When you live anywhere for an extended period of time, you slowly become more aware of the culture, texture and general feel of the place. Nowhere does the culture, texture and feel come alive more than on the streets of the city.
We have now been here in Perugia for two and half years. The streets of this city tell its story of triumphs, whisper its secrets, and bear its scars. Slowly, as we’ve walked the streets prayerfully over these past few years we’ve become better attuned to the story this beautiful city tells.
Upon arrival in Perugia you can’t help but come face to face with its massive walls. There are actually three layers of walls spanning a whole history of wars fought. They shape and define this city. Perugia is a city built as a fortress. It functions as a fortress. I believe that the shape and definition, both geographically and physically of a city affect the people who inhabit it. A city built as a fortress, functions as a fortress. The are reasons for the way a city is built, functions and behaves. Culture doesn’t happen in a vacuum. A history of war, famine, suffering, autonomy and oppression will undoubtedly mark and shape a people and their city.
The story our city tells is a story of great victory but also of loss and sorrow. Over the past few years we’ve felt the weight of the city, a once proud city at the center of the Etruscan empire has been left behind and forgotten by a nation. Its people wear the heaviness of unresolved sorrow on their faces. The problem with sorrow is that it doesn’t simply disappear over time.
Unresolved sorrow will almost always undoubtedly lead to bitterness. Sorrow that is dealt with in a healthy way however, will eventually lead to hope. This reality is on display throughout the book of Lamentations. In the midst of loss, sorrow and crisis, Lamentations points toward God and acknowledges his sovereignty regardless of the circumstances. Throughout scripture, lament is a liturgical response to the reality of suffering and engages God in the context of pain and trouble. The hope of lament is that God would respond to human suffering that is wholeheartedly communicated through lament. A lament allows someone or someones to engage with the reality of their situation. To feel it. To hold it. To allow the sorrow of loss to run its course. Plumbing the depths of sorrow paves a wave forward with God, it allows us to cry out for help and a way out, which undoubtedly leads to praise for the ways in which He responds.
When we see the brokenness in our cities it is certainly not surprising that we cry out for health, wholeness and justice. We desire to be part of the change and transformation of a place. But often in ministry we go straight for the fix. This method, though helpful sometimes in the short term, often undermines true healing and a wholistic way forward. Rah and McNeil in their book “Prophetic Lament” summarize it well:
Ministry in the city can often focus on symbolic ideals. We may idealize and even romanticize the city beyond its material reality. Instead of lamenting the actual situation of the city as demanded by the city-lament genre as employed in the book of Lamentations, we may long for an idealized future for our city. In urban ministry, there is a strong tendency toward an image of what the city should be. Often, that image may reflect the image of a successful suburban ministry and assumptions about a flourishing life in a gentrified urban neighborhood. A city lament brings the story of the city to its actual material setting and reality. The city is not an object to be fixed or manipulated—it is the concrete reality of lives and souls that live in the city (85).
That’s the gift of lament. It forces us to linger in the concrete reality of life in a city. It prevents us from simply jumping to the fix. As we pray for our city, we’ve seen the way unresolved sorrow has stunted life. The losses from over two thousand years of history, history that is full of conquering and being conquered, have a way of seeping into the very fabric of life. Lamentations reminds us that hope is found only in submission to God and not in our ability to scratch and claw our way out of it. As we’ve prayed for the city, a lament came forth, one we offer in hope that God would respond and remember again this beautiful city.
A Lament For Our City
Remember, O Lord, what happened to us and our city;
look, and see the layers of our disgrace.
Our inheritance was given over to strangers;
our land buried by those whom you had appointed.
Whole families slaughtered – widows, orphans, fatherless;
all left to grieve with no one to comfort them.
The crops we grow are no longer ours;
our autonomy and freedom has become our isolation.
The one’s whom claim your name harass and murder our people;
so then, to whom shall we turn?
We tried in vain to protect ourselves;
just so we’d have enough to eat.
Our fathers built more walls and killed in the name of protection;
and now we bear their sin.
We kept building walls, trying to protect and hold back destruction;
instead, those walls became our prison – with no one to save us.
We walk the streets plagued by suspicion;
who will attack us next?
Our bodies burn with fear;
fear of looming threat from every direction.
Women have been violated, forgotten, ignored throughout our history;
there is no place for you young woman – stay in your home.
Young men, you are forced to shed your innocence before it’s time;
elders, leaders forced to hold your built up disappointments and sorrows.
The youth are left without work and without hope because of unjust practices;
young men buried under the weight of expectation that they are to be strong yet never having developed strength.
The elders of the city silently fade into pension;
the youth who raise their cries for justice are met with mockery.
What was once a beautiful, vibrant and colorful city
is now faded under the tinge of pollution; reduced to grey.
Our great warriors and walls have failed us;
woe to us; for we have sinned.
For this our hearts have grown faint;
our eyes are made dim and set ever towards the ground.
This city on a hill is forgotten;
we are left disconnected, for Italy has passed us by.
You oh Lord reign forever;
your throne endures from generation to generation.
Why have you also forgotten us?
why have you left us to die in our prison cell?
Restore us to yourself, Lord, that we may be free;
renew and restore the color and hope that once was.
Unless you’ve rejected us completely;
and your anger rests on us without measure.
Would you join us in lamenting the brokenness of a city and praying for the hope that is found in God’s faithful response.