By Bishop Lusa Nsenga-Ngoy
“I VISITED a friend in hospital. She is in her forties, and has been living a full life while managing a serious degenerative physical condition which has required her to use a wheelchair for all of her adult life.
After suffering a stroke, she had been resuscitated by doctors who weren’t sure enough of her wishes to let her go. As a result, she had very little control over the movement of any part of her body; she couldn’t speak clearly, or eat or drink; she couldn’t tolerate light, or touch – even from her husband – but she remained acutely alert in her thoughts and emotions.
As I pushed open the ward door to find her bed, I heard a terrible sound, which was something like a shriek, somehow more lacerating than a scream, a sound of rapier – pure anguish. An overwhelming sound that I have not heard before or since from a human being. A sound of fury, regret, despair and violent refusal to accept the present moment.
I didn’t want to believe that this sound was coming from my friend. I hoped it was another patient, one whom I didn’t know and would not have to face, and my heart pounded and my eyes pricked as I rounded the corner and saw what I didn’t want to see – that it was her.
The sound made me want to put my hands over my ears and cry for her to stop. Like an animal afraid to draw near to a fire in the forest, I circled the bed, feeling the heat of her pain and knowing that I would be burned by it too.”
These are not my words. They are recounted by Lucy Winkett in her beautify book: “Our sound is our Wound”. Lucy powerfully captures an experience that so many of us have faced in one form or another: the uncomfortable encounter with the sound of lament.
The sound of Lament is the Primordial cry of humanity. It is heard throughout human history, and it echoes throughout our sacred scriptures and traditions. It already began before the ages by the blood of Abel calling out for vengeance beyond the grave.
The sound of lament is heard in the despair of Hagar lost in the wilderness, crying for the life of her son Ishmael. It is heard in the protest of the enslaved people of Israel calling out for freedom, and self-determination from the powers of empire. It is heard in uncomforted Rachel lamenting her dead children; it is the voice of Mary on the evening of Good Friday as she contemplates the tortured body of her son hanging on that cross.
In modern times, the sound of lament rises from the depths of the Atlantic Ocean with the relentless murmur of countless enslaved African lives awaiting vindication as their memory come crashing onto the shores of history. Its chilling voice whispers through the death camps of Europe, Cambodia, Siberia, Rwanda or ex-Yugoslavia. It rumbles in the rivers, valleys, prairies, and mountains of this land, echoing the despair of a people denied dignity and self-determination.
In our days, this lament has been heard in the charred remains of Bakhmut in Ukraine, or Aleppo in Syria; in caravans of desperate humanity seeking sanctuary from oppressive systems and societies that deprive them of dignity and hope. The sound of lament is heard in our cities, and villages from lives that have been commodified and objectified, minoritized and marginalised.
The sound of lament is heard in the tears of the uncomforted mother of the mass shooter caught up between grieving for her son or their innocent victims; the despairing father contemplating homelessness and hunger for his children; the young woman not sure whether she will win the race to full health and life; the young man trying to escape addiction and turn his life around.
Sadly, the sound of lament is also heard in the pews of our churches and cathedrals, our schools and our administrative centres, and even in our worship as we encounter streams of Black people, Indigenous people, and people of colour who, even when present, are rarely fully participating in the life and structures of our Church.
As Luke, narrates the story of the early church, he helpfully refrains from giving a manicured account of the lives of the first Christians. In the book of Acts, we are invited to witness the energy and vitality that characterised the first community of Christians, but we are not spared the anguish, the grief, the prospect of nothingness and irremediable loss faced by the early Christians. In doing so, Luke draws from a deep tradition of faith rooted in the knowledge that God, from the outset, writes God-self into human history in order to redeem it. That is the Pentecost faith we are called into.
But faith is more than an ethereal quest. It is not an attempt to escape the limitations of reality. Instead, faith is anchored in history, fastened to reality, moored to our individual and collective stories as a reminder that God is invested in human history and stories, not to sanctify our gluttony for power, but to set us as a sanctifying, redeeming presence, healing, reconciling, transforming presence.
