In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, there has been renewed attention to the role of lament in public and private life. Lament involves the recognition that we are not in control. It is a healthy corrective in a culture which focuses on success (presumed to be attainable) and on being in control of our lives both individually and collectively.
As a culture, we do a great deal of criticizing and complaining about whatever we don’t like or feel is wrong, from cafeteria food to U.S. foreign policy. Such criticism implies that some human being or agency should have done things differently. Unlike our everyday complaints, in and out of the church, lament is prayer addressed to God. It implies that God is in control but that the lamenter, who is on speaking terms with God, has a right to question the Almighty.
The church should not need a tragedy of the magnitude of September 11 to focus its attention on lament. Our heritage includes powerful examples of and resources for lament, many of which are discussed in other articles in this issue. Unfortunately, much of the time we have ignored those resources. For example, many Psalms of lament have been omitted from the lectionary and from the Psalms printed in the pew edition of the Lutheran Book of Worship. We skip from the pain of Good Friday to the joy of Easter with hardly a thought about the profound confusion and despair of Holy Saturday.
Despite our readiness to criticize and complain about others, there are strong elements of both popular culture and Christian culture which inhibit our ability to admit feelings of pain, anger, or despair to ourselves, let alone express them to God in prayer. “How are you?” “Fine, thanks” rolls off our tongues so automatically that it takes a certain amount of intestinal fortitude to say to anyone, “No, actually, I’m not fine right now. I’m really struggling.”
I go to church, hoping to find some strength or comfort in my distress, and it appears that everyone else really is “fine.” People are smiling and singing songs of praise when I can barely open my mouth. It rarely occurs to me that others may also be in anguish, and they think I “have it all together” becauseI too present that image.
I was raised in a conservative/fundamentalist church and spent two years at a very conservative Bible college in South Carolina. From childhood through early adulthood I was taught that Christians could always have victory in Christ, no matter what happened. (The biography of the Bible college’s founder is titled Always in Triumph, and on the book jacket another book, The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life, is promoted. My childhood pastor gave the latter to me and my husband as a wedding gift.)
In that religious context it was common for people to “give testimonies” in public. It seemed that the only time hardship was mentioned was as a backdrop for the wonderful deliverance, victory, healing or answer to prayer the individual had experienced.
As a youth, church was a lifeline for me in the midst of a very problematic home situation, and I followed its teachings 110%. I am still thankful for people who took a personal interest in me, showed me kindness, and provided rides so I could participate in church activities. But there was a total disconnect between family experience and what I was taught in church. In my highly dysfunctional family, one of the cardinal rules was DON’T TELL. I never talked about the family situation outside the family (certainly not with the pastor); the topic was verboten even among my siblings and myself.
There are more reasons than I can identify why I had a deep, unarticulated sense of shame. In the context of the Christian Life as I understood it, the only possible cause for feeling bad was unconfessed sin. I was taught that sin separates us from God, and we needed to “keep short accounts” by confessing our sins in private prayer so that sins wouldn’t accumulate or be forgotten. I tried hard to keep all the rules, which were many, and make sure my confession of sins was up to date.
In this context, lament in the Biblical sense was virtually unthinkable. Though we were Biblical literalists, knowing Bible content cover-to-cover and striving to obey it in all things, it seems we ignored a lot of the Psalms and other parts of the Old Testament. If you had a spiritual struggle, you would hardly name it to yourself, let alone others, and least of all in church. Prayer meant addressing “the Lord” in thanksgiving, praise, confession and intercession. You could confess your own shortcomings and pray about the shortcomings of others, but expressing anger to “the Lord” or chiding Him was inconceivable.
I got married and immediately thereafter began life 6000 miles away from my family of origin as an educational missionary in Liberia. In my youthful enthusiasm, I thought I could cope with whatever came. “Take it to the Lord in prayer.” “Jesus is the answer.” Etc.
A year and a half later, in 1968, a critical situation arose for which I felt I truly needed guidance. I was preparing to give birth to my first child in a “bush hospital” in Zorzor, Liberia, staffed by missionary midwives. An older midwife, Esther Bacon, was a legend in her own time for her skill at saving the lives of mothers (and babies) in complicated childbirth, but I could relate better personally to the two younger, newly-arrived midwives. There were no prenatal classes, but I had checkups by all three midwives and read a book and thought I would be fine. As to choosing which midwife would handle my labor and delivery, I didn’t want to offend anyone and decided to let the Lord guide through circumstances. I prayed long and fervently; whoever was on duty when I arrived at the hospital in labor would be the one.
