Monthly Archives: March 2012

A Thousand Years

i have sat and begun a draft of this update now more times than i can count. i have given it up to give it a day and come back at it fresh, only to find myself and it as old and lifeless and as stagnant as ever. there is a sort of numbing hum about it all right now – life, faith, art, my medical status, preparations for the transplant – a perpetual standstill. as soon as i think we are getting somewhere, there is another pause, a hitch, a sapping of inertia, and i stare at the screen and think, well, what do i say now?

 

so, first, my apologies for not being as active in transmitting our news and musings as of late. my few facebook and twitter posts over the past few weeks have let me believe (wrongly) that i’ve adequately conveyed all there is to convey, even though i know there are many of you who read this now who have no access to those.

 

we’ve fixed that to a certain extent, adding a twitter feed to the sidebar of my broken body blog, where brief moment-by-moment updates can be posted between my lengthier blog posts.

 

we may be starting a caring bridge page as well, one that both jen and i will contribute to. it’ll be more her ship than mine, a place where she can do her word-work with the hard times ahead, as well as share requests for prayer or practical help in the moment, and, assuming there’ll be stretches of time where i’m unable (or unmoved) to post much of my condition, she’ll be able to keep you all in the know nonetheless.

 

in the meantime, an update, and some thoughts:

 

it has been more than four months since my diagnosis. we are still waiting to begin the transplant. we’ve checked off all the prerequisites for my 4 to 8 week stay at the U of M.

 

since early february we have anticipated that admission several times over, only to be surprised by one delay after another. in recent weeks, it’s been because of a cold, and now an acute sinus infection, stubbornly persisting despite antibiotics and the mighty pot of neti.

 

wiping out my immune system will have to wait until i’m as well as i can be. a mild cold can become pneumonia once the walls are down. what’s a bit frustrating is i was as well as i could be up until it was time to go. four months of top-notch health, and then the week of my workup, i was hit with a nasty cold.

 

my doctors were eager to begin. so were we, i guess. i have consented to take part in a “first in human” study in which one of my matched cord blood units (we’ve learned there will be two, from different donors) will be infused with a compound to prep those stem cells for a quick engraftment.

 

cord blood stem cells, while abundant and very adaptive, are not the quickest at doing what they need to do. much like getting a room full of preschoolers to do one thing well together, the additive is an extra year of preschool prepping them to do just that. the intended result is one less week with no immune system; one less week of potential infections; one less week in isolation at the U.

 

in any case, i’m at a research institution where they’re ready to get the show on the road. but not for fear that my MDS will morph into leukemia; they say my disease is in a better place now than it was four months ago. my counts have normalized across the board, but that chromosome is still in the wrong.

 

so, while we’ve been expecting this thing to ratchet up several times over since the new year, my actual admission date has been scheduled and rescheduled for march 12, march 14, march 19, and now for april 2, and this is IF my sinuses clear by monday.

 

so, more time.

 

strange time.

 

twlight time; no longer day, not quite night.

 

some thoughts about time and timing:

 

when i was diagnosed last october, i was six months from the fifth anniversary of completing treatment for lymphoblastic lymphoma. at year five i’d have been pronounced a total cure.

 

it took that long for us to get our life back. my body was slow to heal from the blow of those two years – not that i got my old body back; that body’s gone – the body i came out with was broken in many ways, my current disease among them.

 

and in so many ways we were left with our heads spinning; disoriented; unsure how we’d do life in the new normal. our roles had changed when i got sick. they changed once again as i healed.

 

we had at last found our footing, we think; a clear vision of what life could be for us. there was help, a horizon, and a destination on the map.

 

my body was more or less strong enough to do some of those things i did before; i began doing concerts again; i had figured out how to do what i used to do with a mind slowed by medications treating pain a two-year treatment had left in its wake; pain that changed how much i could manage, how much i could do.

 

but we had figured things out, more or less, and life was working again.

 

beneath all of this was a shaken faith (read: strengthened) that had been restored. we weren’t as dumbstruck before God anymore; conversation was current and consistent; prayer was hopeful, expectant, and grateful; we had a faith made stronger by suffering; we’d come out of the furnace having met one “like the son of God.”

 

then, like a bolt out of the blue, i was hospitalized, jen’s dad died, and we were told the treatment that saved my life was threatening to take it on its own terms.

 

the timing of the lord is perfect.

 

they wished to transplant immediately. we asked for more time.

 

four months later, after preparations of all kinds, we are now about as ready as we can be, and find ourselves a bit fidgety as we have been told to wait some more.

 

we’ve prepared our hearts for the final descent several times over now, only to be told, for one reason or another, as many times as we’ve prepared: not yet.

 

i feel a bit like a boxer in the corner of the ring before a fight or between rounds, bouncing, shadow boxing, working up adrenaline for the fight that’s before him.

 

i wait for the bell that never rings.

 

i grow tired and spent.

 

so i sit. and then flinch. was i sleeping? i’m relaxed, too relaxed.

 

life is too normal, the fight too surreal, too absurd. i want another popsicle.

 

there’s more to do. always will be, perhaps. i’ve not sufficiently prepared for the possibility of death. i’ve not finished those letters to my boys. i’ve not given much thought to a funeral.

 

contingencies. preparing for the possible, just in case. maybe this week.

