One of the key element in racial reconciliation is recognizing the experience of minorities in majority cultures. Pastor Mark Vroegop maintains that the practice of lament, both individually and corporately, is an important first step in that process, yet a practice that many Christians are unfamiliar with. Join Sean and Scott for this stimulating conversation about the spiritual discipline of lament.
Mark's new book is Weep with Me: How Lament Opens a Door for Racial Reconciliation.
About our Guest
Mark Vroegop is the lead pastor of College Park Church in Indianapolis and the author of Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament, the ECPA 2020 Christian Book of the Year.
Scott Rae: Welcome to the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. I'm your host, Scott Rae, dean of faculty and professor of Christian ethics at Talbot School of Theology here at Biola University.
Sean McDowell: And I'm your co-host, Sean McDowell, professor of apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Scott Rae: We're here with our guest today, Mark Vroegop, who's the lead pastor of College Park Church in Indianapolis. He's got a brand new book out entitled Weep With Me, subtitled How Lament Opens a Door for Racial Reconciliation. Mark, we're so glad to have you with us. Thanks for taking the time to come on and talk about your book. You've got some terrific things to say, very insightful stuff on the subject of racial reconciliation.
Mark Vroegop: Well guys, thanks for having me on, and I appreciate your interest in the subject of the book.
Scott Rae: Let me ask you just the first sort of obvious question to get it out of the way. Because I suspect some of our listeners will be thinking the same thing. This is a book by a white pastor on racial reconciliation. So two things. What motivated you to write this? And some critics might wonder why should we take a book written by a white pastor on racial reconciliation and why should we take that seriously?
Mark Vroegop: It's a great question. I'm really glad you asked because I wrestled with that. And quite frankly, some of my friends wrestled with that. Why would a white guy write a book on this? And essentially I never intended to, but in God's providence, two things merged at the same time. One, I started doing some writing on the subject of lament in general because of my own experience that my wife and I have had with a stillborn baby, pastoring people through their grief, and discovered the grace of lament and the first book that I wrote called Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy. Well, while I'm writing that book, there's this movement of racial reconciliation happening in the context of our church. And what was remarkable is that the deeper I went with, particularly my black brothers and sisters, in terms of their pain, their experience, even what was going on in our church it suddenly dawned on me like they're lamenting. That's what's happening here.
And when I began to understand that and apply some of the lessons from my own life with grief and incorporate that into the conversation about racial reconciliation, it really helped. Didn't solve the problem by any means. It becomes more of a language that instead of the conversation kind of tipping away from one another, it actually has the possibility of tipping it toward one another. And so this book is just designed to provide a helpful tool of someone who's trying to engage in this conversation in a way that is helpful, biblical. And also one of the reasons that I had a number of other people contribute lament prayers from a variety of ethnicities was in order to help people understand what it would sound like for black brothers and sisters, white brothers and sisters to lament together, and how that might look through different voices with different experiences and different backgrounds.
Sean McDowell: The big idea that you seem to make in the book is that what's missing in the church pursuit of racial reconciliation is lament. How exactly does lament really help in this pursuit?
Mark Vroegop: Yeah, I think it's not the only thing missing. I think it's one thing that's missing, to be clear. Again, I want to be really careful and not like, hey, this is the silver bullet that just changes everything. I do think, though, that lament helps in that lament is the language of empathy and exile. It's how people in exile communicate, and this is really hard. So it's important to know when people are feeling their otherness. When they express that, I think it's important to have a category for what's going on. They're lamenting. So give them some grace, let's hear that.
On the other hand, it's the language of empathy. And I think in the same way that the scriptures commands husbands to live with their wives in an understanding way, same way that I've applied that in my marriage to my wife, Sarah, when she's had a hard struggling day or an experience in life that's been painful and has shaped her, having a conversation about either what happened or what she should do about it is worlds different when I start with empathy. And in that way, lament, is that something that can help bring the conversation toward one another, not away from each other. And I kind of have this model that I think of racial reconciliation conversations following a pathway of love. We're one in Christ. Listen, I'm going to have a bias to listen first, James 1:19. Lament, the first thing I can do is lament with you. Then I think there's hope that we can then learn and then leverage. So love, listen, lament, learn, leverage. So lament, again, doesn't solve all the problems, but if you put it in the right place in the conversation, it actually can really help.
