Learning from Lamentations

We are living in days of painful loss and disorienting change. Our grief is great, but we don’t like to enter into it. Jesus teaches us that we will be blessed if we allow ourselves to be poor in spirit, and that we will be comforted if we allow ourselves to grieve and mourn. But we resist.

We live in a culture that has forgotten how to grieve well. We could really learn from Lamentations, that astounding book of the Bible that tells the tale of the woes that God’s people are experiencing in exile.

The Book of Lamentations is a series of intense and heartfelt cries to God, pouring out pain in poetry that is stunningly beautiful. At the time of writing, there is no certainty at all that God will even answer the cries – it feels very possible that the loss of his favor is forever. Yet the poet cries out all the same. He tells his sad story to God, and holds out Hope.

There is one verse that seems especially pertinent to us who are experiencing agony amidst a pandemic, a general election, a cultural collapse, violent divisiveness, and whatever personal problems are unique to me or you:

“Come, all you who pass by the way, look and see whether there is any sorrow like my sorrow” (Lamentations 1:12).

We tend to minimize our own pain. “I have nothing to complain about – other people have it much worse.” That is a very quantitative way of looking at my suffering. Of course there are always going to be other people who are suffering “more.” That doesn’t negate how authentic my own suffering is!

In truth there is no sad story like my own story, nor like your own story. Each of us is fearfully and wonderfully made, in God’s own image. My story and yours are utterly unique. God deeply desires that our whole story be told – including the sad and painful parts.

Think of a three-year old with intense nausea or a terrible toothache. What mom or dad would scold him, “Stop complaining – there are other people who have it so much worse!” True, the suffering of a toothache or nausea is not nearly as bad as a terrorist bombing or rape or genocide. But all suffering matters! Every hair on our head is numbered, and no problem is too big or too small for the living God.

Lament is a lost art. It is the telling of our sad story in a way that reaches out for comfort and care, and freely invites genuine human connection.

Lament is not to be confused with counterfeits such as self-pity or manipulation. I can think of many moments in my past, and even some in recent days, in which I have not behaved well when overwhelmed with shame or anxiety or fear. I sometimes react with childish outbursts that draw attention to how hard things are for me. In those moments of self-pity, I am not telling the truth about my story. I am grasping or taking, using or manipulating, or perhaps desperately trying to shift the shame I am feeling away from myself and onto someone else. Instead of describing truthfully what is happening inside of me, instead of vulnerably stating a need and freely asking others for kindness, I am playing on their emotions to try to take what I need. It doesn’t work, and it ruptures relationships. It tends to push others further away – which in turn easily feeds the lie in my heart that others will leave me all alone when life gets hard.

In some ways, we can’t help these less-than-kind behaviors. If we do not allow ourselves to grieve and lament, our heart will keep trying. It will come out sideways – in self-pity or manipulation, in blame or resentment, in outbursts of anger, in passive aggression, in depression, or even in bodily ailments. Our story deserves to be told, and our hearts, made in God’s own image, will keep fighting to bring our story to the light of day, even when we resist.

Lament tells our true story. It speaks the truth deeply, not so much about the factual events, but about what the experience was like. It paints a picture with the five senses, engaging the emotions and the imagination. This process takes enormous courage, because it activates our memory and draws us down into the depths. We easily fear we will never find our way out again. Those fears certainly didn’t stop Jeremiah (or whoever it was who poured out his grief in Lamentations).

Lament speaks the truth about the sad parts of our story, about the pain we are carrying. It refuses to lie or minimize. It fights the urge to shift the attention elsewhere. Far from masochism, lament is essential to authentic Hope. Instead of stashing our pain away, instead of living a compartmentalized and fragmented existence, our lamentation reaches out to the faithfulness of God for ultimate rescue and resolution. It complains to God and reminds him of his promises. It freely and meekly invites other human beings to stand with us as willing witnesses to our story, even at the risk of their saying no or bailing out. United in communion with other members of Christ, we willingly suffer and die with him, and watch and wait for the surprise of resurrection to come. As in the Book of Lamentations, we do not know when or how the rescue will come; we sense that some things are gone forever.  But for all that, we hold out Hope. We open ourselves to the possibilities promised by God, which are very well put in the words of the poet T.S. Eliot and the mystic Julian of Norwich: “All will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.”

Resuscitation ≠ Resurrection

Resuscitation and Resurrection are not the same thing. As disciples of Jesus, our true Hope lies in the Resurrection, but we often cling to a much lesser hope of mere resuscitation.