 

but i’m tired of it.

 

stalled and staring at the wall.

 

i have other things i’d like to do before i go in, and i now have the time to do it, but i’m stuck.

 

stuck in a life that feels so normal, so right.

 

this update has taken me nearly three weeks to write. i’ve wasted so much time writing drafts that i discard the next morning. if you’re reading this, i’ve managed to post it before i went to bed; had i waited until the morning, i’d have deemed it unfit to say what i wanted to say and started all over again.

 

we can’t make plans: i cannot get sick, or go out much in public. i missed that concert at the turf club.

 

house arrest: slow down, stop life, love your boys.

 

this i can do, and have much already: love my wife, see my friends, breathe.

 

the timing of the lord is perfect.

 

wait on the lord. wait. wait. wait.

 

say the word enough times and it starts to sound funny. it becomes strange. it begins to lose its meaning; the word is left silly; the word is just a word. now we have a word that means nothing, and an experience that has no name. it just is.

 

that is what it is like.

 

with the lord a thousand years is like a day, and his timing is always perfect.

 

but his perfect timing does not for us make a day of a thousand years. for us, it is still a thousand years.

 

what would a thousand years being like a day mean to us if we did not first know what a thousand years was like? a long, long time is what it is; meant to invoke the weight of waiting. waiting is work.

 

so it is like a thousand years, and we are tired, worn by waiting.

 

why we’d be eager to do something as that which we are about to do, i don’t know, but we are, it’s true. we are tired of waiting; the waiting is work.

 

at the same time it is work we are often willing to do. we must daily commit to it, and it doesn’t come naturally or easily, and we must work our hearts into the work, but somehow we want to do it, we want more time.

 

but then we get the time we wanted and forget we were waiting. we wake up dazed in the corner of a boxing ring in the middle of a fight, having just had a dream about popsicles.

 

so because of this, the speaking of our proneness to be discontent does not mean we are discontent indeed. we can feel the one thing and believe the other, slowly believing ourselves into feeling what we ought.

 

what we feel is we are squirmy, itching to begin, let the chips fall where they may.

 

what we feel is we aren’t ready, aren’t ready at all, so we want more time; lord, fill my sinuses full of froth, find me reason for another delay.

 

what we believe is God is in this; he’s in everything – the timing of this illness, the faith he rebuilt in us prior to the tragedy of death and the diagnosis, the delays, one after the other, pushing out the onset of this trial from autumn all the way into the fullness of spring.

 

God is in all the goodness we’ve experienced in this interim. he is in all the many memories we’ve made that i can labor to recall when the recollection of good times will be difficult but necessary for the bearing up beneath the bad.

 

but the hardest thing to keep in focus, the hardest thing to remember: God is in our tomorrows. we can imagine nearly everything about tomorrow, except God in it. but he is there as much as here; then as much as now, and he is today drawing us into tomorrow, and away from yesterday.

 

sentimentalism now just makes me sad. i love it so much. i don’t want to leave what i know. it is so good.

 

but the story is moving forward. it is not finished. and it is my faith in a storyteller who tells good stories (the one about the cross is the best) that gives me courage to turn my gaze from what he’s done in my life in my past (sentimentalism) onto what he is going to do in my future (attention to the present, the only point at which i make contact with my future, or God in it). God is doing a new thing, and that new thing leans forward. to get at it so must i. i don’t know what that new thing will be, but i know he’s going to do it, and i know it’s going to be good (i mentioned the empty grave?). the best is always yet to come.

 

the wide open spaces may lie beyond the hard stuff; the paths of righteousness may lead into the valley of the shadow of death, but the good shepherd leads us through, and the grass actually will be greener on the other side.

 

so, on into tomorrow, one weighty day at a time. he is good to those who wait.

 

on monday morning i’ll see my doctors and we’ll make the decision yet again, perhaps for the last time; if i’m adequately healing, my new insides (one of those two bags of cord blood) will come out of the cold and brought to a simmer, prepped for the transplant. then, no turning back without losing that match. i must be ready when it is.

 

i have a feeling we’ll get the green light this time. i can’t tell you how that feels.

 

or maybe i can. seems we’ve been here before: still sets my heart racing, still makes me a wee bit weak in the knees. or is that just the sensation of rising to me feet once more, bobbing and weaving, bob and weave, swinging me mitts, this way and that? (i liked the typo; me feet, me mitts; sounds irish… a good brawl… i could wish i were irish, but, better – i am inspired, by the spirit of the one who fought death, and won.)

 

so ring that bell.

 

and so help me God,

 

jeremy

 

 

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Categories: MDS | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Mourning with the Mourning

there are days i feel more alive than ever. today is one of those days. i suddenly see everything as though the world were brand new, and i am a child rapt with wonder. i drive with my hand out the window, running my fingers over the contours of the sidewalk, feeling the shapes of trees and buildings, oncoming traffic, and somehow even the colors of every car i meet on my way to caribou, where i’ll be able today, without any trouble, to write the update that has resisted my efforts for two weeks running.

 

why today?

