Loss and Lament

HomeLoss and Lament
July 26, 2020

Loss and Lament

Passage: Lamentations 3:13–36; Revelation 21:1-6

Click here to listen to the podcast of this sermon.

God will wipe every tear from their eyes.
And Death shall be no more;
neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore,
for the former things have passed away.

And the one who was seated on the throne said,
“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.
To the thirsty I will give water from the spring of life.”
—Revelation 21:4–6

Jan Richardson is a Methodist minister in Florida. Her husband Garrison Doles, who apparently was a fairly prominent singer-songwriter, died suddenly and unexpectedly at the beginning of Advent in 2013. The Reverend Richardson wrote a poem she calls “Blessing for My First Day as a Widow”:

There’s a reason
the ancients told us
to rend our clothes
after a death,
to cover our heads
with ashes.

They knew that
keeping it together
is overrated.[1]

I think she’s right about that: “Keeping it together IS overrated.” The Bible thinks so. One-third of the Hebrew Psalms are Songs of Lament, the ancient equivalents of the weepy ballads of Harry Chapin or Dan Fogelberg or The Eagles.

And did you know that there is a whole book in the Bible about Loss and Lament? Maybe you didn’t know that, because most of the time the Christian Church aggressively ignores this book. It’s not very fun. But it is very important.

It’s called The Book of Lamentations, and it’s nothing but a collection of five dirge-like poems of loss and lament. These poems are acrostics. Each song has 22 verses because the Hebrew alphabet has 22 letters. The first word of the first verse starts with the Hebrew equivalent of ‘A’, and the first word of the last verse starts with the Hebrew equivalent of ‘Z’.

These five collected elegies were written out of the vast sorrow the Hebrews experienced when Jerusalem was besieged, set ablaze, and flattened in 597 BC. There was nothing left. Starvation ensued, leaving behind stick-thin children and anguished, helpless mothers. It must have looked a lot like the cities of Syria or Yemen today.

To this day, in synagogues around the world, rabbis read through the entire book of Lamentations on the anniversary of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple.[2]

When the Christian Church does visit the book of Lamentations, it is on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday, because at that sad occasion, we seek “fit words to paint the blackest face of woe.”[3]

Nothing so terrifying has befallen us, but the Poet gives me words to express my own smaller sadness:

God shot into my vitals a quiver-full of arrows;
God has made my teeth grind on gravel,

and made me cower in ashes;
my soul is bereft of peace.

The Bible encourages us to be honest about our confusion and disappointment, to tell God what we’re thinking and feeling, to gather up our fistfuls of loss and sorrow and lay them at the throne of grace, because keeping it together is overrated, and acknowledging our distress is the first step on the journey back to wholeness and health.

And so in our own local Holy of Holies, in God’s very house, we name all that we have lost: four million infections; 144,000 Americans with us no more; as many as 40 million lost jobs, 16 million of them probably gone forever.

All those livelihoods, all those careers, all that hard work. James Kwak is a Law Professor at the University of Connecticut. He wrote an article in The Washington Post with an ominous title: “The End of Small Business.”

Dr. Kwak lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, and he talks about his neighborhood filled with mom-and-pop operations, often literally, small businesses with maybe ten employees, most of them owned and run by women and immigrants and minorities: 40 bars and restaurants, a  100-year-old stationery store, five hair salons, two bookstores, a toy store, a movie theater, a florist.

The economy will recover eventually, but Main Street will not look the same for years, maybe never, because the pandemic has turbo-charged a trend that has been going on since Amazon and Walmart became global monoliths. In many cities, over half of all groceries are purchased at Walmart.

Dr. Kwak says that “Main Street will grow blander and more corporate, and a swath of storefronts will go dark permanently.”

Main Street will look like a hockey player’s smile—many missing teeth, many darkened gaps in the streetscape where four, eight, ten, sixteen people made a decent living.  Mr. Gower’s Drug Store and Soda Fountain in Bedford Falls will become a CVS or a Walgreen’s.

Dr. Kwak says, “It’s the American dream: the road to success is working hard, saving money, getting a loan from the local Bedford Falls Savings and Loan, starting a small business—a path open to anyone, of any background, from anywhere in the world.”[4]  And so we pray a prayer: “God, help us. That dream must survive.”

