At their best, religions comfort and support people in the face of suffering. But sometimes the reasons religions offer for suffering can make things worse. If religious communities are to be places where those who suffer are able to communicate the truth of their reality and receive the support they need, the religious stories we tell need to be spacious enough to hold the grief, loss, and despair that accompany traumatic experiences like living with life-threatening illness. And for Christians, one way to do this is to take on the typical storyline and let it breathe.
Most renditions of the Christian story begin with creation and the fall, then quickly move on to incarnation and redemption. But spending time in the psalms can help us see that the biblical story is less plot-driven and more complex than a tidy, linear, sin-redemption storyline often makes room for. Because Old Testament writings are Christian Scripture too (four-fifths of Christian Scripture, in fact, a reality often overlooked by Christians), prayer practices of the Psalms belong in any version of the Christian Story being told to those who are undone.
In Psalm 77, the psalmist cries out, “I am so troubled that I cannot speak.” Placing experiences of living with serious illness within lament psalms and other irresolute spaces within the biblical story allows us to explore what it means to be undone by illness before God. The central character in these biblical stories is God, the One who creates and calls human beings into relationship with the divine and with one another. It’s important to note, as preacher Thomas Long does, that questions of God’s existence are not really on the table within the biblical text. The characters in the Bible do not ask, “I am undone by illness, I wonder if there’s a God?” Instead they cry out, “O God, why illness?” These moments are important not just because they open up space for those undone by serious illness to express their grief and anger. They’re also important because they speak to God’s relationship with and response to the people enduring illness and the trauma related to it.
The psalms help us see that there is space to protest toward God, to be angry at God, to complain to God over suffering that simply is but that we desperately wish would not be. While some people who express such emotions do so because of a loss of or rejection of faith, the psalms help us see that such emotions are also belong inside the experience of faith. “I cry out and you do not answer me,” complains the psalmist in Psalm 22.21. Making more visible the spaces within religion for interrogation of God can be crucial for those who tend to view challenges to God as unfaithful. If people who are angry at God are given more opportunities to consider that their protest and anger can actually be part of a close, resilient relationship with God, they might be able to come to terms with protest as an aspect of a faithful relationship with God rather evidence of a lack of faith.
One psalm that deserves more attention by those undone by trauma is Psalm 88, the most irresolute of all psalms. The psalmist’s soul is full of troubles (v. 3), buried under the weight of isolation brought on by psychic, spiritual, and emotional distress. There are repeated petitions to God, pleading for some sign of divine responsiveness: But I, O Lord, cry out to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you. O Lord, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me? This calling God to account emerges in response to testimony throughout the biblical narrative that the character of God is One who will always present, without fail.
But the insistent questioning of God throughout the psalm indicts any attempt to cram suffering in a tidy framework. Why such suffering? Why doesn’t God respond? The questions hang suspended, unanswered.
Even though experiences of the absence of God fill the prayers of the psalms and are so ubiquitous that even Jesus himself cannot avoid them, this particular kind of affliction often fails to get the attention it deserves. Biblical testimony of human beings’ relationship to God illustrates that the experience of God’s absence is much more than a momentary phenomenon for those who are struggling. From Solomon’s testimony in I Kings that God dwells “in thick darkness” to the lament in Psalm 88 over the hiddenness of God’s face, the people of God give voice to that anguished experiences of God’s apparent silence over suffering we so wish were not a part of our lives.
Praying the psalms opens up pathways for those living with serious illness to see themselves as more than simply victims of the disease. Praying the psalms gives voice to the intense connection between the disease in our bodies and the inner turmoil of the heart. Praying the psalms gives voice to protest and anger and grief that accompanies life with serious illness, but it does so within the larger context of a relationship to the God who hears and responds to such anguished prayers. Lamenting together, to God, can open a way for the unendurable to be endured.
(These are remarks Deanna gave at the 2017 Nordic American Thanksgiving Breakfast, November 21, 2017, in Bloomington, MN)
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. . . . a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance (Eccl. 3.1, 4)
We stand today on the cusp of the holiday season, a time (we hear from the endless advertising) to laugh, to sing, to entertain, to dance, to revel in the wonderfulness of it all. It’s the hap-happiest time of the year. It’s a season that’s supposed to overflow with one side of the Ecclesiastes equation—to be a time when all the good things are rolled into one.
But the author of Ecclesiastes offers a different vision: that the seasons of our lives are most often a mixture of both. That it’s not always possible to have the joyous neatly separated from the sorrowful, that in this life, the beautiful and the painful often go hand-in-hand.
I think there’s wisdom in Ecclesiastes for us no matter what time of year it is. But especially at this celebratory time of year, the message in these verses seems particularly important.
So I’m interested in thinking about what happens when we acknowledge the holiday season as a time where both joy and sorrow are present. I’m interested in considering the holiday season as a time for lament and a time for hope.
I have to admit that before 2008 I wasn’t nearly as aware of or interested in the practice of lament. By lament I mean the expression of sadness, grief, mourning that comes from experiencing the shadow sides of life. But right in the middle of the most wonderful time of year, right when silver bells were ringing, I was diagnosed with incurable stage IV cancer days after my 42nd birthday. Rather than decorating a tree at home I was living at Abbott Northwestern Hospital, spending my days being wheeled through the halls from one scan to another, one radiation treatment to another. I’m a professor, which means I’m a professional talker of sorts, and it was jarring for me to go from living in an abundance of words to a space where words were hard to come by.
