The Beauty of Lament

I don’t weep. I “tear up.” Like at the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I feel my face heating up, my nose getting tingly, and a little dam of water building up in my eyes. Usually I can manage to keep my decorum, sometimes by holding my breath, though this is dangerous; if too much pressure builds up you end up letting it all out in a snort and a shaky gasp for air. 

Crying publicly wouldn’t be so bad if it were a matter of allowing a single, dignified tear to trickle down my face while I utter in complete composure, “That was beautiful.” But crying is usually a messy affair, what with the shaking shoulders, contorted face and snot running out of your nose. That never happens in the movies. You rarely see a long string of mucus coming from the nose of a crying actor. They’re so poised when they cry.

If I do cry, it is usually for myself, like when someone I love dies. I’m not crying for the dead person, I’m crying for myself – for the plight of being without that person, or for the regret of not saying or doing more with them while they were alive. Sometimes I will cry for others, but only if it’s a really sad situation and I know them well. Mostly when I weep, I weep for me. 

The Bible describes a number of times when people lifted their voices and wept. It sounds so wonderfully undignified, doesn’t it? At one point, David and his men come upon the town where they had been living, only to find it in ruins. “Then David and the people who were with him raised their voices and wept until they had no more strength to weep.” 1 Samuel 30:4 (NRSV). These guys were warriors - the kind of men who would make Jean-Claude Van Damme look like Cindy Loo Who. And they wept. They wept loudly, until they couldn’t weep any more. Numerous times the Bible talks about those who lifted their voices and wept. They wept because of their sins, they wept because of the sins of others, and they wept for what could have been – for what should have been.

By the rivers of Babylon—
  there we sat down and there we wept
  when we remembered Zion.

Psalm 137:1 (NRSV)

I have immersed myself in the plight of the poorest of the urban poor. I began a series of short term mission projects for InterVarsity, where students have the opportunity to live and work in slum communities. My family and I spent a summer in a garbage city on the outskirts of Cairo where residents must make their living off of other people’s trash. I have read stories of women forced into prostitution, of 8 year olds who work 12 hour days, of the perverse war lords who conscript children into armies, and of the kind of poverty that can trap a family for generations no matter how smart or industrious or gifted they might be. Often, as I am reading or interacting with this kind of stuff, I fight back the urge to weep – but that can’t be healthy.

Each year I get a chance to weep corporately with a group of students studying desperate urban poverty with me on the Global Urban Trek. Nehemiah wept for the all the unfulfilled promises for the Temple and for the city of Jerusalem, both of which lay in shambles. Maybe God would be pleased for us to weep for all the things in this world which are utterly outside “his kingdom come and his will be done?” For those living on the streets, and for little girls forced to have sex, and for people who've not once heard about the wonder of Jesus' life, death and ressurection, and for poverty so deep it makes you stop caring about yourself and your kids.

At the upcoming Urban Poverty Track at Urbana, we will invite students to weep out loud in our prayer room. We'll forbid the attempt to manufacture weeping. We'll discourage guilt over not weeping, or carrying burdens that only God was meant to carry, or being wierded out by those who were wailing. We will simply say that if you want to weep out loud for all that is messed up in this world, then there is a space for you to do this - both individually and with others.

The first time time this happend for me, I got down on the floor and I wept. It was such a relief – so cathartic. I could only say “Oh God, oh God, oh God!” but it was perhaps the most articulate prayer I have ever prayed. I wept until my shoulders shook and my face was contorted and snot was running out of my nose.

Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy.

Psalm 126:5 

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