Every Wednesday, my parish offers a healing Eucharistic service. Compared to the Sunday assembly, this one is intimate and sober, nestled into the right transept of the nave. The “usuals” show up week after week. They pray for loved ones experiencing sickness, financial hardships, or any other host of trials. And although it can be a challenging space to navigate, I look forward to these services. Not because it’s fun to hear about humanity’s hardships, but because the usuals’ defenses are down. The quiet huddling of souls before altar candles has a way of disarming and lowering the walls so often built between us.

It’s not unusual to have a steady cascade of tears falling from the opening acclamation to the dismissal. They are free to name what’s troubling them, and these confessions shift my ministry to become primarily about presence rather than fixing. Each to the other, we witness, we receive, a sober account of how the world is as we hear the prayers of our hearts, speaking aloud names and injustices alongside Eucharistic thanksgiving and hope. In short, we lament.

What is lament?

Lament is a theological practice. Theological, because lament is human speech to God just as it is human speech about God. Usually, a lament has three aspects:

  • A complaint or cry that is addressed to God.
  • Hope for an answer amid the painful circumstance.
  • God’s response as the source for hope.

During one of the healing services, a parishioner came forward to receive prayer. I was taken aback by their request: “I was driving and saw smoke in the distance. Thinking it was a car accident, I drove to check it out. When I got close, I saw flames.  It looked like someone had set fire to the encampment of someone experiencing homelessness. Can we pray for them?”  Tears brimmed his eyes. I could only muster a simple prayer, “Lord, forgive us, for we don’t know what we do.”

Lament burns

It burns our souls, as we speak truth and bring before God and one another our imperfections. It’s a blessed burn that we feel in our guts, as the obscure 19th century hymn states:

Blest is the one, whose bowels can move,
And melt with pity to the poor,
Whose soul, by sympathizing love,
Feels what the fellow saints endure.
Her heart contrives, for their relief,
More good than her own hands can do;
She, in the time of sighs and grief,
Shall find the Lord has bowels too.[1]

It’s a purifying burn, no doubt, but one that begins by receiving the world as it is. Kenneth Leech, the founder of Centrepoint—one of the UK’s main agencies for young homeless—reminds us when caring in dark times “…silence is critical. If we are to be genuine care-ers, we need to slow down and absorb situations, to learn how to be passive and receptive. It is true that the Greek word from which the words passion and passionate derive means ‘suffer,’ but its root is related to passivity.”[2] That parishioner took the time to notice and receive the smoke signal of suffering. As a result, he entered lament against such inhumane treatment. It was visceral for him, a gut-biome protest from the deepest parts of his core that “rage against the dying of the light.”

What does lament look like?

To stop, notice, and receive the world as it is might be one of the more radical examples of Christ-like discipleship in a world too busy to notice suffering. Lament is theological noticing, pointing to the inconsistent and inhumane ways of the world. But to simply notice, to simply burn without objective, and without a guided hope is to fall short of lament’s practice. One must balance witnessing with courageous acting. If lament is a bi-focal lens, one spectacle gives us vision to see and name the world as it is—the other gives us hopeful vision of a proper response aligned with God’s purposes. One side receives the world, the other side gives to the world.

What is God calling us to do?

I was reminded of lament’s “active side” sitting in a Home Depot parking lot. I was working on a home renovation project of all things and listening to a podcast about Dietrich Bonhoeffer—the 20th century German pastor and theologian, most known for his resistance to Adolf Hitler and his writings from prison when held captive by the Nazi Regime. Standing in the wreckage of one of the most sophisticated societies in Europe, and surveying the massive failures of the church and state to combat the evils of Nazi Germany, Dietrich had the courage to pose a simple question to his fellow Christians: “Are we of any use?”

Tears brimmed my eyes at the thought of the encampment set ablaze. I realized Dietrich’s question was the active question of all Christian lament. In our own sophisticated society, does the Christian church have any use when dealing with the problems that plague our day?

The Christian stands between society’s blasé attitudes towards homelessness and a God confessed to be already active and on-the-scene long before the smoke is noticed. And there, lament invites us into two questions. Do our bowels feel the injustices that we witness? And do we know the sound of our own voice joining in the protest?


[1] This hymn was adapted from A Collection of Spiritual Hymns (Engle et al. 1876): adapted to the various Kinds of Christian Worship, and especially designed for the use of the Brethren in Christ, 2nd ed. (1876), #364. This hymn is further explored alongside the role of lament in worship in Casey T. Sigmon’s essay, Blessed Is the One Whose Bowels Can Move: An Essay in Praise of Lamentin Contemporary Worship. Religions 13: 1161.

[2] Kenneth Leech, “The Time of No Room: Changing Patterns in Responses to Homelessness in Britain,” in Injustice and the Care of Souls (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), 263-275.

The Rev. Trey B. Phillips (he/him) serves as an At-Large Member of the ECF Board of Directors and is the curate and Director of Youth Ministries at St. Catherine’s Episcopal Church (Marietta). There his work focuses upon the Christian formation of the youth and wider parish. Trey's passion is to reinvigorate the local parish as a center for deep theological learning by employing the rich intersection of human learning sciences and religious education. Trey grew up in Alabama and lived in Indiana and South Carolina before he and his spouse, Annie, moved to Atlanta in 2017. Annie is currently a pre-K teacher at College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center in Decatur, GA. They enjoy going to the movies, traveling, and practicing hospitality—usually through board games and cookies! Learn more about the ECF Board of Directors.

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