Laughter on the Pathway of Lament

When we read about women in the Bible, there’s a tendency to flatten them out into cardboard characters, one-dimensional and distant.  Kate Merrick was in that camp as well, intimidated by the fabulous woman of Proverbs 31, judging Bathsheba, missing the depth of Mary’s sacrifice in saying yes to God, and brushing Sarah off as that old lady who had a baby.

Then, her nine-year-old daughter died of cancer.

Desperate for moorings in an ocean of loss, Kate looked to the Truth of Scripture and found there a community of women who had suffered as she was suffering.  When she delved into their stories, her collision course with bitterness and despair slowly turned toward joy and peaceful acceptance of the will of God.  In And Still She Laughs, Kate Merrick is still writing from that liminal place between tangible grief and the new normal that finds its way to the surface, so her words are raw and real, and just about right for me in these days following the death of my mum.

Like breaking in a new pair of jeans, like the bathing suit that fits everyone differently, like a water balloon that if you let just a little bit out it might explode on everyone, Kate employs multiple metaphors to bring her readers into the world that opened up to her when she joined the ranks of the bereaved.  Still longing for the old jeans, and having realized that grief looks different on everyone, she encourages readers to throw her book across the room if it helps — and then to come back to it later at a different stage of grieving.

A Path Through Grief

Since a Western understanding of living “blessed” only served to drive Kate further into bitterness, she turned to the stories of biblical women, for whether one reads Bathsheba as roof-top temptress or helpless victim, the ultimate outcome of King David’s moral lapse was the loss of their baby son.  Bathsheba’s story became a virtual grief support group for Kate since so many of their story-points coincided:

When I was the only woman I knew who had experienced death so close to my heart, I remember how she had too.  . . She whispered strength, dignity, and fearlessness.  When I was comforted with a pregnancy, I remembered that she had been too.  She showed me how to be loyal to another child while grieving the first.  She held my hand in the gloom, leaned close to my ear and whispered, ‘Me too.'”

Then there was the dawning realization that, like Sarah, grief and bitterness were leading Kate toward a “bitter, hardened laughter, like a waste product of a sick heart.”  Sarah’s Old Testament story sounds idyllic from a distance:  remarkable beauty, a godly husband with unlimited assets, a bevy of servants, and exotic travel opportunities — and Kate is convinced that Sarah “was covered in swanky accessories.”  (Sure, why not?)  But then, there were the empty arms, and the seemingly empty promises of God:  Sarah had waited so long that even good news elicited bitterness, bubbling forth in a sneering laugh alone in her tent.

Opening the heart to a journey of grief puts a mother in company with Mary, who demonstrated that a yes to God can lead to a sword through the heart.

“The yes doesn’t always make sense.  We don’t fully understand how God works, but we read in 2 Corinthians 1:20: ‘For all of God’s promises have been fulfilled in Christ with a resounding ‘Yes!’ And through Christ, our ‘Amen’ (which means ‘Yes’) ascends to God for his glory.”

Ultimately, Kate realized that her bitterness was directed toward God.  She had lost sight of the truth that, in her suffering, Jesus was suffering with her.  In the midst of our own Romans 8 groaning, we need to hear, again and again, that we are foreigners on this planet, but we do not grieve without hope.  Like Mary, Bathsheba, and Sarah, we are citizens of heaven and live in anticipation of a day in which death will be swallowed up in life, the empty arms of grieving mums will be filled, and the laughter our hearts long for will never end.

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This book was provided by Thomas Nelson in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

You can read an excerpt from And Still She Laughs and check out the book trailer here at Ann Voskamp’s place.  

There’s lots more of Kate Merrick’s great story telling here on her own blog.

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Celebration and Lament

The walls had been rebuilt.

The people living in and around the city of Jerusalem had gathered.

Along with the fresh aroma of new lumber from Ezra’s wooden platform and his strong voice ringing out over the hum of the crowd, celebration was in the air! Within the barely-renovated city walls of Jerusalem, there was a party brewing, and it was no token religious observance.

For the first time in a thousand years (Nehemiah 8:17), the Nation of Israel was gearing up for the Feast of Tabernacles. “Booths” — little huts, really -– would be cobbled together from branches and set up on rooftops and in courtyards, and families would live in their booths for seven days to commemorate Israel’s wilderness wanderings. Remember, too, that, although Jerusalem’s protective outer wall had been restored, this is all taking place in a city where many houses had still not been rebuilt, (Nehemiah 7:4).

I’m actually a little jealous when I picture this holiday:

An Annual Camp Out!

Gathering piles of branches with the kids, making a cozy nest inside the booth, and hearing the small voice:

“Tell us again, Mum . . . why are we doing this?”

Then the magic of storytelling under the stars would begin in which history flows from memory into the hearts of another generation — with everything made tangible by the show-and-tell of celebration.

