Rebekah Eklund on Practicing Lament
Congregations become more relevant and biblical when they follow the Bible’s lead in bringing lament into worship. Rebekah Eklund’s book "Practicing Lament" shows churches, small groups, and individuals how to voice penitential lament and protesting lament. Learning to practice lament can reconnect people with God and help churches grow in “members of one body” solidarity.
Rebekah Eklund teaches Christian theology, scripture, and ethics at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore, Maryland. She is also a member of the Theology, Modernity, and Visual Arts working group and an ordained minister in the Evangelical Covenant Church. Eklund seeks to create bridges between the church and the academy. In this edited conversation, she talks about how churches can use and apply one of her most recent books, Practicing Lament.
Your book is warm, accessible, and concise—plus it has questions after each chapter. Whom do you see as its primary and secondary audiences?
I’ve always wanted to write a short, accessible version of my dissertation, Jesus Wept. I’m proud of that work, but it was definitely aimed at other scholars. My goal with Practicing Lament was to distill what I’d learned from writing the dissertation into something that anybody could pick up and read. Its primary audience is Christians, people who loosely associate with Christianity, or people who no longer go to church but once did. The secondary audience is anybody of any (or no) faith who is interested in the role of lament within the Christian tradition.
How do you hope readers and congregations will use Practicing Lament?
I hope that readers or congregations will read it together in small groups or Bible studies or a Sunday school class. They could use the questions that end each chapter to discuss the place of lament in worship and the Christian life. I also hope people might just pick it up and read it for their own personal reflection. It’s always impossible to know where a book will go once you send it out into the world. But I hope that it might end up in the hands of people who have doubts or fears or even anger toward God—to show them that they’re in good company.
What is the four-part framework of lament that you describe in Practicing Lament?
As I write in my book, lament takes wordless, almost unbearable pain, and gives it a shape and a voice. It provides a structure on which to hang pain. The penitential and protest laments we see in the Jewish scriptures (Old Testament) typically follow four steps that can help us move, step by step, through the darkness.
- Invocation: We invoke the name of someone who hears or whom we hope may hear.
- Complaint: We name what’s wrong.
- Petition: This is the heart of the lament. We request or demand that God act in some way.
- Trust: It’s important not to skip the first three steps and rush—or urge lamenting people to rush—to this step. This turn toward praise, hope, or trust is often marked in the psalms with a “But” or a “Yet.” For example, “Yet I will trust in your steadfast love”—even while I’m still suffering.
Where have you seen lament, especially protest lament, used in worship?
I’ve taught workshops at churches where I’ve asked people to write their own laments using the four-fold pattern. I used to be part of a church that held regular services of prayer for healing, and those services were naturally full of lament. I live in Baltimore now, and, after Freddie Gray died in police custody, some worship leaders at my church wrote a song based on Psalm 22. We sang it together the next Sunday, and it was a really powerful experience of communal lament, of crying out in pain together.
Preaching on the psalms is such a rich resource for engaging with lament because so many of the psalms have lament in them. I’ve noticed that churches often give more space to the lament of repentance, but I’ve always appreciated when a church also gives space for the lament of protest or pain. Black church traditions have resources, including spirituals and gospel songs, for lament that traditionally white churches may not always have. After all, lament is a cry for help in times of trouble or suffering, and Black churches in America have known so much trouble and suffering.
What good first steps might pastors, worship leaders, and lay leaders take to help worshipers enter (or enter more deeply into) penitent and protest laments?
The pastoral prayer (or shepherd’s prayer, or prayer of intercession) is a good opportunity to incorporate both kinds of lament, to make it a regular part of the way that we speak to God when we’re together as a body. When I tell people that I write on lament, some tell me that churches are not always hospitable places for people who are grieving or doubting or in pain. I think pastors and worship leaders can help bring those experiences into the church’s life through public prayers and intercessions and in gospel songs and hymns that include lament.
We rejoice with those who rejoice, but we also weep with those who weep. Using a wide variety of the psalms in worship is so good. There are strengths and weaknesses to the lectionary, and strengths and weaknesses to preaching a series. Either way, one needs to attentively bring the full range of scripture into worship and decide which texts to preach on. It’s hard to avoid lament if one simply uses the full breadth of scripture, especially the psalms.
How can pastors, worship leaders, and lay leaders counter the idea that lament, especially protest lament, is “too political”?
Writing laments or liturgies of lament about events in the news can be really tricky if they’re perceived as political (like mass shootings). I can’t give specific advice on how to do that because every pastor knows their own congregation. I hope there’s a way for congregations to cry out to God for justice and peace together without specifying what kinds of laws or policies might be the best way to achieve justice or peace!
One way I’ve bcome to think of lament is that it is a form of truth-telling. It means being honest about my own sin and failures (if the lament of repentance) and naming truthfully sinful structures or injustices that harm us and others (if the lament of protest). I currently worship in a multiracial church, and, as a white member of that congregation, I need to listen to the laments of my brothers and sisters of color about the racism they experience. Part of lament is learning to listen to the laments of others—to really hear and not run away from pain.
What barriers might congregations have to overcome to start including both kinds of lament in worship?
Maybe the biggest barrier is simply change. Changing anything in a well-established worship service can be really hard! That’s not necessarily bad. Rituals and routines are important. But it can keep us (I include myself here) from trying new things. More specifically, I think this is a question that every individual congregation would have to answer for itself. Congregations will have different barriers and different opportunities, depending on their culture, their liturgy or worship style, usual preaching style, and more.
Do you ever have occasion to introduce or do penitential or protest lament with your students?
I usually teach students in my introductory course, Theology Matters, about lament by showing them the lament psalms and sometimes having them write their own laments. I also talk to them about the biblical scene of Jacob wrestling with the angel of God and talk about the origins of the name Israel as “the one who strives with God.”
In my Forgiveness and Reconciliation class, I assign a piece by Esau McCaulley called “What the Bible Has to Say About Black Anger,” excerpted from his book Reading While Black. It talks about the imprecatory (cursing) psalms, which gives me a chance to talk about those psalms as “literature of the traumatized” or literature of the oppressed. Together we explore the ways in which the Bible authorizes people to cry out with anger to God in the face of injustice.
Gather a group to read Practicing Lament by Rebekah Eklund. Listen to her 2022 Calvin Symposium on Worship presentation on the Beatitudes, based on her book The Beatitudes through the Ages. Process your pain about climate change by singing “All Creatures Lament” by Paul Zach, Kate Bluett, and Isaac Wardell. Find more info and sheet music in “Climate Vigil Songs Worship Guide,” pp. 33–34 and 45.