Reading the Bible with the Damned: Part 2, Preaching Hope

When I started leading the Bible study out at the prison I was in a season of deconstruction. Doubt and questioning were the engine of my spiritual life. Lament was what I was most interested in, the desolations of feeling abandoned by God.

So, when I first went out to the prison, one of my very first studies was going to be about the lament psalms. I was going to share with the inmates Walter Brueggemann's contrast between psalms of orientation, disorientation and reorientation, but leaning heavily into the psalms of disorientation. 

I made this decision because I felt that the prisoners would relate to lament, given their hard and dark circumstances. If anyone should feel God-abandoned, I assumed, surely it would be the incarcerated! Let me, then, help give voice to their lament. I thought this was a winning plan.

It didn't go so well.

About midway through my lesson on the lament psalms, really leaning into their despair, the men in the study started to grow restless and frustrated. Seeing this, I stopped. "What's going on?" I asked.

"Well," they responded, "We get it. We know. Prison is a really dark place. We don't need to be reminded of that." 

"Okay," I said, "Then if lament isn't what you need to hear, what do you need?"

"Hope," they shared. "We need some hope."

This seems blindingly obvious to me now. And in my spiritual biography this exchange was the critical turning point in my season of deconstruction, the hinge moment when I began my season of reconstruction.

Starting that night out at the prison, I began to preach about hope. Given where I was at the time--I was an angsty progressive Christian--this wasn't easy. But I grew into it. Men in a very hopeless place taught me to hope. For that, I am eternally grateful.

Location, location, location. Hope and lament are contextual. In privileged spaces, lament is all the rage. If I were to write on this blog, "we need more lament in the church" I'd get a chorus of Amens from you. And the reason for that is contextual. When a privileged church leans too far into praise, that can be obscene and inappropriate. The winners are praising God for being the winners. Lament among privileged people is good medicine as it forces us to attend to those parts of the world where people aren't winning, where life is broken and painful. In spaces of power, peace, wholeness, and affluence, lament seasons our praise, making it more truthful and honest, keeping us close to where the bleeding is happening in the world.

In short, lament helps a privileged church resist becoming triumphalistic. Lament makes sense in that social location.

But out at the prison, and among the poor, I've learned that hope is the more needed message. In these locations lament is already there and baked in. Despair doesn't need any more attention. Despair is the temptation. What is needed is a move from desolation to hope. 

So, what do you need to to hear? Do I need to draw your attention to the brokenness of the world? Or do you need, as you sit in the ashes, a message of hope? 

Location, location, location.

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