Rejoicing in Lament

Four pastors and scholars discuss wrestling with incurable cancer, cancerous racism and life in Christ. They offer insights into how congregations can follow the lead of the Psalms in practicing candid lament as an essential part of deeply joyful worship.

Some churches worship mainly in a major key. It’s almost all rejoicing, even though everyone’s life also includes loss, grief, anger and protest. Other congregations major in select minor keys, with lots of focus on personal guilt and sin but no way of making sense of profound evil and tragedy not directly connected with our personal sin. Both kinds of congregations move toward wholeness when they add the practice of lament.

RL CJ Kingdom Grier“Sacramentally, homiletically and educationally, we need to include lament in worship. We need to talk about all of it—cancer, racism and other tensions and sorrows—to move toward Easter joy,” C.J. Kingdom-Grier said while introducing a panel discussion that he moderated at the 2016 Calvin Symposium on Worship in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Kingdom-Grier is associate director of admissions and assistant to the president for racial initiatives at Western Theological Seminary. He is also pastor of music and worship at Maple Avenue Ministries in Holland, Michigan.

The following is compiled and excerpted from panelists’ written and spoken responses to these questions:

  • What does it mean to rejoice in lament?
  • What is the same and different between lamenting cancer and lamenting racism?
  • For people with difficult medical conditions, what helps most in public worship and pastoral care?
  • How can worshiping communities redemptively name and lament racism?

Rejoicing in Lament

RL J Todd BillingsJ. Todd Billings is the Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. His books include Union with Christ and Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ.

Todd Billings: Many Christians have told me, “I’ve been in the church my whole life but have never heard that you can lament.” They say this even though the Bible is full of laments, in both the Old and New Testaments. Over a third of the Psalms are laments. Christ himself wept and lamented. Paul speaks of the Spirit lamenting in and through us.

Thus if we want to live into our life in Christ by the Spirit, lamenting in hope is not an optional extra. It's how gospel people inhabit the world. The rhythm of rejoicing and lament is the basic emotional logic of the Christian life. As Paul points out, we have been adopted as children of God into God’s household. We rejoice in God’s gifts of creation and redemption. We know nothing can separate us from his love in Jesus Christ. And yet we also groan, lament and wait with the whole creation until Christ’s kingdom has the final word over violence, injustice, unbelief and death.

I was diagnosed with incurable cancer in the fall of 2012, just after my wife and I had celebrated our 10th anniversary and our kids were ages 1 and 3. Since then I’ve discovered that lament opens up a space in which we can pivot from grief, saying, “We bring this to you, Lord, because things are not how you say they are meant to be.”

None of us can claim what theologian Justo Gonzalez calls “an innocent history.” Instead, we can dare to face senseless evil, scars and injustice only when we bring our anger and anguish before the almighty Lord—so that we can be reshaped by the Spirit into Christ’s image.

Today I am grateful for each breath. I look for in-breakings of the Holy Spirit and foretastes of heaven in my life as it is. I do this in the midst of knowing that things are messed up.

RL Mary HulstMary S. Hulst served as a parish pastor and preaching professor before becoming the chaplain at Calvin College. Her book is A Little Handbook for Preaching: 10 Ways to a Better Sermon by Sunday.

Mary Hulst: At Calvin College, we lost two students before our academic year began—a young woman drowned in Lake Michigan and a young man died of brain cancer. This plunged many of our students into their first experience with deep grief.

At the memorial service we held on campus for the young woman, her parents stood together in our chapel and told all who were gathered about how they had witnessed the care of God through this horrible season. They told of connections made, colleagues (both believers and non-believers) stepping forward to talk about faith, and provisions of food, cards, flowers and emails. They were overwhelmed by loss, but also by God’s care for them in the midst of their loss.

“People have asked me if I’m angry,” said the mom. “And I’m not, because God has taken such good care of us through this. How could I be angry?” Listeners could see that this was not denial. The service on campus took place six weeks after the death, so what they heard was a mom who had seriously asked herself the question and seriously considered the answer.

In that moment, our students had a model of rejoicing in lament: noticing the care of God even in deep sorrow, being faithful even in loss. Regional media followed this student’s drowning. While waiting for her body to be found, her father spoke during press conferences about God’s love and care. His comments were picked up by many on social media.

These parents proclaimed their faith in a God they could not understand during the worst time in their lives. It was amazing to all of us. They were rejoicing in lament.

