Learning to lament
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
It's Friday and I'm supposed to be writing my sermon for the International Baptist Church of Bonn, but I can't at the moment. I need to process. I need to reflect. I need to mourn.
This is my weekly routine: Monday through Friday I wake early so I can study my sermon text for the week, Friday I fast and write, Saturday I rest from my labors, and Sunday I celebrate the risen Lord with the local church and preach from God's word.
In January I started preaching through the Gospel of Matthew, and last Sunday I preached the last of our 21 sermons through the Sermon on the Mount. "How will you respond?" Jesus asks. "Will you hear my words and do them, or will you hear them and ignore them?" Jesus's final words are clear, "everyone is building their life on something. Will you build upon me and my words, or will you build your life on anything else?"
Everyone must choose. Everyone is already choosing. And everyone's answer will be revealed. When the storms of life come, and when the end of life comes it will be revealed upon what foundation we built.
This week a storm came to the Campbells.
On Tuesday Beth and I learned that we will be having our fourth miscarriage.
They never get easier, and in fact may get increasingly heavier to bear.
“Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean." Then Jesus touches the man and says, "I am willing. Be clean.” - Matt. 8:2-3
This one in particular is difficult. An early sonogram indicated that it might be twins. Our visit to the doctor on Tuesday was supposed to settle this, but it only showed a blur on the screen ... no heartbeat, no blood flow. The baby (for we now know that it was not twins) stopped developing three weeks ago. Yet Beth continues to feel nausea. She continues to feel pregnant. Her body is still acting pregnant, growing a womb that has no life. We now await the inevitable, weakened by sorrow.
On the way home from the doctor's office it struck me like a ton of bricks, "I'm supposed to preach on Matthew 8:1-4 this week." How could I possibly preach on that?
In that passage a leper runs to Jesus and says, "Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean." Then Jesus touches the man and says, "I am willing. Be clean."
"I am willing."
Yet sometimes He is not willing.
Always able, but not always willing.
And so, we are learning once again how to lament.
So instead of putting on a brave face and preaching on Matthew 8:1-4, I have decided instead to wake on the Lord's Day and mourn, to lament in front of the church, to demonstrate and teach biblical lament.
I have been reflecting on two lament Psalms this week. The first -- Psalm 13 -- is a very typical lament, and for years has been one of my favorite Psalms.
The ESV reads:
1 How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
3 Consider and answer me, O LORD my God;
light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
4 lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.
5 But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
6 I will sing to the LORD,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.
You'll notice that it begins in darkness and ends with hope ... joy even. This is a typical feature of lament psalms, and this fact is well-known by Christians. This fact has helped train Christians that they cannot be TOO sad. That no matter how bleak things become, they can always rejoice because they have their salvation.
This attitude also comes out whenever a widow is told at the funeral of her husband, "Well, we can be happy because Frank is in a better place. His suffering is over."
This sentiment is not untrue. But I hope we can all agree that a funeral is the wrong place to say this.
Christians do have their salvation. To be absent from the body is to be with Christ. Christ does work all things together for good for those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose. Yes, yes, yes. These are all true.
But the Bible allows for lament.
It allows for accusations against God.
It even allows for darkness without hope or joy ... at least for a time.
Now look at the words of Psalm 88, one of (perhaps) two psalms that do not end with any altered perspective at the end of the lament. It literally ends in darkness. The ESV again:
1 O LORD, God of my salvation,
I cry out day and night before you.
2 Let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry!
3 For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
4 I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am a man who has no strength,
5 like one set loose among the dead,
like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more,
for they are cut off from your hand.
6 You have put me in the depths of the pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
7 Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves. Selah
8 You have caused my companions to shun me;
you have made me a horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
9 my eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call upon you, O LORD;
I spread out my hands to you.
10 Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the departed rise up to praise you? Selah
11 Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
12 Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?
13 But I, O LORD, cry to you;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
14 O LORD, why do you cast my soul away?
Why do you hide your face from me?
15 Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.
16 Your wrath has swept over me;
your dreadful assaults destroy me.
17 They surround me like a flood all day long;
they close in on me together.
18 You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me;
my companions have become darkness.
As you read this Psalm do not miss the blaring accusations against God. If you can imagine being in the shoes of the psalmist Heman the Ezrahite, you can begin to grow in a deeper understanding of biblical lament.
God becomes one with whom the psalmist wrestles. This wrestling seeks understand or accept life in a world effected by sin. How can a life of suffering be congruous with life in God's world?
As I go through these dark days, I've realized many things about mourning with those who mourn. When I am mourning with someone, I often find that I want to say something that falls into one of three categories:
"Have hope, God is sovereign."
"Be comforted, God loves you."
"I don't know what to say, but I love you, and I'm praying for you. I'm here if you need help."
But in the darkness of lament, only one of these three is actually comforting.
Number 1, although true, is not something I struggle with when I'm lamenting. In fact, like the leper going to Jesus, I have great trust in God's sovereign power. In fact, this trust in God's sovereignty is the basis of my wrestling with Him. I know that he could have preserved the life of our babies. But he didn't. This is where my lament begins.
Number 2, although also true, can have an isolating effect. Continuing with the wrestling metaphor, imagine wrestling with God and then a close friend jumps into the ring and joins not your side but the side of your opponent. Of course it is true that God is loving, but I'm realizing that saying true things at the wrong time can have an undesired effect.
Although we can often feel silly (or even stupid) saying effectively nothing, number 3 offers the most comfort. Saying something is nice; we know this. But we are often lost for words when we comfort those in pain. But actually, from my own experience, the best text message I can receive goes something like this: "Stephen, I heard about the miscarriage. I'm so sorry. I don't have any words to offer you that will take the pain away, but I want you to know that we love you and Beth. We're praying for you. Can we bring you a meal and pray together?"
As I go through periods of lament I'm learning the wisdom of words like these. It communicates solidarity, friendship, a joining in the mourning process, and a recognition that healing takes time, and things won't by quoting Christian platitudes.
God is loving.
I know this.
The loss of the unborn is not his desire.
I also know that my sorrow is not his desire for me.
I know that eventually I will have an altered perspective. I will eventually move beyond Psalm 88 and be able to say, "But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me." (Psalm 13:5-6).
I may even one day be able to see how God is using this season for my good and His glory. But that takes time.
As a church, I believe that we need to grow in our understanding of biblical lament. I believe that we need to grow in our ability to mourn with those who mourn.
To do this, it would do us a great service to meditate upon the laments of the Bible. It would help us to learn that lament does not mean abandoning the faith or turning our backs on God. Rather, biblical lament is a season of growth through wrestling with the hard realities of a life of faith in a world effected by sin.
It would also do us a great service as a church to live out the truths that we all know, that we don't have to put on a brave face when we come to corporate worship on the Lord's Day, that we don't have to wait until we have it all together before we can show up, that when we are asked on Sunday morning "How was your week?" we can answer with honesty knowing that God's house is a place of safety, love, and care.