For many of us, leadership is a by-product of youth and children’s work. But we want to lead well, so each month we unpack an issue we face as leaders, and offer some guidance to traverse it.
Perhaps the most powerful moment I have ever experienced in youth ministry was also one of the most tragic.
Simon was a friend and, for a season, a colleague in ministry. We worked together on the core team of a youth festival and served at the same church together; I as an elder and he as a youth pastor. After a number of years serving in that capacity he moved with his family to take on a senior leadership position in a church in a nearby town. He injected that church with fresh vision after what had been a difficult season for them.
That community found a new vibrancy under his leadership – a sense of direction and missional purpose. The youth ministry in particular was flourishing with a group of young people who were not just showing up to gatherings, but passionately pursing God together. It seemed as if everything was going, as they say, ‘up and to the right’.
That was until the diagnosis. It was terminal. Treatment could provide comfort and delay death, the doctors said, but not prevent it.
It was a sucker-punch to the gut that sent shockwaves, not only through his local church, but through our entire network of churches. This young pastor with so much potential, passion and vision, this young man with a lovely young family was facing the prospect of having his life suddenly cut short.
So we did the only thing we could do: we rallied to prayer. I travelled to his church for that first prayer meeting. The building was packed to the rafters. The mood was defiant. There was rousing worship, passionate intercession, stirring faith. The young people were there too, right in the middle of it – not just praying for healing, but genuinely believing for it.
And they weren’t the only ones. Prophetic words were given to affirm a healing miracle, and I’ll never forget the moment when, some months later, Simon himself stood in front of our conference of leaders announcing that he would be healed – a declaration that was met with rapturous applause.
Faith was high. Intercession consistent. Hope kindled.
“Lament simply means to pour out our heart authentically before God in a time of pain”
It was only when Simon was moved to the hospice that hope began to evaporate. We knew then it was time. A couple of weeks thereafter, Simon went to be with his first love.
The next week I travelled back to Simon’s church to spend some time with the young people there. To be honest, I was nervous. How on earth do you begin to help young people process such great tragedy?
I at least knew what not to do. Empty platitudes would not suffice. Well-meaning cliches such as: “He’s in a better place now” or “We can take comfort that he is finally free from pain” would do little to ease their heartache. Worse still, a theological explanation of suffering, or an exposition of ‘the now and the not yet’ of the kingdom of God, while true, would be outstandingly insensitive for such a time.
With the help of the Holy Spirit I concluded that we could not cover the pain, we should not explain the pain, we could only enter the pain.
“You can never get to the joy,” writes Henri Nouwen, “if you dare not cry, if you do not have the courage to weep, if you don’t take the opportunity to experience the pain.”
Yes. “Experience the pain.” That was our path.
So together we employed the ancient spiritual discipline of lament.
Lament simply means to pour out our heart authentically before God in a time of pain. It’s what the psalmist describes when he writes: “I pour out my complaint before him; I tell my trouble before him” (Psalm 142:2 ESV).
Did you get that? “Pour out my complaint.” Did you know that God is big enough for our complaints? He is not interested in what we think we should say, he is interested in what we really want to say.
Not only so, the discipline of lament also invites us to question God. Do you know that God doesn’t fear your questions, he actually invites them? Listen to the words of these prayers:
“You will be righteous, Lord, even if I bring a case against you. Yet, I wish to contend with you: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the treacherous live at ease?” (Jeremiah 12:1 CSB).
“Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalms 10:1).
And so with this wonderful group of hurting young people, we split into groups and gathered around some large pieces of flipchart paper, and there we poured out our complaint to God. We asked God all of our burning ‘why’ questions: “Why didn’t you heal him God?” “Why didn’t you respond to our prayers and our fasting?” “Why would you allow him to die and leave this beautiful young family behind?” “Why did people give prophetic words about his healing?” “Are you even there, God?”
Critically, we didn’t seek to answer these questions, we just gave permission for them to be asked.
The thing about the discipline of lament, though, is that, while it starts with our complaints and questions, it doesn’t end there. As we engage in this discipline, we move from speaking from our soul to speaking to our soul.
“Why, my soul, are you so dejected? Why are you in such turmoil? Put your hope in God, for I will still praise him, my Saviour and my God” (Psalms 42:5 CSB).
And so, that evening we did likewise. We took two more pieces of flipchart paper and asked: “Where have we seen God at work through this whole process?” “What do we have to give thanks for even in the darkest of circumstances?” “And what do we want to see happen in and through this group of young people, not in spite of, but because of, all that we’ve been through?”
We finished the evening by reading out our own psalm of lament – a prayer formed by their words, their emotions, their questions. It was messy and disjointed, yes, but it was real. There was vulnerability. There were tears. Even laughter. The Holy Spirit was profoundly present. And as we unashamedly entered into our pain together, the healing process began.
Brian Heasley of 24/7 Prayer writes these words: “Sometimes what takes us deeper is not something we choose or even want; it’s not always something that we make happen but it’s something that happens to us. I have friends who have been through incredible times of pain and sorrow; they didn’t ask for them, they didn’t deserve them, they didn’t bring them on themselves, and they would rather not have suffered such loss. Yet they have emerged from those dark times as deeper, more godly people. God has a way of bringing something beautiful even out of the most is difficult, ugly times.”
Dear friends, the journey to joy goes through the pain. So don’t run from it, don’t minimise it, don’t deny it or even try to explain it. Enter it. Feel it. Express it. And as you lament, may you know ‘”the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).