Lamenting cancer, lamenting racism

Todd Billings: In comparing cancer and racism, I have to be honest about the limits of my standpoint and the lens with which I look through. I had not reflected upon cancer much until I was diagnosed in 2012. And as a white male in America, there are limits to the extent to which I can truly understand the poisonous, systematic sin that so many of my brothers and sisters in Christ daily encounter. Yet, especially since adopting a black daughter in 2010, I’ve begun to see a glimpse of the lordless powers of systematic racism that she faces in American society.

Unlike racism, cancer has no human perpetrators. This difference is significant. Certainly, cancer stories are often entangled with stories of injustice in access to health care and environmental factors that increase cancer risk. But, in general, cancer strikes persons young and old, rich and poor, in the global south and north, persons of all races, ethnicities and cultures.

In contrast, racism is a targeted action—even when it is unconscious—operating through systematic forms of exclusion and dehumanization. It targets persons of particular races and ethnicities, and it has perpetrators, both on a systematic and personal level. In the face of the evils of racism, we lament. Lamenting in response to racism always involves a call to action—a cry of protest and a plea for a foretaste of God’s new creation. This lament calls for human perpetrators of racism to repent. Lament for cancer, it seems to me, does not always have this sense of calling for communal repentance in response. Lament for cancer should lead us to compassionate action toward the suffering. But not all of us can be part of the solution to “cancer,” unlike the problem of racism.

Yet, both cancer and racism are similar in that they are not flesh wounds that can be healed with a quick injection. As Yale theologian Willie James Jennings has argued, racism is “woven like a cancer” into American Christianity. Like cancer, racism is a deep-seated disease that requires more than a “quick fix” treatment. Both cancer and racism are evils that are so much bigger than our individual will. We like to “problem-solve” and come up with clever solutions to both. But, instead, we need to be willing to come to the Lord in lament.

Whether lamenting cancer or cancerous racism, biblical logic points us to God’s promise. We cannot achieve healing apart from God’s help. In lament, we bring our sorrow, anger and protest before the living Lord, and we cry out for him to show his face.

Mary Hulst: Everyone in the worshiping body hates cancer but doesn’t feel responsible for it. With racism, not everyone in the worshiping body understands why it’s such a big deal, or why we have to talk about it, or what we can even do to help, or is this just going to make me feel bad, or… Racism is also shared. One person in the community may have cancer. Everyone has racism. And cancer has an end: life or death. We will know how this person’s story turns out. How does racism end? What “chemotherapy” is available for it? How do I treat it if my community is not aware that they have it?

So, racism needs to be diagnosed in the community first. People need to know there’s a problem. This means telling hard stories from your own church, neighborhood, campus or family. This means we actually call actions or words racist. Ouch. That’s hard, hard work.

The best possible way is for a preacher, elder or deacon to say, “I said this about this person or group.” Or, “Before I knew better, I used words like ____. But now I know that even though I did not intend it, those are received as micro aggressions. I’m learning and I’m committed to doing better.” Saying these things in public worship allows the community to see the illness. Then it becomes safe to confess, own the problem and work together as a community to create safe space for everyone.

Without a diagnosis that comes from your own community, racism remains a problem for other people. With a diagnosis, people want treatment. When the Black Lives Matter movement started, some people started saying, “All lives matter.” Well, yes, but can you move into a space to hear someone’s pain and not try to solve it?

RL Mark CharlesMark Charles is a speaker, writer and consultant who addresses issues of race, culture and faith. He works through the ministry 5 Small Loaves and is a program affiliate with the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship in the area of worship and culture.

Mark Charles: Our nation has this embedded history of structural racism that we never talk about, beginning with the “discovery” of our continent. The Doctrine of Discovery is a series of papal bulls written in the 1400s. It says that wherever you go, if you go to places where people are not Christian, then they aren’t human, so the land is “empty.” This doctrine let “Christian” explorers claim a right of discovery over lands not held by Europeans and Christians. They were free to enslave those they found and claim their lands. 

The U.S. Declaration of Independence refers to natives as “merciless Indian Savages.” The Constitution begins with “We, the people,” but “we” means white male landowners. The section on representation doesn’t include women, specifically excludes Native Americans and counts African Americans as three-fifths of a person.

