500 Words on Lament

The Bible is filled with words written, spoken, and sung in response to life’s catastrophes.  We can be forgiven for not knowing this ~ even regular churchgoers are primarily exposed only to proclamations of joy (one reason I stayed out of church for months after my son died, even though I was a seminary student), and to a general cultural assumption that Christians are happy-clappy people with neither experience of the darkness nor willingness to go there.  And the sad truth is that many pastors are ill-equipped for that work.

(My brother, several years ago, decided to experiment with a church connection.  How do I get to know the pastor? he wondered?  Go to lunch, I said.  I can do that? he asked. Pastors eat lunch, I said.  What do we talk about? he wondered.  He’ll know, I responded.  He’s used to it.  At the ensuing lunch,  my brother wondered aloud about faith in the context of a mother and brother dead when he was four,  a stepmother ten years later, a nephew dead of suicide only recently.  Wow, you get right to the point, said the pastor.  It turned out he had no idea what to say.)

In fact, volumes, libraries, have been filled with writing about the Bible’s words on grief.  I have allotted myself 500 words as a starter, so that I don’t ramble on indefinitely.  And I’ve already used 227 of them!  Herewith, an introduction:

The Book of Psalms, the prayerbook and songbook of the Jewish people, Jesus’ people, is filled with psalms of lament.  (Google: psalms of lament.)  Many of them are what are called communal psalms, psalms written out of a community’s misfortunes and disasters.  The language is equally applicable to each of us in our individual misery. No glossing over or mincing of words:

Psalm 142: Give heed to my cry,  for I am brought very low.

Psalm 44:23-24: Rouse yourself!  Why do you sleep, O Lord? . . .  Why do you hide your face?

Nearly every psalm of lament follows the same pattern: an expression of horror and sadness followed by an expression of confidence in God.  My favorite is the exception to the rule, Psalm 88, an unremitting cry of anguish.  I wrote a lengthy academic paper about it in seminary, but you don’t need to know Hebrew or history or expository techniques to get it:

Psalm 88:15: Wretched and close to death . . . I am desperate.

There’s an entire little book in the Bible called Lamentations.  There’s the story of Ruth — another book — in which a woman loses husband and sons, and her daughters-in-law their husbands.  I’ve done a study/support group on that one; it’s a moving source for considering the hidden losses which accompany the obvious ones, and the ways in which life goes on and new life can be found  (and especially for coming to terms with the unexpected resources of women who go beyond the usual boundaries of “acceptable” behavior – nevertheless, they persisted).

Bad things happen to lots of good people in the Bible.  Most famously, to Job — his name the title of another book.  People often speak of “the patience of Job” — I don’t know where they get that.  I preached a sermon series on Job once, after which one of my parishioners said, “We all learned that we are never supposed to get angry at God.”

That is NOT what I said.

The Book of Job, in a nutshell:  A good guy, a successful guy.  God gets into a dispute with Satan and terrible, terrible things happen.  Job’s wife says, Curse God, and die. (A good line, that.)  Job has some really bad news friends who come around and ask, What did you do, that all this happened to you? (We all know who they are.)  Job never gives up expressing his rage and his grief to God (Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire? ~ Job 3:11) , who finally responds, in a wild and turbulent two chapters of question cascading upon question, by asking, Do you understand who I am?”

It’s not exactly a satisfying answer, which is perhaps the point: to our understanding, there is no satisfying answer.  (I might add that the ending of Job, in which he gets back a perfect life, is fairly useless ~ even in the era in which Job was finally written down, people were looking for Hollywood endings, so skip that part.)

I’m way over my 500 words.  My suggestion? Read, pray, very slowly, through the Book of Psalms, one or part of one a day.  And/or a chapter of Job a day.

They will not bring anyone back.  But you will discover a treasure of words written down by people who have experienced, one way or another, what you have.

 

 

 


Written for my friend Brigitte, who has lost son and, now, husband.

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