“Hear my prayer, O LORD; let my cry come to you. Do not hide your face from me in the day of my distress.” Psalm 102: 1
Sometimes when things are bad, there is nothing to do but lament.
To allow the emotions to wash over you. To enter fully into the depths of despair and anguish. To cry out and to place yourself at the mercy of God, even when you can’t feel God’s presence. Sometimes there is nothing to do but lament. And to wait for the morning.
At the Mennonite Church USA convention in Kansas City, June 30-July 5, there were times of lament:
- The convention began with a reading of the names of Native American tribes, now decimated, who used to occupy the land where the Convention was being held.
- Survivors of sexual abuse told their stories and then gathered for a worship service which gave voice to their anger and their pain.
- People of color spoke of the fear that they carry and of the ways that they continue to be treated as if their experience and their wisdom don’t really matter in the denomination.
- Gay and lesbian folks and their families cried out in anguish when the delegate body voted to retain the section of the Membership Guidelines which denies them full inclusion.
- People who read the Bible to say that same-sex intimacy is always sin, lamented the visible presence of LGBTQ folks among us and the affirmation of the gathered body that we will find ways to live together in the midst of difference rather than legislate the difference away.
On both ends of that spectrum, there were cries of pain, anger and expressions of hurt.
All this was, to say the least, very draining, very intense.
It was also very honest.
I have never been to a large church gathering that was as honest as this one was. Things that had been kept hidden were allowed to come into the light. Voices which had been hushed, were allowed to speak. And though this didn’t happen in all cases, people who had previously felt unable to publicly own their truth, were encouraged to be fully who they are as part of this diverse body that is Mennonite Church USA.
When things get this honest, when all this complexity is brought to light and given air-time, it can feel like everything is coming apart at the seams. Sometimes that is what happens: We break apart. This is also cause for lament.
But all this truth-telling is also cause for rejoicing and it is cause for hope.
I found myself rejoicing in the experience I had with my table group in the delegate hall. Others expressed the same thing about their table group.
On the first afternoon we spent some time getting to know each other. It was obvious from the start that we came with differing perspectives socially and theologically. But it was also obvious that we were willing to listen deeply to each other and to speak from our hearts. And this proved to be true.
In the interactions that we had, each of us felt empowered to speak honestly, to ask hard questions, and to hold our differences with love and respect, even when there was the possibility that these differences would cause pain and rupture in the larger body. This experience was amazing. It was truly different from what I had experienced at other such gatherings. It filled me with hope.
Hope and pain do coexist.
Hope and lament do not exclude each other. In fact, sometimes things need to break apart before transformation can happen.
Sarah Klaassen, who preached at the inclusive pastors worship service, talked about learning to quilt. She was frustrated, she said, when the pieces didn’t go together right and she had to take things apart and start over. She quoted her grandmother, who reassured her by saying, “It’s not really a quilting project until you’ve ripped something apart.”
This is true for the church as well, Klaassen said. Sometimes things just aren’t right and we have to come apart so that Jesus can piece us back together again. The Holy Spirit works in hearts, in families, in communities that are broken open and desperately in need of restoration and repair.
As a denomination we are in a difficult place right now.
We are seeing ourselves as we really are, I think. Like the society around us, we are divided, sometimes vehemently so. This is scary and we don’t know what to do about it. We don’t know what this will mean for us. But what many of us do know is that we want to try and work things out—or perhaps, better said, to allow the Holy Spirit to work it out within us.
As a delegate body we voted by 71 percent to affirm our willingness to forbear with one another, to wait, to listen, and to assume good intentions and a commitment to following Jesus even when we disagree. Will this change the way we manage the polarities of thought among us? Will this be our witness to a world racked with polarities that divide and destroy community?
Michelle Hershberger, Bible professor at Hesston (Kan.) College, encouraged the youth, and all of us, to learn to dwell in the places in-between.
When you find yourself in the middle between easy answers and despair, just stay in the middle, she said. Don’t be too quick to move to either end of the spectrum for the sake of comfort and security. The middle may be a place of brokenness and lament. Live into that, knowing that the Holy Spirit enters into such places and makes of them something beautiful and whole, something entirely unexpected and real.
That is the promise that we see in Psalm 102. The lament is real. We have no doubt that the one who is speaking is in dire straits. But underlying the lament is trust in God.
“But you, O LORD, are enthroned forever; your name endures to all generations. You will rise up and have compassion….” We know we can trust in this because that has been God’s pattern, God’s way, from generation to generation.
The future belongs to God.
We cannot see it, perhaps, or even imagine a way for things to work out, but God can. God is no stranger to lament or pain.
In Jesus we see this very clearly. His very body was broken and his life taken from him. He entered into the depths of despair. But out of this ugly horror came great beauty. Out of this brokenness, God brought forth life, resurrection life which can and will transform tears and lament into shouts of joy.
Betsy Headrick McCrae is pastor of Glennon Heights Mennonite Church, Lakewood, Colo. This article is based off a sermon she delivered on July 12.
Photo: Delegates at Kansas City 2015. Photo by Vada Snider.