Lamentations as the Textbook for Newly Arrived Missionaries
I just finished reading Jeremiah and Lamentations. Boy am I glad that’s over.
Ever feel that way? If it weren’t for reading plans, there are parts of the Bible we would probably never peruse. They just come across as too hard to understand, too foreign to relate. Jeremiah describes Israel’s collapse into exile as a result of God’s wrath over their stiff-necked disobedience. Then Lamentations poetically grieves the fallout. Honestly, the books can be, well, depressing—not exactly the kind of material for a warm and fuzzy quiet time.
And that’s precisely why we need them.
The Fallout of the Newly Arrived Missionary
Having been a newly arrived missionary, and having pastored many newly arrived missionaries, there’s a relevant analogy for their experience: the airplane toilet. Yes, the long preparation for being sent cross-culturally can be likened to a normal toilet: the momentum begins slowly and eventually builds into a whirlpool that deposits them on their way. But arriving on the field? That’s like the sudden and violent plunge of the mile-high privy. Even the honeymoon bliss of a new culture gets suctioned away by the instant identity loss. It’s why a large percentage of missionaries don’t make it past the first term. Their experience can be, well, depressing.
This comes despite the fact they had been told a million times how hard it would be. But what do the warnings matter if they’re not taught how to navigate the suffering?! Imagine Jesus saying to the disciples on the eve of his departure: “Yeah guys it’s really gonna suck when I’m gone, but you know, just push through it.” Um…that’s really helpful, thanks.
No, instead Jesus prepares them:
These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. John 14:25-27
He points them to the resources they will need to navigate all that is to come: his word and his Spirit. And you know what that included (and still does)? Jeremiah and Lamentations.
The Resource of the Newly Arrived Missionary
Of course, the newly arrived missionary is not facing God’s wrath as a result of their stiff-necked disobedience. But they are in exile. If the lot of all followers of Jesus is to be, as Elliot Clark puts it, “strangers in our own land,” then the exile described in 1 Peter 1:1 is even more descriptive of the missionary. Thus to missionaries the weeping of Jeremiah might just be a welcome companion, and the anguish of Lamentations a daily guide.
That is, if we are willing to acknowledge our almost total loss of the Christian discipline called lament. According to The Bible Project, lament is a form of protesting our broken world, a processing of emotion, and a place to voice confusion. Rather than downplaying our suffering (which is our more familiar “Christian discipline”), lament gives a sacred dignity to it.
I like to describe lament as our God-given exhaust pipe. Shove a pinecone in your exhaust pipe and one of two things will happen: either the engine will eventually explode or the exhaust pipe will relieve itself with an epic burst. Why in the world would you want to do that to your car?! Ironically, it’s exactly what we do to ourselves when we live without lament.
Consider the movements of Lamentations’ five chapters and how they can apply to the newly arrived missionary:
The opening chapter personifies Jerusalem as a widow in distress. The emotional weight of all the destruction can only be effectively expressed as a funeral: “Look, O Lord, for I am in distress; my stomach churns; my heart is wrung within me…it is like death” (v. 20). Although the missionary may not be facing a literal funeral, a similar tumult of soul will be common. Learning to sit in the ashes may well be what keeps them from turning to dust.
The poetry of the second chapter then gets at this gracious reality: even though the judgment is deserved, the lament is justified. In verse 19 we are told, “Arise, cry out in the night, at the beginning of the night watches! Pour out your heart like water before the presence of the Lord!” A gracious Father does not say to the missionary, “You got yourself into this, so stop complaining.” No, he invites his child to pour out her angst over bitter circumstances—to the very One who called her into them in the first place.
The third chapter again personifies Israel, this time as a lonely, broken man. To remind us that lament is not just an obscure practice for exiles, the author draws on other Old Testament laments from Job, the Psalms, and Isaiah’s suffering servant. And as perhaps the crown jewel of the whole book, it views the collapse as the seedbed of hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. (vv. 22-26)
My, how the missionary will wait! Wait for language and culture acquisition. Wait for new friends. Wait for an acclimated stomach. Lament can keep them waiting well.
In the fourth chapter the author intentionally braves what has the greatest potential for an emotional meltdown—he compares the past to the present. With shocking detail he writes, “Her princes were purer than snow…Now their face is blacker than soot…The hands of compassionate women, have [now] boiled their own children” (vv. 7-8, 10). The missionary may fear making past-present comparisons because it feels like grumbling and self-pity. But lament is not grumbling and self-pity.
Although it’s counterintuitive, intentionally lamenting what has been lost actually lessens the potential for emotional meltdown in the long run. That’s why I included these words of lament in “A Liturgy for Missionaries During the Holidays”:
We confess our hesitancy to fully acknowledge such grief
for fear that it might flood us
and carry us from the very field
to which you have called us.
But it is through grief that you remind us, Lord,
there is something of worth to our souls.
And the loss of a worthy thing hurts—
it really hurts.
Yet you are not a Father who scolds his child
when her balloon floats away,
but, rather, draws her into your arms
because you measure her losses not by your standards,
So by our trust of you,
we take the risk of unwrapping before you
our aching absences…
Missionary subculture may say, “Don’t look back.” But Lamentations says otherwise.
To our surprise, the book concludes without the happy resolution we’d like. The final words offer a plea that merges both faith and uncertainty: “Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old—unless you have utterly rejected us, and you remain exceedingly angry with us” (vv. 21-22). Lament is not intended to tie a bow on the missionary’s grief.
Interestingly however, almost every time missionaries risk sharing their sorrows with me, they then conclude with something like this:
“...but we’re doing well.”
“...but God has been so kind.”
“...but we know it will all work out.”
I understand and appreciate that this is their way of expressing faith. But lament says that uncertainty directed to God is not mutually exclusive from faith, and may even be the more hard-wrung expression of it. Suffering in silence and seeking a bow is not a virtue in Lamentations. The invitation is to hold nothing back—anger, confusion, despair—as a gritty conviction that God can handle it without rejecting us. In good company do we cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
So there you have it. In the nuts and bolts of being a brand new missionary, the book of Acts will no doubt be a handy manual. But when it comes to the meatgrinder of transition, and a soul desperate to protest its pain, there’s only one way to get the toxins out. Read Lamentations—and then make your own. It’s ok, God can handle it.
This article was originally featured at The Upstream Collective.