Scott Rae: Mark, you made reference in just a minute ago to your own personal and family experience with lament. It sounds like not only ministering to people in your church, but also coming out of your own personal experience. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Mark Vroegop: Okay. Yeah. So in 2004, after having three healthy pregnancies with no complications, my wife and I had a stillborn daughter. Name is Sylvia. She was born at 39 weeks, six pounds, looked like she could just wake up at any moment. And man, the Lord just rocked us with that pain, and trying to put our life back together again, preaching every Sunday. Then we had multiple miscarriages after that. We just were in this dark season for a long, long time. And tried as best as I could, leveraging my theology, talking to God, praying and just pouring my heart out to him. I really didn't even know what I was frankly doing at the time. I just was trying to be honest with the Lord, but we found that the people in the church didn't know what to do with our pain, they didn't have a category of lament. We didn't have a category of lament. And then a number of years ago, I sort of discovered this category and I was like, oh, that's what was going on.
And the more I researched it, the more I taught on it, lamenters kind of came out of the woodwork. And Thiel began asking, hey, what would it look like to put this into practice in a different, new and more robust way? And so I began exploring that in order to help people know how to practice the grace of lament and discover this category that the Bible has for grieving people. The one thing I've heard more than anything else is you just described the last five years of my life. Most people don't set out on a journey to study lament. Usually lament finds them. And when you have the category, it's really helpful.
Scott Rae: Well, I wonder if that's the same way it was in the scripture, too, the lament Psalms, for example. I don't think the Psalmist actually set out to do that, those all came out of a case where life found them.
Mark Vroegop: Right.
Scott Rae: I mean, the lament Psalms, they're all over the Psalms, but where else in the scripture do you find lament?
Mark Vroegop: Yeah. Well, besides one out of every three Psalms, I mean, just think of that, a third of the Psalms is this minor key song set. You find it in the entire book of Lamentations. Longest recorded lament that just wrestles with the destruction of Jerusalem and wondering, God, have you abandoned us? Other places of the Bible, you'll find in the book of revelation, where the martyrs cry out, how long until you event our blood. You find it in the book of Daniel. You'll find it in the gospels, Jesus on the cross. My God. My God. Why have you forsaken me? He quotes Psalm 22. The language is all over the Bible, any moment of grief often has some kind of expression of lament connected to it. And in my first book, I argue that to cry is human. We enter the world crying, but to lament is uniquely Christian. It's one of the most theologically informed things that we do as we live kind of between the pull of, I believe in God's sovereignty, but man, my life is hard.
Sean McDowell: That's a really interesting way to think about that. I just, I paused when you said that lament is uniquely Christian. On that note, why do you think, if it is uniquely Christian and it's supposed to be such a part of our experience and our theology and our lives, why is it that you think you found it or didn't find it in your church tradition in the white church, but it's a significant part of the black church experience?
Mark Vroegop: I think that part of the reason, and I don't know all of the reasons, but part of the reason is because often we study the things that we need to because of what we're dealing with. The black church from its inception in the United States always had to deal with otherness, and dealing with difficulties and rejection and a sense of, we need to find who our identity is based upon our vertical relationship with our creator, because the horizontal relationships in terms of what people think of us as image bearers is just completely out of whack. And so I think that's why it emerges in the black church experience. And if you were to look in American music history, for instance, you'd find lament, you'd find it in African-American spirituals.
For the white church, and I want to be careful, you don't want to be too model with it with every kind of church based upon descriptions of black or white, but I think it's generally true that for those of us in the white church tradition, while we've experienced levels of difficulty and hardship, that hasn't been the long-term and normative Sunday to Sunday experience, we're more interested in sort of a triumphalistic kind of approach. And I think that's often reflected both in the content of our sermons, in our liturgy, the songs we write and as a result, I think that when hardship comes we're sometimes ill-prepared for important categories of grief let alone what it means to lament.