We mourn for our young people: all those graduations never walked, all those proms never danced, all that classroom time on Zoom, all that hanging out with BFF’s just gone, all those baseball games and lacrosse matches never played, all those college searches never explored, all those canceled internships which might have been the gateway to a 40-year career.

Last year I had a blast flying all over the country to officiate at weddings: South Carolina, Florida, Massachusetts, Maine, and Kenilworth Union. Kathy had a blast planning our two weddings. This year, between Labor Day and Christmas, I’m celebrating eight tiny weddings. The huge, festive parties will be next year, often on the couple’s first anniversary. Perhaps the brides and their mothers are still having a blast planning those weddings, but it’s so much more fraught and complicated in 2020.

Maybe some of us have lost our joy, or our emotional steadiness. I know for a fact that many of us have lost our peace of mind and a lot of sleep.

Do you know how hard it is to run a church from home? Yes you probably do, because you’re all facing similar challenges in whatever God’s called you to do.

I’m not complaining because I have Ken Harris and Meg Revord and Bruce Linger. I have Jo and Katie and John and Lisa. I have a Murderer’s Row of accomplished colleagues and faithful Trustees.

I’m not complaining, but I am lamenting, because I have not seen most of you for 20 Sundays, 136 days, and I miss you. My friendships are not gone, but they are distant. And so I just speak my loss and hurl it toward Elysium, hoping that God might catch it. It helps a little to say it.

We’re slowly creeping our way back toward each other. You’ve invited the people you miss the most to your backyard for a glass of wine. You’re meeting your friends at Great Coast Commons. I know this because I saw a bunch of you there the other night. We’re creeping back to each other.

And this means everything, because we must honestly share what we’ve been through, and listen, and become shelter and rampart for each other.

Catherine Woodiwiss is an editor at Sojourners Magazine. A while back she suffered several traumas in quick succession. She doesn’t tell us what those traumas were, but she wrote an article called “Ten Things I’ve Learned About Trauma.” I’ll share just one.

She says, “Grieving is not private; it is social; healing is not private; it is social. We are wired for contact.”

She gives us what she calls The Trauma Beatitude: “‘Blessed are those who give love to anyone in times of hurt, regardless of how recently they’ve talked or how awkwardly they’ve reconnected or how long ago they visited from across the country or how often they ignored each other on Metra.’ That love and help might not look like what you’d request or expect, but there will be days when surprise love will be the sweetest.”[5]

Surprise love will be the sweetest. Surprise each other with love. Receive shelter. Be shelter. Be a rampart, despite all you’ve lost.

Some of us have lost our peace of mind. Some of us have lost a lot of sleep. Others have lost their flawless complexions.

I love these portraits of medical workers painted by the amateur artist Steve Derrick of Clifton Park, New York. He’s painted about 100 of them. Most of his subjects work at the Albany Medical Center not far from the Hudson River.

The eyes are wide with shock and weary with exhaustion, but also resolute with valor. Strangely, battle scars from masks give these faces striking dignity and unconventional beauty. These portraits tell a whole frantic narrative of crowded ER’s and ICU’s and rows of sedated, vented patients and beeping machines and rushing staff.

Mr. Derrick does not airbrush. He paints every wound. One nurse said, “It doesn’t make me look glamourous, but it shows who I am and what I do. It’s the most beautiful thing anyone has ever done for me.”

A reporter scolds the artist: “You haven’t shown them at their best.” And Mr. Derrick says, “Oh yes I have!”[6]

For me, these honest portraits sort of gather up all that we have faced and lost these five months. Fear and its undoing, dread and its collapse.

We’re going to be all right. All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

Paintings by Steve Derrick as seen on https://www.facebook.com/steve.derrick.733

[1]Jan Richardson, The Cure for Sorrow (Orlando: Wanton Gospeller Press), p. 2.

[2]In 2020, Jews will celebrate this anniversary, called Tisha B'Av, on July 30. This commemoration remembers both the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in 597 BC and the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD.

[3]Sir Phillip Sidney, Sonnet 1 from the Astrophil and Stella sonnet cycle, first published 1591.

[4]James Kwak, “The End of Small Business,” The Washington Post, July 9, 2020.

[5]Catherine Woodiwiss, “A New Normal: Ten Things I’ve Learned About Trauma,” Sojourners, January 13, 2014.

[6]Steve Hartman, “On the Road,” CBS Evening News, July 17, 2020.