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Laura, the director of Portland Adventist Community Services (PACS), was in her office with an important consultant when she heard what sounded like a wild animal in pain. 

Strange noises at PACS are not unusual. PACS serves folks in the Portland metro area that the Bible might describe as “the least of these, my brethren.”  They give free food to individuals and families in food emergencies and operate a huge thrift store to supply clothing, home goods, electronics, and other essentials at prices that would favor those with an emptier wallet. They also provide free or low-cost dental services. Essentially, they are the Adventist hands and feet of Jesus in Portland.

The consultant in Laura’s office broke from their conversation, fixed his gaze on the wall separating the office and the floor of the clothing store, and said, “Do you think everything’s alright out there?” 

Laura was already halfway out of her seat toward the door as the painful wail grew louder. She excused herself to find out what was causing the ruckus. 

Again, strange sights and sounds are not uncommon at PACS. People in all kinds of states of mind and well-being make their way onto the premises on a daily basis. As a volunteer there, I’ve seen people dressed as vampire-like creatures, people dressed in clothing that seemed to be held together by a thread, drunk people, high people, mentally ill people, and, of course, people from middle-class neighborhoods just looking for a bargain. 

I’ve heard screaming, swearing, raucous laughing, and incoherent babble from people who had just imbibed in their reoccurring bad habit. It’s not unusual to see people come onto campus with everything they own in a pull cart or a backpack. 

The Lamenting Woman

Laura ran toward the bellowing and found what turned out to be one of the sweetest Jesus moments she’d ever seen. 

On the floor was a customer, wailing inconsolable laments. The sounds coming from her were not intelligible. But they were identifiably mournful, coming from a deep, deep place of brokenness.  

Sitting next to the woman on the floor was the staff accountant, a woman more likely comfortable with a calculator and ledger than in a situation like this. The accountant waived Laura off. “I’m doing OK here. It’s OK. We’re OK.”

After a few minutes of the woman’s heavy weeping, the staff chaplain/counselor relieved the staff accountant to continue caring for this broken child of God. 

A Safe Place

The sobbing turned into language and the story was formed. 

“My husband and I used to shop here all the time. For years we would come here to get food and other items just to make ends meet. Neither of us has had good experiences in churches or with Christians, but the people here were always so friendly and approachable. We always felt seen here. People always listened and responded to us with a smile and a kind word. We felt safe here. Then, the pandemic hit and we stopped coming. It’s been a couple of years since I’ve been here.”

The counselor gently asked, “How did you find yourself here today?”

The woman described how her life had taken a sudden turn for the worst. Relationships were broken. Finances were scarce. Other challenges she described left her feeling fearful and uncertain of her future. She was experiencing the kinds of loss that maybe only Job in the Bible could describe.

“I didn’t have a safe place to go. I didn’t have a place to let all this pain out. Then I thought of you folks here at PACS. I knew I would be safe here. So this is where I came. When I walked in, I knew I’d be safe. Thank you for giving me a place to be safe in my pain.”

What this woman did, what she experienced in the safety of this Adventist Community Service organization is what the Bible calls, lament. 

What Is Lament?

Lament is a core spiritual practice that has its legitimacy in Scripture. In fact, the Bible is filled with it. We even have a whole book named after the practice of lament. 

It seems like a majority of the Psalms we have in the middle of our Bibles are filled with laments. Eli saw Hannah lamenting outside of the temple. Jacob lamented when he thought he had lost Joseph. David lamented over his sin and the loss of more than one of his children. Job lamented the losses in his life. There were times in Old Testament Israel when the whole community would come together and lament. And Jesus lamented. He lamented the loss of his friend Lazarus, and He also lamented on the cross. He expressed gut-wrenching lament as he screamed, “My God! My God! Why have You forsaken Me!?”

Lament is a spiritual practice that we don’t know how to handle. We try to correct lament with humor, logic, or avoidance. Sometimes we see lament as a nuisance that is inappropriate in a public setting. Most of us certainly don’t know how to join lament and participate in it. It’s just so—uncomfortable. 

I occasionally visit a church in the Redlands area that decided as one of its core values was to practice weekly corporate lament. They give their congregation a number to text and start with a song of praise. As the song or praise is played, praises and thanksgiving appear on the screen from the congregation. 

Then, an invitation to lament is given. As a song of lament is sung, texts appear on the screen from the congregation that can only be described as crying out in lament to the God they know will hear them. It’s a powerful moment every time I experience it. It’s one of the healthiest expressions of worship I’ve seen in a local church.

Questions for Your Church

Here are a couple of questions to leave with you. 1) Is your church a safe place to lament? If not, how can you help create a church that is safe for lament? 2) Are you a person who can respond to lament in an appropriate way? If you don’t know, I encourage you to explore ways to know how to respond to mourning and lament; to embrace it and sit with it for an appropriate season. 3) Are you holding your lament in, not knowing how to cry out to God? If you are holding your lament for fear of judgmental eyes and ears, I’d encourage you to find a safe way to cry out to God. Journal your pain and loss on paper. Find a safe listening ear to cry out to.

Sometimes an empty church can be a space where a mournful lament can be expressed. Or a place in nature. And yes, sometimes your lament can be shared safely in the middle of an Adventist thrift store run by people who have learned to embrace lament as a part of everyday life. 

Mark Witas wrote this when he lived in Portland, Oregon.

If you enjoyed this, you may also enjoy How We Worship | Dare to Hope in God: How to Lament Well 

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About Mark Witas

Mark Witas

writes from the Pacific Northwest.

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