The Indian Removal Act of 1830 drove thousands of Native peoples from their homes. Twenty soldiers received Medals of Honor for their actions at the 1890 Massacre of Wounded Knee. Native children were taken from their families and forced to attend boarding schools and mission schools meant to “kill the Indian to save the man.” My denomination, the Christian Reformed Church in North America, ran one such school in Rehoboth, New Mexico. It had a jail and banned kids from speaking their birth languages.

In 2010, the U.S. government finally made an apology to Native peoples, but the apology ended with a disclaimer and was buried in the 2010 Department of Defense Appropriations Act. The apology was not announced, publicized or publically read by the White House or Congress. Two years later, I organized a public reading in Washington, DC.

What do Christians in the U.S. do with this? How do we lament the sins of genocide and slavery? We need a sense of hope, so we try to claim the land covenant that God made with Israel: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14). But God didn’t make a land covenant with us. Our hope has to be in how God has treated other nations. We have to find hope in God pulling Rahab out of Jericho, sending Jonah to Nineveh and all the other examples of where God showed undeserved mercy.

Lamenting cancer in worship and pastoral care

Todd Billings: I’ve found it very powerful to pray the Psalms both communally and personally. The book of Psalms gives us what John Calvin calls “an anatomy of the human soul.” In joy, the psalmist celebrates God’s faithfulness and the power of his promises. The vast majority of lament psalms do not focus upon one’s own sin, but the desperate plight of situations in which God’s promises don’t appear to be coming to pass. They ask hard questions like, “God, why are your promises not coming to fulfillment?” They keep hoping for that fulfillment.

After I was diagnosed, I didn’t have time or energy to lament. Instead, friends and loved ones from my congregation and seminary lamented on my behalf. Before my stem cell transplant and three-month quarantine, I was asked to be part of a seminary group that was planning a service. Some students wanted a healing service. Others wanted a lament service. I said, “Can’t we do both?” The abundant life that Christ promises is not measured in years.

When I was released from quarantine, the first place I returned was morning worship. I’m blessed to be part of a church that had already preached on Psalm 13 before my diagnosis. In our multigenerational congregation, I have companions who have fought cancer, been on chemo or lost a spouse. I wanted to be in a space with others where I could celebrate and focus upon what matters most—delighting in God and his amazing love in Christ, and what that means for the world and our life in it. I wanted to touch the hands of others in greeting, take the bread, drink the wine and re-enter the rhythm of worship which the angels and the church around the world had been doing without me for three months.

I’ve been invited to preach at Blue Christmas services. Those can be helpful. But sometimes people who are suffering don’t want to be singled out. That’s why the practice of making lament part of ordinary worship is so helpful. In mirroring and extending the structure of the Psalms, Christian worship brings our grief and anger before the covenant Lord, because, in Jesus Christ, we know that death and the corruption of creation do not have the final word.

God himself, and his new creation, is our hope. And whether our bodies are riddled with illness or we are running marathons, we all have the same distance to travel before we taste that new creation in fullness. With resurrected bodies, those of all nations and tongues will gather to sing praise to the Lamb of God. In the end, God provides final healing in Christ. And God is the only one who can solve the problem of illness, corruption and death.

Regarding pastoral care, when you pray with someone, it matters how you pray for them. Many prayers request God to “undo what has been done.” Yet, prayers for a quick fix sometimes opened up a space of alienation in me, because they didn’t recognize any lament or loss.

Since we pray in the name of Jesus Christ, we can add our petitions to his and point people toward “thy kingdom come.” We can always pray for a New Testament sense of sozo, as salvation, restoration and wholeness. That’s different from a cure. After all, cures are temporary—because we will still all die. Boldness does not confuse resuscitation with resurrection. A foretaste of heaven may be having the peace of Christ in your final months.

Mary Hulst: It takes courage to move into thorny areas of theology. It puts us in the middle of things we can’t solve or fix. I would love to have the super power of healing. It takes so much courage to move into the unknown and walk in pain with a person or people group.

I meet with a group of students who are all cancer survivors. They joke about the fuzzy socks and blankets and iTunes gift cards that they still have from that time. They also remind me that survivors have challenges, too, in speaking about this. When they meet new people (a common occurrence for college students), the conversation inevitably includes their cancer, because it has affected their high school and college experience. Some people do not know what to say, some give a sympathetic head nod and some ask if they are healthy now. I asked them what they wanted to hear. They said, “Something like, ‘That sucks. Do you want to talk more about it or not?’”  Sometimes they don’t mind talking about it, but other times they want to talk about chemistry homework or the Cubs. They are teaching me a great deal about how to care for patients and survivors.