Lament, therefore, is not cynical agnosticism, but a persistent cry to God for salvation in the confident hope that this God hears and responds to cries and acts now and in the future to make all things whole again. Lament calls upon God to be true to God’s own character and to keep God’s own promises, with respect to humanity and the whole of creation.
Lament is both a protest against the pain of the present time, and also an enduring expression of the weeping voice of God, in whose image and likeness we are made. It helps us voicing the shadows in life, so that God’s marvellous light might illumine and heal our fractured stories.
When I was about seven years old, my family and I lived in a little hamlet, just outside Kamina, in Katanga (DR Congo). One Sunday morning, our attention was attracted by a melancholic melody carried out by the wind. We all concluded that it was the choir getting ready for Sunday worship (as they often did on a Sunday morning). All, except our grandfather who heard something rather different. We all dismissed his version concluding that our beloved granddad was losing it. Later on, that morning, we were told that somebody had died and the melody we heard was not the sound of a choir in worship, as we thought, but that of a family’s lament as our grandfather had discerned.
Archbishop Oscar Romero once said that “there are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.” Might it also be true that there are many things that can only be heard by ears accustomed, attuned to suffering?
Pentecost reminds us of the noise engendered by the multiplicity of voices and languages speaking of God’s glory in many languages. It is an invitation for us to tune our ears into the soundscape of our lives, away from the cacophonous confusion that leads to fracture and dispersion. Instead, we need to tune our ears to the anguish and lament of those we have marginalised and minoritized. In the process, we avail ourselves to the witness of God’s glorious action in history.
The theologian Walter Brueggemann warns that failure to heed voices of lament, will domesticate Christian responsibility to the plight of humanity and creation. “A community of faith which negates laments soon concludes that the hard issues of justice are improper questions to pose at the throne, because the throne seems to be only a place of praise. I believe it thus follows that if justice questions are improper questions to God, they soon appear to be improper questions in public places… Justice questions disappear into civility and docility, and all we’re left with, is a domesticated version of the gospel.”
When we negate lament, we end up, censoring even our own holy scriptures as it was the case in British India, and in the 1980’s in Guatemala and Argentina where the Magnificat, the Song of Mary was prohibited for being sung in church, banned from any public recitation and public display because the governments considered the song’s message to be dangerously subversive.
Dangerously subversive might, in some ways, be the task of a church animated by the Holy Spirit as it engages with the fault lines of life.
As Pete Enns suggest, “the church needs a healthy theology of lament. Not an agreed upon short moment of sorrow so things can get back to normal. But a season to complain, be perplexed, shattered. To be angry at the injustice and exclusion experienced by too many of God’s children. Without excuse, without being made to feel broken or weak, guilty or ashamed. Without trying to fix pain and make it behave.”
We need to make room for lament because lament squeezes out simple answers and gives spiritual expression to faith wrestling with pain, but also to reenergise communities of believers to name injustice, recognise agency and sustain prophetic action. We need to make room for lament, because it brings us to the heart of God’s love in Jesus. Lament takes us to the edge, to the margins, those uncomfortable places where we, as an institution, have too often and too easily relegated those who didn’t look or sound like the norms we had established.
The African American mystic and activist writes: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
The movement of the Spirit of God in the hearts of men and women often calls them to act against the spirit of their times or causes them to anticipate a spirit which is yet in the making.
We need to make room for lament because it speaks of hope and draws us to the Ultimate vision beautifully depicted by St. John of Patmos where all of creation, all tribes, all languages, all ethnicity, all cultures are gathered in worship before God.
This vision is beautifully captured by the American Gospel artist Richard Smallwood’s song:
I love the the Lord
He heard my cry
And pitied every groan
Long as I, I live
And troubles rise
I hasten to his throne
Rt. Rev. Lusa Nsenga-Ngoy is the Bishop of Willesden, Diocese of London, UK