O that my head were a spring of water,
and my eyes a fountain of tears,
so that I might weep day and night
for the slain of my poor people!
“I had been away from my own soul so long,
so late-sleeping, but that dove’s crying
Woke me and made me cry. Praise
To all early-waking grievers!”
“For the lonely and forgotten,
for the weary and distressed,
For the refugee and orphan,
and for all who are oppressed,
For the stranger who is pleading
while insulted and despised,
Will You rise? Will You rise?”
“Rise up! Rise up!
The earth will fear the Lord
when You avenge the poor.
May Your kingdom come . . .
O rise up!”
We practice Advent by telling the truth. Not the truth of the pharaohs, who need us to believe all is well–or at least it will all be well if we listen to them. If we buy more products, if we build a higher wall, if our bodies were slightly thinner, if all the neighbors we fear ceased to exist. Not the truth of despair, which extinguishes the imagination for a world which could ever look any different, the self-obsessed and inwardly focused: since I myself can’t change the world, what is the point of doing anything?
No, the prophets in Scripture taught us something else: we tell the truth of how unjust and inequitable our world is to God, and we invite others to lament with us. Only after we allow ourselves to be unflinchingly honest about how bad our world really is can we start to cultivate the imagination we will need to build something better–something that actually looks like the dream God has for the world, where all will flourish.
Lament psalms, proclamations, and communal mourning are such a major part of the Hebrew scriptures and yet in the current evangelical worship market you will likely never find a song referencing anything but exuberant triumphalism (as pointed out by theologians such as Soong-Chan Rah and Lisa Sharon Harper). As someone who comes from that community, it is my duty to ask myself why this is: why have we disowned the practice of lament? And what can I gain by introducing it back to my life?
When we have the courage to be truthful with God about how terrible our world is: how families are separated at the US border, how the refugee resettlement program has effectively been dismantled, how we incarcerate huge swaths of our population, how the vast majority of my neighbors cannot make a livable wage–we can begin to recognize we are not alone in our tears and rage and sadness. God joins with us in this journey, and God invites our truth telling in a world constantly asking us to either be quiet or sink into paralysing despair. Lament, as a resistance practice, is actually a way of strengthening our relationship with the Creator God who will not rest until all of creation is restored.
Oftentimes I wake up sad, overwhelmed by the realities of my context. But I find solace in the Scriptures, in my fellow lamenters on social media and in protests on the street and in Tuesday night prayer groups. When we lament together, something changes–perhaps not right away in our society, but in us. Our communal grief is a sign of faith. We tell the truth of how bad the world is because deep down, we believe that a God of love is listening.
D.L. Mayfield lives and writes in Portland Oregon. Her upcoming book is The Myth of the American Dream: Reflections on Affluence, Autonomy, Safety, and Power. For more information, visit her website or follow her on Twitter.