A Promise of Lament

The Rev. Dr. Soong-Chan Rah had good reason to preach on the Book of Lamentations when starting a church.

Dr. Soong-Chan Rah: "We live in a very divided nation, not just in politics but even in our churches, our neighborhoods. "Lamentations challenges us with a model of listening to all the voices."

War Cry: When you opened a new church, why did you choose to preach on the Book of Lamentations?

Dr. Rah: It goes against our natural instincts when starting a church. It’s assumed that it is a depressing theme—kind of a downer. I was opening this church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a community that’s broken, but it’s also home to two of the most significant universities in our country (Harvard and MIT). I had been doing campus ministry. I knew a trap to a lot of highly accomplished, very brilliant young men and women when ministering among the poor and the more marginalized with troubled histories. They’d come with assumptions about what they can do—how they’re going to fix people and solve problems. What I was trying to get to with Lamentations was to challenge that assumption. They tended to want to solve the problems of the world, doing it out of their own strength and power. Lamentations points more to God’s will and God’s work and points out that human beings are oftentimes in challenging situations. I thought it was very appropriate to speak on the issue [of] lament, because these brilliant young men and women were going to enter into a world where it was markedly different and that challenged their presuppositions. 

War Cry: How does Lamentations speak to reconciliation?

Dr. Rah: There is reconciliation with God and each other, but we need it across the racial divide. We need to recognize the other person might have a different story from our own. What Lamentations does is it does not give the story of the victorious and the one who has it all together. These are very broken people—people who have lost everything. There are dividing lines especially along racial, socioeconomic levels resulting in hostility. Our course should be to better understand the person that is different from you—to know that their stories are different from your own. Some have experienced victory and triumph, but it is essential to hear the story of suffering. Lamentations provides the opportunity to hear from those we seldom hear from: women, widows, orphans. These have experienced tremendous pain. Lamentations offers a model to learn and hear from those different from us.

War Cry: Why is this message important to 21st century America? 

Dr. Rah: We live in a very divided nation, not just in politics but even in our churches, our neighborhoods. There is extreme polarization, and on top of that, we have difficulty listening to one another and the stories that each other brings to the Church, our Christian communities and to our neighborhoods. Lamentations challenges us with a model of listening to all the voices. We would do much better if we took the example of Lamentations to listen to all the voices that are at the table—to honor people by taking the time and energy to hear from those that we might deem to be less than desirable.

War Cry: What concerns you about evangelicals in USA?

Dr. Rah: The history of the Church, not just among evangelicals, is that there’s always been the temptation to fall captive to the culture around us, to give in to cultural norms. In the United States, the Church’s temptation is to fall into patterns of behavior that mimic the world’s patterns rather than the patterns of Scripture. We fall prey to having our theology or understanding of the Church determined by what is going on in the world rather than from Scripture. It’s particularly notable among evangelicals, but this has been a common problem for thousands of years. But for a number of reasons, it feels more acute now—more significant, because the stakes are high. The Scripture often testifies how a church prostitutes itself for the empire. In the book of Revelation, God’s people are called out of Babylon, because Babylon was wicked. 

War Cry: What should be done for victims?

Dr. Rah: Lamentations is one of the most powerful books, because it listens to the victims. There are issues around who authored the Book of Lamentations. And historically, traditionally, it’s been credited to Jeremiah, because Jeremiah would have been one of the few literate people who could have written a book like Lamentations. However, when you compare the Book of Jeremiah and the writing style of the Book of Lamentations, it’s just markedly different. I would argue that Jeremiah wrote the Book of Lamentations, but actually, it wasn’t his words that he was writing. He would have been the best and maybe even the only candidate who could have written down the voices of the victims. He tries to hear the victims and make sure that the victims’ voices are heard. Lamentations is a wonderful example of how God cares for the hurting and the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed. A constant theme of Scripture is that we need to be on the side of the poor.

War Cry: You say that lament precedes praise. Why is that?

Dr. Rah: Lament in the Old Testament is quite prominent—twenty percent of Psalms, for example. If we come with arrogance and a pride, like we see in the Book of Amos, God’s not going to lift up the proud. God’s not going to honor false worship. There’s a need to fall down before God—recognize our brokenness, our sinfulness—and to lament the pain that we’re enduring, the challenges of the world that we live in. Lament leads to praise, because when we are in that place, we recognize the only One who could save us from that place of brokenness is God Himself. Praise comes out of the place of lament, because we are recognizing we can’t fix ourselves. We need God. Then praise flows, because I know the suffering, pain, sin and brokenness I have been mired in. Now I’m able to sing to God, because God has rescued me. God has brought me out of the suffering. That’s why without lament, our praise may be haughtiness rather than where God meets our brokenness to heal.

War Cry: How can we help the voiceless gain their own voice?

Dr. Rah: I love The Salvation Army. I’m part of a corps in Chicago. Helping the voiceless find their voice is at the core of what The Salvation Army is about. It needs to continue what it has always done—to live and love and have relationships with the poor. This is a unique and powerful testimony. To care for the poor, to live among them, serve them, is an embedded value of The Salvation Army that it needs to ensure doesn’t get lost.

"I learn from the poor [about] perseverance, a hopefulness in the midst of trials, a profound sense of dependence upon God."

One of the best things that we can do is take a posture of learning. Sometimes, we believe [what] we’re going to do is help the poor—save them [from] their bad state. Actually, all of us fall short of the glory of God. All of us are poor in spirit and insufficient. When I help the poor, I go there to learn from the poor [about] perseverance, a hopefulness in the midst of trials, a profound sense of dependence upon God. Look at what the poor have taught me. They have discipled me as much as I try to disciple them. A significant part of what The Salvation Army can do is to build communities where the poor are not on the margins but at the center of the community.

War Cry: How can we respond to systemic evil?

Dr. Rah: There is systemic evil in the world. When we understand how deeply affected humanity has been by the Fall and the entrance of sin into the world, we recognize that there is individual sin, but there is also a systemic evil and brokenness. We open our eyes to create room by reading through the Scriptures. As you begin to have a vision, our hearts open the eyes to see the brokenness in the world—not just individual brokenness but also structural systemic brokenness. The world is broken on multiple levels—not only on the individual level but also on the social structural level, as well. We acknowledge the brokenness in the world, begin to pray together about it, study the word of God again. Then we begin to talk to each other. We get to hear from the victims of those struggles and of these systems, [so that we can work] together as a community. 

Rev. Dr. Soong-Chan Rah is Milton B. Engebretson Associate Professor of Church Growth and Evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, IL and the author of Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times 

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