Faith Practices for Spiritual Resilience: Lament

Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church on the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost.

Psalm 42

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
the face of God?
My tears have been my food
day and night,
while people say to me continually,
“Where is your God?”
These things I remember,
as I pour out my soul:
how I went with the throng,
and led them in procession to the house of God,
with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving,
a multitude keeping festival.
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God.
My soul is cast down within me;
therefore I remember you
from the land of Jordan and of Hermon,
from Mount Mizar.
Deep calls to deep
at the thunder of your cataracts;
all your waves and your billows
have gone over me.
By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,
and at night his song is with me,
a prayer to the God of my life.
I say to God, my rock,
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I walk about mournfully
because the enemy oppresses me?”
As with a deadly wound in my body,
my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me continually,
“Where is your God?”
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God.

***

A few days ago, I was listening to a parent friend talk about her six year old daughter, and how she’s been handling this whole pandemic. 

“She’s been a champ,” my friend said. “A little quiet, but she pushed through the end of school and was excited for summer and played and laughed with her siblings. But then just after bedtime the other night we heard this sound from upstairs, the sound of someone just wracked with sobbing. We found her curled in her bed, hair matted and her face covered in messy tears. She managed to choke out “I miss school, I miss my friends, I miss grandma.” She’d been holding it back so long. She kept her chin up, did what was expected and even kept a smile on her face, but in the end she too gave in. It was so long in coming. So very honest. And so sorrowful. At first we tried to cheer her up, but in the end she just needed to cry. So I sat close, kissed her tear drenched face and let her be sad as she cried herself to sleep.”

In case I haven’t said it enough, a salute to all y’all parenting through this pandemic. 

What my friend’s daughter was doing was not the childish act of a meltdown or a tantrum. My friend’s daughter was practicing lament. One of the Bible’s most pervasive—and most overlooked—spiritual practices. 

To lament, at it’s most basic, is to cry out. That last word is important. To lament is not just to cry, but to cry out—to direct your sadness, your grief, your confusion, your pain somewhere other than yourself. In scripture, we are taught to lament to God. 

Lament is all over the Bible—in fact, we have a whole book of Lamentations, the only book of the Bible named after an emotion. The prophets offer lament after lament, for Israel’s unjust ways, or for Babylon’s destruction. And the psalms offer us a wealth of lament poetry—nearly half of our psalms lament the psalmist’s pain, shame, or sorrow, by some reckonings. 

Our psalm today speaks to the psalmist’s grief and exhaustion. The psalmist’s soul is parched for God, even as he consumes his own tears night and day as his only sustenance. How many of us have felt that? Whether we are criers or not, how many of us have felt like we could pour and pour and pour and pour out ourselves and only end up emptier and emptier? How often have we longed for God to fill that void, and been left still thirsting?

Lament does not try to answer the question of why we are hurting. It is not satisfied with pat answers like “it’s all in God’s will” or “it’s for a greater purpose.” Lament does not talk about God. Lament talks to God.  

Nicholas Wolterstorff is a writer who lost his young adult son, Eric, to a freak climbing accident. In the year after Eric’s death, he wrote Lament for a Son, as a way of gathering fragments of his grief together and offering them to God and to the world. Like the psalmist, Nicholas talks about his loss, his grief, as a wound. “I am not angry [at God] but baffled and hurt,” he wrote. “My wound is an unanswered question. The wounds of all humanity are an unanswered question.”[1]

Grief is part of all our lives. Not just when we lose someone to death, although that can be our starkest experience of it, but countless other griefs along the way, some softer, some slipperier, some subtler. We grieve relationships, dreams, expectations, self-image, old certainties, old ways of doing and being. Grief is a sea change. We don’t go back to who we were. Sometimes we even grieve grief, that we have to experience it at all. 

As a culture, we are not very comfortable with grief and with lament. We are told to cheer up, to buck up, to let it go, to put the past behind us. To compare our hurts to others, and not to shed a tear unless we can win the prize for worst pain. To put on a happy face and smile when our heart is breaking. To pretend like we do not have soul-deep reactions to soul-affecting situations. 

We have lost much in this pandemic. We have lost routines, vacations, weddings, funerals, birthday parties, relationships, income, jobs, connection, sanctuary, certainty, community. We have lost the simple, easy gestures of a smile at the grocery store or a hug between neighbors. We have lost sports seasons and theater productions and family celebrations. We have lost sleep. My God, have we lost sleep. 

And there are 169,000 graves in this country where COVID has left its most devastating toll. 

Friends, if we don’t take time to lament, we will implode. 

The Bible does not call us to paste on our happy face and tap dance out our hallelujahs like everything is fine. The Bible does not call us to lie to God’s face. The Bible calls us to bring our whole selves to God, and when we are hurting, then that’s what God wants to hear. 

Because lament, like I said, is not just a meltdown. Lament is the practice of crying out to God, and in every biblical lament, there is not just sorrow, but also trust. Every biblical lament ends in a declaration of trust, that God is still good, that God is still present, that God is still the rock upon which we stand. Even if we can’t feel it. Even if life isn’t good, God still is. 

Listen again to our psalm. “By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.” What faith it takes, to claim God’s love, even in the midst of pain!

To lament is not unchristian; in fact, lament springs is the very depths of faithfulness. To lament is to dredge up what is trapped in the deepest part of our souls, the hurt and pain and woundedness, and declare that God has power even there.  As theologian Walter Bruggeman puts it: 

The use of these ‘psalms of darkness’ may be judged by the world to be acts of unbelief and failure, but for the trusting community, their use is an act of bold faith, albeit a transformed faith. It is an act of bold faith on the one hand because it insists that the world must be experienced as it really is and not in some pretended way. On the other hand, it is bold because it insists that all such experiences of disorder are a proper subject for discourse with God. There is nothing out of bounds, nothing precluded or inappropriate. Everything properly belongs in this conversation of the heart. To withhold parts of life from that conversation is, in fact, to withhold part of life from the sovereignty of God. Thus these psalms make the important connection: everything must be brought to speech, and everything brought to speech must be addressed to God, who is the final reference for all of life.[2]

This pandemic is far from over, and its losses are still piling up. Take note of your grief; it may feel like tears, or exhaustion, like irritability or aching muscles, like anger or forgetfulness. But take note of your grief, and do not squirrel it away like something to be ashamed of it. Hold it out to God, trust God to hold it with you. 

Like my friend cradling her daughter, God will hold you as you weep, and watch over you until the dawn breaks once more. 

Thanks be to God. Amen. 


[1] Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son, p. 68.

[2] Water Bruggeman, quoted by Peter Ong in Learning to Listen, Look, and Lament. https://www.hfny.org/resources/article/learning-listen-look-and-lament

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