Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Importance Of Learning To Lament

I have been spending a lot of time reading and meditating on some of the more difficult books of the Bible (Job, Lamentations, the prophets and, of course Psalms). While many view these books with the same distaste as I do kale, I have found that my faith is deepened more by reading them and by understanding the gift that grief really is. There are those who would balk at this suggestion and would prefer to avoid all circumstances that will cause grief, sorrow and lament. They are like children who want every day to be Christmas Day. The real danger to not giving voice to lament is that we take away the voice of the the victim and the status quo goes unchallenged. Neither of those are biblical. By silencing lament, we silence the cries for justice. Biblical lament is both private and communal. 

There are some who might even ask, "What is lament?"

According to the dictionary, lament is a "passionate expression of grief or sorrow." How many of us would prefer to ignore such a topic? Most. I'm sure there are a lot of people who would ask, "Couldn't you blog about a more cheerful topic?" Certainly you're not going to find a lot of Ted Talks on the subject matter. People aren't clamoring to retreats or seminars on the subject. Yet without lament, I think we have a fragmented faith that is ungrounded and can be easily unmoored by tragedy. As believers, I think we need to have a stewardship of sorrow and both the Old and New Testament stress using lament as the sound to trauma and injustice. Lament falls between mourning and anger. 

The book of Lamentions is thought to have been written by the prophet Jeremiah. The title of the book in Hebrew is hkya which means "How" and is commonly used in Israelite funeral dirges. It is to ask, "How? How can this happen?" It is psalmist crying out in the Twenty-second Psalm,"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?" One doesn't hear that sung in the modern American church. Yet over half the Psalms are laments. David wrote more Psalms in the cave than he did the castle. Walter Brueggemann wrote, "It is experiences of being overwhelmed, nearly destroyed, that have given life that empower us to pray, to sing."

In the Beatitudes, Christ says, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted" (Matthew 5:4). Certainly in this culture we do not view mourning as a blessing. We tend to want to avoid it, even in our churches and our worship. We like praise songs. Uplifting and make us feel good. We prefer not to study books like Lamentations or Job that are real downers and are too depressing. Too many congregations want to hear sermons on spiritual success. We long for mountaintops only and avoid all mention of the wilderness or the valley or the desert. Yet, without the wilderness and without lament, we have a juvenile faith that prefers shallow fantasy to the depths of the dark night where so often we truly encounter God. We must step out of our sugar-coated, sanitized notions of scripture and really see what is there within its pages. All of us must sit with Job (both the biblical figure and those around us who are suffering a major loss in their life). We must lament over the sins and failures of ourselves and our nations as the prophets did. 

Jeremiah by Michelangelo

And yet, I cannot help but think that the Church is incomplete until we truly learn to mourn and lament, especially with others. Too often, whenever someone is going through a loss (a divorce, a death, a miscarriage, a failed adoption, depression), they find themselves feeling abandoned by those in the church, which only deepens the wounds of grief they are suffering in silence. Whatever loss they have, it will be as Joan Didion wrote in her The Year of Magical Thinking, "Life changes in that instant. The ordinary instant." For her, it was the death of her husband. She wrote that, "Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expected." I learned the truth of these words with the death of my own mother. In grief, gone is the ordinary, daily life we had led. Instead, we find ourselves caught within the waves of mourning that come like the tide

That's why lamenting is critical: it's a release. Laments often take the formula of remembrance. A good example of this is the beginning of Psalm 42:

These things I remember: 
as I pour out my soul:
how I used to go to the house of the Lord
under the protection of the Mighty One
with shouts of joy and praise
among the festive throng.

The lamenter pours out to God how things used to be. This is not nostalghia. It's not mere memory. It is someone who is suffering a loss and longs for restoration. Lament is not passive. It is not wallowing or looking for pity nor is it self-pity. It is looking for change. It is Jeremiah crying out for justice to roll down like mighty waters. 

