I. We lament death. We grieve and we mourn. “Blessed are those who mourn,” said Jesus, “for they shall be comforted.” In this beatitude many people take refuge. I have heard people call this the principal beatitude of their lives.
What are we lamenting? We lament death. Death means change. Death disrupts what we have come to call the normal flow of our lives. Most of us derive peace from order, from having the furniture of our universe in place and nailed down. When others in our sphere of acquaintance or influence die, we experience radical change.
When major public figures die, our world is shattered. Ask those who were around when President Kennedy was assassinated, or Bobby or Martin Luther King Jr. People can name the places where they were, what they were doing, and whom they were with when the news came. We have a deep and timeless sense that we have been savaged, that pieces of our own lives were ripped from us.
Closer to every adult’s experience is September 11, 2001. 9-11 has entered American mythology as a number whose very naming brings with it a host of memories of a loss so overwhelming that we cannot make sense of it.
We lament when the fabric of our universe is torn,which is an ancient experience – not limited to Christians at all but universal in scope. The Anglo-Saxons called it the web of wyrd, for example, by which they meant the invisible fibers that weave us together with others into a structure that moves through time. We feel a hole in the fabric when some person or institution or social contract dies. We lament the irreplaceable nature of the person or contract we have lost.
Is this the nature of our lament?
II. In the Bible, the dirge form of poetry characterizes lament. Hebrew poetry is metric, and the dirge is three beats to two, so that it sounds like a person who shuffles or drags one foot in sorrow. The dirge usually begins with the word eikah, the Hebrew for “how,” as in “How could you let this happen?”
We lament our tribulations before the presence ofGod. God is the one whom we importune for an answer in a time of lamentation. The Lamentations of Jeremiah provide a good example; here the poet/prophet laments the destruction of Judah and the people’s entry into exile in Babylon.
The prophets use the dirge form to accuse the people of sin, but many lamentations are free of judgment and condemnation. The poet laments the drastic nature of the situation, not the reasons. In these texts God is portrayed as both Judge and Redeemer, a stance worthy of remembrance and emulation in our own times of lamentation. When MLK was gunned down in Memphis, many people thought God was absent, but the inscription on his tomb reflects another angle of vision: “Free at last, Free at last! Thank God Almighty I’m free at last!”
We turn to lament when either our perceptions or our beliefs (perhaps both) about what God is up to in the world are dramatically challenged. Lament is a blunt way to ask what God is doing in the world! It is the sanctification of the question, “How could this happen?”
I used to wonder why lamentation had virtually disappeared from the Christian script. I am no longer as sure as I once was about my initial belief; namely, that in the light of the resurrection we are to be happy because death is overcome and,therefore, lament is out of place. In his award-winning series on the Civil War, for example, the documentary producer Ken Burns showed that common foot soldiers could be eloquent, both in describing their belief in God’s providence and in lamenting the bitter sadness and awful destruction in which they were engaged.
Note the symbiosis involved here: in order to lament,at least in any biblical sense of the word, one has to turn to God. You must believe in God as the stability at the heart of the universe, so that when stability is threatened or challenged,lament arises in the heart. Where there is no sense of God’s providence, there will be no grounds for lamentation. If we have no sense of God’s providence, we will expect the universe to act in a capricious and unpredictable manner, and maybe even that it will always turn for the worst. This is the condition of humanity without God. It is also a description of the nihilism of our age.
Does our lament stem from our faithfulness?
III. What lament remains in a godless age takes the form of nostalgia for a time when faith in God gave meaning and purpose to life. Nihilism destroys our sense that life has meaning and purpose. We seem to be “riders on the storm” as The Doors sang in 1971: “into this world we’re thrown, like an actor out on loan, like a dog without a bone.” People cling to stability, therefore, like a raft in the storm of their lives, not because they feel a genuine sense of loss.
Christians may still lament because the message of the resurrection is, among things, the overturning of death; and when death seems to gain the upper hand we are thrown into lamentation. Most people, I suspect, lament the lost days when the presence of God was a guarantee for the meaningfulness of life – even if they are not aware of the content of or reason for their lamentation.
Are we are engaged in lament or are we simply stuck in the ennui that overtakes most people in this nihilistic age?
IV. Finally, could lament in the churches today be the external expression of nostalgia? Could it be that we feel and respond to our inner sense of deprivation rather than to genuine loss, which is separable from us? That is,could it be that people who are deeply affected by the nihilism of the age are seeking to halt change on selfish grounds?
Many people look to the churches as bastions of conservation if not conservatism. That is to say, people look to the church to hold the line on certain societal mores and customs. Churches change very slowly, we are told, because they are essentially conserving institutions. But what happens when the conserving institution becomes the agent of change? What would happen if, in the words of Dr. King, the church suddenly became the headlight rather than the taillight on the vehicle of society?
This is a minefield. Be careful. The questions are, “By what criteria is this change wrought? What warrant is therefor it to happen?” We don’t want to adopt a knee-jerk response of “I see the church is changing. I’m against it.” But we want to make sober decisions.
Much change has been wrought for good. The churches’ support of the civil rights movement was essential to its universal appeal only forty short years ago. By the same token, whatever you might feel about it, the churches were in the forefront of dialogue about the war inVietnam. And, lest we forget more recent history, the peace movement born in East German churches flourished into the eventual destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
This article is on lament. But everyone involved in today’s church struggles must look in the mirror and ask questions.
- Do I hold to the faith that Christ has overcome the world?
- Am I fighting solely because I see my world crumbling and former stabilities are lost?
- Do I have sufficient grounds in my faith for my support or opposition to such changes?
- Is my lament grounded in nostalgia or in faithfulness?