From Sunday’s liturgy at Christ City Church; May 29, 2022.
I am so tired of waiting.Langston Hughes
for the world to become good
and beautiful and kind?
Let us take a knife
and cut the world in two—
and see what worms are eating
at the rind.
When hard things happen, when suffering shows up, when loss lingers, when we wrestle with gun violence (again) and white supremacy (again) (and again and again and again), what do we do? We have so many options now. We can rage. We can doom scroll. We can numb. We can distract ourselves. What do you do?
A healthy response modeled for us in the Bible is the practice of lament. Almost one third of the one hundred and fifty psalms we have are psalms of lament, but pastor and author Eugene Peterson notes that up to seventy percent of the psalms contain some lament. You may be familiar with some of them: Psalm 22—which begins, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, the words Jesus cried out from the cross; or Psalm 13—“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” There’s an entire book of the Bible called Lamentations, written by the prophet Jeremiah. The prophet Habakkuk begins his writings with words that may resonate with us:
God, how long do I have to cry out for help before you listen?Habakkuk 1:2-4
How many times do I have to yell before you come to the rescue?
Why do you force me to look at evil, stare trouble in the face day after day?
Anarchy and violence break out, quarrels and fights all over the place.
… Justice is a joke.
The wicked have the righteous hamstrung and stand justice on its head.
We don’t spend a lot of time in grief. And understandably so. It’s uncomfortable and overwhelming; there is so much of it to deal with—the last two weeks with Buffalo and Laguna Woods and Uvalde have felt like a perfect storm of suffering, not to mention the ongoing conflict in Ukraine or the violence in our city, or even what’s going on in our lives. It can feel like we actually don’t have the capacity to properly process it all. Let me say: we don’t; we weren’t meant to be exposed to this much suffering and tragedy, any time and all the time. And so it’s okay to not know what to do with all of it. Some of us need to hear that—especially in this city (DC) or in your line of work, where you’re paid to know what to do—but really all of us, who find it hard not knowing, not being in control—we need to hear that.
Biblical lament is grief carried to God.
What we learn from the brutal honesty of words like those in Psalm 13 or Psalm 22; or in Psalm 44, when the psalmist accuses God of walking away from the people he promised to protect and yells, “Get up, God! Are you going to sleep all day?”; or in Psalm 88—”Why, God, do you turn a deaf ear? Why do you make yourself scarce?”—what we learn from the example of our forefathers and foremothers of faith is that nothing is off limits with God; no prayer is inappropriate. Our God is big enough to handle anything and everything we have to throw at God.
We might think that Christians aren’t supposed to feel a particular way. Especially all the feelings that we have felt these last few weeks.
Absolute anger or agony.
Helpless and hamstrung.
But we do feel that way sometimes, so the question is, “When we feel that way, what do we do?” We could act it out (which often leads to destruction and perpetuates the cycle of violence); we could deny it (which is often repression—and we all know it’ll come out somewhere else and someplace else); or we can carry it to God, choosing to lay it all before the only one who can handle it all and handle it rightly.
Don’t get me wrong, therapists and counselors and spiritual directors can help—I say that from experience—but no human being was ever meant to carry the full weight of another’s soul … none but Jesus.
Anger isn’t bad per se; it tells us something about ourselves. Same with desperation, despair, and rage. But note where the psalms tell us to take it all: to the one who stays with us even as we beat our fists in helpless rage, the one who holds us close and says, “I can take it. Tell me everything.” In her book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown created a manifesto for wholehearted parenting, and I think it reflects well the heart of God for us, God’s children, especially a line that says:
Together we will cry and face fear and grief. I will want to take away your pain, but instead I will sit with you and teach you how to feel it.
To live the resurrection is not to live in a fake world, a world where we have to pretend, but to live fully in this world, to live the eternal kind of life now and then into eternity.
Psalm 13 is one of the examples of biblical lament I mentioned earlier and it’s short—only six verses. But in the course of six verses, it goes from pain (in verses 1-2) to prayer (in verses 3-4) to:
But I have trusted in your faithful love.
My heart will rejoice in your salvation.
Yes, I will sing to the Lord
because he has been good to me.
As much as we would love for our pain and our grief to be transformed into praise within the span of six verses, we know it isn’t that easy. I would be surprised if everything was suddenly better for the psalmist, David—I don’t know that life works like that … or that God works like that. At least most of the time.
Instead, what happens—what’s possible—when we practice lament, when we name our pain and bring it in prayer to God is that we gain perspective from God. We find focus and fuel in the struggle for justice and restoration. We are strengthened for the setting right of those things we are crying out against.
Grief can make us more empathetic, more gracious, and more compassionate. Anger, when focused into righteous action, can bring lasting change for others. In our despair and our darkness, God can—and often does—surround us with the very people we need to not grow weary in well-doing.
I saw resurrection echoes this week in how many responded, including here in our own church community, coming around one another with texts and calls and prayers and donations, recommitting to the hard work of anti-racism and ending gun violence. I was inspired by a piece written by poet Amanda Gorman in the aftermath of the Uvalde shooting, entitled “Hymn for the Hurting,” which, though it may not name God explicitly, stirs in me through lament and hope a vision of God’s kingdom on earth:
Our hearts shadowed and strange,
Minds made muddied and mute.
We carry tragedy, terrifying and true.
And yet none of it is new;
We knew it as home,
Even our children
Cannot be children,
It’s a hard time to be alive,
And even harder to stay that way.
We’re burdened to live out these days,
While at the same time, blessed to outlive them.
This alarm is how we know
We must be altered —
That we must differ or die,
That we must triumph or try.
Thus while hate cannot be terminated,
It can be transformed
Into a love that lets us live.
May we not just grieve, but give:
May we not just ache, but act;
May our signed right to bear arms
Never blind our sight from shared harm;
May we choose our children over chaos.
May another innocent never be lost.
Maybe everything hurts,Amanda Gorman, “Hymn for the Hurting”
Our hearts shadowed & strange.
But only when everything hurts
May everything change.