In those early December days of the diagnosis, those who loved me understood the severity of my condition better than I did. They wept, and I remained word-less, unsure about how breast cancer could break two of my vertebrae, about why and how breast cancer had spread to a dozen places in my bones. In a season that’s dedicated to celebrating, we found ourselves in a season of sorrow, of mourning–of lament.
One of the gifts of our religious traditions is that they offer us words for the times when words grow scarce. While words from the psalms—such as psalm 23—became even more important to me during these dark December days, I slowly grew more aware of the words offered up in the psalms that focus on the experience of lament. Psalms like Psalm 22, one that’s full of words that Jesus used when he cried out from the cross: “My God my God why have you forsaken me?” The Psalmist continues: “I cry out and you are silent; Do not be far from me for trouble is near.”
We often think of words of the psalms as focused on praise and thanksgiving, words that offer comfort to those who sorrow–and all of those things are true. But it is also true that forty percent of the 150 psalms in the Bible—that’s sixty psalms—are dedicated to lament. They are full of cries of anguish, of brokenness, of the absence of God. We don’t talk about this enough—that cries of lament are cries from within the experience of faith—it’s true that expressions of lament are present throughout the Bible, but especially in the psalms. The psalms are prayers and hymns that are meant to be used by those who are enduring a season of sorrow.
As is the case for anyone who endures a traumatic event—the world looked different to me after my cancer diagnosis. My very first public outing after being released from the hospital was to attend a Santa Lucia choir performance sponsored by the American Swedish Institute. Both my daughters—ages 12 and 9 at the time—were in the choir. This centuries-old practice of singing into the darkness suddenly looked different to me, too: the story of Santa Lucia’s suffering and martyrdom made itself felt as we gathered in that downtown cathedral. At the darkest time of the year, we remember the life of a saint whose life was marked by hardship; we gather into a space alight with candles and singing, a ritual that holds the season of sorrow together with the season of hope.
On that dark December 13th in 2008, I wondered if it was the last time I would see my girls sing in a Lucia performance. I felt with aching clarity the power of the young voices singing the dark away, even as the darkness seemed to be at its most powerful.
At its worst, deep, prolonged suffering can overwhelm; it can crush; it can rob us of the ability to see the season as anything more than a time dominated by awfulness. During those early days of December 2008, it often felt that there was simply no way I could endure the cancer that had been ushered into my life and into the lives of those I love the most.
But as I continue to be granted more time to figure out how to live with advanced-stage cancer, I have grown more aware of how this season of joy is very often, also, a season of sorrow for so so many. It’s a time to mourn lost health, or a time to grieve that one who is beloved to us will be absent at this year’s holiday gatherings.
Framed in a religious context, this season leading up to Christmas is called Advent, which is a time of watching, of waiting, a time spent in darkness hoping for light. And while Christmas is commonly understood as a time to celebrate, a number of hymns of the season don’t want us to forget that this day when Christians celebrate God becoming flesh cannot be separated from the later part of the story—the parts where God made flesh undergoes suffering and death.
All this may sound like I’m counseling against laughing and dancing and singing and celebrating during the season of glistening snow and holiday cheer. But that’s actually not my point at all. I must confess that this is actually my favorite time of year, a time where I’d love to be dancing and laughing, and embracing all that is good.
It’s just that moving into the land of the unwell has made it much more difficult for me to ignore the amount of sadness that also often accompanies this time of year. And just as the wise author of Ecclesiastes attests, it’s rarely a time just for mourning or just for celebrating. Most often, it’s a time for both.
And having now had almost nine years to mark the date of my life changing by virtue of a cancer diagnosis, I have realized that acknowledging and making space for the times to mourn actually makes more space for the times to laugh and the times to hope.
As is the case for virtually all the lament psalms as well, the time for lament helps propel us toward a time to hope. Psalm 22, that psalm that begins with such intense sorrow and anguish, ends with words of hope. The psalmist declares that one day, the poor will eat and be satisfied, that the Lord will listen to our cries for help.
One of the gifts we can give each other at this season of light illuminating darkness is to acknowledge and make space for the occasions for lament not only in our own lives but in the lives of others. I worry that many of us feel pressure to only talk about or make room for the happy aspects of the season. But when we acknowledge it’s also a season of lament, I have found, that we can more fully enter into the joyous occasions, because there’s room enough in the season for both.
Before we move into the season of holiday celebrations, I’d like to say a few words in praise of lament. Lament—the expression of sadness, grief, mourning—is an underrated practice in contemporary life. In their book about lament called Rachel’s Cry, religion scholars Daniel Migliore and Kathleen Billman suggest that we’re reluctant as a society to publically grieve our failures, limitations, and losses. The title of their book comes from the biblical book of Jeremiah (31.15) where the prophet talks about Rachel’s inconsolable weeping for her lost children. In Jewish tradition, Rachel’s grief is revered and respected, while in Christianity her cry receives scant attention. Perhaps it’s because the Christian story ends with resolution—there’s a resurrection!—that Christians and many in the dominant culture do not give the practice of lament its due.
In the past several years, I’ve gained a healthy respect for lament. Dealing with cancer or other tough issues in life leads to lament, to a posture of sadness and sorrow. But that’s a hard sell in America much of the time, land of political slogans like, “Happy days are here again!” and “It’s morning in America.” Writer Barbara Ehrenreich’s most recent book, Bright Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America, begins with a chapter about her own entrance into “Cancerland” due to a breast cancer diagnosis. When she found her way to online forums on breast cancer and expressed her lament over her condition—including frustration over the lack of funding for researching breast cancer—other users in these online communities responded with words of caution about Ehrenreich’s negative attitude, telling her they were praying for her so that she might become more positive.