We as worship leaders and pastors can name and model appropriate responses. If the pastor names the pain, confusion, anger, despair or resignation in worship, it helps the congregation to name those things too. With the person’s permission, the pastor can say, “Name has asked us to pray for pain relief and patience as she waits for God to take her home.” Then the pastor can, right then and there, pray for these very things. This shows that we listen together to what our brother or sister wants and needs, rather than pray for what we’d really like.

Congregations need to be taught how to respond. There will be those who continue to pray for healing—and may loudly tell this to the person who is ill. There will be those who voice the clichés about God working everything for good but don’t really want to walk with the person. There will be those who say, “Call if you need anything,” but don’t realize that when you are overwhelmed, you can’t remember to buy milk, let alone call someone and ask them to bring you supper.

The pastor, elder, deacon or care team can also say that the person is specifically asking for someone to shovel snow, tutor a child who wants to stay home with mom while she’s sick, cook vegan meals or do laundry. It also helps to provide a way for people to sign up. There are software programs that make this very easy.

CJ Kingdom-Grier: It’s classic to hear that someone is sick or sad, so you bring them a casserole. But there may be things you can do that would be better for them. It probably doesn’t help to say, “Call me if you need anything.” But you can get creative and offer to do things they might appreciate—like walk the dog, rake the leaves, take the kids somewhere fun or get the car’s oil changed.

A little boy in our church was in the hospital, and his parents asked us to pray for him. We made photo buttons of little Joel with tubes coming out of his nose. We gave those photo buttons to kids so they could show them to parents and teachers who don’t go to our church. It was so meaningful for Joel’s older sister to find that photo button.

Lamenting racism in worship

C.J. Kingdom-Grier: I’ve been at Maple Avenue Ministries, a multicultural church, since it began in 1999. My wife, Denise Kingdom-Grier became the lead pastor there in 2009. Before that I was in a black church that had a gift of song and music. We sometimes talked about “the mourners bench” as a way to help deal with our sorrowful sin and move into repentance. Others called it “the moaners bench” to allow utterance when our sorrows are too deep to articulate in words, like when your mother has dementia and can’t recognize you no matter what fine words you use.

Music in the black church tradition helps hold the tension between “I’m stuck, depressed and oppressed at my job, at the store and while driving” and yet somehow I find a way to sing. We have a capacity to adapt.

In our congregation we have people who are originally from Flint. They say, “We’ve been bathing in and drinking septic water for the last two years. We’ve been forsaken by the government, have petitioned the president, yet we don’t give up. We don’t take our own lives. We adapt.” Our church also offers specific ways to participate with God in ministering to people in Flint.

Maybe you’re in a church that is reluctant to engage emotion or discuss racism. If so, you could use a psalm of lament and then move into singing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” This could give language for what you are asking worshipers to do. Lent is a perfect time to include lament. So is Advent, because it’s a time of waiting and longing.

You can’t have a conversation about race unless you become aware of micro aggressions. They’re like emotional paper cuts. Our church has done book study groups on Juan Williams’ Enough and James Cone’s The Cross and The Lynching Tree. After Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, we hosted an afternoon conversation. We invited people to make “I” statements on what they heard, what happened, why people were angry, protesting and looting. We asked, “And what does all that have to do with Holland, Michigan? And how should we pray about this?” Of the 50 people who came, a dozen were young African American males. People stayed for two hours.

Mark Charles: In worship we can be too quick to seek comfort. We’re conditioned to do what will help us sleep at night, not what will help others sleep at night. In worship, we believe we should be able to come as broken, rebellious creatures and feel like God is our buddy and we can sit on his lap. But worshiping before our Creator can shine light where we don’t want it to. It’s okay if we sometimes walk out of church feeling freaked out and uncomfortable because we’ve been pushed to acknowledge complicity in hard things or to embrace diversity.

It’s good to warn people ahead of time that worship might make them uncomfortable, but that discomfort is necessary to move us all to something deeper. We in the United States are not God’s chosen people. We are a rich and powerful nation because we are systematically racist and unjust.

You might think, “Well, I’m not racist. I have friends from different cultures.” But do you own a house? The reason you can buy and sell property is because the U.S. Congress declared that Natives are less than human so have no right to claim land they occupy. I agree that most Americans are not explicitly racist. They are deeply traumatized. One symptom of trauma is denial. We have a history of never looking at embedded racism that is just a Google search away. We as Christians have an opportunity to be counter-cultural by refusing to minimize and marginalize what is still happening.

