Academic journal article Currents in Theology and Mission

Lament in the Liturgy of the Rural Church: An Appeal for Recovery

Academic journal article Currents in Theology and Mission

Lament in the Liturgy of the Rural Church: An Appeal for Recovery

Article excerpt

The Cost of Neglected Lament

Christians in North America gather regularly for worship in the name of the One who cried from the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" evoking the question that heads the 22nd Psalm. Yet that question itself and the cry that evokes it are routinely censored in American churches, except as a detail of biblical recitation. Jesus' lament may be recalled, and the psalms of lament may be spoken or sung, but lament itself is largely precluded as the substance of worship, as liturgical act, in many North American churches. (1) Many North American Christians are so deeply habituated to the absence of lament in their worship that the absence arouses little attention, prompts few objections, and raises few questions. This inattention imposes a grievous, even if uncounted, cost: where lament is precluded or censored, so are lamenting people.

The cost of this inattention has been particularly heavy, or heavy in particular ways, in rural churches and the communities they seek to serve. Two decades have now passed since the farm crisis of the 1980s, when the lament of rural people and rural communities attracted widespread attention. Occasions of lament, however, have not passed from rural America. Losses of farms continue, and continue to threaten. Lives and livelihoods hang in the balance as rural communities continue to be buffeted by global forces often beyond their control, their influence or even their comprehension. Every day there are people in rural America who have reason to wonder or ask, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me, forsaken us?"

That is a human question, not a rural question; it is a human question, not a North American question. It forms within the soul of every anguished, suffering human being regardless of nation or demography. But in rural North American communities the question presses upon churches with a particular immediacy, because the wellbeing of rural churches is often more closely bound to the wellbeing of their communities than may be the case for churches situated in larger networks of neighborhoods, population clusters and economic enterprise. Rural churches, therefore, have particular--though certainly not exclusive--reasons to address any habitual inattention to lament and to overcome this inattention by cultivating new habits.

This essay contends that renewed attention to lament in the worship of rural churches is an urgent pastoral and missiological task, in light of persistent occasions of lament in the lives of rural people. The task is made difficult by what Walter Brueggemann has termed "hegemonic doxology," or what Matthew Boulton has described as doxological idolatry, associated with the current culture of "praise worship" in North American Christianity. Brueggemann writes: "The church has much praise entrusted to it. But praise taken alone--especially in so-called 'praise hymns' that tell no human-divine narrative--is by itself likely to be an act of denial readily aligned with hegemonic ideology. The urgent pastoral task, I suggest, is lament that subverts hegemonic doxology." (2) Similarly writes Keith A. Russell, editor of The Living Pulpit: "The development in many Protestant churches of the phenomenon known as 'praise music' seems to be in direct conflict with the perspective that lament and praise are two sides of the same coin. In many churches that have moved in the direction of praise, there is no room for lament." (3) So also Yale University's Nicholas Wolterstorff: "The 'victorious living' mentality, currently sweeping through American Christianity, has no place for lament. Likewise, the megachurches have no place for it. Lament does not market well." (4)

Surely few if any contemporary Christians enamored with praise worship intend their praise for malice, but ill effects do not always require malice aforethought. Hegemonic/idolatrous doxology banishes the anguished sufferer, or at least her anguish and suffering, from the public presence of God. …

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