Those on the outside, who know about the loss someone else is going through, often feel insecure and unsure about how to approach them and how to respond to the loss. "I just don't know what to do," they say. But we don't have to do anything. Or really say anything. The important thing is to show up and just be there for that person. Sit with them and hold that hurt and sorrow with them. Let them know they are loved and not forgotten by just being present to them. Those hurting are not looking for answers, they are looking for . We only get true intimacy in friendship during those times of sorrow and loss, during those times of questioning and lament. By being present we are helping the sadness not become bitterness. When they ask, "Where is God?" We can hold their hand and answer, "Right here. With us. In this moment." We are being the hand of God as we hold their hand. We are being the physical representation of our Creator's compassion in that moment. By our being there, we are helping create space for the Spirit to enter (where two or more are gathered). This is why Galations 6:2 reminds us to "bear one another's burdens." Laments are to be heard and honored, not dismissed with a, "Cheer up." Nor should we just give them some more time. As the poet Emily Dickinson wrote:

They say that time "assuages," -
Time never did assuage;
An actual suffering strengthens,
As sinews do, with age.

That is why we must be present, so that sorrow does not become toxic. Lament is a release, a letting go. But we must offer ourself to that process. It's not easy. Or comfortable. To enter into a room where the pain is palpable, where someone is mourning the death of a child, or wailing the shooting of a loved one. Pain and suffering can be wrenching and physically and emotionally draining. It requires more of us than some biblical platitude or greeting card sentiment. It means we have to be Chris-like and be moved with compassion. The Greek for this is splagchnizomai which means to be moved from one's inward parts. or, quite literally, from the bowels. In his groundbreaking book The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen writes, "Who can listen to a story of loneliness and despair without taking the risk of experiencing similar pains in his own heart and even losing his precious piece of mind? In short: Who can take away suffering without entering it?"

Drowning on Dry Land by Eric Ruin

One of the most important things we can teach our children is how to mourn. Many parents try to keep their children from seeing suffering or any type of loss. The damage they are doing is in providing an illusory vision of life that is without pain. When a child, especially one in the Church, then encounters real suffering, they are ill-equipped to handle it. They do not have the psychological or spiritual tools to deal with loss. This can cause an abandonment of a faith that they see as being unable to handle the pain that they are experiencing. They do not have the inner vocabulary to articulate and give name to this suffering within a spiritual context. If all they have been taught is the God of sunshine, they cannot fathom God being there when they are "in the depths of Sheol" as the Psalmist writes.

They must understand that in life there is death, pain, and sometimes suffering we cannot understand (examples being 9/11 or the Holocaust). We have to be able to teach them to sit in those places of not knowing until they can get back to that place of trusting. And what better example can we give them that God completely understands our pain than with Christ himself. Musician and author Michael Card wrote in his book A Sacred Sorrow: Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament, "Jesus understood that lament was the only true response of faith to the brokenness and fallenness of the world. It provides the only trustworthy bridge to God across the deep seismic quaking of our lives." He also understood the lament when he cried out the opening to the Twenty-second Psalm while he was on the cross. When anyone says, "God cannot understand the pain I'm going through," we only have to point them to that moment.

Job's Prayer by Marc Chagall

It is only when we give voice to lamentation, that a person is no longer a victim, but is slowly able to to create within their own heart and soul the place to heal after a tragedy has occurred. God is a God of the mourning, as well as the laughter. God is a God who keeps our tears in a bottle so that they are never forgotten (Psalm 56:8). He is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit (Psalm 34:18). 

Lamentations show that God is big enough to take our lashing out, our wrestling and our wondering, "God, where are you?" For those who want to sanitize scripture, Psalm 88 lays bare all misery before the Creator. 

O Lord, God of my salvation,
I cry out day and night before you.
Let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry!

For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am a man who has no strength,
like one set loose among the dead,
like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those you remember no more
for they are cut off from your hand.
You have put me in the depths of the pit,
in the regions of the dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves.  Selah.