The day came. I arrived at the hospital and spoke to the young midwife on duty. She said her shift was ending in five minutes and I should wait for Esther, who would arrive momentarily. Somewhat confused in light of my prayer, I agreed. The hospital did not have a private labor room, so after an initial check, Esther invited me to her house near the hospital. I would learn in the next 20 hours that Esther essentially ignored anyone whose labor was normal. While Esther was busy at the hospital, I was left alone for hours at a time with increasing pain and fear and without any pain relief. The whole experience, though medically normal, was a horrendous extended nightmare I would relive again and again in the years to come. Later I learned that either of the young midwives would have handled my labor and delivery much differently.
This experience became the focal point for accumulated (and previously “stuffed”) faith questions. Living in the aftermath and struggling to make sense of it, I had no way to handle the situation in faith as I understood it. I second-guessed my “guidance”; after all, Esther was not, strictly speaking, the midwife on duty when I arrived at the hospital. The only choice I saw was to shelve my internal sense of faith and quit talking to “the Lord,” even as I continued to go through the motions of a Christian life as a missionary wife and mother. It would be 35 years before I could fully express to God the betrayal I felt at that time, as described below.
It was not until I had been a Lutheran for many years and the sense of God’s unlimited grace and mercy had begun to take root in my soul that I began to think and read about lament as an option for Christian prayer, both publicly and privately. Although I found Walter Brueggemann’s writing about the virtue of total honesty with God very convincing intellectually, and had a gut-level sense that his teaching was significant for me personally, I was not ready to address God directly in lament, especially the lament of anger.
A missionary friend shared with me his lament, expressing his feelings when he was in horrible pain in a hospital in India, hanging onto life by a thread as a result of receiving grossly substandard care. (He was eventually sent to Singapore via Medevac and recuperated there.)
A Believer’s Lament
by Phil Dailey
There are times when I would cease
To believe in You;
If I could, I would.
So that the pain would not be so
You frighten me.
That pain has been for me so great –
Screams snapping me into the air,
Spasms of muscle and mind;
Or exhausted screams
Through slack lips.
You frighten me.
If I did not believe in You,
Then I might not have to hate You as I do,
For the pain, made by You.
You frighten me.
And I believe You hate me too.
I do not know what I have done;
Or can do, to escape from You.
You frighten me.
Is that why You do not kill me now?
Do You delight in my suffering?
Do You like to hear me beg for water? For death?
You frighten me.
If I were safely dead
You could not hurt me any more.
Death: what a miracle.
Why do you cheat us with this gift of Life?
See what you have done to me!
You frighten me.
There it is.
And now You know –
I cannot stop believing in You,
Feeling You always by my side.
MyGod, You frighten me.
Later I wrote a lament in the voice of my mother-in-law, whose cherished only daughter had been murdered and who, in her deep grief, felt God had abandoned her. (See the November 2003 issue of LutheranWoman Today.) Still, it was several more years before I could express my own anger at God.
The child who is secure in a strong bond of love between him and his parents can say on occasion, “Mommy, I hate you!” In contrast, the child who fears rejection or abandonment, perhaps with good reason, wouldn’t dare. This dynamic may be played out in our relationship to God. Even when that relationship seems solid and secure, there may be a sense of risk if we say something offensive to God.
For me, the growth in my ability to express anger toward God has come hand in hand with a deeper knowledge of God’s love, largely mediated through a wise and sensitive spiritual director. At a time when I had received some reassuring evidence of God’s love and was seeking to know that love more deeply, I decided to meditate on the account of Jesus and the children in Mark 10, using my imagination to place myself in the story, as described by David L. Miller in his book Friendship with Jesus (Minneapolis:Augsburg, 1999).
When I made the attempt, however, I found my attention riveted instead on the next story in Mark 10, that of the rich man’s encounter with Jesus, recorded in verses 17-22. Setting aside any attempt at proper exegesis, I wrote my emotional reaction upon watching Jesus. Excerpts follow:
This morning the rich man got his chance for a face-to-face conversation. Just when Jesus was starting out on a journey, the man dashed up to Jesus, threw himself down, and blurted out, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” There was a sort of desperate, now-or-never quality to what the man did. He didn’t even greet Jesus before he spoke.
I expected Jesus to respond warmly, but he immediately put the man off with a criticism: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” Later Jesus appeared to realize the man’s sincerity and stopped sparring with him. I saw a look of love on Jesus’ face, and my hope for a real answer from Jesus grew. Jesus said, “You only lack one thing,” and it felt like creation itself was straining to listen, waiting for the final, definitive word.
I couldn’t believe what happened next. Jesus might as well have thrown a bucket of cold water on the man. “Sell what you own and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me.” Sell all you have!? The man’s face fell; his proud shoulders slumped and his beautiful rich robe was dirty and rumpled from kneeling on the dusty road. He covered his face with a sleeve as he walked away slowly, grieving, “for he had many possessions.”
