When We Lament

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Kelley Nikondeha -Lament3

The days following the American election plunged me into lament. Everything around me was in grayscale; everything in me was melancholy.

Yet full-scale lament was premature because the worst hadn’t happened yet. What I witnessed on election night was the first fracture in the wall, not the total crumbling of the city that Daughter Zion mourned in Lamentations. So I tempered my own lament—somewhat.

I allowed myself seven days to feel the sadness. Then I was determined to pay attention to the world around me in obedience to the prophets of old.

Loss comes first, as the prophet Isaiah articulates. The city of Jerusalem is destroyed in real time around him. It then lies in ruins for the next 140 years. The five poems of Lamentations were written in the aftermath—while enduring a landscape of devastation with no hope on the horizon.  

The words are plaintive, wailing for a world that no longer exists except in the memory of Daughter Zion and some other sore survivors. The poetry stings with anger at a God who has forsaken Israel, voicing utter shock at the divine absence in Jerusalem’s hour of need. Raw emotions explode off the ancient page and ricochet into our contemporary heart, ripping the veneer off all our pretenses of being fine.

Daughter Zion and her kin offer great consolation. They grant me permission to rage and rant, seethe and weep. They give me a way to respond to all that is not right in the world. They model a healthy and holy kind of grief work for those who endure destruction and long for justice. When the time comes to lament, these poems guide me through the valley of the shadow of death like a small but mighty flashlight.

Lament isn’t linear. Its sequence circles back unexpectedly; it dips into a pocket of pain when you’re not looking. It is a cyclical practice sensitive to the seasons of life, the conditions of the world, and the rise of injustice among us. As I cultivate a greater capacity for lament, I’m discovering that equally important is discerning when lament is required.

When did Daughter Zion lament? When the once great city of Jerusalem became like a widow, desolate and lonely. When her friends became enemies and her neighbors become foes. When the roads to Zion, once bursting with pilgrims coming to town for festivals, were empty and the city gates bent with grief. When she stretched out her hands, but there was none to comfort.

When do my husband and I lament in Burundi? When the central market burns to the ground on a Sunday morning, taking the local economy with it to the ash heap. When floodwaters ambush low lying neighborhoods and fathers wake to homes unmoored from their foundations and mothers rise to watch children carried out by rushing waters to certain death. When nearly 40% of babies die before their first birthday and small coffins are good business. When the government moves funds from healthcare to warfare amid a malaria outbreak and throughout the country there are none to comfort.

When do I lament in America? When Mexicans are maligned and Muslims are under threat and disabled people are openly mocked. When the rhetoric (and reality) of sexual assault against women is downplayed as “locker room talk” or “just what boys do” and not seen as violence toward half the population. When white supremacists are emboldened and brown children suffer racist taunts in the classroom. When refugee neighbors are frightened for their safety once more and feel like there is none to comfort.

When do we, as peacemakers, lament? When we visit the Equal Justice Initiative and listen to Anthony Ray Hinton, on death row for 30 years for a crime he didn’t commit, tell his story of suffering from poverty, racism and a broken justice system. When we see the families of Flint, Michigan live with contaminated water for over two years and repair too slow in coming. When we witness the continual loss suffered by the mothers of Israel and Palestine as their children are casualties of war. When we watch from afar the daily devastation in Syria, the terror rained down on Aleppo and feel paralyzed, knowing that there are none to comfort.

When did Jesus lament? When he walked toward Jerusalem years after it was rebuilt and saw a city still riddled with injustice. When he staged a peace demonstration, riding on a donkey, as a statement against the militant violence of Caesar and the religious folk told him to stop. When he wept at the site of the holy city, knowing they didn’t know what made for peace and so would be doomed to another destruction. When the people did not recognize their visitation from God, he joined with those who had none to comfort.

This is the drumbeat of Lamentations 1—none to comfort. Daughter Zion sees the destruction, feels the devastation, and begins naming the breakdown of the world she once inhabited. She declares that she is alone in her misery. There is no one to comfort her, no one who understands the depth of her loss. She’s like a voice crying out in the wilderness, wondering where the Lord is. She begs for things to be set right.

When we see the neighborhood struggle, our institutions crumble and our natural resources exploited—we lament. At times we will lament a little before we can catch our breath. Other times will call for a deeper magnitude of mourning, what the Scripture calls sackcloth and ashes, for what cannot be reclaimed. But it’s our capacity for lament that allows us to move out of loss and toward hope. Lament is the seedbed of hope, as counter-intuitive as it sounds. When we lament, a little or a lot, we join with creation in longing for a world set right.

The Daughter Zion teaches us to howl and harangue, to cry out for what is devastated and broken. She also leads us to demand justice even as we stand amid the ruins.

________________

This is the second in a series by Kelley Nikondeha on “Jerusalem and the Aftermath of the Election.” To read the first installment, click here

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Kelley Nikondeha
I am a practical theologian shaped by education and experience, by rhetoric and theology, by the luminous beaches of the California coast and the vibrant rhythms of Burundian drummers. My own theology has been meted out in the context of a bi-cultural marriage and, as a result, a bi-continental family life. Among East African leaders, South African thinkers and Muslim friends I’ve come to learn more about the Good News and dangerous ways of Jesus. I am ecclesiastically promiscuous, a life-long lover of the stories of Scripture and the works of Walter Brueggemann. I must add that I’m a woman continually recalibrated by the liberation stories of Miriam and Moses, the intoxicating poetry of Isaiah and the provocative parables of Jesus. I’m insatiable when it comes to Sabbath and shalom, the rigors and release of jubilee and the radical inclusion of the New City – where there is room for every tongue, tribe and nation to gather at long last. I am a practical theologian hungry for the New City.
Kelley Nikondeha
Kelley Nikondeha

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  • Bev Murrill

    Kelley, I firmly believe the Christian capacity and social acceptability of lament is rising. We are no longer determined to believe that God only wants praise, that our witness can only be through gritted teeth positivity. There are too many things, circumstances, people groups, rulers, to grieve over, too many injustices and ugly ugly actions and attitudes … we must grieve before we can do anything of use, because if we don’t, we will go insane ourselves…

    Powerful piece….

  • “Lament is the seedbed of hope, as counter-intuitive as it sounds. When we lament, a little or a lot, we join with creation in longing for a world set right.”

    Absolutely.

    • Yes! We cannot sidestep lament if we desire a deeply-rooted hope to sustain us for the season to come. I think we often miss this – or at least I had before I had occasion to learn about lament first hand in Burundi. Feeling the pain is necessary, it is holy, it it a precursor for what comes next.

  • I always wait with anticipation for your words Kelley, and am comforted and challenged by them today, as always. I agree with Bev and am heartened by the fact that our capacity for lament seems to be rising – and as for me I am eager to go back and re read Lamentations and allow it to stir my own seedbed of hope, stir me to “demand justice even as we stand amid the ruins” – yes and Amen. Thank you Kelley.

    • Thanks, Naomi! I am working on a 4 part series so I am grateful for those who are in this conversation with me. Writing into hope next… Stay tuned!

  • I think Bev is right, mostly because of voices such as your own (and Professor Rah’s) who continue to call us to lament. Otherwise, as Rah says, we get a chilling cause and effect:
    “We forget the necessity of lamenting over suffering and pain.
    We forget the reality of suffering and pain.”

    • I love that the Red Couch is introducing so many to Prophetic Lament. I read it in Burundi several months ago and it reaffirmed and deepened what I knew about lament. Such a critical read for these days!

  • Oh man, this is so good. Thank you for these thoughts in a time when there is much to be sorrowful about.

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