Most New Year’s resolutions are about power—the power of positive thinking. The power of “get down and give me 20 pushups.” The power of taking more power naps.
Power can present itself in understated forms too. Without really knowing it, a person can establish a pattern. Each new year comes with its own quiet resolve, an imperceptible power play that lets us keep our true feelings in check. We turn into strong, get-everything-in-order types.
I knew this firsthand, when, several years ago, my wife and I endured the most significant trial of our marriage. In moments when it all inevitably became too much, her glassy resolve would shatter into a thousand tears and I would swoop in, armed with strength and power, to help. At least I thought I was helping.
I said what she needed to believe, but not what she needed to hear. There was great theology in me and very little tenderness.
Eventually I stopped listening and actually heard her words: “I know all that. And I’ll be OK. But sometimes I need you just to tell me ‘This sucks.’ ”
That lesson has been slow to stick. Last year, a trusted counselor made an agonizing, accurate observation: I tend to “gift-wrap” my interactions with others. I turn to power.Lament recognizes that we are pictures of the kingdom of God, not drawn to scale.
Here’s how it goes: I voice a feeling or struggle, then punctuate the statement with a quick dismissal of its gravity. I would rather beat around a burning bush in my heart than sit among my scraps and rags and face the awkward silence. I do what I have to do to find a brave face, an ordinary face, any face that doesn’t show the lines of lament.
To love my wife the way she deserved, I had to embrace what I was trying to avoid. And as I look to the year ahead, I can see that the same key ingredient is needed.
For 2017 to be a success by any measure, I will have to own my weakness. For most of us, sitting honestly, even comfortably, with 100-proof feelings doesn’t come naturally. We have to learn to practice the nearly lost art of lament; like Latin, it is a language that has been pronounced dead.
To lament is to live between worlds, to properly value the broken parts of us, those which have been mended and those yet to be restored. Lament recognizes that we are pictures of the kingdom of God, not drawn to scale. Within Christ’s reign, there is an already and not yet. The already and not yet is within us too.
Few of our cultural teachers have a vision for lament. We won’t find their wisdom online. Social media is like a tourist trap, where emotional currency is easily disposed of, spent on cheap fits of outrage or oversharing.
Those who lament—surprise, surprise—don’t front emo bands that show us how to turn up our feelings, but never tell us how to turn them off.
Genuine lament isn’t found in big-budget pop songs. Don’t bore us with that, because we need to find some January 1 power by the chorus. It’s not included in those chart-topping kiss-offs dedicated to anyone who makes us feel less than invincible.
Christian radio stations sell themselves on positivity and affirmation. They are named for things like Joy. (Just imagine flipping the dial to Sorrow 88.1 FM.)
Lament even is scarce in the U.S. church. The emotions prized in our worship services are the shiny, happy ones. If we sing of suffering, we do so in ambiguous terms, skipping right to the resolution.
We have the sheet music for lament in front of us but the song goes unsung. British theologian Carl Trueman has chided evangelicals for not singing the whole Bible, especially the Psalms. There is wisdom in Trueman’s rebuke—the psalmist is God’s gift when we feel things we don’t hear on Christian radio.
The church is afraid of its feelings, just like I was afraid of my wife’s. We treat lament like the first step toward doubt, resentment, and putting one foot out the door. The psalmist’s words fight those fears. He gives us permission to feel. To express nearly inexpressible pangs of grief yet affirm the presence of a good God.
Psalm 13 proves you can ask questions such as, “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” You can beg for an answer, and even plead that God would “light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death.” You can also end your cries with trust in his “steadfast love” and with worship “because he has dealt bountifully with me.”
The psalmist had existential dangers, and ones beating a path to his door. Very real people were eager to end him and gloat over the body.
He could feel his bones out of joint, his heart like wax melting inside his chest (Psalm 22); he could cry himself to sleep at night (Psalm 6) or subsist on his tears (Psalm 42) after forgetting, in his distress, to eat physical bread (Psalm 102).
Yet in nearly every instance he soothed himself with memories of God’s intervention. He reassured himself with knowledge of a redeemer who also was his friend. You can almost hear him rising to his feet with a promise to give witness in the temple or to a younger generation. He spoke the words of faith well before his heart caught up.
The psalmist’s followers are few but faithful. They can be found lifting their voices in the black church whose gospel music has carried the sound of lament across continents and centuries.
So many outside that tradition, however, judge those songs as quaint or antiquated. As if dark nights of the soul are products of a simpler time. As if those of us who worship with big guitar anthems are more emotionally evolved.
The psalmist’s people are hard to find within the church’s walls. To find those messy feelings, you have to look in messy places for a cohort of common grace. His offspring often wear the titles of rock star, balladeer, rapper, and poet. They are found in anyone who knows two kinds of truth—never flinching from felt reality, yet looking out and up for ultimate reality.
In a song that turns 30 this year, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” Bono follows David’s blueprint, singing a four-and-a-half minute survey of the Psalms. The U2 leader acknowledges his belief in “the Kingdom Come” but admits, “yes, I’m still running.” He rehearses the liberating, efficacious truths of the cross; rather than gift-wrap his words, he ends his sentence “but I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”
The late, great Rich Mullins knew the distance between mourning and morning often is short.