And that is just part of the Psalm. The writer of this Psalm lays bare his soul. This is not the conventional faith we are so often presented with in the Church. We wince when we read such words (if we don't just skip them altogether). Yet it is when we present just such Psalms, that we can show that the life of faith is not always a happy one, a life of ease and that there can be suffering.

Years ago, when my mother was dying of cancer, a long-time friend of hers came to visit her. In the midst of my mother's agony, this woman, like the friends of Job, told her, "You don't have enough faith." This crushed my mother's spirits when they were already low. This woman, in her prosperity gospel sensibilities, saw cancer not as disease but as a curse of one whose faith is weak. I can only wonder what she will believe should darkness come upon her. 

The Psalms and Lamentations show the pain and protest with raw honesty. They help us come to terms with our own inability to understand the hardships we may face. They are examples of what Brueggemann calls "bold faith" because it presents the world as it really is and that nothing is out of bounds in discourse with God. Why? Because God is big enough to take it. He can take our honesty. And we are putting our pain before God, not bottling it up and denying it. There can only come healing when we do and stop pretending that we have it all together.  We have a God who allows us to cry out in our bewilderment and confusion. Lament is the language of the wilderness and it is only in the wilderness that we can truly begin to trust God and to grow in our faith.  

As brothers and sisters in Christ, we then should dare to enter that wilderness to be there with them and to sing a song of lament and, in doing so, sing a song of redemption because we can only be redeemed from that which we acknowledge.

We are a culture of productivity and efficiency that does not know how to deal with lament since it falls into neither of those two categories. Lament is messy and can be lengthy and we would prefer someone just "snap out of it!" In The Seven Story Mountain, Thomas Merton wrote, "The more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does the most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers the most." And we see that in our culture. I think that is why we are so explosive and reactionary.

But we need to understand that lament is more than just personal grief. Biblical lament is also a petition for deliverance. It can either be personally or as a nation. The prophets lament the fallen state of Israel, not only during its times of captivity, but, even more so, in terms of its abandoning the things of God. It is to see the brokenness of the world around us and cry out. It is to lament poverty and injustice and, in doing so, aligning ourselves with those are oppressed. To lament is to awaken ourselves to the suffering of others in the world, as I have been doing for the people of Syria.

In this modern age where we have media coverage 24/7 and it tends to focus on the darkness, we can easily become overwhelmed and apathetic and disconnect. We see tragedies (Syria, the flood in Louisiana, the earthquake in Italy, bombings, and murders) and it can drive us to either fear or fantasy (both of which are a hindrance to faith). But when we truly look at suffering and lament, we are forming a spiritual protest. It is not an escape from but a deeper entering into of the world's pains, but offering them to God. Lament is not despair. Lament is to hope because we are giving up our laments to a God who hears us. That is why I lament what is happening in Syria or Ukraine or when a plane crashes or injustice in our judicial system or lament the brokenness and loneliness that permeates this world of ours. I lament my own sinfulness and fallenness. I see that all of the problems of the world are also problems within me: greed, selfishness, indifference. I cry out to God, "Deliver me from these things" just as I cry out for God to deliver the world.

When I lament for the world, I am connected to it. The suffering and problems of others are my problems. It moves me with compassion when I see images like the one of Omran Daqnee that has so touched the world. When I see him, I see my own child. I want to comfort him as I would my own son. Because I cannot, I pray for him. I lament for him and for his family and for his country. Like Jeremiah in his final lament, I, too cry out to God, "For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, 'Violence and destruction!" (20:8). It's like a fire that is shut up in my bones and must be released because it makes me weary to hold it in. When we lament we name the loss and, by so doing, it does not consume us. Instead, we are consumed not by bitterness but by love. It is acknowledging the hurting before the holy.

This is why we, as believers, must reclaim the practice of lament in our pulpits, our private places of prayer, and in our public square.

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