worship and they follow a consistent pattern. 1.) Naming the cause for mourning and despair. 2.) Calling on God’s help—perhaps accusing God for not helping (See Psalm 44, 74, as examples). 3.) Asking God’s help for a good outcome. Or as John Bell defines it “Move us on to new solutions as we pray that wars may cease” (John Bell in Singing the Faith, from the Methodist Church in the United Kingdom, p. 131).
So, why then would we want to include lament in our worship today? In the form of lament, we are naming the situation—injustice, despair, confessing to the feeling that God doesn’t care. But then naming can lead to action or better understanding of our differences. Psychologists and recovery workers attest to the fact that naming alone can bring a measure of peace and healing. In this naming, we are being honest with ourselves and with God. We are bringing all of who we are to God. And we might also be able to begin to give a voice to people who are marginalized in the church itself. It is also true that real, honest lament could bring us to a place where we regret our own actions and thoughts deeply, then perhaps it would help us make amends or change our attitudes.
Do I have to use the Book of Lamentations when I help my young people lament? Not necessarily. The Book of Lamentations is a collection of poems and prayers about the destruction of Jerusalem (by the Babylonians) in 586 BCE. There may be lines that match the topic you are trying to address, but know that the overall tone of this book of the Bible is bleak. God doesn’t say much, and suffering and expectations of a future redemption are pretty minimal.