The Language of Lament

There's a time to weep. And yet, often I hold the tears back, rejecting their cleansing pour. In her blog this week, my new friend, Amy Peterson, wraps a comforting arm around my shoulder - and likely yours too - and nudges me toward the hope that births only through lament. Read on ...


The Language of Lament

By Amy Peterson

On a tour at Clifton Heritage National Park on Nassau several months ago, I visited a sculpture garden memorializing women sold into slavery. I haven't stopped thinking about it.

Women sculpted out of cedar trees stared off the cliff towards the sea. Their faces were black, and their bodies dry grey wood. Faded blue scarves wrapped their heads. One's hip jutted to the south. One's shoulders hunched with grief. One wrapped her arms around her chest, as if to hold her heart in place. Each was scarred with rough parallel lines sawn slanting down her sides, marks of the slave captain's whip.

They are looking toward Africa," our tour guide told us, "their homeland." Our tour guide was a stocky black Bahamian grandmother in a beret and khaki pants.

"But they are not sure which direction Africa is in, so you see they are all looking different ways. Or maybe they are looking for their children. Families of slaves were often separated, taken to different islands."

The cedar woman closest to me seemed, more than anything else, to be looking toward the sky, as if she knew that both her homeland and her children were gone and would not return, and she would not stop asking God why.

I have been sending a lot of "Why, God?" prayers up to the sky recently myself, lamenting both global tragedies (like the unprecedented food crisis facing more than 20 million people in South Sudan, Somalia, northern Nigeria and Yemen right now) and smaller personal sadnesses.

As I studied the cedar sculptures on the coast of Nassau, I wondered what they might have to teach me about lamenting suffering and injustice. I've had a tendency in my life to refuse to acknowledge sadness, responding to global tragedies with a quick nod towards God's sovereignty, covering over my own suffering with a snappy " But God is good!" That's what I've seen modeled most often in the churches I've attended, but it's not what I see modeled by these women on the coast.

And it's not what I see modeled in Scripture, either. After all, we have a whole book called Lamentations! Our collection of songs, the Psalms, is not a collection of triumphal, one-note anthems. Our songs include lyrics like these, sung directly to God: "I am overwhelmed with troubles, and my life draws near to death. I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am like one without strength. I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom you remember no more, who are cut off from your care." (Psalm 88:2-6).

Even Jesus wept. Theologian Walter Bruggeman writes that "weeping permits newness." Weeping, he says, is a "radical criticism" - when we cry, we are acknowledging that not all is right in the world. It is not stoic silence or relentless optimism but the language of lament that will lead us to hope, and to action, and even to activism.

These sculptures of women mourning what they've lost remind me of the importance of recognizing the injustices and broken systems in our world. Rather than plastering well-intentioned smiles on our faces in the face of real suffering, we ought to weep. Lamenting does not mean that we are without hope; rather, it's a way of being honest with God. It is a legitimate response to the reality of suffering, and it engages God in the context of pain and trouble. Lamenting is the first step toward change.

As we left the sculpture garden, our guide pointed out something I'd missed. A rusty iron plaque chained to a large flat rock bore the place's name: GENESIS. "Genesis is where everything began," she said. "This is a place of new beginnings."

Amy Peterson is a writer and teacher living in rural Indiana. Her first book, Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Save the World, is available now.

© Elisa Morgan 2020

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