It is good for a man
that he bear
the yoke in his youth (Lamentations 3:27).
…the yoke of reproach, regret…
Let him sit alone
when it is laid on him;
let him put his mouth in the dust—
there may yet be hope;
let him give his cheek to the one who strikes,
and let him be filled with insults (verses 28-30).
…even the yoke of affliction from God…
He has made my teeth
grind on gravel,
and made me cower in ashes;
my soul is bereft of peace;
I have forgotten what happiness is;
so I say, “My endurance has perished;
so has my hope from the Lord” (verses 16-18).
If that sounds like unhappy news to you who are in your youth, take it from one who is old: better to bear the yoke sooner than later.
Christians do many things well – mourning is not one of them. In centuries and millennia past perhaps our forbears did it better, but in this age, I rarely encounter anyone who even understands the concept. There’s a propensity to skip to the hope too soon, not because the hope is so dear, but because the affliction and loss are so unpleasant. And of course, I stand accused and convicted – of the afflictions and losses of six decades, I can’t think of even one that I’ve mourned thoroughly.
In case you were wondering, yes, we’re still in the Receive/Reject/Redeem “Three R’s” series, and the miniseries within: Redeeming Language. There’s a certain type of language begging for redemption, and seeing virtually none, because virtually no one sees the need of redeeming it. The language of lament is a foreign tongue; it breaks out for a moment or two in times of deep distress, surprising even the speaker, but heard through the filter of the mind the tongue is loathe to utter its intonations. As people of God, indwelt by the Holy Spirit and having the mind of Christ, ours is the task of making the human mind and tongue obedient to the truth, redeeming the language of lament.
“Buck-up and move on” is the message we perceive. It’s not universally bad advice – if you’re moving on from a skinned knee or a stubbed toe, it’ll do just fine. Moving up the scale of affliction, though, it’ll run out of steam before long, mostly because bucking-up isn’t the first part of moving on – mourning is. Unmourned losses accumulate; unrecognized afflictions pile up in dimly lit areas of the consciousness. Bucking-up builds rickety fences around them. You know they want out, want to be expressed, but they’re dreadful somehow. Reluctant as we are to enter into mourning, moving on doesn’t happen without it.
Keying on the homework assignment Andrew gave us in the sermon this past Sunday, I’ll issue an invitation to you, Church: Write out your lament. Over the past fifty years, my ears have developed a talent for not hearing homework assignments, but this one got me, and I believe it would be healthy and helpful for all of us. Identify a significant loss in your history; describe what you had before; describe what happened to cause the loss; describe the reality brought about by the loss. Rather than leaving it solely in the realm of reflective thought, I hope you’ll do something tangible, involving your body. Two bits of friendly advice: first, don’t take on your biggest loss first, and second, don’t skip to the hope too soon.
The Bible book of Lamentations is organized mourning. Andrew called attention to the fact that its poems are arranged in acrostic form – several acrostic forms, actually. There was so much to be lamented in the loss of the Lord’s favor that it easily populated all the letters of the Hebrew alphabet many times over. It provided structure for the mourning – countless generations have understood the glory of what was through the laments handed down to them. If we ourselves consider putting together a lament, we might be intimidated by the biblical example; on the other hand, we might be surprised at how naturally it flows.
And how to start? Very likely, this would be your first recognizable lament. Well, there is this: for three weeks we’ve been considering the importance of regaining the language of Love as our first language, displacing the languages of Information and Persuasion as our go-to’s. Sure, in some venues the language of Love is met with curious stares, but my firmly held belief is that it has more place than we’re giving it. So let me ask: Whenever the language of lament has burst forth from you, bidden or unbidden, which of the three languages – Love, Information, or Persuasion – were you speaking? To whom were you speaking it? What sort of answers did you expect to get? My guess, informed by some of those same outbursts (unbidden, every one), is that you were speaking the language of Love. Something, or someone, or some reality was loved… and lost. Hence the need for lament. The language of lament, you see, is a dialect within the language of Love.
Not to be confused with the language of complaint, the language of lament takes a clear-eyed look at What Was, What Happened, and waits on the Lord for the What Now. As a young man, I was convinced I didn’t have time to wait for the Lord. I moved on, whether I had bucked-up or not, justifying my actions on the lie that I wouldn’t be able to mourn correctly until I was much older. Well, “much older” has well and thoroughly arrived and stands staring at a backlog of unmourned losses, wagging a bony finger, saying it would’ve been good to bear the yoke in my youth, however well or poorly I spoke the language of lament at the time.
If you’re expecting this letter to bounce back, I can tell you now it won’t be. Scroll all you want; it won’t happen today. The leading I have from the Lord is to drop you right here, Church. My prayer is, in this moment, you are compelled to become fluent in the language of lament, whatever age you happen to be.
Mercy in the Mourning,