Within a single musical document—1993’s A Liturgy, A Legacy and A Ragamuffin Band—he set the rock-steady truths of the Apostle’s Creed to music, sang of a heart so hot and desperate “I swear there must be blisters on my heart” and joined the rocks, crying out “be praised for all your tenderness by these works of your hands.”
Mullins’s awkward, aw-shucks Indiana charm stands in contrast to Chance the Rapper and his effortless Chicago cool. Yet on his 2016 mixtape masterpiece Coloring Book, Chance likewise stretches himself across an entire album, making space for realities to confront one another. He grieves lost companions and sings of their shed blood on “Summer Friends”; he regrets the growing gap between once intimate souls on “Same Drugs.”
He mourns what isn’t yet realized, echoing the psalmist on “Finish Line/Drown.” In one breath, “the water may be deeper than it’s ever been;” in the next, the hope that he will “never drown.”
Souls like these undress the person who overshares on Facebook. The problem isn’t that they’re too honest in their Facebook exposés. It’s that they aren’t honest enough.
An honest artist—an honest person—acknowledges the color and misshapen look of their bruises but gropes for something better—for a reality that supersedes what they feel; or, at the very least, for the memory of a time that ultimate reality broke into their felt reality.
When they do, they embody Jeff Tweedy’s explanation of songs inspired by his wife’s battle with cancer. “Nothing is simple, nothing’s just one emotion, I don’t think anybody ever has one emotion at one time,” he said in a 2014 interview.
We want to feel just one thing at a time though. It is easier to disappear into sadness and pain. It is even easier to discard our felt reality and try skipping ahead to the ultimate. The waters of lament are much harder to tread, at least at first.
But we have to try. For the sake of the sick, depressed, and grief-stricken who need to recognize themselves in our churches and in the scriptures. For our own sakes, while walking through a world that has the shape of ultimate reality, but rarely the substance.
Poet Franz Wright, who passed away in 2015, bears close resemblance to the psalmist and brings his heart into a modern context. Wright didn’t hide his days in institutions from his readers; he never steered out of the shame of addiction.
He fidgeted and chafed against both the great expectations inherited from his father, the poet James Wright, and the touch of madness he passed down. The Wrights are the only father and son to win Pulitzers in the same field. They also struggled with very similar demons.
Like the psalmist, very real forces sought to destroy Wright—they resided in his own heart and head.
He came to a shaky acceptance of his lot and was just comfortable enough with his brokenness to share it. He wrote of enveloping fears and excruciating, specific moments:
“Death, heaven, bread, breath and the sea here to scare me.” (From “The First Supper”)
“I hear, my only cure for the loneliness I go through: more.” (From “My Place”)
“I am not acquainted with anyone there, if they spoke to me I would not know what to do. But so far nobody has, I know I certainly wouldn’t. I don’t participate, I’m not allowed; I just listen, and every morning have a moment of such happiness, I breathe and breathe until the terror returns.” (From “Letter”)
“When I step outside the ugliness is so shattering it has become dear to me, like a retarded child, precious to me. If only I could tell someone.” (From “Letter”)
Even victories are stained with the blood of battle, as learned from his poem “Baptism”:
“That insane a–hole is dead I drowned him and he’s not coming back.”
“Look he has a new life a new name now which no one knows except the one who gave it.”
But Wright had eyes enough to see ultimate reality pierce even the darkest moments. Often he slipped readers a morsel of revelation and left them with a blessing for the road. At the end of loneliness or self-loathing, he penned phrases like these:
“Proof of Your existence? There is nothing but.” (From “Year One”)
“But if You can make a star from nothing You can raise me up.” (From “The First Supper”)
“I believe one day the distance between myself and God will disappear.” (From “My Place”)
“By the way thank You for keeping Your face hidden, I can hardly bear the beauty of this world.” (From “Cloudless Snowfall”)
“Your words are spirit and life. Only say one and he will be healed.” (From “Baptism”)
The poem “Letter” is quintessentially Wright. Its coda speaks of life growing from seeds of lament:
“The humiliation I go through when I think of my past can only be described as grace. We are created by being destroyed.”
Wright knew what Eugene Peterson meant when he wrote, “Catechism answers will not serve, for that is not the way conversation takes place between living persons.”
Catechism answers describe the hope of the world. But to converse with real people, not to mention a living God who loves us, means telling the truth about our felt realities and describing the ache for all that hasn’t come through for us yet.
We never should fear lamenting in Jesus’ presence. After all, he wept for Lazarus knowing full well he would call him from the grave. His sweat turned to blood, yet he breathed out belief that the Father’s will was better.
He abandoned his privilege to enter our suffering and, even as he sits reigning with the Father, still sits with us in our griefs, no matter how little or how paralyzing.
I had a strange ritual as a teenager. On winter nights, I would make a hot mug of tea with honey, then stand in the driveway and gaze at the clear, starry sky. Lately I’ve wondered if lament feels like that.
Something feels right about standing in place as long as possible, not giving into the chill and running back inside. You feel every particle of the cold. But something just as real warms you from the inside out. Where those two forces meet is where you really feel alive.
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