Resuscitation means temporarily going back to how our life was. Jesus called Lazarus from the tomb and gave him back his earthly life. Astounding though it was, a glimpse of things to come, Lazarus’ new lease on life was still only for a fleeting time. He was not yet ready for the glory of the Resurrection.

The Resurrection is something entirely new. Death is definitively conquered.  Jesus, once raised, will never die again. He invades hell and conquers. Beginning on Easter Sunday, he starts appearing to his deeply discouraged and disheartened disciples – astounding and surprising them with unimaginable joy.

Resuscitation does not last. It is not definitive. It does not change the underlying problem. Nonetheless, it has great appeal. Not only does it temporarily extend one’s earthly life, it also allows us to return to what is familiar. We know what to expect, and so we feel in control.

Resurrection is unpredictable and catches us by surprise. It is “New” because it ushers in the New Creation. In the Resurrection, God reigns. We experience his Kingdom in all its power and glory. That means surrendering to the unknown of his infinite goodness and dying to our urge to be in control.

It’s totally understandable that we want to cling to this present existence – it is still so amazing, even though it is only a limited experience of God’s glory. But it won’t last. God truly made us stewards, and we have used our freedom to disobey, allowing corruption and death to have dominion. God will not undermine or erase our freedom. The world as we know it will pass away. But he is creating something new by means of the Paschal victory of his own Son. Through Faith, Hope, and Love we are being initiated into the New Creation.

But there is one catch – we have to die first if we are to rise. And let’s not forget about the agonizing period of watching and waiting in between. What incredible joy it must have been to encounter the risen Jesus on that first Easter Sunday! Peter and the others had left him alone to die on the Cross. Their final moments with their beloved Savior and Messiah were shameful moments of betrayal and weakness. Now that same Jesus suddenly appears to them, clearly victorious and beyond all harm, and speaks astounding words: “Peace be with you.”  What a deep and amazed flood of joy they must have felt!

True Resurrection brings joy, even as its newness surprises us. But it is only possible if we first experience the death and the waiting, if we are willing to go into the depths of grief and loss. We often resist!

“I just want things to back to normal!”

How many of us have said or heard these words the past few months! Pining for the way things used to be is itself a normal human tendency. Change is hard. Loss is hard. Grieving our losses is incredibly hard – even though Jesus promises that those who mourn will be comforted and blessed.

We tend to resist true Hope. We prefer to settle for mere resuscitation rather than endure the pain of watching and waiting, not knowing when or how God will fulfill his promise of new life.

In this resistance, we are in good company. Peter and his friends, even after Easter Sunday, still struggled with wanting things to “go back to normal.” In John 21 Peter declares that he is going fishing – going back to his old way of life before he got to know Jesus. No one stops him. Indeed, the others join him!

Jesus surprises them yet again, leading them to a miraculous catch of 153 fish and inviting Peter three times on the seashore to renew his love. As in the Upper Room, he does not shame them for their weak human tendency to turn away. He meets them in their place of heartache and grief.

It’s so hard to grieve, so hard to lament our losses, so hard to open ourselves to the new and better heavenly realities that Jesus is opening us to.  It’s much easier to deny or minimize. It may be absolutely obvious that things will never go back to the way they were, but we will keep pretending, keep holding out false hopes. Or we will identify a scapegoat that we can blame, someone to lash out at because things are not the way we want them to be. One need only spend a minute or two on social media these days to find many examples of these behaviors!!

It is much harder to lament – to allow ourselves to feel the depth of grief and agony and to express it to God and to others. Lament and hope are intimately connected. Refusing to settle for any false messiah, authentic Christian Hope stays open to the promises of God – even when God seems to be painfully slow and silent in answering.

The most hopeful people I know are those who are willing to cry out to God like little children – to weep, to groan, to sob, or to scream – but always seeking the face of the living God.

Hope is defiant. It resists the cheap substitute of resuscitation. It does not settle for going back to the way things were, but holds fast in Faith to the promises of Jesus. Blessed are those who mourn; they will be comforted. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; they will be satisfied.

Hope hurts. It is much easier to cling to control, to protect ourselves, to numb our pain, or to cast the blame on others. It is so hard to reach out in Hope when we do not know how or when the answer will come (indeed, what if no answer comes?). There is so much vulnerability there. And so much freedom.

Resuscitation can be a good thing. But in the end, it can only bring us back to the present world of corruption – a world still destined to pass away. Only Resurrection can usher in the New Creation, in which God promises to wipe away every tear, in which there will be no more mourning or death.

