Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Worship and Lament
distributed 3/1/13 - ©2013

Through Lent this year, Eco-Justice Notes will be exploring several qualities of worship that is richly ecological and transformational.

Lament is an essential component of worship that is environmentally relevant, but even I don't want to go there every week. Lamenting requires that we come face-to-face with profound grief, and I don't have the strength to do that on a regular basis. But if our worship is to be genuine, we all must enter into that painful place on occasion.

In worship, we open ourselves fully and honestly to God -- heart, soul and mind. If we set forth to encounter the divine, we cannot expect that the experience always will be joyous, orderly or predictable. There are times when placing ourselves in the presence of what is ultimately real and true will call forth unspeakable sadness and hurt.

Consider the progression that I've outlined so far in this series about creation-aware worship.

  1. First there is the awe, wonder, delight, and thanks that springs from an experience of God's creation. When we see the spread of stars, when we recognize the interdependence of the complex web of life, when we recognize our lives as a gift, then our worship is filled with gratitude and humility.
  2. Listening beyond our own experience keeps us honest about the world that we live in. The witness of youth and the marginalized from around the planet, the testimony of scientists, the cry of other species -- all these announce that creation is "damaged, depleted and destabilized". Attentive listening forces us to acknowledge the injustice, death and devastation that now flow through the creation.

What else, then, can we do but lament? The creation that God loves, the creation that sustains us and that we celebrate with thanks is being poisoned and demolished. The scope and rate of this destruction is unprecedented.

Climate destabilization threatens agriculture and the foundations of human civilization. It is warping ecological relationships and natural systems. An honest assessment of where we are heading says that people at the end of this century will not have what we would consider to be a livable world. Stop for a moment and admit that reality to yourself.

Half of Earth's species may be gone within the lifetime of children now alive. Stop for a moment and consider that sentence.

The grief is personal and immediate. A friend wrote to me this week about the intense loss she feels as her child and grandchild move far away. Flights to the other side of the world for a visit would knowingly contribute to global warming that will directly harm her beloved offspring. "What tears my heart is my very real sense that the most loving thing I can do for my grandchild -- not to mention the most faithful thing I can do as a Christian -- is the thing that means I will not be present with her as she grows."

What can we do but lament? We can live in denial, and refuse to acknowledge the truth. We can try to hold reality at bay by intellectualizing it so that it never touches our hearts and souls. But denial and avoidance are not the way to worship God.

As we lay ourselves bare before God in worship, we must touch the unspeakable agony of this time. If our worship is genuine, we must lament.

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Lament is not pleasant. It will not fit comfortably into the tidy and predictable liturgy of Sunday morning church services. True lamentation expresses the deepest grief and loss.

The prophet Jeremiah is the Bible's expert on lamentation. His warnings show what profound loss and grief feel like. His images are painfully relevant to Earth's near future.

Take up weeping and wailing for the mountains, and a lamentation for the pastures of the wilderness, because they are laid waste so that no one passes through, and the lowing of cattle is not heard; both the birds of the air and the animals have fled and are gone. I will make Jerusalem a heap of ruins, a lair of jackals; and I will make the towns of Judah a desolation, without inhabitant. (9:10-11)

O my poor people, put on sackcloth, and roll in ashes; make mourning as for an only child, most bitter lamentation: for suddenly the destroyer will come upon us. (6:26)

It is not only Jeremiah, "Mr. Doom-and-Gloom", who laments. In the Psalms, the hymnal of the Bible, 56 of the 150 chapters are categorized as individual or community laments. As a seminary professor told us, "The psalms are more honest with God than we want to be." If we are true to our scriptural heritage, faithfulness requires us to cry out in grief and anger when we experience suffering, injustice and loss.

When our world and our lives are falling apart, lament is an expression of honesty. Preaching professor Christine Smith wrote, "People weep when they are alive to those things they cherish and value the most and are touched by something they can hardly name or utter."

Grief cuts through numbness and denial. Walter Brueggemann wrote, "Real criticism begins in the capacity to grieve because that is the most visceral announcement that things are not right. ... And as long as the empire can keep the pretense alive that things are all right, there will be no real grieving and no serious criticism."

When we are honest before God, we do know that things are not right. Lament gives voice to that realization. It is not analysis, or blaming, or problem solving. It is simply the gut-level, unfiltered wailing when we see that all the things that we love and need are falling apart.

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I know that I cannot bear the thought of a weekly dose of full-bore lament. Yet I also know that I must enter into that pain more deeply, honestly and frequently than I do now. I have to break through my own denial and intellectualizing.

If our churches are to be faithful and relevant, they must provide ways -- within caring and structured settings of community -- for congregation members to enter into grief. In pastoral settings, retreats, special worship services, and regular liturgy we can delve into various layers and depths of our loss and lamenting.

There is a desperate need for new rituals and orders of worship that will minister to those in our churches those who do know and feel the pain of creation. We need opportunities to gather together where we can weep, pour out our grief, sob and cry out from the center of our being, and where that heartfelt lament can be blessed and honored. (At the end of this Lenten series, I will point toward some resources that include a mix of these necessary worship elements. Your suggestions and recommendations are much appreciated!)

In her book Preaching as Weeping, Confession and Resistance: Radical Responses to Radical Evil, Christine Smith says that sermons can evoke some parts of the grief. Pastors can begin to introduce their folk to lamenting on Sunday morning. "I wanted the community to experience some of the pain and challenge described in various illustrations and stories rather than simply hearing 'about' it. To weep passionately, we must experience and feel." Such sermons will not open up full lamenting, but they will be far more emotional than the neck-up rationality of most preaching.

In prayers of the congregation, pastors and church members can name the situations of creation's loss with enough detail that our emotions are stirred and we are called to lament.

If the trauma being inflicted on creation does not bring us to tears, if we never break through denial and rational barriers to feel our hearts breaking, if we are not at times overwhelmed with grief, then we have not entered into honest worship.

Lament is both difficult and necessary. In our worship and spirituality, may we find the courage to grieve.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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