 

it wasn’t because i prayed more this morning. no, i wasted the early hours on my new ipad, given me by my siblings and their spouses, perhaps in lieu of their inability to give me bone marrow, though i doubt it; more likely just because they knew it’d make me happy, that’s all. something i wouldn’t have acquired myself; a gift; extravagant, unasked for, over the top; given that i might remember i am loved, by them and by a God who gives gifts of a greater kind; who surprises us with good unrequested, undeserved, spilling over, and frustratingly disconnected from any initiative of our own.

 

grace.

 

today i am taken by grace.

 

i am alive. last night at sundown i pedaled my bike through the streets of bloomtown to surprise my family at the boys’ school; in sneakers and a t-shirt no less, which is something worth cheering about in minnesota mid-march.

 

i sat on the sidewalk near the front doors, waiting, my bride and my boys inside with hundreds of other germy kids for the school’s spring carnival. i’d forgotten my cell phone, so i just sat there, breathing the sweet evening air, the sidewalk beneath me radiating heat retained from the afternoon sun; and i prayed for my boys on that sidewalk, and for their mom; the four people i love on this planet more than anyone else.

 

they were surprised to see me as they came through those doors a half hour later, and it was such a satisfaction to me; their faces were glowing. they were painted, too: a clown, a tiger, and a king. i threw my bike in the van and drove us home, making a quick stop at the grocery store for two more boxes of popsicles (a vice of mine…i down near two dozen a day).

 

once home, we cranked rebecca black, all of us singing: “yesterday was thursday, thursday / this day it is friday, friday / we, we, we, we so excited / we so excited / we gonna have a ball today” (at which point eli, our learned kindergartener, proudly pointed out that, without a verb, it made no sense at all. he was right, of course).

 

suddenly something shook loose inside me and i hollered through the house at the top of my lungs: “I don’t want to be sick!!! i like this me!!!”

 

overcome with frustration at the fact that this healthy me – this me that can bike across bloomtown to surprise my boys, throwing them over my shoulders, tossing them on the couch in a game of “smackdown,” spontaneously bursting into song with a joy contagious, bringing my whole family with me into the fun – this me, and the life that i can live with and for my family when i’m strong and not sick (after seven years of being unable to do anything but sleep in, i’d finally been able to rise early on a regular basis to bring our boys to school, so that jen could get up and go to school herself…and, just like that, after seven long years, our life was finally working…)

 

and this healthy me is heading to the altar once again, about to be brought low by the flint knife and fire of myeloablative chemotherapy and total body irradiation.

 

pardon any unintended disrespect for shiny happy responses to my pain, but if i may be so honest: this really stinks, and it’s much appreciated when you agree.

 

**warning**soapbox**  (grab your most gracious, unflappable self, for your sake and mine)

 

despite belief in a good God with good intentions – perhaps even because of it – some things deserve to be lamented aloud (or online), and before one should be compelled to rise and bless the lord, let him (and i say again: let him) cover himself in sackcloth and ashes, and then, with him, cry out: “how long, oh lord? how long will you hide your face from me?”

 

please don’t get me wrong, at present we hardly feel as though God were hiding his face from us. on the contrary, in ways beyond number we feel his presence now more than ever.

 

i merely (and ever so humbly) seek to press back against any conception of faith that insists the only proper response to one’s suffering is joyful resolve or serene acceptance. there are other ways a deep faith in a good God can be made manifest, and among them is the beautiful model in scripture (beautiful to those who suffer) of pouring out our complaints before God. the psalms are our biblical invitation to lament, and to lament together.

 

i’ve much else to say about lament, and much of what i’ve said can be read here, or heard here. all i wish to say at the moment is that from time to time i may post an update via facebook or twitter (tweets now displayed in the sidebar of my broken body blog) that will give voice to certain feelings portraying a faith that is anything but heroic.

 

i know i am not obliged, nor even expected, to have a faith so heroic at all times or even at all, but a request i humbly plead, for the sake of others who hurt if not my own, is that we who believe certain things do not obligate one who is suffering to express proper theology in all their utterances, or feel that we must correct them when they don’t. i suspect one can fully believe that God is good, and that he has good purposes for our pain, and still be allowed to say frankly something along the lines of “this really sucks.”

 

there may be doctrine that eventually needs to be corrected, there may be encouragement to immediately give, but often the wisest and most encouraging thing to say is simply: “yes it does.”

 

i am grateful to have many friends and family who do just this. thank you. thank you. thank you. you do my heart good.

 

we are tempted to fix what needs fixing, but we are exhorted to mourn with those who mourn.

 

i’ve heard this once unpacked in a pastoral call to let the words of one who suffers belong to the wind. let them belong to the wind. having grown up the son of a grain farmer, the picture i get from that is this:

 

back when the harvest was done by hand and the gathered stalks were beaten with sticks, the grain would fall to the threshing floor, and the rest would belong to the wind. it would blow away.

 

we can let the laments of the beaten be like chaff that is blown away. by letting those words be, by letting them go unaddressed and uncorrected (how job’s friends erred here), they are swept away by a breeze that removes them from the grain that remains.

 

and there is grain on the threshing floor: my convictions weigh more than my complaints.

 

i suspect the only proper way to understand my 140 character tweets, perhaps even to rightly read these posts on my blog, is to take them all as parts of the whole; to read what i write in the context of what i’ve written.

