I still have the same Bible that I had in high school. And it has various notes and comments that I wrote down in the margins back then. And one of them has always stuck out to me. It’s written down next to verse 14 from the Psalm that Nancy and I just read. Verse 14 and 15 read:
“I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
it is melted within my breast;
15 my mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
you lay me in the dust of death.
Next to those verses, I wrote “Sometimes I feel like this.” For many years when I looked at this passage I was a little embarrassed. I must have written it during one of the angstier phases of my teen years, and most likely in reference to a relationship. But over the years I’ve come to appreciate the note, because time and again it has been true for me. Sometimes I do feel like this. When my grandmother died—all my bones were out of joint; my heart melted within my breast. When one of my former youth group students died in a car crash his freshman year—my mouth dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue stuck to my jaw.
And I am feeling that way today, as we grieve following one of the deadliest shootings in our history. To hear of the many victims, to read about heroic efforts to save lives by public servants, medical professionals, and civilians melts my heart. This week someone posted on a Presbyterian facebook group a call for pastors in the Las Vegas area because of the overwhelming need for grief support and pastoral care. To think of all the mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers crying out in grief—it lay me in the dust of death.
Over and over I have come back to this Psalm because it has given words to my pain and my grief. This is the point of Psalms like this one. They were written to give voice to suffering and pain. There is a long tradition of lament in the Bible. It goes from Rachel, who refused to be consoled, through Jeremiah the “weeping prophet,” to Jesus’ final words on the cross, which we just read. Laments make up one third of the Psalms. And that tradition of lament runs counter to our culture of relentless positivity, inspiration, and materialism. In a culture with legions of industries devoted to making ourselves feel better, lament goes against the grain by focusing on an honest accounting of the pain.
Our tendency is to avoid dealing with pain and suffering at all costs. And we have a number of ways we do this. One of the easiest ways to cope is to try to distract ourselves. It’s not hard. When there is bad news in our feeds, a flick of your thumb scrolls down to something completely different. There is always a new sale, a new diet, a new recipe to look at, and even bopping from one outrage to the next keeps us from having to spend time thinking about any one. When bad news is on TV, there are hundreds of other channels to choose from, or just some new outrage to distract us from the previous one. We go through news cycles so fast that we never have time to talk about solutions to our problems. It is just a matter of time before this too, will be forgotten. This is especially true when the events are far away. The next morning we still have the same list of things to get done. We still have to go to work, run errands, care for children, pay our bills. But the Psalms and poems of lament, by calling attention to the pain and suffering and demanding to be heard, do not allow themselves to be distracted or forgotten.
Another way that we try to avoid dealing with tragedy is to force a happy ending. If we can find some positive, we think, the suffering will be redeemed. But not all stories have happy endings certainly most of the tragic ones don’t. So we go out searching for them, and we focus on a few stories of hope instead of the larger truth of devastation.
Forcing a happy ending and refusing to give space for difficult feelings encourages us to hide our wounds rather than heal them. It’s like asking patients with terminal illness to smile so they don’t make us feel depressed. It asks us to pretend that things are okay when they really aren’t. But acts of lament resist the impulse to cover real injury with false hope. Lament emphasizes telling the truth about misery and suffering, and not trying to shoehorn it into some preconceived notion of how life ought to be. Better the jagged edge of truth than a smooth sea of false hope.
It is easy to think of lamentation as a depressing act. It is, no doubt, disturbing to focus on pain and grief. But crying out to God doesn’t bring any new suffering into the world; it exposes the suffering to light in such a way that opens the door to healing. By acknowledging wounds instead of denying them, the act of lament rejects the various means of denial that we use to cope with tragedy. Instead, lament is a profound act of faith. It does not hide our pain, but lifts it up to God. And you don’t call out to God unless you hold some sliver of a hope that you might get an answer. Rather than avoid dealing with pain and misery, lament confronts our suffering to turn it into something holy.
Lament shifts the question that we apply to tragedy from “How can we cope with this?” which is an invitation to shortcuts and denial, to the real, deeper question that lurks behind every tragedy, the profound sense of abandonment we experience in suffering: “Where is God, in all this?” It’s the question that opens Psalm 22, and the words that Jesus quotes from the cross: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? “Where are you, God?”
If Psalm 22 and the lament tradition tell us that it is holy to cry out in suffering to God, the fact that Jesus cried out those words on the cross tell us something of the shape of God’s response. That Jesus, the son of God cried out on the cross tells us that God knows our suffering. Not in a looking-at-it-from-above kind of way, either. God knows suffering because God has experienced the aching, “why are you doing this to me?” outrage, the fear of what horror lies ahead, the exhaustion of sitting down in the shower and crying, the numbness of getting up again because you have run out of tears and there is still so much to do. Jesus’ lament on the cross tells us that God knows grief.
And the strange things that Matthew records as having happened at the moment of Christ’s death reflect the other side of that grief. The earthquake, the darkness, the temple curtain being torn in two, all of these reflect God’s grief at the death of his son. In this moment, we have both Jesus’ anguished cry of abandonment and God’s agony over the loss of his son. Both of these reflect a profound truth: we have a suffering God.
