The Current Need for Lament

By Stephen W. Smith

This photo is called Melancholy. And it is heartbreakingly beautiful. The artwork created by Albert György (living in Switzerland, but born in Romania) can be found in Geneva in a small park on the promenade (Quai du Mont Blanc) along the shore of Lake Geneva.

This photo is called Melancholy. And it is heartbreakingly beautiful. The artwork created by Albert György (living in Switzerland, but born in Romania) can be found in Geneva in a small park on the promenade (Quai du Mont Blanc) along the shore of Lake Geneva.

We live in a day and age where there is not much time to acknowledge grief and loss in our lives. After something devastating happens to us, we feel the need to move on; get over it; and press forward.

 Whether it is a hurricane, death of a loved one or major crisis in a church or business, we neglect our inner world to put “this” behind us and to keep on keeping on.

In our sacred Scriptures, we find an entire book dedicated to the opposite of how many of us live out our lives today—individually, corporately and nationally.  The book of Lamentations is as inspired as the Gospel of John, right? The people of Israel found themselves in a time of woe and trouble. It dropped them to their knees—for their losses amounted to their legs being cut off at knee length. All they could do was hobble and wobble.  There was no “Let’s get over this and move on!”  The entire country had been ransacked and possessed by another nation and scores of thousands of people—innocent people were forced into a political, geographical and spiritual exile.  Their dreams shattered; their lives torn apart and God seemed to be silent.  Numb from their grief, a prophet began to write the poems of loss and sorrow which we now know as our inspired book of Lamentations.

A lament is a determined and concentrated witness to suffering.  The words that are recorded form a sort of map of one’s interior world that has been hijacked; thwarted and destroyed.  A lament is an expression that has a form and provides the reader with an actual vocabulary that attempts to express something that is too deep for words.

 A lament is not an attempt to explain suffering. 

 A lament is not a contrived lists of  tips and techniques to avoid suffering.

The person that is lamenting is simply expressing the chaos, confusion and commotion that is occurring inside one’s soul.

 Caring for the soul is creating the space for what is hard to say—to come out.  Because without such grief coming out and being relieved, cynicism is birthed; faith is abandoned and theology is sugar coated.

 In my work with Christian leaders, I have observed a pattern that I see frequently when a leader falls; a church faces a significant loss; a group of people try to move on or through too quickly.  A band-aid of sorts is applied but the deep, inner wound of the heart lies unattended. The wound is not cleansed and then the infection sets in.  Something worse happens because proper care was not given in the first place. A sore rises up within that is filled with the puss of disappointment and the despair of illusions that have crumbled.

A season of lament is the natural and spiritual way of healing.  To sit in sadness; to face despair and to walk through the valley of the shadow of many deaths are just as needed as our singing about mountain top experiences. Why? Because there are as many valleys in life as there are mountain-tops.  To attempt to live in every season on a spiritual high sets one up or a church up for a life of shallowness and false-faith.  I once heard three of my spiritual heroes, Dallas Willard, Eugene Peterson and Richard Foster, explain what the predominant metaphor is of the Christian life.  These three men—a sort of lower trinity in my world, conferred on stage after the question was asked of them.  They took only a few seconds in their holy huddle and then Dallas Willard turned and said, “The predominate metaphor of the Christian life is ‘wilderness.’  

Wilderness?  Yes, wilderness.  The wilderness of vocation. The wilderness of raising small children and the parents needing a break—but there is no break. The wilderness of a marriage that feels more like crumbles than rock. The wilderness of losing one’s way in life. The wilderness of the death of a spouse or the horrid darkness of losing a child.  The wilderness of aging. The wilderness of facing a major disappointment.  

 Rather than acknowledging this reality, we may actually be trying to protect the reputation of God. We attempt to protect the reputation of God in ways that God does not need our protection, after all.  Our deepest calling is to embrace the truth—no matter how hard it is.  We cannot protect each other from the truth—nor should we want to or try to.

More than half of our Psalms recorded for us, which were prayed by Jesus and used by the early church, were poems of lament.  But go into churches today and we find the expression of this kind of lament almost totally lacking and voiced.  Why is this?

We hate pain. We despise grief and we ignore the devastation of loss.  In our efforts to help one another, we won’t let people grieve too long. We actually think we can dispense the antidote to pain through happy-clappy music—for there is no modern equivalent to a requiem. That seems un-American and perhaps un-Jesus.  But we would be good to remember the lament of Jesus over his own losses of friendship and feelings of loneliness.

But Jeremiah gives us this instruction when the rug is pulled out from under us and we find ourselves with the wind knocked out of us:

 When life is heavy and hard to take,
    go off by yourself. Enter the silence.
Bow in prayer. Don’t ask questions:
    Wait for hope to appear.
Don’t run from trouble. Take it full-face.
    The “worst” is never the worst.

Why? Because the Master won’t ever
    walk out and fail to return.
If he works severely, he also works tenderly.
    His stockpiles of loyal love are immense.
He takes no pleasure in making life hard,
    in throwing roadblocks in the way… Lamentations 3:28-33 

These words are counter-cultural and counter-intuitive.  It may take too much time to sit with our losses while others get ahead of us.  We may feel guilty for being sad or depressed. We have no real models to help us know how to lament.

Here are five considerations to sit with and discuss around this topic:  By journaling or discussing these considerations, the aim here is to help us embrace the hard times rather than stuff our feelings and press through too quickly.

1.     Embrace a season of lament—30 days or a quarter of the year marked to just lament. What would this look like? In older days, people who grieved wore black or put black arm bands on to give a visual symbol to other people that life is different. I will not be the same. I am destroyed on the inside. My illusions are crumbling and my heart is shattered.  Sadly, I recall losing our grandson a few years back. We were devasted at the loss of such an innocent life. I remember asking myself, “How can life move on?”  We are so different. We needed something to help us have permission to just be different.

2.     If you are in a church or company where significant loss has happened—the moral failure of a leader or facing a season of lay offs or cutbacks, how could lament become a normal way of expression in your community? Could someone write a lament and it be read in worship or team meetings for a season?

3.     How could you explore SLOWING down your life, your church or your company to acknowledge what has really happened? Can you put a hold on something or pause a program to give people space to grieve?

4.     How could you actually practice the lament of Jeremiah that I quoted above and practice this daily, weekly or monthly? How could you embrace a season of lament for your church using Jeremiah’s model?

5.    Trace your own narrative in understanding how grief and loss were “handled” in your family of origin.  How did you see others grieve and how might their way of grieving impact you today?