Lament: Reclaiming Practices in Pulpit, Pew and Public Square
Since the tragedies of September 11, 2001, several works have focused on lament, partly as a search for a language of response to tragedy and partly as the byproduct of a renewed look at a neglected portion of Scripture. Lament: Reclaiming Practices in Pulpit, Pew and Public Square is one of these books, though the authors, faculty members at Princeton Theological Seminary, were also affected by the untimely deaths of several colleagues or their spouses while this book was being edited. The introduction describes the volume as an effort to think “about the implications of what we have learned about lament for the way we worship and pray, the way we do pastoral care, what we believe about God, how we think theologically and how we respond to a world” marked by violence (p. xvi).
Although the authors share concern to help the church mourn, they do not come to the task with the same theoretical or theological commitments (p. xix), and so they do not provide a unified voice on their subject matter. The fourteen chapters include some analyses of Scripture, some of culture, and sometimes the reflections of the authors about painful events.
Part one, on lament in prayer and proclamation, begins with a call to recover lament for the church. Lament should allow Christians to face grief honestly and express it boldly. Lamenting in community should enable them to rely on God and others to carry on with hope (p. 4). In the next chapter Patrick Miller discusses three voices in lament. The first is the human voice, exemplified first by the blood of Abel; this cry of pain and prayer is the universal human prayer, which should be guided by the form of biblical lament. The second voice is that of Jesus, and the third is the voice of the world, here pictured as the intercession of the community. The third chapter presents four ways by which lament can guide a sermon and illustrates them with references to sermons given on the Sunday after September 11, 2001. Chapter four is written as a short sermon on Psalms 22 and 23 together, as well as references to Jesus as the Shepherd in John 10.
Part two “explores lament as both a human and a divine response to pain” (p. xvii). The fifth chapter reflects on the “marvel that God raised Jesus from death itself but did not wipe away his lacerations” (p. 56). Until lament ends, as seen in Revelation, believers remain “hopeful but without closure” (p. 57). The sixth chapter is an agenda-laden reading, imposing homoeroticism on the picture of God rending the temple curtain and “exposing” Himself. Chapter seven purports to examine humor about death as a response to chronic death anxiety. Its main contribution is its review of Bruegemann’s 1977 comparison of lament to psychologist Kubler Ross’s five stages of grief (developed from interviews with terminally ill patients) and a presentation of a more dialectical model by chaplain Swonger, another interviewer. The classification of jokes into five stages of chronic death anxiety misuses the term “stage” and is not helpful. In chapter eight W. Johnson refutes Jürgen Moltmann’s view of Jesus on the cross as “God forsaken God.” Presenting multiple contacts between Psalm 22 and Mark and Matthew, Johnson demonstrates that the Gospels look beyond citing Jesus’ words, “My God, why have You forsaken Me?” The quotation highlights the issue, but Johnson shows that He was not abandoned. God the Father is with believers and for them. In chapter nine Ellen Charry presents the letters of her late husband during his losing bout with cancer and reflects on how lament and trust can go together.
Peter Paris’s “When Feeling Like a Motherless Child” opens part three, “Reclaiming the Public Voice of Lament.” Paris briefly examines African ritual, focusing particularly on spirituals as expressions of grief, protest, and hope. In mildly superlative terms Paris sees spirituals as “America’s most distinctive contribution to Christian devotion” and America’s “unique contribution to the world” (pp. 114, 120). In chapter eleven Luis N. Rivera-Pagán highlights the agonies and sorrows of the widows, daughters, and mothers of Trojan heroes. In this light and in opposition to “Freud’s thesis that the source of religiosity is the sacrifice of the . . . father,” Rivera-Pagán suggests we look to “the sacrifice of the virginal daughter as . . . the matrix of . . . expiation and atonement” (p. 126). This provides the context to view women’s laments in the twenty-first century as laborers forging with their voices a more humane and peaceful world. Next Richard Fenn provides a psychological analysis of a lament in 4 Ezra, emphasizing the splitting of the psyche of the anguished soul (p. 143). He suggests revisiting the doctrines of eschatology and final judgment to avoid splitting humanity into the blessed and the condemned. Brian Blount’s sermon follows with a challenging question, “Are you sure you really want to recover lament?”(p. 149, italics his). Delivered during a 2002 conference entitled “Reclaiming the Text: Recovering the Language of Lament,” Blount takes the lament of the martyrs in Revelation 6:9–11 and courageously asks, “Are you ready to recognize what lament recognizes, and to do what lament demands, no matter the cost, to bring about the change that lament envisions?” (ibid.).
The book concludes with poems of lament woven together with reflections by Charles Bartow. The poems include his own when his colleague G. Robert Jacks died in 2002. Bartow presents his poems as part of “the love that we do”—an obedience to Jesus’ command—with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind (p. 165).