The trauma of white America is becoming more evident. What we hear in the 2016 presidential race is a reaction to eight years of being led by a black man. If I identify someone as racist, that excludes them. If I identify them as traumatized—without excusing what was done—then I invite them into dialogue.

The church in America needs to listen and then to speak prophetically—but out of a place of lament, not arrogance. People from the dominant culture often ask, “What can we do to fix it?” But this fixing ability that you think you can bring to the table—your money and power—are part of what created the problem. A lot of people talk about trying to bring people of color up. I try to bring white people down. It took me ten years to come to the voice I just spoke to you with, to speak from a place of truth but not anger.

Our hope comes from the character of God. In the book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Susan asks Mr. Beaver, “Is Aslan a man?” Mr. Beaver replies, “Certainly not! He’s a lion.” Susan asks, “Is he—quite safe?” Mr. Beaver says, “'Course he isn't safe. But he's good.”

Confessing the sins of our nation absolutely will not be safe. After all, if your kid steals a bike, do you let him keep it? I’m laying out a vision for a 2021 Truth and Conciliation Commission. If the church is going to participate, I’m convinced it needs to go through a season of lament—not just one service of lament.

Mary Hulst: As worship leaders, we go first. I have shared in sermons about stupid micro aggressions that I have done. When I hear Mark Charles talk about Rehoboth—which I grew up thinking of as a really nice thing we were doing for “our Indian cousins”—I’m tempted to say, “But I didn’t do those bad things.” But, Mark, you are here now and the pain is still there.

Start gently with worshipers. Maybe someone could write down a sorrow on a card. If a congregation is not used to going up to high emotion and enthusiastic joy, then they are probably better at going down—to reflection, penitence and lament. You have to prep people, tell them why you are doing something. Otherwise you confuse them.

Todd Billings: Biblical lament opens a space for understanding and critique. If you’ve cultivated a church culture where expressions of anger, grief and protest aren’t allowed, then it shouldn’t surprise us when that culture is tone deaf to Black Lives Matter. Lament offers a space to talk, like Mark Charles does, about how our churches have distorted the idea of covenant. We don’t have a land covenant with God. We have a covenant to be God’s people in Christ who are living into God’s new creation.

We gather in worship as people longing and hoping for a kingdom of Jesus Christ that we taste but is not fully here. Consider how the African American spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” functions in worship:

Nobody knows the trouble I've seen,
Nobody knows but Jesus,
Nobody knows the trouble I've seen,
Glory, hallelujah!

Like the psalmist, the singer comes before the Lord and readily names the open wound of grief. “Nobody knows” expresses the gathered people’s alienating and unspeakable grief and anger over injustice—of a husband whose wife and children were sold away in slavery, of governments that repeatedly fail in promises that guarantee the freedom of black Americans, of yet another black youth killed by police brutality.

And yet, Christ has gone before the sufferer. Christ is the one who knows unknowable trouble and sorrow. Like the psalmist, this spiritual dares hope that Christ, not violence and injustice, will have the final word. As Catholic theologian Bryan Massingale notes, "Glory, hallelujah" points to a hope essential for the whole movement of lament: “the hope in an ultimate justice serves as a catalyst for risky and defiant action.” Lament leads to compassionate action and a societal call for repentance.

In many parts of the contemporary church, we see how questions of those who suffer are raw—so we want to answer them. But we often end up with responses that don’t fit. We talk about being able to transform the world. It seems reassuring, for anything that we can “fix” is ultimately under our control. But that can end up minimizing the depth of the injustice and suffering. We need to accept the problem of suffering as a raw wound that we bring before God. We hope in God because we admit that unfixable problems are unfixable through our own power.

Lament helps a worshiping community pivot from grief to hope and trust. The vast majority of lament psalms end in hope, but there’s no indication that what the psalmist is crying out about is fixed. Even Psalm 88, which ends with “Darkness is my only companion,” means you trust God enough to bring your heart before God.

We also must make sure not to move too quickly away from lament. We live in Babylon, with its deep-seated structures of sin, but at times we’ve mistaken it for the City of God. If your sermons focus upon “three things you can do to improve your life this week,” then you are not addressing Babylon, the city that thinks of itself as the City of God but is actually lawless, serving other lords.

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