Sunday, February 26, 2012

Lenten Sorrow : Lament and Nacham

Grief, Tile Painting, Arthur Rothenberg, 1959
Lent starts with the ashes of Ash Wednesday –a symbol of grief and lament. In our modern liturgical traditions, we dot the ashes on the forehead and wash them off at the end of the day. In ancient Hebrew tradition, the practice of lament went far deeper, and lasted longer: mourners sat in ashes, or poured them on their heads, ripped clothes, wore sackcloth. This practice of shiva, of extended grief, was expected in most cases to last a week, sometimes longer.

We hurry through lament, often to our loss: Suck it up, walk it off, let it go, move on.

We hurry toward “closure” without doing the hard work of grieving.

In his article ‘The Hidden Hope in Lament’, Dan Allender writes, 
"Christians seldom sing in the minor key. We fear the somber; we seem to hold sorrow in low esteem. We seem predisposed to fear lament as a quick slide into doubt and despair; failing to see that doubt and despair are the dark soil that is necessary to grow confidence and joy." 
As a young teen, learning to play the guitar, I was drawn to songs in minor keys. I was given my first guitar just months after I left the home I’d lived in most of my life. I was sharing a narrow attic room with my grandmother in a small house with people I didn’t know, struggling to find my way in a large new school where I didn’t feel welcome, not sure how long I’d be there, or what would come next. I remember an elder in our church, a family friend, stopping me in the middle of a song I was practicing: “Christians don’t sing in minor key.” I’ve remembered his words – although I’ve never agreed.

A third of the Psalms are written in minor key – songs of grief, of anger, of confusion:

Scream III,
Eduardo Guyasamin,
1983, Ecuador
I am worn out from groaning,
all night long I flood my bed with weeping
and drench my couch with tears.
My eyes grow weak with sorrow. (Psalm 6)

I am poured out like water, 
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax; 
it has melted away within me.
My strength is dried up like a potsherd,
my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
you lay me in the dust of death. 
(Psalm 22)

Will the Lord reject forever?
Will he never show his favor again?
Has his unfailing love vanished forever?
Has his promise failed for all time? (Psalm 77)

I am like a desert owl, 
like an owl among the ruins.
I lie awake; I have become like a bird alone on a roof. (Psalm 102)

Some of the lament psalms are very personal. Others are corporate – an acknowledgement that things aren’t right, not just for the individual writing the psalm, but for his people, sometimes for the earth itself. 

Do you rulers indeed speak justly? Do you judge uprightly among men?
No, in your heart you devise injustice,
and your hands mete out violence on the earth.  (Psalm 58)

How long will the wicked, O Lord, how long will the wicked be jubilant?
They pour out arrogant words; all the evildoers are full of boasting.
They crush your people, O Lord; they oppress your inheritance.
They slay the widow and the alien; they murder the fatherless.
They say, The Lord does not see; the God of Jacob pays no heed.  (Psalm 94)

The prophetic books continue and expand the theme of corporate lament, describing a world where justice is forgotten, where the earth is degraded, where the poor are misused, where parents no longer care for their children, where political and religious leaders abuse power for their own ends and disregard those entrusted to their care. 
Wail, O pine tree, for the cedar has fallen; the stately trees are ruined!
Wail, oaks of Bashan; the dense forest has been cut down!
Listen to the wail of the shepherds: their rich pastures are destroyed!
Listen to the roar of the lions; the lush thicket of the Jordan is ruined! (Zechariah 11)
Wailing Wall Jerusalem, Flickr Creative Commons, cromaron 1988
There’s an ancient Hebrew word,  נָחַם , "nacham," in some places translated “grieve.” It’s one of those words that opens out in multiple directions – grieve, be sorry, regret, think again, repent, console, be comforted, have compassion. 

We would like the comfort without the grief, the consolation without the repentence, but is it possible they’re facets of the same unwanted treasure?

In The Prophetic Imagination, a book I find myself returning to again and again, Walter Brueggemann talks about lament as the first step in envisioning a new reality, a kingdom distinct from the current “empire” marked by oppression, exploitation and denial: 
“[R]eal criticism begins in the capacity to grieve because that is the most visceral announcement that things are not right. Only in the empire are we pressed and urged and invited to pretend that things are all right – either in the dean’s office or in our marriage or in the hospital room. And as long as the the empire can keep the pretense alive that things are all right, there will be no real grieving and no serious criticism” (p. 11). 
Grief is the first step in admitting that things are not right. “Bringing hurt to public expression is an important first step in the dismantling criticism that permits a new reality, theological and social, to emerge” (p.12).

Both Allender and Brueggemann talk about numbness: when we refuse to grieve, when we avoid acknowledgement of pain and the brokenness around us, we shut ourselves off from the possibility of real emotional and spiritual health, and real wholeness in our communities.

I go back to that word, “nacham”. I wrote several months ago about the ways that we meet God in our places of pain, experience his comfort, and become agents of that comfort. It’s also in our places of pain that we begin to see the world as God sees it: to see how far we are from the beauty, fellowship, health and freedom he calls us toward. As we grieve, we turn, repent our part in all that’s wrong, come alongside the broken, begin to participate in God’s own grief, and in doing so, find his mysterious comfort.

So I grieve:
Young lives lost – to hunger, war, selfishness, corruption.
The breakdown in community around me – marriages unraveling, alienation of parents and children, loss of trust between citizens and leaders.
Our reckless waste of resources - forests gone, water ruined, mountains destroyed, whole stretches of ocean full of floating plastic.
Prophetic Skies, Kay Jackson
Washington DC
I  grieve a national conversation in which people claiming to follow Christ insist God is more concerned about not raising taxes on the rich than about making sure the poor are fed.

I grieve the ways we shout past each other, rather than learning to listen.

I grieve schools without libraries, refrigerators without food, kids without listening, caring adults.

I grieve slave labor, baby girls tossed on trash heaps.

I grieve money spent on more and more weapons, while more and more children go hungry. 

And as I grieve, I acknowledge my complicity:
Remaining silent when I know I should speak.
Seeking my own comfort when I could offer help or hospitality.
Thinking more about good features and low prices than ethical sourcing and fair treatment of workers.
Wasting time, energy, resources.
Looking for an easy path, instead of doing the hard work of listening, grieving, caring.
And as I grieve, I turn, wonder how to do things differently, wonder how to be different. And move deeper into God's mysterious, consoling, transforming presence.

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
Nacham, O nacham. 
            be sorry,
                          think again,
                                   have compassion,
                                              be comforted
                                                       be changed.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Click on the  _comments link below to open the comment box.