 

anyone just coming to my story now can take a shortcut through several years worth of blog posts by listening to this, or reading this, or simply by trusting i belong to solid christian men who, for my sake and yours, hold me to a high standard of biblical belief; who will correct me personally if i stray; who affirm my faith in the staples of christian doctrine and confirm for me that what we together believe is somehow fleshed out in my flesh; that it gets lived with my life.

 

all this, simply to draw attention to the fact that it is in the context of these things that i say the things i say; that my laments are, as are the laments of all others, firmly fixed in the context of a life; mine in the belief in a good God with good purposes and the might to make things happen; so that collectively, our complaints need not be a denial of those beliefs, but can actually serve as an affirmation of them: a real God who meets real people with real feelings in real pain; a sturdy God who can hold and handle our hard words about hard things; who invites honest responses, and is not threatened by them in any way.

 

that is all. i could say more. in many ways i already have (a worn soapbox of mine, one can tell). enough for now to be a reminder that when wounds are fresh, or made fresh by something or someone picking our scabs, our words belong to the wind, and we do one another a great respect when we simply let them go. to catch them or correct them is not just often unnecessary, it may hinder a heart hurting its way into holiness and health.

 

and please forgive me, at least for being so laid low at the altar of alliteration. i turn to see my tracks, saying the sentences i’ve spun into existence, and am ashamed to be so enslaved to such violent repetitions. someday i’ll grow up and grow out of it, maybe; once a good lutheran, always a good lutheran (i’ve got alliteration down pat, but not so good at keeping to three points; and perhaps it’s not so exclusively lutheran after all).

 

more than that, and quite seriously, forgive me for overreacting. i stop to examine more than my last sentences and i discern a sort of tartness i mean not to convey, and i haven’t the time to tidy things up more than i have at the time of this posting. but perhaps it can be a point on which to practice this grace for the gritty. perhaps you find no grit to forgive; minnesota nice has been known to be overly-sensitive; perhaps i’m overly-sensitive to my over-sensitivity; in any case, i mean not to nurture any reluctance to respond to my updates. if i am easily offended, that is my issue, not yours, and occasionally i can be a big boy about it. please comment freely. it does me good to know who’s out there, tuning in so to speak. your mere presence encourages me greatly.

 

finally, i should probably ask that you resist the urge to comb through my recent facebook interactions looking for smoking guns. there really aren’t any, at least none that would warrant the reaction here. i am as much reacting to the awful stories that accumulate over the years of well-intended but hurtful replies to the expressed pain of those who mourn, who, more than anything else, just needed a shoulder to cry on. those shoulders should be found nowhere more abundant and hospitable than in the church, where the heritage of communal lament is so rich, and yet how we fail. i hope we are bettered by my little soapbox. it unfortunately infers bad guys and a stoning in the town square, but we’ve all been the bad guys. i’m not talking about you or him or her, i’m talking about us; so we can drop the rocks and get about giving one another grace for the gritty.

 

and if you’ve read this much, you’ve given that to me. so with my utmost gratitude:

 

thank you.

 

much grace to you,

 

jeremy

 

 

 

Categories: Cancer, MDS | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments

Lament: God-ward Grief

Complain to God. Go ahead. Not only does the Bible allow it, it encourages it. Skeptical? Read on.

 

2 Corinthians 4:7-15

 

7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 8 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 11 For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. 12 So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.

13 It is written: “I believed; therefore I have spoken.” Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak, 14 because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself. 15 All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.

 

This is the second part of a two-part topical series called “Resurrection & Lament”

 

Resurrection and Lament? What’s the connection?

 

1 Corinthians 15:54-55

 

54 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

 

55 Where, O death, is your victory?

Where, O death, is your sting?

 

Then, death loses its sting. Now, it still stings.

 

Death stings. And all the ways death works into our lives. It isn’t just when we die. It’s the slow decay of dying, and our efforts to work against it over and over again. Our loved ones die and leave us, or they stay and become disinterested. We bear our children in pain, and sometimes lose them in pain that makes the pain of labor pale by comparison.

 

We live in the land of lost jobs, joyless work, broken dreams, broken relationships, broken promises, broken bodies, broken lives. We bear crushing responsibilities and heaviness of heart that stops us dead in our tracks. We are taken by depression, cancer, diabetes, MS, heart disease, Crohn’s disease, aids, lupus, paralysis, and a hopeless myriad of other ailments and tragedies that haunt the homes of the human race.

 

Suffering wakes us up to a world that hurts. Like suddenly waking in the middle of a  forest so cold and so dark it could just as well be the middle of the winter and the middle of the night. We have some vague recollection of how we got here but have no clue as to how to get out. What do we do? What should we do?

 

When my son Aedan was 4 years old, I took him with on a VBS mission trip to an Indian Reservation. In the first 45 minutes with the kids there, Aedan took a pool ball to the knuckles, a fist to the back, and was pummeled by a boy on a bicycle – all of this by unapologetic children. Later in the day he ran through knee-high thistle in a pair of shorts. The day was a painful realization for Aedan that the world he lived in could hurt so much.

 

Aedan responded to his pain in the way we ought to respond to ours: he wept.

 

Michael Card, in his book Sacred Sorrow, says that the God-designed path through and out of the impossibly dark forest of suffering, sin, and death is the dimly lit path of lament.

