In Defense of Lament
It has been a summer of big sadnesses around the globe: Deadly flooding in Bavaria. Terror in Kabul. Haiti reeling. The Pacific coast pulsing red with flame. The finger of covid wiggling through every city on the map. Sorrow like nobody’s business—except it’s everybody’s business ‘cause we all live here and this is the only globe we have.
As this dark, hot, tempestuous summer draws to a close, I find I have a thing or two or a thousand to say about the suppression of grief and I’m going to keep it short but I’m going to come out swinging because there’s a something we’re getting wrong and it’s a something we’ve got to get right.
Like many white American Christians I know, I've spent much of my life moving in circles where grief was done badly when it was done at all. If you’ve homed in the places I’ve homed in, you know how it was. Every bout of mourning had to be wrapped in Happy Things and tied up with a bow. It was bad form for a Question to show up to any party without a Ready Answer hanging on its arm. Each searing tragedy had to quickly make way for the Lesson it arrived to bring. You were not meant to suffer any anguish for long. You were not meant to cry quietly in church because the scripture reading made you so angry. You certainly were not meant to go home and cry some more and then get in the car and drive, oh anywhere, crying all the way, fuming mad and not taking anyone's comfort. I have not moved in many spaces where there was room for these things, and to be clear, this wasn't any particular person's fault. No one wanted to do a bad job with grief, but no one could help it. We didn't know better, because our entire communities were out of step with an ancient tradition that helps us right the world: Lament.
Ah, Lament. How I used to fear you as an ominous precursor to madness and despair. How many years I wasted trying to keep a lid on you, trying to put you back in the cage not knowing that every caged thing tells the world a lie. That every caged thing is bound to get loose someday with a glint in its eyes and comeuppance on its mind. I’m here to hold you in my hands at last and stroke your soft dark feathers and open my hands and say go on, I’m right behind you.
I’m here to speak up for Lament, and there’s nothing new about what I have to say. In the Hebrew scriptures that form the larger part of the Christian Bible, it pops up all the time, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. After all, the practice of donning “sackcloth and ashes” has passed into proverbial usage, and who among us who went to Sunday School as a child doesn’t know that King David wrote poems to God and told the Maker just how he was feeling—incensed meltdowns and all? Who can forget the unfortunate Job’s fed-up tirade against the Almighty, and the way God honors Job’s honesty over the pious theology of his friends? Nor does this pattern come to an end in the New Testament: Jesus has sobbing, distressed, and angry episodes of his own, and the apostle Paul tells the baby Christian church to “weep with those who weep.”
So why don’t we? Why this squishing need to move quickly past what is sorrowful and stamp out what is angry? Why this huge fear of giving safe harbor to the unhappy emotions that come into our port? What if the appropriate response to wretched happenings is sad feelings, and what if moving through those feelings in communion with each other at the pace that comes naturally is a key step in the process of arriving at healing and understanding—a step some of our churches and communities are skipping over entirely?
I’m here to say I think there’s nothing to be so afraid of. I’m here to say let’s write more sorrowing songs and more repentance songs, acknowledging that in certain times sorrow and repentance are what’s called for. Let’s come alongside the harried and enter into their grief instead of persistently shutting them out with a tone-deaf triumphalism that treats their stories as insignificant. Let’s walk in that integrity that often manifests as mourning when celebration is expected. I’m here to say let’s give Lament a chance again. What better time to try it than the bullet-holed Now?