What Good Is Lament?

By Lisa Hancock

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Sometimes God gets my attention with a whisper, and other times, with a two-by-four. I felt like I had one of those two-by-four moments listening to a podcast recently. The hosts and guest were talking about dissociation, a stress response wherein a person disconnects from thoughts, feelings, memories, or sense of identity. I had long understood that dissociation is a survival mechanism, a way of coping with overwhelming stress. But it wasn’t until I was listening to this podcast that I faced my deeply held assumption that, though a natural response to too much stress, dissociation is an inherently bad thing. There I was, anticipating a certain kind of conversation about dissociation, and instead, the hosts and guest started by talking about the benefits of dissociation for managing pain, trauma, and situations where we feel physically and/or emotionally unsafe. Only then did they ask the question: “How is this survival strategy keeping me from the joy in connecting with other people?” And that was when the sudden and profound answer came bubbling up inside me in a way that comes only from the Spirit: this is why we lament.

A lot of life feels unsafe right now for many people. Wars, rumors of war, violence in the streets, an ongoing pandemic, the climate crisis, economic instability, misinformation and disinformation, the unknowns about our future with AI . . . the list goes on. Add The United Methodist Church’s season of disaffiliations, and it is clear that the people who enter our churches are burned out, overwhelmed, anxious, wary, and hesitant to trust. The instinct to dissociate is high and for good reason.

And yet, if our go-to response to overwhelming environments and situations is to shut off and disconnect from what’s happening around us, we miss the opportunity to share in the connection, mutual support, and love that we need to flourish. Dissociation protects us from attachments and connections that aren’t safe. But dissociation won’t help us process or move through everything that overburdens us. We need a way to process the relentless stress and distress that bombards us in a community where it is safe to name our burdens to God and one another so that we can stay present to ourselves, to one another, and to God.

What we need is lament. And not just individual lament. We need to gather together to tell the truth about the things that haunt us in the middle of the night and hold us in a vise of worry in the middle of the day. We need to listen to what breaks our hearts and trust that God can handle our anger, anxiety, and grief. We need to cry and struggle together in worship so that we can remember we’re not alone as we stare at the ceiling, wishing our brains would slow down as we try to go to sleep. More than anything, we need space to tell the truth about all that is wrong in our world in a space built on the foundation of God’s love and care.

What we need is lament. And not just individual lament. We need to gather together to tell the truth about the things that haunt us in the middle of the night and hold us in a vise of worry in the middle of the day.

Lament, then, is not about wallowing in sadness or glorifying suffering. Lament is about staying present in our grief and distress, wrapping words around our wound(s), and sharing them with one another and God in a posture of listening for God’s response. Lament helps us move from dissociation as a short-term survival strategy to connection as a long-term path toward thriving. This also means that lament is not a one-and-done practice. We grow through our lamenting. Some pain is too sharp to be able to discern God’s response to our lament the first, second, or third time we offer it. Yet behind lament is the belief that God is faithful to us. God is listening and responding to us in love and grace. So, we must keep showing up to do the work of lament together, building a community of care and love-in-action as we join our voices to yell, cry, whisper, and whimper to God about our pain and stress.

There are many things to lament these days, including but not limited to the pain that surrounds this season of disaffiliation in The United Methodist Church. And sometimes the sheer number of things we need to lament makes it feel impossible to know where to start. So, if you find yourself unable to begin, start with a simple breath prayer: (breathe in) Spirit, groan with me (breathe out) when I do not know what to pray. Create space in worship to do this as a gathered body, not just once but several weeks in a row. Pay attention to what bubbles up among your congregants.

For examples of how to incorporate lament into corporate worship, see:

Dr. Lisa Hancock, Director of Worship Arts Ministries, served as an organist and music minister in United Methodist congregations in the Northwest Texas and North Texas Annual Conferences, as well as the New Day Amani/Upendo house churches in Dallas. After receiving her Master of Sacred Music and Master of Theological Studies from Perkins School of Theology, Lisa earned her PhD in Religious Studies from Southern Methodist University wherein she researched and wrote on the doctrine of Christ, disability, and atonement.

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