Scott Rae: Now, Mark, you described, a few minutes ago, you described the minority experience as parallel with exile in biblical times. Tell us a little bit more, unpack that a bit. How are they alike?
Mark Vroegop: Well, to be an exile means that you're displaced, you're an outsider. You're not part of your home, if you will. As I studied African-American church history and history of slavery in the United States, and even got to know some of our black brothers and sisters in my church really well, it was just remarkable how often they had to wrestle with this feeling of otherness. In some cases, you're an exile and you're displaced in another country. I mean, that would be chattel slavery. In other cases, you could feel like an exile in your own country or maybe even in your own church. And as I talked with some of my black friends, even coming to our own church, sad to understand that sometimes they felt very much other because of how they were treated in a church that values and loves the gospel and would fully buy into the belief that everyone is our image bearers. And yet that exile experience is there.
And so what do people do when they not only know they're, but they feel it. I mean, the Bible is filled with commands about how exiles are to act, and particular Psalms are written while the nation of Israel was in exile, and how that exile expression through lament can be both very therapeutic and helpful to talk to God about it. And in other ways it can also be a bit of a protest to say, man, this is really hard. And so you find that language in the Bible and also that experience of being an outsider, of being other, and I think in that respect, there's some good parallels there.
Sean McDowell: Can you help me have some handles on this, of what this would look like in a church, in a family for an individual? Is it in the worship songs? Is it in collective reading? What could it look like to more naturally and biblically incorporate lament in the life of a family and individual or a church?
Mark Vroegop: Yeah. If we just apply lament generally, and not specifically to the racial reconciliation conversation, it could look like in one's personal prayer life, instead of using kind of the standard prayer form that many of us learned, acts, adoration, confession, thanks giving, supplication, to use a model that I talk about, which is to turn, complain, ask and trust. So laments generally have those four elements in them. Have to be careful, laments aren't linear. They're not always all there, but to think about how do I take my griefs to God individually? And then how do I do that corporately? Like there're moments when, as a church, because of the death of someone in the church family that funerals instead of being celebrations of life, which isn't inappropriate, but it's just interesting how lament light even funerals are. And yet Solomon told us it's better to go to the house of mourning than the house of feasting.
And why is that? Because you learn more at funerals than you do at parties. And lament is the language that helps us to be reminded that our world is broken, but God is good and there's stuff that we need to learn. So even reading lament Psalms, it's striking to me that we don't read them out loud. We're always uncomfortable with their candor. Songs could be written in the lament genre. We've worked on this as a church and have had some musicians done a great job writing some great laments, could relate to how we pray about national incidents. How do we express our grief and remorse, and in some cases, how do we even design whole services that could kind of follow that structure of turn, complain, ask and trust? So the point is more just that we understand that this language is really important and probably more important for more people in our congregations than what we would even realize.
Sean McDowell: That's really helpful with lament as a whole, let's focus on kind of the racial issue here for a minute because that's what you talk a lot about in your book. What would it look like to do better at lamenting to help bring racial reconciliation?
Mark Vroegop: Yeah. One, I think is in my space as a white evangelical pastor, as I'm in relationship with my black brothers and sisters, and as they express their grief or pain, that I realized that what I'm seeing and hearing is grief and pain. So many people jump from hearing that expression to wanting to debate or argue about the validity of what it is that's they're grieving about. And if you've ever working with somebody who's grieving, it's hard to feel loved when you have to defend why you're sad or why this is traumatic. And so I think if our first step could be lament, and not that those conversations about, hey, help me understand this further and all of that, those things should still be on the table, but if lament could be our first step, it changes the nature of the conversation. So that's individually and just understanding it.
Secondly, just expressing to them, brothers and sisters who are grieving because of what's happening and how triggering certain events can be. I'm praying with you, I'm lamenting with you. Even stopping to pray with them in the midst of a moment that is just either personally painful or brings back a lot of memories. Or the other thing is at a pastoral prayer, in the midst of a cultural moment where a racial incident has happened again, and you got black church members wondering, are they going to say anything and white church members who are like, what in the world do we say? Lament can be a language that you can use that kind of helps to thread the needle that we can talk to God about the difficulties of a broken world of which racism or racial insensitivities is certainly a part.
