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May 10, 2020

Anatomy of the Soul: Grief & Lament

Passage: Psalm 13

When I was little, my older brother had these workout weights— black leather pouches filled with sand, with a buckling strap. I’m not sure how old I was when I tried them on (when he wasn’t around) but what I do remember is that I wasn’t quite sure how to use them. Were you supposed to strap them on your arms? Or on your wrist so you could do curls? Or on your ankles so you could bulk up your calf muscles? I decided it was the latter. So I fastened them to my ankles. I tried to taking a few steps. It was kind of hard, but I could do it. Then I tried running a little faster… Kerplunk! 

Grief is like that sometimes, like little weights strapped to our ankles. Sure, we can walk. Sure, we can take small steps. But perhaps we feel we just can’t run at full speed.

At other times grief might feel like a much heavier load to bear, not like some ankle weights or a dinky little one-pound barbell, but like lugging around a mammoth burlap sack of rocks or balancing a huge jug of water on your head. You can do it somehow, but it seems almost impossible to move around. It’s crushing. It’s exhausting. It hurts.

One definition of grief is “deep sorrow, especially that caused by someone's death.” The loss of a loved one is probably the first loss that comes to mind when we hear the word grief. St. Mark’s has lost two “pillars” recently, Charles Ares and Jan McCoy, folks who were really active in our church for decades. Charles and Jan were good friends to many of us. Losing them would be painful under normal circumstances, but mourning is made harder by social distancing because we can't do what we’d normally do: grieve together, give Jean and Cathy and Art a hug, and gather in person to celebrate their lives and commend them to God’s eternal care.

So when we think of grief, there is Death and then there are the legion of other losses and disappointments we face in everyday life, little deaths. Lost jobs, plans, abilities, relationships, status, money, possessions, opportunities, hopes. These griefs are like objects of various sizes that we carry around with us on our ankles or arms or backs or minds or hearts. They accumulate over time and their total weight makes it harder to move about life sometimes.

Right now we are wading through an entire season of grief. David Kessler literally wrote the book on the stages of grief with the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. In a recent interview with the Harvard Business Review, Kessler pointed out:

We’re feeling a number of different griefs. We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way… Just as going to the airport is forever different from how it was before 9/11, things will change and this is the point at which they changed. The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air… we’re also feeling anticipatory grief. Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain. 

Does that ring true for anyone? I’m sure it would resonate with the writers of scripture, especially the folks who wrote or compiled the Psalms. Also Lamentations. And Jeremiah. And Habbakuk. The Bible is full of lament, which is the practice of naming the experience of suffering and crying out to God about it. Grief and lament, these things go together. One is the weight we feel; the other is our attempt to express it.

Lament is important, so important that a third of the entire Psalter are psalms of lament. Take just one of them, Psalm 13, the one we just read:

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?

    How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I bear pain in my soul,

    and have sorrow in my heart all day long?

The psalmist not only puts the feeling of being abandoned into words, but does so in an unvarnished way, pounding on the door of heaven: “HOW LONG? How long do I have to endure this? Where are you? Am I alone here?” This person doesn’t hold back! Contrary to the “stiff upper lip” piety some of us grew up with, the psalmist lets God have it! Praise comes at the end, of course, but he doesn’t just jump right to it.

What strikes me about this psalm, and the other lament psalms, is their bedrock conviction that God hears. There’s intimacy to it. The psalmist names the losses — which in this case are losses of community and safety — with the expectation that God will answer in some way. And what’s astounding even more is what caps it off: the audacious hope that God’s love and goodness will be trustworthy in the end. He trusts God enough to cry out.

So is lament just the same thing as ranting to the void or venting to an imaginary friend? Is catharsis alone the point? No, I don’t think so. What I believe is that in our raw honesty we become empty, only to be filled with just enough grace to take the very next step, whatever that next step is. In prayerful lament, we allow God to carry some of what weighs us down. The heaviness doesn’t go away, of course, but we are able to walk just a little bit farther. Lament, paradoxically, carves out space for resilience.

Lament is also a communal practice; when done with others and it is so powerful! It reminds us that we’re never alone in facing life’s losses. As one person put it, “The chiefest sanctity of a temple is that it is a place to which [people] go to weep in common.” [1]

Marsha Witten tells the story of listening to Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion” on a Good Friday. [2] She was struck by the pathos the instruments evoked, the pain and sorrow of Jesus’ lynching:

As the music moved to its final chorale, ‘with antiphonal choirs calling out sorrowfully to Jesus in his grave,’ she heard mail drop into the mailbox at the door. When the performance ended, she retrieved her mail. Opening her envelope she was confronted by a form letter inviting her to a local church. The invitation, a marketing tour de force, encouraged her to come to a church where she would hear ‘positive, practical messages which uplift you each week’ on subjects such as ‘how to feel good about yourself’... ‘how to have a full and successful life,’ ‘learning to handle your money without it handling you,’ ‘the secrets to successful family living,’... 

Witten, who is Jewish, felt the stark disconnect between the story of Jesus’ suffering and the brochure from a church “mimicking the slick direct-mail solicitation of a credit card or insurance company’ which failed to mention faith or God, let alone suffering or spiritual striving.”

Lament is counter-cultural in a society that is very invested in numbing us to pain so we can keep consuming and in glossing over what is amiss so that we can keep the “gears grinding.” With our device-driven attention spans these days, how challenging is it to openly grieve the tragedies and injustices that people suffer — to cry out, “How long, O God?” — and skate on over it to the next shiny thing? Communal lament, you see, has a way of pushing back against the status quo. That’s why the church is called to do it.

Precisely because the foundation of lament is the belief that a sovereign God hears, naming what is lost to hate, violence, evil, and death reaffirms our belief in what should be, what God wills for all God’s children: love, peace, goodness, and life. In Michael Jenkins’ words, “The earth is… in the psalms, held to the standard of heaven.” [3]

Far from wallowing in our misery, lament is a gift, a tool, our tradition gives people of faith for making it through hard times. So let’s name what we’re grieving, because the God of steadfast love hears us.


[1] The Spanish philosopher Miguel Unamuno, quoted in Michael Jenkins’ In the House of the Lord: Inhabiting the Psalms of Lament (1998), p. 33. 

[2] Jinkins, p. 34-35.

[3] Jinkins, p. 13.

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