 

I think we must be convinced of this. We don’t believe it. Lament is a capitulation of faith at worst. At best it is just awkward. The emotions associated with lament are inconvenient and embarrassing. Even in the church, we can look down upon those who grieve and complain in ways that make us uncomfortable. We want them to pull it together…to have more faith.

 

We labor to convince our kids they cannot give voice to their every complaint, and we, as adults, follow suit, concluding in the end that most things are just not worth crying about.

 

But the Bible, on the other hand, is so ripe with lament as to encourage us to weep all the more, for the consequences of sin are far more costly than we ever could have imagined.

 

We find in the pages of scripture the laments of Job, Jeremiah, David, Ezra, Solomon, Hezekiah, Isaiah, Daniel, Amos, Jonah, Micah, Habakkuk, Zechariah, and Jesus, who pronounced a blessing on those who mourn. This Biblical Chorus of Lament is given voice in the Psalms, one-third of which are psalms of lament. The Bible seems to suggest by its broad representation of lament that it is okay to say we hate the pain.

 

I. Lament as an Act of Faith: It’s okay to say we hate the pain.

God-Honoring Honesty

 

We could see this in any number of passages ripe with lament, but this morning I want us to look more closely at this passage from 2 Corinthians.

 

As context, Paul says in chapter 1:

 

8 We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.

 

Paul says he was crushed beyond his ability to endure.

 

In verse 8 of chapter 4, Paul says, We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair.” How could Paul be so overwhelmed beyond his ability to endure and yet not be driven to despair?

 

The answer is given to us in verses 13 and 14: It is written: ‘I believed; therefore I have spoken.’ Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself.”

 

In these verses, Paul speaks of a specific kind of faith, the same sort of faith the psalmist had. Which psalmist? Probably the one that penned the psalm from which he quoted, “I believed in God, so I spoke.” Spoke what?

 

This is a quotation. The context from which it came is implied. We’ll know better what Paul was saying if we know where the quotation comes from. We do know where it comes from. Psalm 116, verse 10:

 

“I believed in you, so I said, I am deeply troubled, LORD.”

 

I believed in God, so I said to God, I hurt.

 

Paul makes this connection so as to convince us that the same faith that believes God raised Jesus from the dead and believes that we too will be raised, is the faith that enables us to give voice to our pain while we’re dying.

 

the Bible would have us believe that complaining to God is not so much a display of faltering faith as it is a bold and God-honoring act of faith – one that demonstrates the belief that God is as real to us as the pain that we are in, and that he is tender enough and strong enough to hold onto us even when our rage is misdirected – even when we’re angry at him.

 

This means our honesty with God honors God. Lament is an act of faith.

 

Michael Card says we must relearn the lost language of lament in order to find our way through the forest of suffering which is this world. So this morning I want us to consider what the Bible has to say about why, what, and how we lament, and then finally, examine the fruit of lament.

 

II. Why, What, & How We Lament: (Re)Learning the Lost Language

 

A) Why

 

The Bible seems to give us at least three general reasons why we lament in this life: sin, suffering, and death. And the first of these is the cause of the others. So let’s consider first the lament of sin. To do so we’ll listen to the words of the Old Testament’s weeping prophet, Jeremiah, in Jeremiah chapters 8 and 9.

 

Sin

 

Jeremiah lived at a time in which his people, the nation of Israel, had been conquered and humiliated by the large empire of the Babylonians. This had happened as a direct result of Israel’s refusal to obey the words of the Lord. They had sinned, and this exile was the consequence of that sin. It is in this context we read the words of Jeremiah in chapter 8, verse 21:

 

“Since my people are crushed, I am crushed; I mourn, and horror grips me. ?22 Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? ?Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people?”

Jeremiah 9

1 Oh, that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears! ?I would weep day and night for the slain of my people.”

 

So Jeremiah cries. But while he cries, we see that, despite the widespread devastation, Jeremiah still had to convince his people to lament their sins to the LORD. He says in verse 17

This is what the LORD Almighty says: “Consider now! Call for the wailing women to come; send for the most skillful of them. 18 Let them come quickly and wail over us ?till our eyes overflow with tears and water streams from our eyelids. 19 The sound of wailing is heard from Zion: ‘How ruined we are! How great is our shame! 20 “Now, you women, hear the word of the LORD: Open your ears to the words of his mouth. Teach your daughters how to wail; teach one another a lament.”

 

We read in Lamentations 2, Jeremiah saying, “Cry aloud before the Lord, O beautiful Jerusalem! Let your tears flow like a river. Rise during the night and cry out. Pour out your hearts like water to the Lord.”

 

Jeremiah had to persuade God’s people to lament in his day. But are we any more willing to lament as they were?

 

Michael Card says that, “There exists within American Christianity a numb denial of our need for lament… So the language of lament sounds stranger and stranger to our ears. It is heard less and less in our churches, and when it is voiced, rarely are our sins genuinely lamented. [But it is only] through lament [that] we regain both a sense of awareness and a language to express the hopeless depth of our sin.”

 

And Jeremiah would have us believe that we should lament not only for our sins, but also for the sins of others. And there’s plenty of that to grieve over these days.

 

But there is one other important thing we can learn about the lament of sin from the prophet Jeremiah; it is that God-ward grief over sin is always expectant of the Lord’s loving-kindness. It is not a dead-end. It is lament in anticipation of the Lord’s forgiveness.