Scott Rae: Mark, to take that one step further, you make the statement that I found kind of arresting in the book that lament helps redeem the hurt. I found interesting you used the language of redemption instead, and it sounds like that goes a little bit further than just what we would think about empathy that you described earlier. What do you mean by that phrase? Lament helps redeem the hurt.
Mark Vroegop: Yeah. So I specifically wrote that in regards to the minority community, that I'm trying to help pastor them in the midst of their grief, how to use lament when a racial incident happens or when they feel the sting of their otherness. I tried to tread really carefully with that in the book, because that's not been my experience. So I'm trying to pastor people whose experience I haven't had personally, but I know that lament helped me to redeem my hurt when people would say insensitive things after our daughter died, or just there was lingering pain from that, that sometimes people just were grossly insensitive. Sometimes they were just accidentally insensitive. And lament was a way for me to process that hurt and to redeem it so that I could keep moving forward without allowing that hurt to become so internalized that it went another direction that proved to be internally destructive.
One of the contributors to my book Weep With Me made a comment after they wrote a lament prayer, how incredibly therapeutic and refreshing it was to talk to the Lord about what they were experiencing. I've just find lament to be that at so many levels, especially in regards to, especially in regards to what we do with this level of pain, with racial reconciliation.
Sean McDowell: Let's get specific. When it comes to the issue of lament, what is there to lament about in terms of race? Because I know people look at this and some will say, well, how do I lament for a sin that I didn't commit? And others will say, no, we should lament because we're a part of the people and the hurt in the past. How do you navigate that? So when it comes to race, what exactly are we lamenting of?
Mark Vroegop: Yeah. Well, really, you've got two questions there, two issues. So let me deal with the first, just about lament and race in general. I think that the beauty of lament is that it can express sympathy, empathy, sorrow, without figuring out and assessing all of the issues about repenting or expressing sorrow because you caused something. I think that lament is beautifully helpful in the sense that surely Christians, when they see something on the TV that has enormous racial overtones to it can acknowledge. Man, our world is broken. God, we need your help. I don't know what to do about this. This hurts my brothers and sisters, who I love, and I am with them in their pain, even before all the facts are known, the verdict has been given. I think there's a place that can really help us in that space.
When it comes to dealing with someone else's sin, now, that's a really complicated issue. I don't think that you can repent for someone else's sin, but I do think it can be helpful to, through lament, renounce the sins that were a part of our forefathers, and to say that happened, and that's not who we are anymore. That's not who we want to be. And I think that it's interesting that there are certain laments written in the Bible that served as a marker of, this happened and we want to mark this sad moment to remember it so that we'll never forget and never return. And I think that that actually can be a helpful expression and usefulness of lament that helps us to renounce the past without having to embrace I was part of the past, because I might not have been part of that past, but to renounce it and say it was wrong then, and in any way that that shows up today, I want to acknowledge it's still wrong.
Scott Rae: Mark, I think that is so helpful to describe it like that, because I know that one thing that I think is it hinders our efforts at racial reconciliation is this notion of repentance for sins that took place decades, if not centuries ago. And then I know for some people, that's a discussion stopper one way or the other. And to put that, I think, under the category of expressing remorse and lament, and to recognize at the same time that the Bible doesn't call us to repent for other people's sins, I think is a really helpful step forward. I mean, you've taken some other, I think, helpful steps forward. You describe in your book something that I'd never heard of before. Biola students here take vision trips to places all over the world. You've taken people in your church on what you call a civil rights vision trip. What exactly is that? And what's the impact of that been?
Mark Vroegop: Yeah, it's probably the most transformative thing that we do that I've ever done for racial reconciliation. There's a little park, it started there's this little park in Indianapolis where Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy gave a speech at the assassination, after the assassination of Martin Luther King. So there's this memorial there. And one day, Martin Luther King day in January, we took all of our staff there just to pray, kind of mark the moment. And that experience of being in a location that was historical, it moved the conversation from theoretical or just theological to actually more historical and personal. As we were walking back to the bus, one of our black church members said, "Wouldn't it be amazing if we could do this, but do it all over the South?" And she actually grew up in the South. Her dad was a civil rights leader, and her name was Yolanda. And I just said, "Yolanda, why don't we talk about that?"
