Here in my neighborhood in Indianapolis, we cumulatively had less than an hour of rain over the months of June and July.
The grass turned brown and crackled underfoot; even with several waterings each week, our garden struggled. I was taken aback by how profoundly disturbed I was by the drought. Every time the sky would turn dark and cloudy, I would pray and hope fervently for rain. I can’t even remember the number of times that something within me groaned when the clouds rolled through without a single raindrop. With the prominent shootings this summer on top of the drought, I’ve been thinking a lot about lament. Although lament is a familiar practice of God’s people throughout the Old and New Testaments, it is very foreign to most Westerners today; and certainly not one that is discussed, let alone practiced in our churches. Since the drought this summer has been so widespread, I wonder if this shared experience could lead us into deeper practices of lament.
In their important book Reconciling All Things, Chris Rice and Emmanuel Katongole argue that lament is an important part of the reconciliation process. “To the extent that we have not learned to lament,” they argue, “we deal superficially with the world’s brokenness, offering quick and easy fixes that do not require our conversion.” The authors describe lament as a journey of unlearning, specifically unlearning our habits of speed, distance and innocence. Thinking of lament in this way, as unlearning these three habits will be useful as we reflect on what it means to lament the drought.
Of the three habits we need to unlearn, distance is perhaps the easiest to grasp in relation to the drought. Many of the areas in other parts of the world have struggled in recent decades with drought, and even more pointedly have struggled to have clean water to drink. Thankfully, water issues have been getting much attention in recent years through the work of groups like Living Water International, but the drought is a keen reminder that we all live at the mercy of God. The extraordinary access that we have to water in Western culture has distanced us from the ecological realities of how essential (and tenuous) water is not only for drinking but also for the growth of our food. As we lament the drought, these realities are again brought close to us, as are the struggles of those fellow humans who have little or no access to clean water.
The current drought, and the restrictions that many local communities placed on the use of water served to slow our collective consumption of this resource. Unlearning our habits of speed as we lament the drought might mean that we develop habits that are slower and more attentive to how we use water. Perhaps if we were not so concerned with our image, we would not use nearly as much water in efforts to keep our lawns green. Perhaps we would be careful to take shorter showers, or look for fixtures and appliances that use less water. Lament calls for our conversion; with regard to water, part of our conversion is to a lifestyle that is slower and more careful in its water use.
Lamenting the drought also reminds us that we do not use water innocently. My overuse of water will ultimately impact my neighbor, as well as everyone else whose water comes from the same reservoir. And the problems go well beyond drinking water, depleting our water supplies will impact our ability to grow our own food, which will heavily boost food prices in the coming year and also make us reliant upon food grown in other places, which also means additional drain on the water resources in the places where the food is grown, and further financial burdens upon us. Eco-systems consist of many interdependent creatures, connected through a complex web of relationships that humankind is only beginning to comprehend. Therefore, our rabid consumption of other resources such as oil and forests may very well be contributing—through ecological processes such as climate change—to the availability of water resources in places around the globe. Lamenting the drought will lead us into deeper exploration of our complicity in water injustices, and eventually repentance of the sorts of behaviors that contribute to these injustices.
The beautiful fruits of lament, however, are a deeper experience of joy and gratitude. When we deeply mourn a loss, how joyful and grateful we are when that which was lost is recovered. This week, as I have been writing this article, the dry spell has broken here in central Indiana, and I have been filled with joy. How good and refreshing it is to walk and dance in the rain and to hear its drumming on the window panes.
As we look at lament in the scriptures, we see that lament was intended to be shared by the community of God’s people. Our local congregations are the places today where we should learn to share each other’s burdens and to lament together. Part of this process of recovering lament in our churches will be creating spaces for conversation, where we can not only share our burdens, but also reflect together on how we should respond to these situations.
The drought offers a ripe opportunity for reflection, confession and eventually conversion about ways in which we use water, but it’s only the beginning. We undoubtedly have members and neighbors who have health or financial struggles; can we learn to lament with them, not immediately trying to fix their struggles but simply abiding with them? God desires a compassionate people, a community that mourns with those who mourn and suffers with those who suffer. Lament is the discipline that forms us into compassion, may God give us the wisdom and the courage to begin relearning how to lament together.
C. Christopher Smith lives and writes as part of the Englewood Christian Church community on the urban Near Eastside of Indianapolis, where he is the Senior Editor of The Englewood Review of Books. Chris is co-author of the award-winning book Slow Church (2014), author of Reading for the Common Good (2016), and is presently finishing a book manuscript with the working title, Conversational Bodies: A Field Guide for the Journey Toward Belonging.