 

Listen to his words in Lamentations 3: “My tears flow endlessly; they will not stop until the Lord looks down from heaven and sees… The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies never cease.”

 

Jeremiah foresaw that because of the coming Messiah there would be no sin that needs to be lamented forever. The presence of God is found in the confession of our sins.

 

There is another reason we lament found often in the pages of scripture, and that is the lament of suffering.

 

Suffering

 

In the book of Job, we are introduced to a man who was said to have been blameless before God, yet who suffered extraordinarily. While his suffering could not have been possible without the sin of Adam and Eve, his suffering was not a direct result of sin in his own life. He did not “have it coming.”

 

Yet in the matter of a few days Job lost his wealth, his health, his children, and the loyalty of his wife and friends. The book then records his complaints to God, his conversation with his friends, and in the end, his conversation with God.

 

Listen to his words from chapters 6 and 7: “For the Almighty has struck me down with his arrows. Their poison infects my spirit. God’s terrors are lined up against me. Don’t I have a right to complain? Is not all human life a struggle? I cannot keep from speaking. I must express my anguish. My bitter soul must complain.”

 

Suffering of this sort seems to call forth some of mankind’s boldest laments. Consider Job’s from chapters 10 and 13: “I am disgusted with my life. Let me complain freely. My bitter soul must complain… As for me, I would speak directly to the Almighty. I want to argue my case with God himself… God might kill me, but I have no other hope. I am going to argue my case with him.”

 

In all sorts of suffering, but in physical suffering in particular, we are made acutely aware of our own mortality. Job says, in chapter 14; “How frail is humanity! How short is life, how full of trouble! We blossom like a flower and then wither. Like a passing shadow, we quickly disappear.”

 

Which brings us to the third and most final lament in scripture, and that is the lament of death.

 

Death

 

For this I’d like us to look at Jesus, gathering with others at the grave of his good friend Lazarus, who’d been dead for several days. Look with me at John chapter 11:33-36.

 

33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34 “Where have you laid him?” he asked.

“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.

35 Jesus wept.

36 Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”

 

This passage suggests Jesus wept with such passion that many of those who saw him were deeply convinced of his deep affection for this man who died. Yet keep in mind that this is moments before Jesus would raise Lazarus from the dead. There’s no reason to believe that Jesus himself did not know he was about to do this. So Jesus wept knowing full well what was about to happen.

 

This is important because the promised resurrection is sometimes wrongly applied AS reason NOT to grieve at the death a loved one who’s died in the Lord.

 

I remember just out of high school, a friend of mine and my sister suddenly died of complications from cancer, a cancer that by all accounts was being contained. It took us by surprise, and my sister, a few years younger than me, took it harder than I did. I remember sitting with her in her bedroom while she cried. I remember reading from first Thessalonians four and telling her plainly that she shouldn’t cry.

 

Jesus weeping at the grave of a friend he’s about to raise to life should put to rest such suggestions. Furthermore, Thessalonians Four does not tell us to refrain from grieving, but rather to grieve in a way that is different from those who have no hope. As Christians, we are not to be denied the natural out-workings of grief. Celebrate their lives. Anticipate resurrection. But by all means, grieve.

 

**

 

It could be said that Jesus demonstrated lament for all three causes of grief: he wept for the death of Lazarus; he wept for Jerusalem because of her sin; and he wept in the garden and from the cross for the pain and suffering he bore in his body. Isaiah said he was a “man of sorrows; acquainted with grief.”

 

Moreover, when Jesus cried from the cross, he quoted the first line of the Psalms most devastating psalm of lament: Psalm 22, the first two verses of which say, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why are you so far away when I groan for help? Every day I call to you, my God, but you do not answer. Every night you hear my voice, but I find no relief.”

 

Which brings us to the what of lament, or exactly what it is that we’re trying to say when we lament. When we lament we express a great many things. But though there are many things we may feel or say, the whole of it, in our lives and in the scriptures, can be summed up in one of two questions: “WHY, GOD?” and “WHERE ARE YOU, GOD?”

 

B) What

 

David exclaims in Psalm 13, “How long, O Lord? How long will you hide your face from me?” Job, in chapter 23, from the darkness of his affliction, says of God, “He is not there…he is hidden.” And in chapter 13, he says, “Why do you hide your face from me?”

 

And this is what we cry too when something in our lives seems to contradict our understanding of God as wise and good. Michael Card points out that “disease and death will always seem inconsistent with God’s loving-kindness.” And in this case, our lament to God is an appeal of faith, in the belief that God must notice the incongruence between our pain and his love.

 

Too often the one who gives voice to this problem, or whose broken body or broken life puts this problem on display, is quarantined from the community, or at best, nudged into the periphery. The suffering one makes us uncomfortable.

 

C.S. Lewis, when he was grieving the death of his wife, spoke of this social exile in A Grief Observed. He says, “An odd byproduct of my loss is that I’m aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet.” Job spoke of this in chapter 19: “My relatives stay far away, and my friends have turned against me. My family is gone, and my close friends have forgotten me.” David echoes this again in the Psalms, in Psalm 33:11: “I am despised by my neighbors – even my friends are afraid to come near me. When they see me on the street, they run the other way.”

