Monday, December 03, 2007

Lament (It's Okay to be Sad)

I slipped and nearly lost my balance as I struggled up the hill. The rain pelted down and slapped across my face, melting the snow until the street and sidewalk filled like tiny riverbeds, the ice glistening beneath it. Each step seemed smaller than the last, my feet squishing into puddles, the wind blowing and pushing against me. I shouldn't have come out, but a late walk usually helped when I couldn't sleep. A time to pray and reflect on the day and on life. Tonight however, my thoughts slipped and skidded into a seemingly unavoidable sadness. What worried me was that I'd been sad quite a bit this past month. I'd begun to worry about my faith. What did it say about me that the days were longer than I was used to, that even as I learned and grew, the days had not grown shorter? If anything, the more I prayed and thought about this crazy world, about life, the times of sadness had increased.

When I'd first become a Christian, and than rededicated my life to God so many years ago, no one had warned me about this. In fact, I'd been taught just the opposite. I'd been taught that God would help me, that my life would straighten out, that Jesus would fix things. The essence of my testimony was the simple efficacy of my own life. In other words, the better things were for me, the better God looked. I'd learned the hard way however, that while too many Christians clung to this unbiblical idea, I'd found many like myself, lonely sojourners who believed in God, who clung to His goodness, and yet witnessed the depth of despair not only in their own life, but the lives around them. And tonight, I worried again. How far had I drifted that such sadness had become a larger part of me?

I looked up at the heavens, but the sky was little more than a grey mist, the empty street shimmering under the dim lights, the quiet unbroken but for the sound of the rain. I'd walked full circle around the block, and now I slid and staggered down the hill. A bus chugged and than hissed to a stop beside me. I hadn't realized I was near a bus stop. I looked, but it was empty, and I backed away from the curb and waved to the driver. I saw her smile under the faint glow of green lights from inside the bus as she waved back and pulled away. I watched until it had disappeared down the street, and made my way across the deserted road. The brief human contact made me smile and than sigh. I was tired. To say that the last month had been difficult for me would not be doing it justice. I'd been shattered and broken a thousand times, or so it seemed.

"I don't get it, Lord. I don't get it." I said, muttering as the rain began to fall harder. "I love you, but I can't say I understand. Why is this so hard? Aren't things supposed to get easier?"

There was no response but the wind and rain and crisp wet smell of grass and cement. I'd received so many emails the past few months from people experiencing the same kind of lament, exasperated by their struggle and uneven faith and times of sadness. Many of them had been taught as I had, that we served God because He made our lives better.
I would never teach that again, I thought as I turned on to my street. As much as I loved God, I would never recommend His pursuit if you were looking for a better life or a quick fix.
"Prepare for sorrow." I said to myself as I unlocked the door to my house and stepped inside. Yes. That would be my motto. Prepare for sorrow.

There is a sense, certainly within evangelical circles, of this idea that God makes things better. That the good Christian is a happy Christian. The subtle infection of a marketing culture is at work here. (It looks better for the church to expand if we all look like we're happy.) And the logic, at first blush, seems un-impugnable. Why would anyone go to our church if people were sad? People are already sad. They need something to make them feel happy, don't they?

Yes. That's why we have Oprah. And Dr. Phil. Unlike our self-help gurus, God's role in Creation is not to make us 'happy'. But the role of truth, of God's Ultimate Truth, is to make us see. To see the world for how it really is, to see what really matters, to see Creation in all of its fullness and darkness. That is the purpose of our faith. What makes this so important is that people stay away from God because we are too busy trying to give the world a fresh gloss of paint, to hand people "rose-colored" glasses as it were, so when they walk into a church so they no longer see the filth and dirt and tragedy all around them. The role of faith is exactly the opposite. God wants us to see it, to face it head on, to wrestle with it.

If we cannot see the tragedy of life, we cannot see God.

In the Old Testament, the Israelites had special prayers of lament that were part of their worship. Psalms 3, 5, 6, 7, 13, 17, 22, 25-28, 38-40, 42-43, 51, 54-57, 59, 61, 64, 69-71, 86, 88, 102, 108, 109, 120, 130, 139-143 are considered tepilla, Psalms of Individual Lament. I list them here only to reveal that this idea of sadness in the life of faith is not normal, but necessary. Maybe this is partly why so many Christians struggle today. They have forgotten the importance of sorrow; they believe that somehow their sadness is a reflection on their own sin, their own lack of faith, on their own inability to be a better person, to do a better job exemplifying God in their life.

That is a great lie, and the implications are staggering.

Walter Brueggerman (an Old Testament scholar) suggests that the loss of lament within the church has been extremely costly. He suggests that our relationship with God loses reality when we lose the ability to lament, to be sad, to ask questions, to cry out, to struggle. I agree.

It is our sadness that testifies to the reality of our relationship with God, not our happiness.
It means we have brought our real selves before God, that we have looked upon the tragedies and heartache of the world and our life and have wrestled with them, that we have truly entered into a relationship with Him. And somehow, the ability to lament, to cry out... makes our lives real. And gives God a chance to move. When we see the world for how it really is, sadness is inevitable, but in our lament, somehow, sin some way, God gives us joy. (Psalm 73) And to explain it, is well, it cannot be explained. But to exclude sadness from the core of our faith is to misunderstand what faith is, and where God meets us.

It's cold out tonight. An icy wind rips across the front steps and I tuck my hands deep into my pockets. The clear night sky seems fresh, and the stars seem to shine as I turn my face to the heavens. For the past two hours, I have been unable to stop thinking about the importance of lament, of sadness. I have been unable to stop thinking about so many who have written me this past year about the struggle of life, and the guilt they have felt with acknowledging their struggle. The idea of "perpetual happiness" creates torment in our lives, and it undercuts the very nature of a real relationship with God. It is not only okay to be sad, but it is the very fabric of our humanity upon which God reveals His great love for us.

God wants us to lament, and my prayer for you is that you will no longer hide. That you will no longer hide your worries and anger and sadness. That you will no longer be afraid to present yourself as who you are to the One who made you. Life is hard, and there will be days when we wonder if God even cares. But the only way we will ever truly see Him is if we present Him with not only our joy and thanksgiving, but our lament as well.

"O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger or discipline me in your wrath. Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am faint; O Lord, heal me, for my bones are in agony. My soul is in anguish. How long, O Lord, how long? Turn, O Lord, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love. No one remembers you when he is dead. Who praises you from the grave? 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; they fail because of all my foes."

-Psalm 6:1-7