During these painful and challenging times, you and I have a choice. Will we cling to our flimsy hopes in resuscitation – or will we go into the depths of grief and lament and dare to hold out Hope in the Resurrection?

Burdens and Loads

In the first five verses of Galatians 6, the apostle Paul urges us to “bear one another’s burdens.” Then he abruptly offers the opposite observation: “each shall bear his own load.” Normally Paul puzzles us with his patented run-on sentences. Here, however, his words are brief, but baffling. They offer us a paradox, a seeming contradiction that conveys a deeper truth about discipleship.

What is that deeper truth? I think Paul’s teaching on burdens and loads is very similar to the teaching of Jesus regarding motes and beams: “Why do you notice the mote in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the beam in your own eye? … You hypocrite, remove the beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the mote from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:3-5).

In both cases, the teaching is the same lesson that Saint Monica had to learn (if you recall last week’s post). It’s the same lesson the elder brother needed to learn as he rattled off to his father all the faults of his younger and prodigal brother (Luke 15:25-32). It’s the same lesson every codependent Christian needs to learn. It’s the exhortation to be receptive rather than restless and reactive, to recognize our own need of salvation before rushing off to save others. In the Beatitudes, Jesus challenges us to be poor in spirit, meek, vulnerable, and receptive before God. It’s so easy focus our energy and attention on helping or serving (or fixing) other people. It’s so hard to seek and receive the mercy and healing that we ourselves need.

There are many misguided Christians who have believed from a young age that being a good Christian means always putting others first. Sally hasn’t slept a full night for fifteen years, never exercises, and struggles to find time to pray. She can’t remember the last time she and her husband just went and did something fun together. She is just too busy caring for her children, volunteering at church, helping babysit the neighbor’s kids… She doesn’t want to be “selfish.” Fred fixes everyone’s cars and homes for them. This year alone he gave up five weekends and four weeknights to help people with various fix-it projects. He is particularly sensitive when his wife nags him about their own car problems, or the bathroom project that he started three years ago and still hasn’t finished. You get the idea. There are many among us who eagerly rush into other people’s problems, happily leaving behind our own mess – not just that of our home but that of our heart as well.

Remember the two greatest commandments: (1) Love God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength; (2) Love your neighbor as yourself.

Notice that Jesus does not say “more than yourself” but “as yourself.” There is a great medieval axiom nemo dat quod non habet which has a very technical translation: “A thing can’t give what it ain’t got.” Only if we are regularly receiving love and grace can we be capable of giving it.

“Always putting others first” is a lie against our human nature. It will suck us dry, leaving us empty, bitter, and resentful – much like the elder brother in Luke 15. We can try to hide our hurt, but it will keep oozing out.

But…But…aren’t we called to love and serve others? Of course. However, authentic love and service are an overflowing of God’s grace. They are the good fruit that emerges because we are abiding on the vine with Jesus (John 15:1-8). God fills. God blesses. God bears fruit. We receive. We cooperate. We trust and abide.

The saints have all learned this lesson. Consider Mother Teresa of Calcutta. She mightily served the poorest of the poor, helping them bear their burdens. Nevertheless, every single afternoon she and her fellow sisters dropped everything they were doing and went to the chapel to spend an hour with Jesus. Her congregation, the Missionaries of Charity, continue that practice today, trusting God to provide for others while they allow themselves to be filled spiritually.

Let’s return to Galatians 6. Paul urges the Galatians to have a “spirit of gentleness” when they seek to correct others or to help them bear their burdens. The Greek word for “gentleness” is also listed in the previous chapter as one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are not fruits we can produce on our own. They come forth when the Holy Spirit fills us and works through us.

“Gentleness” also means “meekness” – the same Greek word used by Jesus in the Beatitudes. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the vulnerable who are willing to let their own woundedness be touched. It is a fear of vulnerability, I think, that leads so many “do-gooders” to jump in and rescue the problems of others, even at great cost to themselves. It helps them forget their own misery. It feels less painful and scary than facing their own brokenness and receiving love.

Finally, if we study the Greek words for “burdens” and “loads,” it is worth noting that the word for “load” is the same one used by Jesus when he urges us to lay down our heavy burdens and take his yoke upon us (Matthew 11:29-30). His load is light. That is saying something, since his load is the Cross! But it’s not the Cross that crushes us. It’s all the other burdens we heap upon ourselves, all the lies of “I have to…or else…” that we agree to strap upon our shoulders. We can be unburdened of the crushing weights we have heaped upon ourselves. They are not ours to bear. We can allow Jesus to bless and heal us, and gently place his Cross upon our shoulders. His load is light.