 

And finally, Jesus himself dealt with this, as prophesied in Isaiah 53:3: “He was despised and forsaken of men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and like one from whom men hide their faces.”

 

We are tempted, especially in our day, to see grief as a sign of weakness. We are tempted to take offense at, or quickly seek to correct the one who claims to follow God and yet dares to question God with these bold inquiries of WHY and WHERE ARE YOU.

 

But the peculiar community of faith, which we are called by God to be, is not to be like this. We are told in Romans 12:15 to “weep with those who weep” and in Galatians 6:2 to “bear one another’s burdens.” Where the world might seek to remove itself from the embarrassing presence of suffering, we are invited by the spirit of God to enter into suffering, and cry tears with the ones who suffer.

 

Which leads us to the “How” of lament, specifically, that we are meant to lament TOGETHER.

 

C) How

 

It’s been mentioned already that one-third to a half of all the psalms are psalms of lament. Why that matters here is because, for hundreds of years, the psalms were Israel’s communal songbook. It’s what they sang when they worshiped together. And with the coming of Christ it became the Church’s songbook as well. What this means, is that these laments are intended to be sung together. The people of God are to be a people who lament together.

 

This is hard to do. It is especially hard to do well. The best example of how not to do this is found again in the book of Job.

 

Job’s friends come to Job, after receiving word of his loss, to share in his grief. And at first they do something well. They sit with Job in silence for seven days. This became an ancient Jewish custom called sit shiva, which means, literally, to “sit seven.”

 

At the end of these seven days, Job begins to speak “in the bitterness of his heart,” and Job’s friends are scandalized by the brazen honesty with which he addresses God.

 

They try to temper Job’s discontent and to discredit his accusations. They do all they can to correct his theology and silence his complaints. And Job is forced to defend himself and his sorrow to his friends. At the end of the book, it’s Job’s friends whom God reprimands, and of Job God says, “He has spoken rightly of me.”

 

Michael Card says he observes in the book of Job five cycles of lament, in each of which Job’s complaints to God are interrupted by Job’s friends and their defense of God, so that Job is repeatedly distracted from complaining to God and coerced into conversing about God with his friends. Card goes on to point out that, each time Job’s lament is derailed, Job is given to despair.

 

Card goes so far as to say that lament is the polar opposite of despair. Lament keeps Job, and us, “in the ring” with God, as it were; keeps our gaze God-ward, even if God can’t be seen.

 

Job teaches us that when speaking of God, it is better to use the pronoun “You” than the pronoun “He.” It is better to complain to God than to have a conversation about God.

 

Job says to his friends in chapter 13: “As for me, I would speak directly to the Almighty. I want to argue my case with God himself. As for you… if only you could be silent! That’s the wisest thing you could do.”

 

Christians are called to be better friends than Job’s. When the afflicted one asks “Why?” we are to understand it is not a question that is asked of us, so it is not a question that is ours to answer. We are to see another’s grief not as an opportunity to give advice, or to correct theology, or to make a lesson of their pain, but as an invitation to enter into their pain as Christ entered into ours; and if their gaze is not God-ward, to point them to God, inviting them to complain TO God, and then, as much as we are able, to complain to God WITH them.

 

We cannot afford to “brush over” or collectively try to hide our brokenness. We must instead take what opportunity is ours to enter into the pain of those who hurt – to “bear one another’s burdens; to weep with those who weep” – and so share in the suffering of Christ IN SUCH A WAY so as to truly put him on bright display in a dark and hurting world.

 

I believe that if we learn to lament together well, our corporate tears will boldly and incessantly remind the world that something is terribly wrong, and we are in desperate need of one greater than ourselves to put our world to rights.

 

We live now in an age and location that C.S. Lewis calls the Shadowlands: this pitch-black forest where many will build little campfires and live forever in denial and in the dark. But “lament is the polar opposite of denial.” And together we can walk the dimly lit pathway of lament, by which we grieve the darkness of the forest, find our way out of the forest, and weep along the way into the brightness of God.

 

Which brings us finally to the end result, or the fruit, of lament: God found and a story to tell.

 

III. The Fruit of Lament: God Found & A Story to Tell

Daddy’s Face, Daddy’s Chest, and An Empty Grave

 

The first lesson we learn in the world as infants is the lesson we learn in lament: our crying invokes a response. When we lament in God’s direction, though he may seem to take his time, God always responds to the cries of his people.

 

Again, from Card’s A Sacred Sorrow: “The ultimate answer to all laments is not to be found in the specifics of what is lamented for. The true answer for a lament of disease is not ultimately a cure. The real solution for a lament of financial distress is never simply money. The answer is always found in the Presence of God. It is rarely what we ask for, but it is always what we ultimately need.”

 

We can be like Job, who sought God for an answer and got God for an audience. Job wanted to comprehend his suffering and what he got was a companion in his suffering. Through lament, Job found God in the darkness of his pain in such intimacy that at the end of the book he would say to God, “I had only heard about you before, but now I have seen you with my own eyes.”

 

We can be like my boy Eli, when he was only three months old and sleeping on top of the covers between his mom and me. He would often wake abruptly in the middle of the night, screaming with his infant voice and flailing his arms around in the darkness over his head. All I had to do was lean my face into the space near Eli’s writhing little body, and when Eli’s fist would brush up against my cheek, his crying would stop and his body would be calmed. He would know his daddy was there, with him in the dark.

