Gift Of Grief: Lamentation

Gift Of Grief: Lamentation

Psalm 13/ Psalm 22

We celebrate Canada Day on Wednesday next week – and how weird not to be doing so with all our usual mass gatherings and parades. But what a privilege to be here in this land where – despite our mistakes, both current and historical: our atrocious relationships with indigenous communities, we lament our failings, we are wired to want to be better. It’s right there in one of the verses of our national anthem:

Ruler Supreme, who hearest humble prayer,
Hold our dominion within thy loving care;
Help us to find, O God, in thee, A lasting, rich reward,
As waiting for the Better Day,
We ever stand on guard.
God keep our land glorious and free!
O Canada!
We stand on guard for thee.

John Cleese of Monty Python fame, wrote a satirical series for BBC TV in the late 1960s, called ‘How to Irritate People’. His fundamental key is not to allow people to vent! Get them to be annoyed but only to the point where they can stand it, because the minute someone is allowed to erupt all their hurts and frustrations, is when they start to feel better and you will have to start annoying them again from the start. The very serious point to take from this is that the venting of our feelings, our expressing whatever we are otherwise allowing to build up inside of us, is not only good for us, it’s essential for our good health and sanity!

I can’t complain

I’m always a little unsure when we answer ‘how are you’ with the usual ‘I can’t complain’ because it’s just not true! WE CAN COMPLAIN! Our good health REQUIRES that we complain! I’m not talking so much about always being miserable about something or another – but about how, when we are going through what’s rough, we must CREATE opportunities to express our pain! …if not to some people that we trust, then at least to ourselves, certainly to God! And that’s exactly what our texts are doing today! We’re speaking about the gift of lamentation. It’s the gift of being able to react, to grieve!

Some [i] argue that as much as 55-60% of all the sentiment expressed in Psalms which we know were the Hebrews’ hymnbook, are doubt, frustration, anger, hurt, and lamentation. And not only in the Psalms, we hear this response to hard life events all through scripture: e.g. the Book of Job, where he was feeling desperately miserable after all he’d been through and had no qualms about expressing it: “Why did I not perish at birth, come forth from the womb and expire?” (Job 3:11). As do the prophets, crying out to God, “Why is my pain continuous, why does my wound seem incurable…?” (Jeremiah 5:18). The whole of the OT book of Lamentation is dedicated to just that – the people of Judah weeping as they expressed their pain at losing their land after being taken into Babylonians exile.

We see it the New Testament where suffering people cry out to Jesus for help. “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me!” shouted Bartimaeus, the blind roadside beggar, (Mark 10:47).

Or even Jesus himself in the Garden of Gethsemane, so terrified and overwhelmed before his betrayal and arrest: “Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me…” (Mark 14:36). As well as from the cross as he was dying, owning the words of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me…?”

IT’S PROFOUNDLY BIBLICAL! These MUST be our prayers as we go through rough circumstances, and we MUST be allowed to pray them: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice!” (Psalm 130:1) “O my God, I cry out by day, and you answer not; by night, and there is no relief for me” (Psalm 22:3). “How long, O Lord? Will you utterly forget me?” (Psalm 13:2), “Why, O Lord, do you stand aloof? Why hide in times of distress?” (Psalm 10:1)

And yet, despite how scripture presents lamentation as a vital and therapeutic part of any faithful response to when life is hard, we seem to have lost touch with it. Or worse, we think that by expressing our anger or sadness we are somehow losing our faith! What? Seriously?                              

I’m grateful for an article published by Old Testament Professor and scholar Fr Michael D. Guinan, (GUY-NIN) [ii] in Franciscan Media & I am drawing freely today from that article as we think about ‘lamentation’.

An act of faith

Firstly, lamentation can be an act of faith. Faith is not simply about our intellectual agreement with statements about God. It is about the trusting to God of our entire selves. Of course there are times when it feels God is absent, when we feel alone, confused, and we doubt. But honest doubting is never the opposite of our faith! Unbelief is the opposite of faith! We actually DO believe in God’s goodness and love and that’s why our difficult experiences hurt so much – it’s our faith in something better that provides the context for our doubts. We cry out directly to God because we know that while there is very real hurt in here, we know deep down, somehow, there is a God who cares, deeply. We lament because we DO have faith that God is in fact hearing us – despite our doubting, or of how desolate we may be feeling: it IS an act of faith!

