21 agosto, 2017

Lament as an answer to a suffering world

From my experience in mission, one of the bigger gaps I observe in the discipleship of the younger generation of Mexican university students is their incapacity to deal with the pain in their lives, and of course, the suffering that surrounds them. However, they are not entirely to blame, as this reflects the reality of evangelical churches in Mexico, in which doubting, questioning the faith and asking hard questions is not encouraged and sometimes condemned. As Soong-Chan Rah mentions in his book, Prophetic Lament, an important part of this deficiency is connected to a dispensation eschatology which leads to a rejection of current society and does not encourage any engagement with the city and its troubles.[1] The problem with this theology, which has been exported from the United States, is it does not have a holistic understanding of the gospel, reducing salvation to the afterlife. Under this perspective, the effort to live fully under God’s kingdom values and striving to follow Jesus in both the private and public sphere as salt and light is not essential to faith. Discipleship becomes limited and equaled to trying to escape the world and its evils; leading to withdrawal from society.

In my experience, the theology and practice of lament has become an antidote and corrective to various warped theologies and views that we find in Mexican churches. I found lament as a result of my own pain and the desire to connect my faith to all of life. I recognized the need for a theology that was big enough to embrace my personal suffering and pain, as well as that in society, and not try to ignore it, hide from, or provide simplistic answers. However, I had not seen the practice of lament modeled within my church context, and found it difficult to enter it individually. What helped in the process was sharing with close friends in student ministry about my struggles, doubts and questions, and to have people encourage me to be honest with God, to reject easy answers and to dwell in the pain as needed, trusting God was with me. The Psalms guided and taught me more about praying the full range of my emotions to God. Eventually, recognizing my own pain and doubts made it possible to engage more fully with the pain around me, and not be indifferent to the sorrow of Mexican society and my own city, Tijuana.

The practice of lament allows followers of Jesus to keep the tension between suffering and celebration, and to embrace the paradoxes of life. It is not a way to fix the pain and suffering of the world, but an initial step to take part in God’s redemptive work. As part of discipleship, lament should be integral to the Christian life, but it has been forgotten, although Jesus himself modeled it. The Scriptures which deal with people protesting and arguing with God are usually not brought into everyday life applications, or they are applied in a very individualistic manner. The Psalms of Lament, Job or Lamentations are ignored in Church, or poorly studied in connection with people’s realities. As Christians, we have not developed a sensitivity to see the world around us and act in compassion. Besides, the harsh realities of violence, corruption and death in our cities makes people feel impotent and become indifferent. Lament is the resource God gives us to follow him and not shy away from the hard things in life. Discipleship without lament results in a shallow faith and lack of engagement with the world around us.

In my ministry with college students, introducing the practice of lament and helping students recognize their own experience of lament is key to helping them grow in faith, hope and love. As I was encouraged to be honest with myself and God about my doubts and pain, I also encourage that among students and staff. The serious and deep study of Scripture eventually brings to the table the importance of lament and the fact that Christian life needs to embrace suffering, as we follow the Suffering Servant. A commitment to loving God translated into loving the world, means to see what is around us and not shy away from the difficult things. Lament provides a way to see the pain, to mourn and not lose hope in God’s redemption. Inviting others to lament is ultimately an invitation to see the world from God’s perspective. There will come a time when lament will not be necessary, as in the New Heaven and New Earth there will be no more mourning, suffering, nor death. But in the meantime, we are invited to follow Jesus’ example as he also lamented the pain and sin of the world. Let us join the Church in an ancient practice gifted to us as a means of grace to engage with our suffering world!

Art by James B. Janknegt: Man of Sorrows, 1990, depicting Jesus as he wept for Jerusalem

[1] Soong-Chan Rah, Prophetic Lament: A call for justice in troubled times (Downers Grove: IVP, 2005), 36-37. 

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