And so together, Yolanda, Keith her husband, and I designed a trip where we took 50 leaders, a third a minority, two thirds white to Birmingham and Montgomery and to Selma, to Memphis, spent some time in the Clarksdale area, the Mississippi Delta, Greenwood, and we just went to historical sites and just experienced the lynching Memorial in Montgomery and went to the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. And then on the bus, every morning we would study a lament Psalm and then write our own in light of our previous experience. And the combination of both relationship time together, pilgrimage on location and lament, proved to be transformative.
In the same way, I mean, we have lots of global vision trips. Those proved to be not only transformative to see what God is doing around the world, but they also form deep relationships that then infect other people when you come back to your church, and we've seen the same thing happen with our civil rights vision trip, because you can see and experience and consider in a way that you wouldn't just by reading a book or by watching a documentary. So we think of it almost more like a pilgrimage than anything else, a trip with spiritual value.
Sean McDowell: Mark, you might've already answered this, but tell me what gives you hope in this area of racial reconciliation. And maybe, if it fits, tell us about Aaron's story.
Mark Vroegop: Yeah. I've seen God do amazing things. And at the same time, man, it's hard and it doesn't always go well, can blow up. It's just a really painful scar in our nation's history. And yet I believe that the one entity in our culture that actually has a shot of it happening is the church. Because at the end of the day, the identity of Jesus and the gospel gets underneath all of their identities. Colossians 3 says here there's neither Jew nor Greek, male or female, slave or free, but Christ is all and in all. And I think that the church can be the place where there's a shot for this to actually happen. Because after all, we're the people who know the story of creation, fall, redemption, restoration. We're the ones who know the identity underneath all other identities. We've seen that happen.
I've seen on one of our... One of our civil rights vision trip had one of our staff members just confess to the whole bus that he grew up in a racist town and was a racist himself. And just to hear people forgive him, I mean, it was transformative for his life, freeing for him. Another guy that you mentioned, Aaron, is a white guy who grew up in a minority community. So he felt reverse prejudice directed towards him. And so that really was a painful thing. And in a forum on racial reconciliation, he stood and just said, I want you to know I've received prejudice from black people. And in a moment that was just stunning, one of our black leaders said, "Brother, I'm so sorry. That should have never happened to you." He validated his pain and he said, "Come up to the front." Aaron walked up to the front, sat in a chair and the black brothers wrapped their arms around him, laid their hands on him, prayed for him, told him he loved him. And it was a transforming moment for Aaron.
And I think what place in the universe is that most likely to happen? And it's the church. And so I would just like to see the church be more of a leading voice, even presently on trying to help call people towards reconciliation, because I do think that gospel unity creates racial harmony.
Sean McDowell: Amen. That's such a beautiful way to put it. I was reading a book by somebody much more, you might say, how would you say with a kind of a secular worldview about racial injustice, and the line was, the solution to guilt is action. And I read that and I thought, oh my goodness, the solution to guilt is forgiveness and redemption and healing. And then we act out and work for justice because we've been forgiven. And that's what I think your book is a call back to. That let's weep with one another, let's listen to one another, confess our sins, show forgiveness. And that's where healing takes place. So to hear you say that really the ultimate hope should be through the church, and ultimately the gospel is exactly what we're about here at Biola as well. So thanks. Thanks for coming on the show, Mark. Your book Weep With Me is excellent and I just want to commend it to our listeners. So Mark, thanks so much for coming on.
Mark Vroegop: Thanks so much for your willingness to engage in this important subject.
Sean McDowell: It's our pleasure. And if you are interested and you love the subject, at Talbot we take very seriously working towards racial reconciliation and studying what biblical justice is, talking about reconciliation, studying the New Testament, the Old Testament. If you thought about studying formerly, we would love to have you join us here at Talbot.
This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. To learn more about us and today's guest, Mark Vroegop, and to find more episodes, go to biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks for listening. And remember, think biblically about everything.