Trevor Hudson tells the story of Ian and Trevor’s surprising friendship. Ian was a plumber and an alcoholic, finally living sober; Trevor was a pastor who described himself as one slowly recovering joy. In Northfield, South Africa, they became best friends. Late one night Trevor’s phone rang. Ian’s partner was on the line, crying. “You have to come, Ian’s been shot. He refused to give up his car keys.” Trevor and Debby went and knelt next to Ian in the street.

The pastor’s thoughts soon turned to his congregation. They had already buried ten people that year, violently killed. Ian would be the eleventh. “These were the early days of the new South Africa,” says Trevor. “The heady times were behind us; fragility lay just below the surface. Violence, economic inequality, hiv/aids were daily realities. I can feel the people looking at me from the pews. I can feel their anger. I can feel their questions.”

Trevor continues, “With the Psalms and the prophets as my teachers, I learned the language I needed. I learned the language of lament.”

No prophet in all of Scripture embodies lament more fully than Jeremiah. God called Jeremiah to prophetic ministry in the waning days of the kingdom of Judah. Jerusalem would fall to Babylon; the conquerors would destroy the temple and carry God’s people into exile.

“My joy is gone; grief is upon me, my heart is sick. For the hurt of my people, I am hurt, I mourn; dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead?” (JER. 8:18-21). God speaks not out of rage but out of love; out of creating, calling, covenanting love; offered to a people, chosen and precious. God speaks as a parent who, having provided for a child in every way, watches that child squander love, choose distance and disconnection, and fall into ruin.

When prayed authentically and not anemically, lament “beams the light of awareness exactly where it needs to shine,” writes Steve Doughty (To Walk in Integrity). Lament surfaces and names, unsettles and offends, creates distress—and it needs to. We claim to love the gospel of peace and to long for God’s peaceable kingdom. Yet 30 million soldiers bear arms for the nations of the earth. Lament is subversive, risky speech.

On the Monday after the Navy Yard shootings, Dr. Janis Orlowski of Washington Hospital Center, while briefing media on the condition of the wounded, burst into lament and penitential reflection. “I can’t tell you,” she said, “the number of times I’ve walked into the [ER] and seen principally a dead young man on the cart. … We are violent. We are aggressive. And we kill our own.” She continued, “If the chief medical officer of the largest trauma and burn unit of Washington, D.C., doesn’t say something about this societal ill, who will?” (Washington Post, September 19, 2013)

Lament, though, lacks completeness without newness. The roots and strength of Jeremiah’s lament lie in his confidence that God acts and that God’s powerful alternative future will prevail. Deeply truthful lament frees hope. And hope is the very transformational energy of God.

World War II changed everything in America. Millions of men went overseas to fight for freedom. Women went too, joining the wacs, waves, and other women’s auxiliaries. People of color went as well. Our country opened and stretched in the name of freedom.

Then the war ended and everything snapped back. Soldiers of color, who had fought shoulder to shoulder with their white counterparts for the freedom of others, returned to find America closed, segregated and separate, unequal and unfree. A lament began to rise; and, says Denise M. Ackermann, lament reminds God that the human condition is not as it should be, and that God as the partner in the covenant must act (After the Locusts).

God does act. Hearing the people’s cry, God sent Martin; who became the preacher, prophet, and poet of the people’s lament. The people’s powerful lament called forth leaders. King himself acknowledged, “The people moved the leaders; it was not the leaders who moved the people.” Now, these courageous ones are dying. Researchers at the New York Times discovered that their obituaries bear one common phrase: “First African American.” First African American to deliver milk in Gary, Ind.; first African American to carry mail in Saginaw, Mich.; first African American bank teller in Rocky Mount, N.C. (New York Times Magazine). They lived as witnesses to the intrusion of God’s purpose, born of holy lament to heal a broken humanity.

Lament calls us to hopeful action. In the closing chapters of Jeremiah, with devastation and destruction pressing in upon God’s people, Jeremiah buys a vineyard in his ancestral home; invests in the future of God’s people; and in the future harvest.

God gives Jeremiah a new word to speak: “For I know the plans I have for you; plans to prosper you, not to harm you; plans to give you a hope and a future. And when you seek me with all your heart, you will surely find me. And you will be my people, and I will be your God.” Amen.

—The Rev. Canon Gina Gilland Campbell

September 22, 2013