Heartbreak: Listening to Lament

by Christine Sine
Lament - John Hain (pb

Lament by John Hain (used with permission)

By Keith Anderson

The great Canadian songwriter and rock singer Leonard Cohen said it best for me in his song called “Anthem.” There’s a line that echoes in my soul: “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”[i] I was not raised to think like that. In my world, scars were a sign of mistakes, failures or accidents. They were to be avoided in our Scandinavian family. If exposed, they were quickly subdued and forgotten. But the cracks aren’t magically sealed and the scars aren’t all healed. We are not just some of us reclamation projects; we are all in need of grace because we all bump up against life in the night. Unless we are dishonest with ourselves, we all face the limitations of pain, suffering, scars and failure. Now this Canadian musical legend tells me that light comes through the cracks? Through the scars?

Listening is the heart of Christian spirituality. But to listen in the silence? To listen in the darkness? To listen and hear only the sound of your pain, fear or loneliness? Now it sounds like a contradiction or a jarring juxtaposition of ideas. How does God speak to us in the darkness? What does it mean to listen when there is only echoing silence, hollow emptiness? A young slave girl called it “The day life turned into nothing this world could fix.”[ii]

Surprised by Lament

It was a particularly hot July day in Boston. I was taking classes for professional development in a program that attracted mostly Roman Catholic educators and priests. I am an ordained American Baptist who spends time in Anglican worship these days.

I had been invited to attend the daily worship time on that Wednesday in July. To Gasson Hall I went and joined a group of about seventy people from around the world: the Philippines, El Salvador, Northern Ireland, North America, Australia and England. In the opening words I was invited to worship in a way I had ever experienced in any other setting. I was asked to join sisters and brothers of faith to cry out to God in the language of lament. To complain to God about the condition of the world. To decry the violence and shameful oppression under which some in that very room lived. To complain that the universe was not as it should be but instead broken, askew, distorted. To incriminate God for silence, inaction and distance. I held back and remained detached from the prayers of lament because I did not know the language of lament. It was not part of the conservative theology or spiritual practices of my past. But though I had no experience with the language, I knew the experience well. I had lived long enough to know the cry of lament may be more the rule than the exception. What some call shalom shattered is not just a rare event; it is the common story of our humanity.

The language of lament is faithful speech addressed authentically to the listening God. It is perhaps the most unexpected source of formation in biblical spirituality. The language includes words of pain, horror, loss, grief, unmitigated suffering and inexplicable agony over the suffering and violence that occurs in the world; it is most dramatic, however, because it complains that God allows such suffering and violence to occur. It incriminates God in our suffering: God knows that we are in pain, and God chooses silence.

The spirituality of lament is not a place most expect to hear the thunder of God’s voice. It is a spirituality of “the terribleness of God,” as a friend once said. Why does God allow such pain? Why doesn’t God intervene to stop the slaughter of innocents in the Congo or Afghanistan or Angola? The poets know the language of lament and speak of human suffering as only they can. The words of Aeschylus were spoken by Robert Kennedy at the death of Martin Luther King Jr., only to be etched into his own gravestone five years later. The inscription echoes the words of any soul who has known grief.

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop

upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will,

comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.[iii]

Like the words of Aeschylus, Psalm 80:4-6 is a cry of unmitigated agony. The writer isn’t drafting an intellectual discussion of pain; this writer, one has said, “has been made to eat and drink sorrow.”[iv]

O Lord God of hosts,

how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?

You have fed them with the bread of tears,

and given them tears to drink in full measure.

You make us the scorn of our neighbors;

our enemies laugh among themselves.

That’s the spirituality of lament. “Pain . . . falls drop by drop . . . until . . . comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” Listening doesn’t promise to be a satisfying experience. Sometimes we listen in utter darkness. Sometimes we listen in the pain of unimaginable grief. Sometimes the only honest act of faith is to sit in the face of the worst that life can do to us. Why then listen at all?

Dan Allender wrote once that “Christians seldom sing in the minor key. We fear the somber; we seem to hold sorrow in low-esteem. We seem predisposed to fear lament as a quick slide into doubt and despair; failing to see that doubt and despair are the dark soil that is necessary to grow confidence and joy.”[v] Instead we seem ready to embrace the words in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times if one only remembers to turn on the light.”[vi] There’s a sense of optimism in that sentiment, but lament is a ferocious act of faith in the moments when one cannot even find the light.

Pain, sorrow, suffering, sadness and failure all separate us from one another. They move us into a place of isolation. Lament brings us together in a community of tears. In my early years in pastoral ministry I was assigned each week a list of “shut-ins” to go and visit. Shut-ins were shut out of the life of community in the church. Unable to participate in worship, fellowship or practices of community, they were marginalized by their pain unless the church or community remembered them and cared for them in their isolation. Something happens when pain is shouted to God in lament by a community of tears.

Today’s post is taken from chapter 7, “Heartbreak: Listening to Lament”” of Keith Anderson’s book The Spirituality of Listening. 

[i]Leonard Cohen, “Anthem,” The Future (Columbia, 1992). See lyrics at www.metrolyrics.com/anthem-lyrics-leonard-cohen.html.

[ii]Sue Monk Kidd, The Invention of Wings (London: Headline Publishing Group, 2014), 14.

[iii]See www.bartleby.com/73/1995.html.

[iv]Dan Allender, “The Hidden Hope of Lament,” Mars Hill Review (1994): 25-38.


[vi]Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, dir. Alfonso Cuaròn (Warner Bros., 2004).

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Lisa de Jong June 14, 2016 - 8:01 pm

Incredibly beautifully written. Wonderful! Thank you.

dw June 16, 2016 - 8:11 pm

I happen to be reading the book of Job. This post gave me an “Aha!” – Job is living out the spirituality of lament and his friends can’t handle the darkness of it, they can’t stay “in community” with him. The desire I have heard more than any other, in the congregations I have been involved with anyway , is one for deeper community. Maybe what keeps us from it is our unwillingness to share the darkness of lament. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

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