Of course, in the re-telling there would be sadness for Jerusalem was still a city in captivity, its citizens still an oppressed people. Forking over up to 50% of their earnings in taxes to the Persian Empire, they were only just beginning to recover from the exile’s comprehensive shattering of their self-perception as God’s people. They were still in the process of learning their way back into fellowship with God. Governor Nehemiah’s gracious pronouncement to kick-off their feasting was desperately needed:

“Do not sorrow, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” —Nehemiah 8:10

And so it is today.

We live with one foot in celebration and the other in lament. Whenever we gather on this planet, it is for an imperfect celebration in which our only hope for joy is to look squarely at the empty seat, at the strained relationships, at the imperfect execution of all our Pinterest-worthy plans. Our only prayer for peace is to own the sadness; to recognize the power that grinding sorrow has over our hearts—and then to throw the door wide open to the feast.

By acknowledging and even embracing lament—an art we have lost here in North America—our celebration can be restored. Our feasting can be deeply sincere, even in a context of deep suffering or deep disappointment.

In the case of Israel, the people had just stood outside for about six hours (yes, stood), “from morning until mid-day,” listening to Ezra as he read aloud to them their saw-tooth record of rebellion. Their tearful response revealed that they were cut deeply with the weight of national failure over the centuries, but Nehemiah’s instructions proclaimed that the time had come for the people to begin, once again, to eat and drink blessing to themselves:

“Go home and prepare a feast, holiday food and drink; and share it with those who don’t have anything: This day is holy to God.” (Nehemiah 8:10)

Until Jesus comes, it will be this longing and this feasting that keeps my heart’s sonar trolling for Kingdom shalom. I will lament the family that could have been if not for alcoholism, if not for mental illness and garden-variety selfishness.

But when I grasp warm hands and gaze at the faces around my table, by faith I will celebrate the family that is because of the forgiveness that lubricates our relational gears; because of much-beloved friends who have been grafted in; because of the cords of grace that hold our hearts in joy.

//

This post first appeared in SheLoves Magazine (November 2015).


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Pain, Emotion, and God

Elisabeth Elliot coined the most memorable definition of human suffering that I have ever heard:  “Suffering is wanting what you don’t have — or having what you don’t want.”  These words came to mind often as I read Between Pain and Grace, because Gerald W. Peterman and Andrew J. Schmutzer have initiated a fresh conversation which does not claim to be the last word on suffering, but is characterized by the scope, depth, and fidelity one would expect from two of Moody Bible Institute’s theology professors.

My attention was arrested immediately by the authors’ careful distinction between pain and suffering.  Consider this:

Pain  — “primarily objective, external, and typically social or physical as opposed to personal and mental.”
Suffering — “primarily subjective, internal, and typically mental or emotional.”

This distinction is important because not all pain is received as suffering — just ask an Olympic gymnast or a brand-new mum.  Conversely, those with leprosy or diabetic neuropathy would welcome pain as a means to alleviate the suffering that occurs when they injure their insensitive extremities.  Dr. Eric Cassell chimes in with the succinct conclusion that “the only way to learn whether suffering is present is to ask the sufferer.”

A biblical theology of suffering must include the truth that Scripture provides a voice for those who suffer; it acknowledges the reality of innocent suffering; and, without moralizing, it affirms the presence of God in the midst of pain.   I never tire of hearing the truth that God is fluent in the language of lament.  He has graciously appointed “script writers” in the psalms and prophets, and throughout Scripture, honest expressions of grief are portrayed as a “natural exhale of worship.”

Because a lively faith is open to the uncomfortable questions and painful stories of those who suffer, the church gathered must be clear in its identity as a safe place for the expression of grief and disappointment. Counselors, individuals dealing with dysfunctional families, and  those who have experienced sexual abuse or who are dealing in some way with mental illness will appreciate the authors’ frank discussion of these topics as they relate to what the Scripture says about pain and suffering.

The term “relational ecosystem” runs as a theme throughout Between Pain and Grace, affirming the fact that there is no such thing as a private or contained sin.  The relational ecosystem of God’s creation has been shaken to its roots by sin, and this is seen at every level:
God with mankind;
man with woman;
humanity with animals;
and humanity with the ground.
Brokenness abounds and the outcome is alienation.  Anger sends out generational shock waves that are amply illustrated in Old Testament family dysfunction.  Peterman and Schmutzer refer to David’s family life as a “relational debris field,” acknowledging that we all are part of “interlocking relationships” that surround us “like the rings of a tree.”

Our relational ecosystem, tangled as it is in personal weakness and sin (another fascinating distinction that the authors delineate), demonstrates the efficacy of the redemption that comes to us in the midst of our brokenness.  Because God Himself chose a path of vulnerability for His Son, the record of Scripture is that God experiences pain and “a theology of a suffering God is evident throughout the testimony of Scripture.”  God’s transcendence is balanced by His immanence, as evidenced in His compassionate love, His relatedness with His creation, and His willingness to risk relationally.

