A time to mourn

I have a recurring dream that varies a bit each time but contains the essentials of shootings, gangs, and retaliation and my own personal endangerment by these things in my community. Not surprising, considering where we live, what we witness and hear about, and what we have cause to fear. When I have this dream, it usually goes on for a long time, and it is often what I wake up to in the morning. Last night was one of those nights.

Pregnancy is known for adding intensity and downright strangeness to a woman’s dream-life. As a vivid dreamer already, my pregnancy-heightened dreams can be so powerful that Doug can find himself trying to negotiate strange emotional waters with me that have nothing to do with him or reality, rather they are the leftovers from some troubling dream I had the night before.

And okay, I suppose I really should not read the L.A. Times homicide blog at night right before falling asleep…

All of this got me thinking this morning about how are we to take in things that rightly should grieve us? What should we do with news of suffering and oppression and injustice, be it in our immediate neighborhood or in far-off places? For many I know that the solution is to flip past the article or never visit the website–to remain unaware, unknowing. That is certainly a way of coping, and with the overwhelming amount of information at our disposal now, should we want it, it can hold great appeal. I heard once that women who watch Oprah experience a larger percentage of anxiety than those who do not. And I am one who would simply rather not know how many germs are in my kitchen sink…

That said, I have read a few things this week on grief, grieving, and mourning that have me thinking:

John Santic suggests (in Brueggemann’s company) that the loss of lament, the ability to grieve, is one of the greatest threats to our life of discipleship:

So why would the devil pick on our capacity to lament? I have learned to never underestimate his craftiness on matters of deceit. He did it (is doing it) because without lament we lack the capacity for true repentance and identification with the God who suffers. Without lament we are handicapped in our love and words like ‘compassion’ and ‘poverty of spirit’ carry little weight outside of their ability to be trite sentiment. The loss of lament stifles our capacity for justice and compassion and dismantles what was supposed to be a highly potent, world-changing, movement of Jesus followers into a religious system that worships idols of success, strength, and entertainment. The lack of lament is the ingredient the enemy needs to cement our hearts into a stoney numbness and nullify genuine, continuous, conversion.

Is it not often the voice of the prophet that calls us to grieve and mourn? I think of Eugene Cho and others who persisted in calling attention to the suffering of the Korean hostages in Afghanistan when many others were more interested in talking about Michael Vick. Or the writings of a few authors who have sought to raise the veil that covers fierce racial divisions in the North American church. The fact is we don’t like to face ugliness, especially when it indicts us and our comfort or lifestyle, and so we opt to ignore rather than confront and actually mourn what is sick, sinful, and unjust. And I think John (and Brueggemann) are right: as Christians, we lose our capacity to exercise genuine love and compassion when we fail in our willingness to grieve.

One of the assignments John Goldingay gave to us when we studied the Writings was to write a lament, using those examples from scripture as our guide. What an intensely powerful exercise that was, for me, for Doug, for our fellow classmates. When I think back on the top ten things I learned in seminary, learning to lament is probably one of them.

Going further back, I remember my own faith crisis in college when five kids were shot and killed in the few blocks surrounding our Christian college campus. These were kids who were neighbors, relatives and friends of the kids I worked with in that community, and my grief overwhelmed me. The only thing more overwhelming was my total disgust at my campus community’s ability to both ignore what had happened and go on with life as usual, or to only give attention to the killings in as much as their own immediate safety concerned them. Let’s be honest: we are not in the business of wanting to add pain or suffering, and if we can ignore or avoid, we will.

Someone might say to me, Erika, why read the homicide blog AT ALL, let alone when you are pregnant and already struggling to sleep? My best answer would be that I am called to be a person who knows how to lament, and the minute I stop being that person is the minute I lose something of what it means to follow a crucified God. And that is why it is important that I read and know the names of the brother and sister who were shot and killed at a birthday party a few blocks from here, and why it is right for me to cry for that family and to give up a night of sleep…

4 thoughts on “A time to mourn”

  1. Erika, I am flattered and humbled that you would consider my words worthy to belong in such a profound reflection. When I consider lament, it creates in me a two-fold reaction. One – it is where I want and need to be. And 2 – I am terrified to weep because of the associations it has to a weakness that is unacceptable in our culture.

    For example, I walked by a community today. As I parked my car on the street next to the vacant lot in a hard-luck place in our city, I walked right past a community of people who call that park home. There was one who was still curled up sleeping, and others who were sitting on camping chairs. And there was on lady who was eagerly combing the ground as if she lost something precious…but she was really looking hopelessly for another hit. As I walked by, already a tad late for work, I made a note to myself about this community and how I think i should blog about it. But my problem (illuminated by your post) is that I could not weep for them. Why don’t we lament the unjust way our society marginalizes and criminalizes the poor? Weeping this morning would be totally socially unacceptable….talking to them for that mater would be as well.

    Rather that lament that leads to ripe imagination for an alternative future, I justify the situation before me and not long after move on the “important” parts of my day – doing the things that our culture tells me are the right things to do. God forbid that our actions do not ruffle some feathers and redeifine what it means to be human with mercy, justice, and compassion!

    This desire and inability are a burden to me that exposes my inconsistency. Hopefully it is a step toward freedom.

  2. Both Erika and John, your words are gut wrentchingly honest and sorrowful to me. I am frustrated and angry every time I want to cry for injustice and brutality. I spent most of my childhood thinking and believing also that crying was a useless, shameful thing. I’ve beaten back so many tears that I felt like at one time I could not cry again.

    How do we free ourselves of this hardening of the heart?

    I need that freedom.

    I’m slowing understanding what Ecclesiastes 7:2-4 is saying:
    It is better to go the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting for this is the end of all humankind. Sorrow is better than laughter for by sadness of face the heart will be made glad. The heart of the wise is in the house of the mourning but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.

    Can anyone explain these verses in more detail?

  3. Amen, sister. Great post.
    Tim Hughes explains what prompted him to write the song “When the Tears Fall” (one of my all-time favorite Tim Hughes songs) was the lack of lament in the church.

  4. I notice that having a heart that is moved to lament is the sign of grace breaking through to what can oftentimes be my stony, hard heart. And I partake then of a needed broken and contrite heart, broken over myself, but also over the brokenness of others.

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