In my early twenties, I had a room-mate who was a PhD student in Space Science. Kandis-Lea was an unexpected mix of folksy and scholarly. She would return from her lab late at night and unwind by watching Touched by an Angel; when I rolled my eyes, she would just giggle. Her research was on the moon of Jupiter called Io, and though I attended her dissertation defense, I could not have told you one thing about it, even an hour later. It all flew straight over my head. To this day, Kandis-Lea closes all her emails to me with “Love you dearly.” We have not lived together since 2001, but she is one my most loyal friends. Should I ever be in grave danger, I am confident the Holy Spirit would alert her and she would throw herself into praying for me.
For five years in our early marriage, Rick and I sat under the most gifted preacher I have ever encountered. With wit, passion, and deep wisdom, Pastor Kevin expounded the Scriptures week after week, always pointing people to the glorious reality of Jesus. We watched him walk through intense persecution with steadfast grace and character. It was from Pastor Kevin that I first learned to fast. Each January, he would fast from food for 40 days as he concertedly sought the Lord in prayer. This year, he is leading his entire congregation in this practice during Lent.
In first grade, my oldest daughter had a once-in-a-lifetime teacher. Mrs. C filled her class with joy and music, and pushed the kids to advanced learning on poetry and geography. She worked daily with the kids struggling to read, and successfully challenged all the others. It was a magical school year for our daughter that cemented her love of learning. I cried for two days when I learned that Mrs. C was retiring before my younger two could have her.
Pastor Kevin, Mrs. C, and Kandi are all black. Together they form a tiny picture of the talent, character, and creativity of black America. Convinced of this, I have sought for years to be an advocate for the dignity and rights of black Americans. I have tried to speak, write, and act on behalf of racial justice. I have prayed that complete justice would arise in the U.S, that the equal value of black Americans would be celebrated, that we would finally live up to our ideals.
As this has failed to happen and as I have grown weary, the weaknesses of my approach have become clear. I have tried activism but I have not tried grief. Preferring to be busy than to be heartbroken, I have kept a safe emotional distance from this central American tragedy. Fearing that I will be swallowed whole if I begin to mourn, I have focused on simply trying to fix things.
I have recently grown terribly discouraged, and God has pointed me to my need to truly lament. Sssh, He has said, take my hand and face the grief. He did this through a book called Justice Calling, which was written by my friend, Kristen Johnson.
In the book, Kristen and her co-author, Bethany Hoang, examine Scripture from beginning to end, seeking to understand “justice” as defined by the Bible. They ask what it looks like to be long term seekers of justice. How can we persevere in the call to pursue human flourishing as we encounter the incredible darkness and brokenness in our world? One of the reasons I appreciate this book is because Kristen and Bethany face the really hard questions:
How do we hold in tension the truth of God’s goodness and love for justice with the reality of pandemic suffering?
Their tone is humble, and their exploration of Scripture comprehensive. This is not a breezy book with simple answers. It pursues the hard questions and points us to deep truths. It seeks to prepare us for long perseverance in pursuing justice. It acknowledges that some may be called to fight sex slavery, others to reform our prison system, others to eradicate global poverty–wherever we are called, this book prepares us to labor there for the long haul. Just as Scripture does.
To this end, Justice Calling devotes a chapter to lament, and it is a chapter I needed. Here’s how they describe biblical lament:
Woven throughout Scripture is an unguarded type of prayer known as lament. To lament is to ask “Why?” and “Why not?” as well as “What are you doing, God?” and “Where are you?” To lament is to pour out our hearts, holding nothing back. It is to pray without trying to be more full of faith than we actually are. Lament is prayer that honors the honesty of pain and anger while also honoring the truth that God is the one who reigns and whose hesed love never fails.
Through this book, God nudged me to acknowledge my grief, my questions, and my fears around the historical and ongoing treatment of black Americans. He invited me to feel all my feelings about this bottomless tragedy.
We are a country that apprehends alive a young man who slaughtered nine people in a Bible study but kills a twelve year old in a park who is playing with a toy gun. We are a nation whose media routinely portray shooting victims as criminals, and legal protests as riots. People who look like me insist on “good schools” for their kids but rarely acknowledge that what they mean is “white and Asian schools.” Research documents how subtle and how pervasive is our societal prejudice against black bodies, but yet we insist that this is all in the past. I see traces of this prejudice in myself, and it scares me. We may have a black president, but we are terribly far from being a racially just society. How can we deny this when a presidential candidate refused to disavow the KKK and yet still led the primaries two days later? We have a deep sickness.
It is time I face my grief. While I cannot wallow there over-long, I must linger for a bit. Honesty and courage require it. My love of Kandis-Lea, Mrs. C., and Pastor Kevin do, too. Doing so may even make me a better advocate for justice, as I join my heartbreak to the heartbreak of those for whom I’m advocating.
I do not know the way forward. I only know it requires pain, honesty, and prayer.
© Laura Goetsch and Thinking About Such Things, 2016