The Lost Art of Lament
6/17/2020 Glenda Simpkins Hoffman
A few weeks ago I came out of a kind of fog from all the adapting to online ministry, and I decided to read some familiar books including To Kill a Mockingbird. I started the book before the killing of George Floyd, and I finished it the weekend the protests began. Interesting timing.
You may recall a young girl named Scout is the narrator of this story as she shares her experience in Maycomb, Alabama, the small Southern town where generations of her family have grown up. Her father Atticus Finch, a lawyer, is appointed to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of rape. During the trial, it becomes obvious Tom is innocent and the white woman accusing him is lying.
There is a lot that could be said about this classic piece of literature, but one thing that stood out to me were the tears of a child in response to racial injustice. During the trial the prosecutor hammers the defendant and treats him with deep disrespect. It was then that Scout’s friend Dill begins to cry—so much so others can hear and the two of them have to leave the courtroom.
Once outside, Dill explains to Scout he’s crying because of the way Tom was treated by the prosecutor. “It ain’t right, somehow it ain’t right to do ‘em that way. Hasn’t anybody got any business talkin’ like that—it just makes me sick.”
Mr. Dolphus Raymond follows them outside and says of Dill, “Thing haven’t caught up with that one’s instinct yet. Let him get a little older and he won’t get sick and cry. Maybe things’ll strike him as being—not quite right, say, but he won’t cry. Not when he gets a few years on him.”
I think the words resonated with me because I cried a lot as a child. I was always very emotionally intuitive and very sensitive. Even then, I had a deep sense that things were not right with the world. What does a child do with all of those emotions? Sometimes you just have to cry.
Tears are often considered a sign of weakness and can make some people uncomfortable. I know I was called a crybaby more than once. The summer after I graduated from high school, I remember being with a group of friends on the way to the mountains for a camping trip for a weekend. A song came on the radio, “Don’t Cry Out Loud.” The lyrics continue, “Just keep it inside, learn how to hide your feelings.”
Someone in the car said, “Hey, Glenda, this is your song.” I have never forgotten that. I got the message. I have repeatedly gotten that message in many and varied ways over the years. Crying is what children and women do, and you don’t want to be like that.
Yet in truth, though that advice may be culturally aware, it is biblically wrong. God gave us tears as a means of expressing deep sorrow and pain. And let’s face it, there is a lot of pain and suffering in our lives in this world marred by brokenness and sin.
We suffer illness, grief, broken relationships, financial hardship. So many in the world are hungry, displaced, treated unjustly. There is so much suffering in body, mind, and spirit. If we didn’t know that before COVID-19, I hope we do now. If we didn’t see the racial injustice in our country and the world before the recent deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and others, I hope we know it now.
But what do we do with all those raw emotions? Our culture teaches us to push down emotions, suppress the pain, slap on a happy face, and pretend things are better than they are. We have all kinds of strategies to help us including distracting ourselves through entertainment, finding comfort in eating or drinking too much, or burying ourselves in work or projects or anything we can seemingly control.
But the psalms show us an alternative model, a different response, another way. God invites us to lament. Dictionaries define the word lament as “feeling or expressing sorrow or grief.” It’s not a word used a lot in our culture, though I have heard it more in the last two weeks than I had for a long time. One third of the psalms are laments, which reveals God’s people need helpful ways to face the reality of human loss and pain, to name the suffering and pain without making judgments regarding who is at fault.
We come to God with all our real and tender emotions acknowledging life is hard. Life is not what it’s supposed to be. It is what it is. We bring all this to God because we need to learn to have faith in times of trouble. We need to learn to worship and pray even when things are not as they should be. This week’s readings in the VPC Psalms for Every Season daily devotional are psalms of lament. I encourage you to read and reflect on them slowly. Take time to let your emotions connect with those of the psalmist, and then pray these psalms, these laments.