The city is a place where pain cannot be avoided.  Read a Wendell Berry book and you’ll learn how rural pain is hidden behind pretense.  Live in a suburban community and you’ll see not-so-manicured lives behind manicured lawns.  Live in a city, and you’ll have fewer places to hide.  In fact, the broken (often with outstretched hands) may find the exposure they get within the city to be their only hope of sustenance.    

It is to the open doors of the church that we’ll often see addicts flock on a San Francisco Sunday morning.  This is something I never saw in my time in the rural midwest or the southern suburbs.  To the open doors come the delusional, the destitute, and despairing.  But through these doors come 20-something singles who came to the city seeking a new start, often from families mired in pain.  Through these doors come affluent businessmen whose wealth cannot buy a peaceful night’s sleep.  Through these doors come pastors whose stories contain pain, loss, and misunderstanding.  

The great Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has written much on grief, especially in its ancient context.  He writes, “Israel unflinchingly saw and affirmed that life as it comes, along with its joys, is beset by hurt, betrayal, loneliness, disease, threat, anxiety, bewilderment, anger, hatred, and anguish.  The study of lament may suggest a corrective to the euphoric, celebrative notions of faith that romantically pretend that life is sweetness and joy, even delight.  It may be suggested that the one-sided liturgical (charismatic) renewal of today has, in effect, driven the hurtful side of experience into obscure corners of faith practice or completely out of Christian worship” (The Psalms and Life of Faith, p. 68).  

Rouault Crucifixion

It is because of this the urban church cannot help but provide a space for lament – public grief.  To be sure, there are alternative contexts like therapy, and daily I see men and women who privately grieve in this place.  But the magnitude of urban pain demands a liturgical context for grief.  It is a demand that is ancient, yet paves the path for faithful postmodern engagement with the pain of the world.

Just this week, I sat with a woman in therapy whose process was much accelerated by the honesty of the pastor.  Indeed, several crucial implications result:

1.  God is safe:  The implicit communication when churches practice public lament is that God is safe.  In a culture where tv preachers declare the anger of God against (it seems) all who do not look like them, this liturgical practice communicates a clear non-verbal – God is alright with your mess.  In fact, He invites you to speak it.

2.  Grieving is an act of the faithful:  In a time when (it seems) faith = a happy life, the message sent by the liturgically lamenting church is “Blessed are those that mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  For goodness sake, even the saints who have died in Christ lament, crying out, “How long!?” (Rev. 6)

3.  Real joy emerges from faithful grieving:  Again, Brueggemann is helpful noting, “The Psalms have the abrasive effect of dismantling the old systems that hide the well off from the dangerous realities of life.  It is a key insight of Freud that until there is an embrace of honest helplessness, there is no true Gospel that can be heard.  Until the idols have been exposed, there is no chance of the truth of a true God.  It is telling that these Psalms use the words “pit/Sheol/waters/depth,” for in therapy, one must be “in the depths” in order for there to be new life.  Freud has seen that the utter abandonment of pretense is the prerequisite to new joy.”

Urban churches can lead the way in these things precisely because the city is a far more difficult place to hide pain than the suburbs or small town.  To be sure, not all urban churches do this.  Many are fortresses that point to the problems “out there.”  However, a rich and theologically robust spirituality of the city counters the narrative of denial, repression, and resistance, and invites honest helplessness before the face of God.  

A final note:  I suspect that as the West degenerates, as the myth of progress flounders, and as the false reality of social and  economic stability crumbles, society will once again look to spirituality for answers.  Churches that live in denial will have no language for lament, and (as Paul Regele argues persuasively in The Death of the Church) will offer deeply unsatisfying answers and practices.  In these times, the urban church can serve the wider body well by providing it with a liturgy of grief, a way of participating in an honest and ultimately hopeful postmodern improvisation of the ancient way.  With the Cross and Resurrection at its center, the story of both grief and joy can be told and the practices of both lament and praise invited.  The spirituality of the city, therefore, is not merely a matter of living more meaningfully in the now, but engaging an uncertain future with wisdom.        


4 thoughts on “the spirituality of the city – #4 – on grief and the urban church

  1. Heard about your blog via Twitter…like that you used Wendell Berry against himself! Seriously, I like his stuff, and that’s a very good point to think about.
    This quote:

    It is because of this the urban church cannot help but provide a space for lament – public grief.

    necessitates the church to have this vocabulary of lament, and to do it well. The church needs a good dose of lament psalms and Ecclesiastes.

  2. When we are grieving, it is a gift to find so much lament and raw wrestling with God in Scripture. It has made a difference for Frank and me in working through the very public death of Frank’s brother Kelly—a process that continues. Your post gives us all a lot to think about, and leaves me longing for more of the kind of true-to-life honesty you’re encountering in the city.


  3. Enjoyed reading these articles, much to think about. In a moment that favors prosperity theology you don’t hear a lot on the subject of grieving. But when I read so much of the old testament I frequently encounter a strong sense of loss, grief, and longing underpinning the characters. At times it’s as if a dim but inescapable memory of Eden has laid hollow the present and fueled a desperate longing for redemption. I sense that in my own life, and frequently see it on the streets of SF.

    Still there’s something energizing about the city, and about seeing missional work in the gritty reality of major centers. The visceral suffering in urban settings cannot be hidden or avoided; the streets demand comprehension. But it’s also true that “Stadtluft macht frei,” perhaps because cities offer new realities, new rights, new identities and new opportunities as citizens. While our streets are as likely to be paved in hardship than in Gold, perhaps they can serve as parallels to a greater renewal and the freedom through grace to be found in another city.

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