Christ’s lament tells us that ours is a God who knows the experience of godlessness. In dying on the cross, God identified himself with those who have experienced the lonely abandonment of human suffering. And in that suffering, in that lament on the cross, God lifts up our suffering by experiencing, and identifying Godself with it. The lament of God makes our suffering holy because suffering becomes something that unites us with God. Jesus’ words on the cross tells us that no matter how deep we may fall, no matter how lost and alone we might feel, no matter how out of joint our bones may get, there is no depth that God cannot reach. And the resurrection tells us that God has reached into those depths, has stuck God’s arm into the jaws of death, and brought back life.
The first time I was called as a pastor to the bedside of someone I knew was about 6 months into my first call. Clarence was a WWII veteran who’d lost his wife just a year before. I used to go see him every week or two. I loved visiting him. He was one of those old guys who just knew how to tell a story right. And most of his stories were about the love of his life, Juanita. And every time I left, he would stand up, and it took him so long to stand up. And he would shake my hand and say “Drew, I miss her so much.” About six months in Clarence fell, and while he was in the nursing home I came down with a bug and didn’t want to give it to him. So it had been three weeks since I’d last seen him, when someone told me at church that I ought to go down and see Clarence and his family. “They think it’s his time.” This was the first time I’d ever been in this situation. Most of the family was in from out of town. I’d brought a Bible so they’d know who I was. And I remember walking down that hall and introducing myself and shaking hands with a few people, a niece, two grandsons. I went into his room, and I looked at him on the bed and I couldn’t even recognize him, so much had changed. My mouth was dried up like a potshard, and my tongue stuck to my jaws. I choked out an offer to pray, and we bowed our heads. And I remember exactly what I prayed. I prayed, “Holy Jesus, please be present with us in this place. We know that you are always with us, but let us feel your presence in this place.” And we all sat down and shed tears, and told stories. And at some point, there was movement on the bed, and we all jumped up, suddenly attentive to anything he would say. “Water,” he said. And someone took a sponge stuck up on a stick, and they reached over to his lips.
And my eyes were opened, and I recognized Him. I knew that my prayer had been answered. Jesus was right there with us. Not sitting beside us or in our hearts. But right there with Clarence, and I was no longer worried about him.
Friends, this is our God. God does not ask us to hide our suffering. He simply asks us to allow room for God to redeem it. When you are hurting, do not be afraid to cry out. When you hear of the world’s pain, the tragic events that have happened and are happening in our nation, do not gloss over them, or try to force some positive spin onto them. Bear witness to the truth, demand a hearing with God, and make room for God’s healing to enter in. Because even in hopelessness, God is with us.
There’s an old story out of the more mystical traditions of Hasidic Judaism, told by Rabbi Schlomo Carlebach, the famous “Singing Rabbi” of orthodox Judaism. In this tradition they say that in the world at any given time there are 36 people, who are so holy that God allows the world to continue to exist just for them. The story is about one of the great holy people, whose name was Rebbe Yitzhak Vorker. Before he died, he promised his son that he would come back and tell him how things are in heaven. A few months later, the rabbi’s son goes to Rebbe Mendel, one of the oldest, best friends of Rebbe Yitzhak and says to him:
“You know, I don’t really know what I was expecting, but I guess I thought that my father would reach out to me from heaven even if it just in a dream. And it has been more than four weeks, and he has not come back, and I’ve begun to get rather worried.”
“I have wondered the same thing,” said Rebbe Mendel. “And so I traveled up to heaven to look for him.”
He tells of how he went to all of the palaces of heaven. He spoke with Rashi, he spoke with Akiba, he spoke with the great rabbis of the past. He went to Moses and the prophets. And all of them had said the same thing. He was here, but then he left. Finally, he asked the angels, and the angels told him to go through a dark forest, and he would find him on the other side. It was the darkest, most intimidating forest he had ever been through, and he wanted to turn back. And as he got deeper into the forest, he heard these strange sounds. When he got through the forest, he had arrived at an ocean. He realized that the sounds were the waves of the ocean, only they were not normal wave sounds, more like a wail or a moan.
So the Rebbes friend traveled through the dark forest, and there was Rebbe Yitzhak, kneeling at the edge of an ocean. And Rebbe Yitzhak was there, kneeling at the edge of the ocean, crying, begging, and pleading with God. His friend had never seen him so distraught in all his life. And as he approached and spoke with him, the whole time, Rebbe Yitzhak never took his eyes off the ocean. Rebbe Yitzhak said to him,
“Do you know this ocean?”
“No, what is it?”
“This is the ocean of tears. It is the ocean of the tears of all of God’s holy people. And I swore to God, that I would not leave the ocean until God has dried all the tears.”
And Rabbi Carlebach tells this story, and he says, whenever you see tears, stay there and don’t leave until God has dried up all the tears.
This is what it is to lament. It is to cry out until God has come to dry up all the tears. Because God hears, and God cares, and we trust that God will answer our prayers.