Directed to God

Secondly, it’s directed to God. Injustice, hatred, brokenness, hard circumstances, unfairness, are all part of our lives and part of our world. And when we experience them of course we may instinctively want to retaliate, return hatred with hatred. But just because we may feel a certain way does not give us permission to dump all our negative reactions wherever and on whomever.

And so we lament to God because we believe we’ve been given the right to express our uncensored feelings there, as opposed to compounding the pain of our situations by inappropriately attacking those around us!

Process our pain

Thirdly, lamentation gives us the ability to acknowledge & so begin to process our pain

…it’s what we need to do to begin getting those destructive feelings out of us, get them to where we can begin to respond more constructively to our challenges. With more intentionality…

We know forgiveness is always the goal, but we also know that it’s never helpful to go there too quickly! If we do not recognize and deal constructively with our most difficult feelings and hurts, they will go underground to pop up later in destructive ways. Our grief, anger, lamenting, is a constructive way for us to begin to do that. Notice also how almost all of the lament psalms end with praise, but also that they’re only able to get there once they’ve faced and expressed the writers’ pain and negativity – it’s only then that healing can begin.

The Jesus way

That is the Jesus way! This is his Easter model of truth: how it is only by facing the hard stuff/death that we come to embrace the new stuff/life/resurrection.

We may never try leaping too quickly away from our experience of loss. Christian faith proclaims a message of hope, but the reality of death and grief must still always be a very real part of that process.

In the 2003 movie ‘Something’s Gotta Give’ Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson fall in love, get together, break up and then rediscover one another. But it’s after the breakup that we see a devastated Diane Keaton demonstrating all of what we are saying here. She laments! The movie takes us through lots of her just wailing/howling on the beach to the waves, and to herself, and to God! But the point is weeks, months later, when she emerges, she is whole and ready to go back to life! …leaving it up to Jack Nicholson to have to grovel his way back to her! 

The ancient Jewish practice of sackcloth and ashes understood that dynamic, where the grief-stricken would deliberately tear their clothes after their loss, sit in ash and wail, with the community understanding that that was their time to be left there to do that healing work…

Fr Michael ends his article by encouraging us as the church to create opportunities to re-introduce practices and rituals to bring lamentation back into our everyday lives, after a painful divorce perhaps; or after any kind of trauma, or loss…

This time of COVID has been brutal! Not just for those almost 10 million who have been infected, or for the loved ones of the half million who have died so far, but for all of us. The world is changing, and we miss the way things were before, we miss being able to gather, we miss the security of knowing what the future holds for us…

Of course we believe that all throughout this fog of unknowing God still has this – there IS hope for something good to emerge. But we dare not try embracing that future hope without respecting and expressing our sadness at what is lost. What have you lost?

We are always more traumatized than we like to believe – there is always grief work to do. We  carry the effects of our unprocessed sadness and loss, and it’s deadly! I’m grateful to Alma-Jean who is currently offering grief and loss groups where folks are being encouraged to process whatever loss they know – please contact the office if you’d like to know more…

In this model of God inviting us into the cycle of dying-letting go, & resurrection-coming back, we have the key to so much of our living. Honest-to-God expression of frustration & grief followed by the rediscovery of our hope-filled restored selves is an essential part of what following Jesus and the way of Christ is all about!

May I ask again: What are you most aware of having lost in your life? What unresolved grief are you still carrying, perhaps exacerbated by this time of isolation and insecurity?

Go there – unapologetically, and confidently, boldly, as we pray our lamentation to God in Jesus name, Amen.

Rev. Robin Jacobson reserves all rights © 2020.
You are welcome to use, copy, edit or reproduce this sermon summary with copyright attached. Publication is prohibited.

[i] I’m remembering the writing of David Cook, paraphrasing from his unpublished doctoral thesis ‘Courage to Doubt’

[ii] Michael D. Guinan, OFM, who is a professor of Old Testament, Semitic languages and biblical spirituality at the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, California.