 

In our lament, we are like a little boy in the lap of our Abba God, lovingly invited and given full permission to say whatever we need to say and as loudly as we need to say it; to cry hard and give full voice to our complaints, as toxic as they may be; to beat our clenched fists hard into his chest (because Daddy can take it) until, exhausted, we collapse into the embrace of the one who’s cried with us and been with us all along, held and loved back into the peace we thought was forever gone.

 

We can be like Lazarus, dead in the grave for days because of the love of the one who could’ve saved him but let him die, so that through resurrection, he would have a story SO stunning that he could say, not that he was merely healed from sickness, but that he was RAISED FROM THE DEAD by the one who called him friend.

 

Lament is the path by which we pass through the darkness of the death that is ours to die and into the healing embrace of our Father, who raises the dead and gives his resurrected ones new life and a story to tell.

 

In the second chapter of Ezekiel, the prophet is given a scroll on which is written, “funeral songs, words of sorrow, and pronouncements of doom.” He is then told to eat the scroll, and is surprised to find the bitter words taste like honey in his mouth.

 

We, too, may be surprised by the sweetness of lament.

 

Science has shown that the tears produced by crying expel harmful toxins from our body; hormones associated with high blood pressure, heart problems, and stress. But the best part of lamenting together is the belly laugh that so often follows our times of weeping with someone else. When together we discover that God really is near to the broken hearted; that he doesn’t break bruised reeds; that there really is comfort for those who mourn.

 

Along the way we find that lament is one of the most direct paths to the true praise we know we have lost. For in lamenting God’s absence, we come to recognize his presence; in lamenting the pain of death, we come to the hope of resurrection. Lament in the hands of Jesus becomes more than the path to worship; it is the path of worship, and by it, the Lord is praised.

 

May the Lord be so praised.

 

AMEN.

 

 

 

Categories: General | 1 Comment

Life, the Likely

the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated. so said mark twain upon learning his obituary had been erroneously printed in the new york journal (he hadn’t died, if it must be said), and so say i, upon hearing of distant acquaintances who’ve spoken as though my death is imminent and inevitable.

 

it is not.

 

i can readily understand how one could come to such a dire conclusion by a casual perusal of my recent posts. “death, the possible” two times over, if taken as the whole of all there is to my story, could certainly lead one to believe that i am indeed walking into my grave.

 

but it is not the whole of my story.

 

i have very deliberately sat with the possibility of death longer than what most deem comfortable and perhaps longer than what some deem right. there seem to be a few following my story for whom the only way to approach this thing is to banish all thought of death and bank on me making it through it all unharmed.

 

for some this issues from a genuine hope for me, a severe hatred of all things evil, and a deep faith in the goodwill of God.

 

thank you.

 

but i wonder if it’s not for a few something like the proverbial whistling in the dark – a denial of the death that comes to each of us eventually; a radical discomfort with the thought of God allowing something as unfair and as tragic as the death of a young dad leaving three boys (whose grandpa just died) and a bride (whose dad just died) in a space made emptier and much sadder by his leaving.

 

i don’t know. i do know that it is one thing to read of women who by faith receive back their dead; it is another to read of those who for faith were sawed in two.

 

and i know that to reckon with the possibility of death, the inevitability of it, not just any death, but your own, is something like seeing smoke drifting out from behind the curtain between you and the holy of holies. it is something like knowing the shekinah glory of God is just around the corner.

 

a terrifying, sacred space.

 

a moment altogether outside of time.

 

hold the hallelujahs and cue holy, holy, holy. the writer of that letter to the hebrews, after jesus had revealed the heart of the father, still says we come to a mountain that smokes; that our God is a consuming fire.

 

he is good, but he is not tame.

 

i mention the possibility of death again and again not to be morbid. i’m as eager as anyone to hope for and uphold a more optimistic outcome. i merely aim to pull back the reins on an unnecessary rush through a somber and sacred process, one that can conclude with a glimpse of God so satisfying and strengthening as to make it possible to pass through the valley of the shadow with faith intact.

 

i would not want to rush others through their laments who in lamenting may see God in a way that strengthens faith and endows the ability to suffer well. i pray you would want the same for me.

 

jen and i have cried and grieved and come out the other end with fresh resolve and a sober but hopeful anticipation of the days to come. i have cried twenty minutes with my eight-year-old crying on my lap. together we’ve experienced God in the midst of our grief in ways so intimate and weighty, that we have renewed confidence in the presence and plan and purpose of God in our pain.

 

if there is an open meadow anywhere in this forest through which we travail; an opening in the trees through which we can see the stars in the sky; a space in which our souls can breathe and resolve to walk in, through, and out of the darkness that surrounds us, it will lie along the “dimly lit path” of lament (m card), and nothing calls forth lament like facing down your own death in the light (light?) of leaving the ones you love.

 

so, i think, my point being plain, i will conclude my rant.

 

and i can end here with this: while my work preparing for the possible is not finished, and while i feel the weight of this approaching season now more than ever, i am nonetheless ready to round the corner into a more hopeful tack.

 

for not only is it quite possible i’ll live through this, it’s also most likely that i will.

 

 

Categories: MDS | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

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