Jesus, I just don’t understand. Why did you demand that the man do the one thing he couldn’t do? You didn’t ask this of others. . . I saw you look at the man. You appeared to love him, but then you drove him away. What kind of love is that – jerking people around by being tender and inviting one moment and harsh and rejecting the next?
I was watching you, Jesus, waiting to see what would happen. . . You left us feeling like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, when they uttered those saddest of all words, “But we had hoped . . .” And now I too am grieving, because it seems your love is so capricious and unpredictable. We had hoped you would show us a kind of love and compassion which could lead us to the one you call Father, but now our hopes are dashed. I’m not sure the joy some seem to find in you is worth the pain of uncertainty and betrayal.
I probably wouldn’t have had the courage to write those words without knowing I could discuss them with my spiritual director. Part of me still felt that surely God would now write me off once and for all. But, daring to trust my mentor’s understanding of God’s grace and my spiritual journey, I read my account as though it were a confession of sin. I will never forget his reaction: “Joyce, the angels are singing and dancing with joy at your honesty with God.”
Many months later, with a growing gut-level confidence that God’s love and mercy included a desire to hear whatever I had to say, I revisited the painful events related to the birth of my first child. For a week or more I pondered and recalled how I had felt toward God, searching for words and metaphors that captured my experience.
Then one morning I woke up at 3:00 a.m. feeling it was time to write. Bundled in a warm robe in my favorite chair in my cold, dark living room (it was winter and the heat was down for the night), it seemed that the only thing in my universe was the screen of my laptop and the words appearing on it in fits and starts, almost as though written by hands other than mine. Excerpts follow.
I was young.
My faith was pure and simple.
I placed the decision
and myself – my very Self –
into your hands.
Circumstances conspired against me
and I took the wrong path,
hoping it was the right one;
trusting you to guide me.
But you didn’t guide me.
You betrayed me.
I asked for an egg
and yougave me a scorpion.
You rewarded my ingenuous trust
by turning your back.
No – worse than that –
You played games with me.
I was dangled on a cosmic cord
over an abyss;
abandoned and alone,
My hands groping and grasping
for something to hold on to
and finding nothing.
My feet searching frantically
for ground to stand on
which wasn’t there.
I couldn’t cut the cord;
and even if I could,
I would have fallen into the abyss.
You looked on with bored detachment,
watching me writhe;
jerking the cord now and then
just to show who’s in control;
just to remind me
that my connection to you
couldn’t be severed,
though I desperately wished it could.
I was trapped by my baptism –
marked with a cross forever.
The pain of your betrayal
was deeper and more enduring
than the anguish I suffered
from the bad decision.
I stopped praying;
Why should I believe
in a cosmic bully?
My faith was in ashes.
The fire that stoked my spirit
was fury and indignation.
But you didn’t care.
You had other things to attend to
like running the world . . .
supervising the universe . . .
What did I matter to you?
I was a worthless trinket
to entertain you for a moment
with my artless trust,
my naive devotion,
and then to be tossed aside.
I wish I could say I came to understand,
but Inever did.
After many years I put the whole thing away
in a box marked
locked in a trunk labeled
and thrown into a river
drifting to nowhere.
Eventually I returned to faith
because there was nowhere else to go.
It was a tougher, grittier faith –
sinews without flesh –
No longer overwhelmed
by sorrow and desolation,
Wounds covered over by cold cynicism.
And I still say, with Teresa of Avila,
“If this is how you treat your friends,
It’s no wonder you have so few.”
Once more it was critical for me to share this with my spiritual director. This time I did not feel the sense of shameI had felt earlier, but perhaps resignation: “Well, there it is, for better or for worse.” I was astonished when my companion said gently, “Those words are not only addressed to God. They come from God. It is the work of theHoly Spirit in your life that has made it possible for you to write them.” As we talked quietly, we both felt a keen(and for me, surprising) sense of walking on holy ground.
The events that had triggered my sense of God’s betrayal had long since been dealt with. From my present perspective, my passivity in1968 seems incredibly naïve, and I don’t have (and no longer need) an “answer”or explanation as to what God was up to at that time. The central issue for me in this whole journey is that God invites us to recognize, express, and accept all of our feelings and thoughts in prayer, even those deemed most unacceptable by whatever standards.
What has followed my deepest expression of lament has been a slow growth of a sense of joy in my life. Little sprouts of joy and delight have appeared in some stony, hard places, including situations apparently unrelated to the subject of my lament. Some of those sprouts seem to be developing into vigorous green plants, with roots penetrating deep into the soil of my life. That soil has been enriched by my particular life’s load of “garbage,” composted into dark, rich humus by time, faith, and my own work, assisted by years of professional help both in therapy and spiritual direction.
There are other painful situations in my faith life which have been not yet become the subject of my lament. I wonder if, or when, they will appear on my lament screen. If they do, I trust I will deal with them honestly.
The journey into lament – and through it – continues.