February 24, 2017 column
Reclaiming the Power of Lament
Rev. Dr. Yme Woensdregt
Last week, I wrote that life is going to hurt. There are so many ways in which we try to deny the power of that hurt, but I suggested that a healthier response is to learn to suffer well.
This week, let me take the same subject in a more global direction. Life hurts, certainly, on an individual level. It is also true to say that many people are hurting in our world. We need only begin to name the cities: Baltimore; Charleston; Quebec City; Paris; Berlin. Tragedy seems to be increasing in our world. The last few weeks, months and years have seen an outbreak of hatred and prejudice and bigotry around the world. We are being bombarded on every hand by the pain and brokenness in our society and around the world.
Dominique Gilliard, a pastor in California is also the director of racial reconciliation pilgrimages for his denomination. Part of his life’s mission is to act on the need for racial reconciliation, not only in the USA but also in Canada.
In light of his work in reconciliation, he states boldly that learning to lament is an essential and even revolutionary act. He asserts that the church needs desperately to reclaim this as a spiritual practice.
Lamentation, says Gilliard, is the first step in reconciliation. “When we lament, we confess our humanity and concede that we are too weak to combat the world’s powers, principalities and spiritual wickedness on our own. When we lament, we declare that only God has the power to truly mend the world’s pain and brokenness.”
To lament is a spiritual practice. In a time when it seems as if one tragedy follows another without ceasing, we are in danger of overload. Gilliard continues, “Lamentation forces us to slow down. It summons us to immerse ourselves in the pain and despair of the world, of our communities…”
Slowing down like this is a way of learning to suffer well. We notice where we hurt. We take time to notice where our world is in pain. We notice the pain so that we can engage with it, and in doing so, we can move on to dealing with it.
We notice, we lament, and we find that “Lamentation prevents us from becoming numb and apathetic to the pain of our world and of” the people around us.
Gilliard suggests that “lamentation requires four steps: remembrance, reflection, confession and repentance.”
We remember. We counter our natural tendency to run away from the pain. We remember the innocent who were harmed. We hold them up in prayer and in thought, and we honour their memory.
We also remember the one who is responsible for causing the pain. We remember that we and they share a common humanity. We don’t write the perpetrator off. We remember.
We reflect. We seek to find a deeper context as we try to understand why this act occurred, why this pain was caused, why these people were hurt.
We reflect as individuals. We also reflect in community with others. This is why acts of keeping vigil become so important. People gather together to remember and reflect. People lament together, supporting one another in our pain and confusion.
We confess. Confession is not a popular word. It never has been. It’s hard to admit that we have both harmed someone and been harmed by someone. It is painful to say to another that we were wrong. It is a difficult thing to acknowledge that we live in a society in which hatred and fear seem to kindle more hatred and fear.
Confession is more than acknowledging that we have done something wrong. Confession also recognizes that the work of reconciliation is hard. We confess our inability to do it alone, and we seek to work with others.
We repent. To repent doesn’t mean to be sorry. It doesn’t even mean to be really, really sorry. To repent means to turn around, to see the wonder and beauty in life and live in ways that honour that wonder. We choose to walk in a different direction, to live with grace and compassion, to seize the initiative to live in ways that seek to heal rather than to destroy.
It strikes me that this is the work which the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended to Canada as a way of healing our relationship with aboriginal peoples.
We remember the Residential Schools. We reflect on the harm that was done. We confess our participation in that harm. We repent and choose to walk in partnership with our indigenous brothers and sisters.
There is great power and wisdom in the practice of lamentation. It has the potential to heal us as individuals. It has the potential to heal our society.
It is completely counter–cultural … but that strikes me as a good thing, because our culture as it is now is dominated by greed, acquisitiveness, and fear. It is time to seek another way—the way of lament. The way of remembering. The way of reflecting. The way of confession. The way of repentance.