Today, I have been fatherless for one month.
Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine my father dying of heart attack (no family history of them), suddenly leaving us without any opportunity to say “goodbye,” speak final words of love or simply say “thank you” for being a great father, a wonderful granddad to my kids.
Just as I did not choose my father at birth, and I could not speak to him as the newborn he held, so he left this world with me unable to look him in the eye, hug him, and tell him I love him. In birth, and in death, I had no choices with him.
His life was jerked out of ours without warning leaving a new, albeit strangely desolate creation, in its place.
Being unprepared for his departure, I immediately felt a range of emotions which vacillated between anger, sorrow, disbelief, and regret to name a few. I have felt things in my core I didn’t know was humanly possible and my entire body has ached from the loss, intellect being united with emotion and biology. I have moaned, and wept, and shouted. I have sat at my father’s desk, in his chair, and held my heart in my hands.
Even a month after his death, standing in my mom’s kitchen Saturday night, I broke down as if it was February 27 all over again.
I have entered lament. Not by choice or by desire, but by accidental necessity.
For comfort, I turned to my faith. I didn’t turn, however, to the book of Revelation that promises “streets of gold” or the Letters of Paul that reminds us “to be absent in the body is to be present with the Lord.” I didn’t turn there first because to do so is to not understand that death is death…and I am experiencing death. When we skip to some “ever after” we neglect the reality that death is a cessation of brain activity and consciousness. To be dead is to enter a state wherein the faculties that give us life have left us, hence, we are dead. These faculties are not carried with us into some undead state; they die with us and what happens after that is up to God.
I am living death, sudden death, and to think death as “not really death” is a cop out.
So I turned to the places where God’s people are honest: Pslams and Lamentations.
I turned here because I knew in these books the people of God didn’t gloss over their anger, hurt, destruction, loss, or fear with promises of a better eternity. In these pages, people are honest and they say things “good Christians” aren’t supposed to say.
Can it get any more real than Lamentations 4.10? “The hands of compassionate women boiled their own children; they became food for them because of the destruction of the daughter of my people.”
Sure, the Lamenter blames this on the wrath induced disobedience of Zion, but does that really solve the problem that God almighty, who had power to stop this, allowed it to happen to teach his people a lesson? God would rather his children cannibalize their children to teach them a moral lesson? Really?
So we find honestly horrific things in Lamentations, confessions that became Inspired Scripture and were kept in our Bibles for a reason.
In turning to Psalms and Lamentations, however, I discovered that until I had felt loss to the core of my being, displacement from my world, a rupture of God’s goodness to me, that I had never understood the Psalter or Lamentations. They didn’t read or sound the same after my father’s passing. I was no longer reading them as an academic or a preacher that needed a sermon; I was reading them as one that felt their words.
The Psalms and Lamentations weren’t, and are not, simply informing me; They are praying for me when I am speechless. They are speaking on my behalf the admixture of anger, complaint and praise that often live uncomfortably together.
They allow me to be honest with God and myself…and they allow me to see death for what it is: death.
Only when we realize what deep crap we are in can we really lament as scripture does. Seeing death as a not death cheapens tragedy and it cheapens the part of our Bibles when God’s people could do no other but sit on the earth under the covering of sackcloth and heap the ashes they would eventually become on their heads. Their tears being consumed by the dust.
If we really think it’s going to turn out “ok” on the other side, then why even lament? It’s just stupid and a waste of energy. Lament comes from a place that is deeply human as we react to something that isn’t “ok,” that has taken creation and uncreated it.
Until we have experienced uncreation we probably have no idea what it means to lament because the lament is not something we choose. It chooses us.
Therefore, many people refrain from seeing the honesty in the Psalter and perhaps ignore Lamentations and Ecclesiastes altogether. Many simply cannot relate to the horror of its confessions. Many people are raised to deny their human reactions and never question God. They are taught to think God has a plan and every event of our lives is part of that plan; who are we to question the plan? They are taught that while their salvation may not be predestined, their lives certainly are.
If I have heard it once this past month, I have heard it a thousand times, “we can’t understand God’s way.”
This line of thinking is absurd because it implies that God’s ways are nonsense (or at least above our sense which is the same thing since sense is a human idea to begin with) and if I know anything about God it is that God is not in the business of nonsense. The very bible we quote begins with a book called Genesis in which creation is the goal. God is not an uncreative God. You cannot call uncreation creation any more than you can call sin virtue. To think that what we call bad, God calls good, or vice versa, is to enter the same complaint of St. Augustine “how then can we know anything of God at all if what is good is not good and what is bad is not bad?” It renders our speech meaningless.
Such a faith doesn’t make any sense and I wonder why we open our mouths at all if that is the case.
Lamentations and the Psalter, however, do not fall into this trap. They are expressive. They are honest. They pray deep groanings of the human spirit and they do so with the authority of inspiration. They also authorize us to speak to God similarly. We do not have to gloss our feelings or dismiss our hurt; a being by the very name “God” has the capacity to hear whatever we say and not feel threatened by such “impiety.”
In a time in which I never knew I would need scripture to be so honest, Lamentations and the Psalter have been my comfort even as they rehearse my pain.
I confess, however, the sudden loss of my father most likely is nothing compared to a foreign army killing my relatives, razing my home, raping my daughter and forcing my wife to boil our children out of hunger. That is a level of hell I never want to experience…but in describing that hell the Lamentations have given me liberty to live in the one in which I find myself.
In the process, it has taught me that some of us will never find grief as the Lamenter. Our losses will be normal. We will say goodbye to loved ones in appropriate ways, we will leave behind homes via our choosing, our families will never be impacted by suicide, rape, murder, or the sudden death of a father, mother, child, we only just had lunch with.
Some of us will never deal with these things…and perhaps, never need Lamentations.
But for those of us who have felt our lives jerked out of our lives, our lives ruptured instantly and our bodies wanting to bend over and hurl uncontrollably…the good news of Lamentations is that you are not alone. God has given us the prayers to speak the unspeakable, to carry our sorrow, to embody our grief.
God does not expect us to pretend death isn’t death and tragedy isn’t tragedy. We are not doomed to gutless grieving, a grief that isn’t really a grief. Rather, we are taught through scripture that there are moments in our lives when praise and thanks take a back seat to anger, complaint and lament.
And that is ok…because when all we can do is lament at least we are still being honest with God. And that is still a form of worship.