(I must give to Walter Thiessen, a professor at St. Stephen’s University, for the thoughts he shared on the topic of lamenting. He showed me how to bring my darkness to God and hope for rescue.)
Randy used an example of chiaroscuro painting, a sixteenth century Italian style that literally means light and dark, as the background for this week’s power point. How fitting, as the story we just read illuminates the contrast between light and dark, life and death, suffering and redemption, lamenting and hope.
As I read this story, this is what I noticed. Lazarus, a good friend of Jesus whom he loved, is sick and yet it takes Jesus two days to leave the place he is in and head to Judea. Why is this? He seems so confident that Lazarus won’t die. In fact, he declares that it is not a fatal illness. Still, there is this hint of what is to come – an occasion to show God’s glory by glorifying God’s son. It seems the purpose in waiting is connected to the opportunity to teach the disciples something important. However, by the time Jesus arrived, Lazarus had already been dead for four days, long enough to be buried. Martha confronts Jesus with a mixture of anger and faith – she accuses Jesus, saying he could have prevented Lazarus’s death, but also proclaims her faith in Him. Mary also confronts Jesus with the words, “if only you had been here.” How many of us have felt similar abandonment? Jesus’ response is surprising, not only does he well up with anger, he also breaks down in tears. Other mourners join in the accusations that Jesus could have prevented his friend’s death – their anger mixed with faith. When Jesus tells them to move the stone, Martha responds with disbelief despite her earlier proclamation of faith in His words.
Why was Jesus filled with anger? And then tears? Perhaps his anger came from the same source as our own when faced with the grief of those we care about – this is not right, not how it should be, not how it was meant to be, not how it will be. Jesus saw brokenness in his dear friends and knew it needed to be expressed.
In contemporary societies, we often thinking of lamenting as a response to death (and fittingly so) but to the Jewish community of the first century, lamenting was a more familiar practice, a necessary part of one’s devotion and religion. Throughout the Old Testament, in the Psalms, Job and the writings of Jeremiah, we see examples of people bringing their pleas before God, expressing their suffering and despair, their doubt and fear, even their anger.
I grew up in a church context that seemed to view the expression of doubt as the opposite of faith. It seemed that true faith left little room for expressing grief or disappointment to God. When I was in grade six my brother became severely ill, and I remember so clearly the pressure to ‘believe’ that he would be okay. There was no room for expressing anger or fear or sadness about my brother’s illness. We were not allowed to cry in his hospital room, and in fact, some of the church ladies posted on a sign on the door that read “enter only if you have faith.” I did not understand my confusion at such a bold statement at that time, but the memory of it has lingered years later.
It wasn’t until I reached university that I began hearing people around me talk about our need to lament. When I went through a period of insomnia, fueled by anxiety, a friend offered me a prayer to read before bed each night. It read,
This night and every night
seems infinite with questions,
and sleep as elusive
Pain and longing are always present,
dulled only a little
by the distractions of day.
I am weary; I am angry.
I am confused.
Circle me, Lord.
Keep despair and disillusion without.
Bring a glimmer of hope within.
Circle me, Lord;
keep nightmare without.
Bring moments of rest within.
Circle me, Lord.
keep bitterness without.
Bring a sense
of Your presence within.
This prayer was a turning point in how I understood my emotions and my relation to God. I was afraid to express anger to God for fear of it being seen as doubt or rebellion. Someone had finally told me it was okay to say I was confused, angry, scared. It was the first time I saw this confession not as a lack of faith, but as a plea for rescue. It was the beginning of a long journey of learning to identify and express painful emotions to God.
To lament is to express our grief, both for ourselves, and for our communities. Through lamenting we bring our complaints to God, in the same way as the Old Testament writers did, even as Jesus did, and we confess that things are not as they should be.
The truth is we are all broken. At times downtrodden, lonely, mourning. We try to cover it up, to have the appearance of having it all together. Society hands us every kind of mask so that we can hide what exists on the inside. We long for something, someone to offer us hope. And Christ not only acknowledges that brokenness, he blesses it.
We hunger and thirst for righteousness. We feel the ache within us when we see the brokenness that we have caused in another’s life, when we see injustices in our world. We are spiritually hungry for something to fulfill us. We chase elusive dreams of wealth, power, entertainment and pleasure – something to satisfy that empty ache, because inside we all know that something is not right – when tsunamis and earthquakes decimate our global neighbours, when children starve in one part of the world and obesity rates soar in another, when a woman is murdered in downtown Hamilton.
Jesus offers us a place for that ache. He validates it. He suggests that it is necessary, even healthy to mourn. This is why there is a heartfelt need for healthy ways to lament. God asks for us to express that ache, not to cover it up. Not to drown it out or push it aside. To say life gets messy and sometimes we don’t know the way forward. To express our doubts and uncertainties, rather than negate the mystery of faith.
A lament is not whining. It is not the muttering and grumbling we see from the Israelites as they wandered the dessert. To lament is to name our suffering, to give voice to the brokenness in our lives and to ask God for redemption. We name the desolation of winter, while hoping for the coming of spring.
By lamenting we give form to our experience of suffering. We realize that we are not alone. Pain isolates us from one another and creates barriers of distrust, but lamenting reminds us that we are all broken. And in our brokenness, God draws near. Throughout the scriptures we see God responding to expressions of pain and longing, just as Jesus responded to the mourning of Mary and Martha.
