Making room for lament
We live in such a sorrowing, misery-filled world. We know this, of course, from the daily news: wars and disasters, refugees in camps, people wasting away from disease and starvation, children abused.
We know it from history: the mass graves in Rwanda, the dead of the Gulag, the crematoriums of the Holocaust, injustices whose after-effects still weep along the earth as if in subterranean streams.
At an art exhibit at the Mennonite World Conference gathering in Paraguay, I was moved by a sculpture by Jakob Wedel called Road of Suffering which depicts mothers wrenched away from their children into Soviet work camps. (Fathers had already been taken.) It wasn’t just the artistry that compelled me, but the fact that this experience was true, for thousands of people.
But sadness is also local, personal, and among us. Recently my husband and I joined some friends for supper. The host began to pray the blessing, a typical prayer before a meal, and then he happened to mention his family and his voice broke.
There is grief in homes, sometimes known and sometimes hidden – over illness, death, the dissolution of marriage, struggles with addiction or sexuality or the body, depression, unemployment, poverty, and much more. “Nobody’s family,” a Chinese proverb says, “can hang out the sign: ‘Nothing the matter here.’”
But enough of gloom, some may be thinking. Isn’t there hope, beauty, joy, and love? Yes, there’s much in the world that’s wonderful, and God is good, and sometimes we’re blessed with a life about as fine as it could possibly be.
But how quickly we want to say all that. We sense “sadness and fallenness…like a bad smell,” as a review of Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel puts it, and out comes the emotional air freshener to mask it. Our culture not only insists we deserve to be happy, but makes it an obligation.
This notion also infects the church. A friend who lost a spouse to cancer said it was difficult to come to services afterwards because of the well-intentioned but relentlessly cheerful enthusiasm often deemed the appropriate feeling for Sunday mornings.
We know that both suffering and joy, both fallenness and salvation, are part of biblical theology. But, I wonder, do we understand it well enough to allow room in our worship for the pain? For speaking regularly to God of injustice, helplessness, and disappointment? For asking, “How long, Lord, will you look on?” (Psalm 35:17).
Or are we programming mostly praise?
At the funeral last month of a relative who died tragically, the minister reflected on John 11:35 – “Jesus wept.” Since then, that familiar but suddenly astonishing verse has been tumbling around in my head. But why does it surprise me? Of course Jesus wept!
Indeed, the text goes on to say that after his weeping, Jesus was “once more deeply moved” (11:38).
The prayers of the Bible are full of lament. In fact, laments comprise the largest category of the Psalms. They give voice to every emotion of distress, or anger, or sorrow imaginable. They are words for weeping.
We should not fear that in stopping to groan and grieve before God, we’re going to get stuck in a place we’re not supposed to be. We lament before God, and even when we’re contending with a sense of God’s absence, God is there, and when God is with us, we’re not stuck.
Some years ago, I discovered an exercise called “four pages.” It may have been intended as a warm-up writing exercise – I’ve forgotten – but I’ve also used it as a way to pray through troubles. The point is to fill four pages as honestly as possible, without worrying about the looks of it, or the spelling or grammar. (The pages aren’t kept.)
Often around the third page, my thoughts begin to take a turn. This isn’t planned, but hope, insights, gratitude – small and trembling though they be – begin to emerge.
This exercise helps me understand the biblical laments, for in most of them too, there is a turn – to trust and thanksgiving.
These psalms may well be compressed forms of a longer crying out to God. As we lament, God hears and helps, and further conversations – now of hope and gratitude – ensue.
Jesus too, after his weeping and his deep emotions, offered thanks to his Father that he had been heard. Then he called his friend Lazarus out of the grave.
As the Spirit attends to us in our prayers of weeping, we will be moved to say, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, a gentle Father and the God of all consolation, who comforts us in all our sorrows…” (2 Corinthians 1:3, JB).
But the path to such praise goes through lament, not around it.
—Dora Dueck, interim editor