Some pastoral lessons are learned the hard way.
After a morning worship service, an African-American brother asked me if we were going to pray about a racially-charged story that had been all over the news the previous two weeks. The facts were still emerging. Protests developed. The scenario was ripe with controversy—with ditches on either side. And emotions ran hot.
To be honest, I didn’t fully understand what I saw on the news. The story wasn’t clear. And I was afraid of saying the wrong thing.
And so silence seemed like the safer route. But ignoring the conflict sent an unhelpful—even painful—message.
Seeing the pain in my brother’s eyes caused me to evaluate my pastoral approach. During our Elder Prayer over the next few Sundays, we talked to God about what was on the news. Without rushing to judgment, we lamented. We prayed about the brokenness in our world, the pain in the community, the deep levels of misunderstanding and mistrust, and we asked God to help. Our sorrow-filled prayers were a good start. But looking back, they were late.
That scenario and others unrelated to racial tension taught me that there’s value in corporate lament. Let me give you three reasons why they’re helpful.
Laments are prayers in pain that lead to trust. The Bible is full of them, especially the Psalms. They reflect a variety of pain, including personal sorrow, a desire for justice and repentance. Laments give voice to the brokenness of our humanity. That’s one of the reasons we run to the Psalms when hurting.
Corporate lament prayers communicate that the church cares. Rather than being merely internally focused, praying about the broader brokenness in the world allows the church to “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15). Lament demonstrates a concern for our neighbors even if the issue doesn’t directly affect everyone. But it also affirms those whose hearts are aching. Lament empathizes as we grieve together.
Corporate lament prayers model how to process a tragedy or something disturbing on the news. These prayers teach our people to watch the news not just for information but for intercession, to move from asking “what’s happening?” to “how can I pray?” Lament models a heart of concern.
Lament teaches people how to pray. Pastoral prayers model how to talk to God when the brokenness of the world is evident. For example, after the mass shooting in two mosques in New Zealand, I wrote a lament prayer which we used the next Sunday:
Oh God, I turn to you with sorrow for what I see in New Zealand. Forty-nine people who bear your image, fellow human beings have been destroyed! I’m grieved. I’m groaning.
My heart breaks today for Muslim families who are shaken and traumatized. My heart moans when I hear about the ideology behind this senseless slaying.
God, bring comfort to the families. Give them help through loved ones and their community. Grant that justice would be done and bring healing to the city of Christchurch.
Jesus, we long for the day when satanic ideologies and attacks will be no more. We yearn for the day when your grace will rule over all that is wrong in the world. This tragedy reminds us of our need for you. And so, help those of us who embrace your name to model love, mercy and justice. Help us to live out our love for you as we love our neighbor. In our sorrow we turn to you. We weep with those who weep as we wait upon you.
I’ve used lament prayers to grieve over a school shooting in a nearby community. I published a lament that reflected on the death of Tyler Trent after he lost his battle with bone cancer. Our people need to know how to process what they read, see, feel and think. Lament models how to live in a broken world as committed followers of Jesus.
Corporate laments help lead the church toward unity, especially when the issue is complicated and emotional. For decades, my typical response to loaded scenarios was silence. Even though my heart was troubled and my pastoral instincts were to “lean in,” I lacked the wisdom to know how to thread the needle of complicated pain.
I’ve watched lament prayers build bridges. During a Civil Rights Vision Trip with 50 leaders from our church, we began each day studying a lament prayer and writing our own. As we processed what we were learning, hearing one another talk to God about their struggles created a unique level of harmony. There’s something powerful and redemptive about listening to a brother pour out his hurt while also turning to God in trust.
Lament prayers opened our hearts to love one another.
I recently preached a three-part sermon series on racial harmony. The topic was loaded. Some people were apprehensive. Others were a bit defensive. Before I dug into the text and tried to navigate the choppy waters, I took time to pray a lament prayer. Here’s part of it:
O Lord, how long will your church be divided along racial lines? How long will the lingering effects of animosity, injustice and pride mark your blessed bride? How long, O Lord, will my white brothers and sisters not understand the pain in those whose experience is different than ours? How long, O Lord, will my minority brothers and sisters struggle with distrust and feel misunderstood and ostracized?
God, grant us the heart to weep with those who weep. Give us empathy and understanding. Create trust where there is pain. Give us the grace to persevere, to repent, to forgive and to love. Make your church—our church—the united bride you want her to be.
The prayer didn’t resolve all the issues, but it started the sermon with the right posture. When I reviewed my sermon with my sermon application team, they all affirmed the value of the prayer of lament. They recommended I start every sermon on racial harmony with a lament. I took their advice.
Corporate lament is a unique voice that empathizes, models and unites a body, especially when tension fills the room.
When breaking news hits or when dealing with controversial grief, lead your people with the language of a broken heart.
Don’t be silent. Lament.
This article originally appeared here.