Even in expressing our doubt to God, we act in faith. We voice that this is not how things should be, not how the world was created, not what we believe based on God’s promises. Lamenting leads us to hope in Christ.
The story of Lazarus is a clear foreshadowing of the crucifixion. Christ sets for us an example in his pain, humiliation, and abandonment. He expresses his suffering to God with the haunting words “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” But the story does not end there. There is Resurrection.
To lament is not just to express our anguish. It is to ask for redemption, to hope and believe that God will make all our brokenness whole.
This is not the kind of naive hope that sees a silver lining in every cloud or a rainbow after every storm. Sometimes storms come through our lives and they decimate us. Some injustice is too evil to have a silver lining.
Tim Huff describes this type of hope as “anything but shiny and bright. Unpolished. Crushed. Twisted and bent, but somewhere in the wrinkles, hope continues to hum. it continues to breathe. Often shallow breaths at best; even the faintest final breath, whispering one more note in the music of the soul.”
Hope that sometimes sounds more like lament.
In a postmodern society, where the basis of social norms, language, even truth, are constantly being challenged by theories of relativity and social construction, it becomes so hard to find any lasting sense of hope.
I know what it feels like to lack purpose. To feel like everything I am striving for amounts to nothing. To feel hellish unrest driven by anger and despair at all the world’s (and my own) brokenness. And to feel like there isn’t anything real, substantial or true to hold on to in the face of this brokenness.
The only thought I keep coming back to is hope. If we are so bogged down by complacency, so familiar with routine that we can walk through our days with our eyes closed, meaning and purpose become pretty elusive. If all we can see around us is drudgery and endless unsolvable problems, it is as if we are pushing a rock up a hill but never able to reach the top.
But if, by some miracle, hope fills our imagination and enables us to see the possibility of stumbling upon something beautiful, even in littered and abandoned back alleys, our purpose becomes more clear. This potential leads us forward, despite our shortcomings, our failings, our disappointments. We stumble forward with the hope of finding something deeply meaningful and I think if we are willing to search it out, it will always be there to be found.
How do we cultivate such hope? Through lament. Through mourning the brokenness of our lives and our world. Lamenting expresses the pain of our lives, but it also confesses that we are capable of stumbling towards love.
The world is wide and full of beauty and agony. We all know this. We all experience joy and pain, sometimes in the same breath. It is only when you are able to see one that you can see the other. If it weren’t for beauty, I would not be disturbed by agony. If I didn’t believe justice, peace, and hope were possible for humanity, I would not be grieved by their absence. And the reverse must also be true, if it were not for the pain we experience, how could we experience beauty.
Kahlil Gibran, an early twentieth century poet, wrote:
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. And how else can it be? The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven? And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives? When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight. Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.” But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Deep inside, we understand this In the end, we are broken. But this is what makes us beautiful. This is what gives us hope.
So how do we lament? There are infinite ways. For some of us, we may best feel and express our lamentations through music, or written words. The words of others – poets, saints, or scripture, can lend voice when we cannot find our own. But words are not the only acts of lament. Perhaps you lament through breaking bread, or washing the feet of another. Through observing nature, through tears, through silence. The point is only this – to feel and to express to God, in whatever way, the hurt of suffering. To give it voice. And to believe He listens.
To close, I thought it would be fitting to give us an opportunity to practice lamenting. Here we have an opportunity to grieve the brokenness of our world, our relationships, and our inner selves. And to remind ourselves that we hope in the God who can and is and will rescue and make everything new. We are going to do this by reading Psalm 13, one of the many examples of lamenting psalms. Then we will listen to a song that expresses the brokenness of our contemporary society, and we will close with a community prayer that we’ll read together.
1 How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
3 Look on me and answer, LORD my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
4 and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
5 But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
6 I will sing the LORD’s praise,
for he has been good to me.
Listen to Song: For You and Me by Flyer and Mason on Myspace
There are a few people who will lead us through this prayer, and in each place where you see bold writing, we will read out loud together.
In the silences that are given throughout the prayer there is an opportunity for us to remember and name the places of our brokenness individually and as a community. For the first space, I encourage you to speak out examples of violence or lack of peace, whether it be people you care about in violent situations, or places of violence in our world. In the second space, we will name the brokenness in our bodies and creation. Finally, we will spend a moment in silence in the third space to express to God the places that we feel fear, loss and rage in our own lives.
written by Walter Thiessen
O God, we look around us today
We see a world that is broken and people in pain
How can you look on, Lord of compassion?
Does your heart break with our hearts?
Or do you see only the hardness of our hearts?
Do you see us turning from you and from each other?
There is so much darkness all around us
There is so much darkness yet inside us
Hurting and lost, we lash out against each other;
There is violence near and far.
Lord, remember us, do you see…
[and here time is given to name places And situations of violence near and far]
All creation groans and strains
Our bodies falter and suffer
Lord, remember us, do you see
[and here time is given to name people And parts of creation that are ill]
Our souls cannot bear all the loss
Fear and rage overwhelm us
Lord, remember us, do you hear our silent cry
[and here a time of silence is given To listen to our souls]
What we feel between us is not your peace
What we see around us is not your justice
What we place our trust in is not your love
This is not how things should be
This is not how things will be
You are present in all this mess
You will not leave us alone or unfinished
Transform us, Lord Who washes our feet
Heal our land, Lord Who forgives all
Re-create our world, Lord of Glory.
We wait for you. We wait.