Lament

Two weeks ago, I did something terrifying.

I read poetry in front of people.

Scary poetry. Honest poetry. Lament poetry.

Lament is one of my new favorite words. Merriam-Webster (almost the best dictionary ever, after the OED), defines it as an intransitive verb, meaning to mourn aloud. 

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Mourn. Aloud.

I love my church. It’s my family. But over the last year especially, I’ve been realizing that the larger church–or at least many people in it–has little space in its theology for the bad things that happen. I’m not talking about little struggles, bumps in the road. Those are a natural part of every human’s life. I’m talking about the bad things–the things for which there is no sense. Eight-year-old girls who get leukemia. Forty-five-year-old fathers who die of cancer. Classes of kindergarteners shot down by sick, deranged gunmen.

Volumes and volumes of Christian theology are devoted to understanding these things. Logical treatises, high-caliber philosophical explanations are offered. Yes, in moments of quiet, those explanations can help us understand a world that shakes us to the core. Yes, there is a place for understanding. But it’s not in the middle of the suffering.

It’s natural to want to skip past the pain to the victory; to tell thesis-driven, neatly packaged stories of conflict, climax, and resolution. We minimize the dark, torn-up moments of life because we don’t know what to do with them–instead we fast-forward straight to the overcoming, the lesson learned, the transformation accomplished. All those are good things to see and give thanks for, in 20/20 hindsight. But sometimes, when you’re in the midst of the story, you have no idea what the resolution’s going to look like. And when your feet are bloody from the road, you may not even be sure you’ll ever reach the destination.

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My pastor has started a sermon series on laments in the Bible, and it brings me joy because it means our church is talking about these things. The most helpful thing, when all the walls of your world are caving in and you have no pain tolerance left, is to mourn. To acknowledge the pain. The frustration. The fear. The confusion. The anger. The abandonment. These are real feelings. If you haven’t bled on the sharp point of these feelings yourself, others’ cries of lament may sound grotesque, depressing, even melodramatic. But listen anyway. Mourning sucks the venom from the snakebite. It keeps the sorrow from drowning you when you can’t yet see the shore. And to listen to someone else’s mourning, to be a safe sound room where their raw pain can be released, is to help them heal. 

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So here are a few laments. Though my lament two weeks ago was in poem form because I love the power of poetry to express raw emotion, laments can also be expressed through songs, stories, paintingsarticles, novels, and maybe even forms I haven’t discovered yet.

Here’s one of my favorite laments, a poem called Bereft by Robert Frost: 

Where had I heard this wind before

Change like this to a deeper roar?

What would it take my standing there for,

Holding open a restive door,

Looking down hill to a frothy shore?

Summer was past and day was past.

Sombre clouds in the west were massed.

Out in the porch’s sagging floor,

Leaves got up in a coil and hissed,

Blindly struck at my knee and missed.

Something sinister in the tone

Told me my secret must be known:

Word I was in the house alone

Somehow must have gotten abroad,

Word I was in my life alone,

Word I had no one left but God.

And a piece of a lament from Psalm 13 (The Message):

Long enough, God
    you’ve ignored me long enough.
I’ve looked at the back of your head
    long enough. Long enough
I’ve carried this ton of trouble,
    lived with a stomach full of pain.

And one from me: 

I am not a poet

I am just a

kid broken by the thunder of

gunfire

brimming with words that

have noplace else

to go.

Though laments are scary to share in all their raw honesty, the sharing is worth it if it frees even one other person to mourn aloud. Or maybe if it teaches someone how to listen. 

Have you ever tried writing a lament? Tried sharing it with others? 

Christmas from the Outside

Christmas celebrations, at least in America, are glazed with fuzzy feelings. Lights deck out dark windows, sugary drinks abound at Starbucks, songs about cherubs and snuggling and pumpkin pie flood the radio. Even most Christian carols are exclusively about Joy to the World and Peace on Earth at this time of year, sweeping the rest under the rug ‘til January. But that glitzy window display of sentimentalism divides people. Either you’re rockin’ around the Christmas tree, or you’re fogging the glass from the outside, wondering why you can’t hear the music.
Christmas has a way of dredging up life’s most intense sorrows as well as its joys. Landing at the end of the calendar year, it offers opportunities for reflection. Achievements, gains, successes, new opportunities become cause for celebration. But job loss, unwanted moves, illness, addiction, regret, missed opportunities—how do you celebrate those?
As a time when families traditionally gather together, Christmas can also exacerbate the awareness when they’re not. The sentimentalism of the season doesn’t have room for divorce, miscarriage, divisive arguments, breakups, estrangement, or death—leaving those with these relational wounds to carry them around like dirty little secrets under our Christmas sweaters. I lost someone at Christmas when I was very young, and to this day, songs about cozy sleigh rides, Daddy chopping firewood, or even Mary and Joseph cooing over baby Jesus can leave me rubbing my hands on the cold side of the window. At a time of year when mommies traditionally take their little girls to The Nutcracker and couples kiss under the mistletoe, that secret pain can feel illicit at the “most wonderful time of the year.” You wonder if you’re a Scrooge for not feeling the “Christmas spirit”—especially when you know you’re supposed to be celebrating the Lord Jesus Christ’s birth into the world. 
The birth of Christ, though, wasn’t as sugary as the wooden nativity scenes make it out to be—not if you look at it from God the Father’s perspective, anyway. Maybe it isn’t orthodox, but I imagine that He felt very conflicted on that first Christmas. I know He overflowed with joy because He stood to regain relationship with a world full of His beloved children. But—but—at the same time, as the heav’nly hosts sang Alleluia and a teenage girl lovingly cradled her new baby, I think the Father pressed His nose to the glass and wept.
Because that baby, separated from Him by a veil of flesh, was His son, His only son.
And he was going to die.
Perhaps a true celebration of Christmas has room for mixed feelings. It’s a time for rejoicing; for singing Christ the Savior is born and investing in our relationships, whatever they may be. But it’s a holiday of loss, too; a commemoration of the grief that goes hand-in-hand with joy. Christmas is more than tinsel and gift cards, but it’s also more than singing shepherds and a haloed Baby. Because even as we celebrate advent, incarnation, and nativity, we are remembering one Father’s suffering, sacrifice, and separation from his son—something many of us understand very personally at this time of year. With joy in our hearts and tears in our eyes, we celebrate that God, who gave up all He had to welcome us inside—even those of us who have been fogging the glass a long time.
Hallelujah. What a Savior.