Looking at The Lord’s Prayer through the lens of pain gives it a fresh application, for in Matthew 6, Jesus provides a model for prayer in a suffering world, a challenge to transcend our worries and pain by focusing first on “God’s honor, God’s good, and God’s moral requirements.”

Opening one’s life to spiritual leadership roles also opens the door to some unique forms of suffering — rejection, hopelessness, and discontentment.  We follow a Savior who entered into suffering voluntarily.   Peterman and Schmutzer assert that leaders have likewise made that choice, but then offer the encouragement that tears shed are part of the leader’s path to Christ-likeness.

Since suffering is unavoidable on a fallen planet, this question is also unavoidable for the thinking believer:  What needs to happen in the space between pain and grace?  For most people (including the Apostle Paul!), it holds a journey of acceptance, a yielding of expectations, and most important of all, a commitment to receive the gift of suffering from the hand of an all-wise and sovereign God.

//

This book was provided by Moody Publishers in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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Beyond the Happy Hallelujah

On New Year’s Eve 2015, our family had gathered with friends for our traditional celebration, but I had decided to shake things up a tiny bit.  Yes, we would eat goodies and play games and laugh at our crazy kids as usual, but I had found a list of thoughtful questions for us to ponder.  One of them stopped me in my tracks, because, without hesitation, my husband and I gave the identical answer — in unison:  With what word would you describe 2015?

“Disappointment,” we both said, and now, having read Broken Hallelujahs by Beth Slevcove, I can’t help but wish that the book had been written a year sooner, for Beth looks squarely at the truth that for most of our lives, we are living on “Holy Saturday,” waiting for a resurrection and walking in a hope that feels, at times, beyond hope.  Her journey began with multiple stories playing out in her life at the same time:  her brother’s diagnosis with brain cancer; his decline and eventual death; an on-going struggle with infertility; the realization that rheumatoid arthritis would limit her activity level and cause chronic pain; and a crashing economy that took her family business into bankruptcy.

Beth’s poignant memoir of grief and waiting moves beside a parallel narrative of spiritual formation.  “God, are you kidding?” became Beth’s prayer and anthem of loss, sung as she groped toward enough light to stay on the way of faith.  I especially appreciated her admission that her practical theology had centered around a cause-and-effect-vending-machine God.  Disappointment and unmet expectations led, eventually, to a howling lament that opened her ears to the sound of her losses, and, like the psalmists who poured out their sad hearts before God, she found that the “answer” to her cry was not an answer at all but a Person.    In learning how to pray out of that place of depletion, Beth realized that prayer postures can be a wordless connection, an expression in themselves of “openness, vulnerability, acceptance . . . submission, humility, and repentance.”

At the end of each chapter, Beth challenges her readers to dig deeper in a “here’s what worked for me” tone through exercises that require three healing behaviors:

  • Listening to your body, to your desires and emotions, to your places of poverty and neglect.
  • Engaging through projects that foster creativity, movement of the body, prayer practices, self-examination, and through questions that reflect on past behaviors and habits.
  • Connecting with God through heightened awareness of His love and His trustworthiness; entering into intensely personal communication with God without fear.

There is a tendency in Christian circles to soldier through grief and to minimize wounds and feelings of loss.  An example close at hand comes with my New Year’s Eve story, for right away I was tempted to reassure you that my family is blessed beyond measure and that our tiny disappointments of 2015 were minor compared with those of others we know (and maybe yours).  We minimize our feelings “as if each of us is only allotted a small amount of grief and we had better put it to good use on something really important.”  Allowing ourselves to feel authentically opens our hearts to “see the beauty, feel the joy, hear the laughter, and be touched by God’s innumerable graces that course through our veins and sneak into our circumstances.”

The truth of Broken Hallelujahs is that we are constantly being called upon to hold simultaneously two irreconcilable conditions in our mind and heart:  the way things should be and the way things are on this fallen planet.  Transformation and wholeness will come, but NOT through giving up on the beauty and order that we long for, NOR by stuffing our disappointment.

As a spiritual director, Beth Slevcove is uniquely positioned to share not only her own experience of healing out of grief, but also her observations of others’ creative engagement with loss, their process of making room for hope.  For instance, at the first hint of loss, my mind wants to start launching questions toward the heavens, and this is fine — except that I tend to ask unhelpful “why’s.”  Acknowledging the loss while affirming the presence of God (with me in the vacuum) leads to more helpful “what” questions (“What can I do in this unwanted situation?”); “where” questions (“God, where are you in this?”); and “how” questions (“How are you inviting me to be in this?”).  This kind of fact-finding demonstrates that I am paying attention to what God wants to do with a situation that feels like chaos to me.  Can I trust God’s motives?

