"Burying Lament," Acts 8:2

Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him.
Acts 8:2 (NRSV)

Lamentation is kind of a lost word in Christianity.  The Greek word here, kopetos, which literally means, “to beat one’s chest,” but it generally refers to the practice of mourning.  Historically most cultures had particular customs for mourning: Native Americans cut their hair and European widows wore all black for a certain period of time.  In ancient Jewish culture mourning included, “going barefoot, stripping off one’s clothes, rumpling or cutting the hair and beard, cutting oneself, the scattering of ashes, fasts, banquets, cries of sorrow and laments.”[1]  Mourners would often hire professional mourners to accompany them.  I’ve heard modern Christians criticize this practice as disingenuous, but the intention was quite beautiful: if you’re surrounded by a bunch of people wailing you won’t feel embarrassed by your own emotions, you could let loose.  Our system, if we can call it that, isn’t nearly as kind.  Today it is much more common for people to suppress their grief in public—certainly not to raise loud lament![2]

Lament also entails candid conversation with God.  Consider these words from the book of Lamentations:
[God] has walled me about so that I cannot escape; he has put heavy chains on me; though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer; he has blocked my ways with hewn stones, he has made my paths crooked.
Lamentations 3:7-9 (NRSV, clarification added)
When was the last time you talked about God that way?  Or accused him directly?  It has rarely been my experience that churches make room for such lament.  But these feelings—the desire to wail, weep, hurt, scream, accuse God, or at least be frank with him—will come whether a congregations makes room for them or not.  When we don’t make room for them we only encourage people to suppress their feelings, run from their grief, and hide their true emotions from us. 

I hope you know that when life hits you, it's safe to do
this at River Street.
Here in Acts, even though Stephen’s death was noble and he stood firm, his friends grieved deeply at his loss.  Apparently they went through the common mourning practices of their community.  The use of the word “lament,” suggests that they asked God, “Why?”[3]  Perhaps they even dealt with anger toward him, wishing he had intervened to spare Stephen.  These Spirit-filled pioneers of our faith practiced lament, leaned into their grief, let the hurt overcome them, and mourned together.[4] 

So can we be a community of lament?  Can we be a place where we mourn with people? 

[1] Gerhard Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. III (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981) 837.
[2] The word "loud" is actually the Greek word, megan, which is where we get the word, “mega.”  So literally, mega-lamentation.
[3] If you’d like to see a pretty raw discussion of lament, you can read an article by a George Fox Seminary alum here.
[4] You may notice that I come back to this topic often.  That’s because it is so damaging to grieving people when we trivialize their pain or make no room for it.  Conversely, it is so healing when we let someone grieve in our presence and even grieve with them.  We’re not talking about something ethereal, this is real life, rubber-hitting-the-road stuff. 


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