Our hearts long for a depth of spiritual discernment that will enable us to hear the voice of God and follow with certainty.   We dread the hurt and disappointment at the end of rabbit trails that we thought were “The Way Home.”  Our broken hallelujahs, sung by and with the suffering during these days of shadows and longing, will find their way to a full-throated “grief-enriched” hallelujah — not in spite of our suffering, but because of it.

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This book was provided by IVP Books, an imprint of InterVarsity Press, in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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“Come into the Dark and Lament”

Robert Frost’s thrush is not singing a solo in his invitation to lament, but is adding to the words of the prophet Jeremiah, and has now been joined by Soong-Chan Rah in Prophetic Lament:  A Call for Justice in Troubled Times.

Capture

In Frost’s poem, the invitation is declined, and perhaps he had good reason, as he was “out for stars” and would not come in.  According to Rah, this is also the position of the North American church, which is unfortunate, for in losing lament, we are also losing our collective memory of how to live in the midst of suffering.  Soong-Chan Rah explains:

“We forget the necessity of lamenting over suffering and pain.
We forget the reality of suffering and pain.”

Just as poetry is divided into broad categories of praise and lament, believers around the world can be divided into the “have-nots,” who “develop a theology of suffering and survival,” and the “haves,” who “develop a theology of celebration.”  This impacts on the church in that “worship that arises out of suffering cries out for deliverance,” while those who live in celebration are largely consumed with maintaining their happy status quo.

Dr. Rah’s thesis in his analysis of the book of Lamentations is that “to only have a theology of celebration at the cost of the theology of suffering is incomplete.  The intersection of the two threads provides the opportunity to engage in the fullness of the gospel message.  Lament and praise must go hand in hand.”  A cry for justice is foundational to biblical lament, for the heart that suffers or that allows itself to be drawn into the suffering of others will seek answers from God and pray for change.

Prophetic Lament opens wide a neglected book of the Bible and teases out several riveting and perspective-altering points for 21st century Christians to consider:

  1. It is over-simplification to tie the sufferings of others to their sin, and it is our tendency, as a church, to “engage in relativism when it comes to God’s judgment.”  It is God’s sovereign prerogative to mete out punishment, and our human standards of justice are woefully inadequate to evaluate equity or even our own culpability.
  2. Jeremiah utilizes both communal and individual lament in his writing, but in the West, we have largely lost the sense of corporate sin.  “Hyperindividualism” is a cultural condition that prevents us from seeing the power of sin to impact “not only the individual but also the community.”
  3. “Justice” is a popular battle cry in the church today, but we must beware of our attachments to power and success, and the resulting delusion that we are God’s chosen “fixers,” and that this is the path to favor with God.  Lamentations 4 chronicles the downfall of all Jerusalem’s cherished symbols of success.  God may choose to work along paths that have nothing to do with human achievement.
  4. Dr. Rah makes the startling observation that God’s voice is strangely absent from the book of Lamentations.  This should rivet the reader’s attention to the need for leaving space for the voice of suffering to be heard in our day.  There is a place and time for sitting with the cries of distress, allowing them to resonate before “moving to the psalms of praise.”
  5. The realities that surround us on this planet call for both celebration and lament.  A theology that does not integrate the two is insufficient just as a Christology that emphasizes triumphal resurrection at the expense or Christ’s suffering and alienation from God would be incomplete.

Without a knowledge of Hebrew, the beauty of Lamentations’ structure is lost on me, but Dr. Rah has provided diagrams that demonstrate the fascinating and excruciatingly strict and disciplined format Jeremiah imposed upon the text as he wrote the five acrostic poems that comprise Lamentations.  Notice that Chapters 1, 2, 4, and 5 have twenty-two verses.  Chapters 1 and 2 devote three lines to each of the twenty-two Hebrew letters.  Chapter 3 demonstrates an intensification of this structure in order to provide a climax in its message of torment and grief.  The harsh images of broken teeth and gravel in the mouth veering sharply into the renewal of God’s mercy every morning are communicated in sixty-six verses because each of the twenty-two Hebrew letters is given three alliterative lines.  Then, as if his intensity is spent after the effort of Lamentations 3, Chapters 4 and 5 exhibit a declining intensity in form with only 2 lines per letter in Lamentations 4 and a “weak acrostic” in Lamentations 5 with the twenty-two verses not in alphabetical order.

A church that enters into the suffering of others will put aside materialistic goals in order to shift resources toward the needy.  This alignment with God’s priorities reduces wealth to its proper position:  a tool for the propagation of biblical shalom, for the elimination of injustice, for the practical working out of Jesus’ vision and prayer:  “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”


Image credit for Frost’s poetry lyrics:  cvirginia

This book was provided by Intervarsity Press in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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