Lately, I’ve found myself getting very nostalgic, remembering past relationships, friends, places I’ve lived, and people I’ve known. And honestly, I don’t know why my remembering and thinking through all of these things in the past has caused more tears than laughter, especially in the area of relationships.
I have found myself lingering on the Facebook profiles of old roommates whom I’ve completely lost touch with inexplicably. I have been reading through old emails and blog posts that remind me of spiritual fathers and mothers with whom disagreements over the past several years have led to very real divisions..
And yesterday, I heard a song that reminded me of a situation a couple of years ago that was incredibly painful for me. It wasn’t really any one’s particular sin or moral failings that ended up causing all the hurt and pain; just the collision of people’s own baggage and immaturity and struggles. As I thought back on it I remembered the false ideal picture of reality I had blindly painted for myself at that time. I remembered the slow, painful process that was this picture being broken down brick by brick over the course of several weeks. I felt again the shadows of the anxiety and pain from that time.
And ironically, seeing the depth of health and blessing that has been brought into my life since then, I felt an even greater depth of sorrow over that time. It was such a strange, paradoxical moment.
I recently read a piece by the President of my seminary in which he talks about some work he did among an Alzheimer care center. The staff that worked directly with the residents were called “Memory Loss Assistants”. They opened each day by telling the resident their own name, and then telling them their story. The President went on to beautifully talk about how our liturgy on Sunday is meant to act as a “Memory Loss Assistant”, by telling us our name and our story.
But not all of this remembrance leads to freedom and joy. Much of it inspires pain that we have no immediate way to handle. Nicholas Wolterstorff, in his incredible essay “Trumpets, Ashes, Tears” writes this:
As we human beings travel through life we experience pain and suffering–in part our own, in part that of others. Some of this pain and suffering is non-innocent suffering; it is punishment for, or the consequence of, moral evil. But not all of it is that. The suffering of the Israelites in the brickyards of Egypt was not the consequence of their sin, nor was the suffering of the Jews in the camps of Auschwitz. Some of the suffering of our world even resists our seeing it as the counterpart of anyone’s sin–the accidental death of a child, for example….
As you and I leave our places of dispersion and travel to our assemblies, we carry with us our experiences of the suffering of ourselves and of the world. But most of us do not experience God in this suffering. Most of us do not see it as an epiphany of God. And so, though we bring our experience of suffering to our assemblies, we do not know what to do with it there. Though praise and confession play large roles in our liturgies, lament plays only a minor role. We skip over those desperate psalms and songs of lament from ancient Israel. And our intercessions, which ought to be grounded in sorrow over the sorrow of the world, give voice at best to muffled cries of pain. The lament, “How long, O Lord?” is scarcely heard. Though we bring our tears of pain with us to our worship, we don’t know how to cry them there. Tears in the assembly are regarded as liturgical failure. I suggest instead that a liturgy without tears is a failure. We must ﬁnd a place for lament.
Amen. We must find a place for lament. But say we make that place. Do we even know how to lament? What does it mean to “learn” how to respond to this sort of pain and remembrance?
I’m starting to think we can’t “learn” how to lament. In fact, I think that “lamenting” is a built-in faculty to our souls. The question is not “how do we lament”? It’s “how do we allow ourselves to respond in lament?” This is so much harder. It’s easy to schedule on your calendar some “lament time”, or read a book, or recite a litany, or go through some motions that we usually associate with lament. But it’s harder to let yourself in the moment sit with something, to honestly assess it, and respond with your full self.
“Nostalgia” comes from some Greek words meaning “to return home”. Sometimes, home hurts. And sometimes, there’s nothing we can do with the hurt. Our hope, though, is in Isaiah 63:9 where, speaking of Israel and God, the Prophet says, “In all their affliction, he was afflicted.” Wolterstorff goes on:
In our afflictions, God is afflicted. Over our suffering, God suffers. Over our mourning, God mourns. Over our weeping, God weeps. I suggest that what the believer sees in beholding the suffering of the world—the thought makes us tremble, I admit—is no less than the suffering of God. What the believer sees when beholding the rabbi from Nazareth on the cross is not only human blood from sword and thorn and nail, but the tears of God over the wounds of the world.
There are some things in our life stories–things I’m being acquainted with so deeply right now–that we have no clue how to handle. There’s nothing we can “do” to fix it or address it. All we can do is be angry and cry and let our haunting “why” linger in the air. And be okay with that. And be confident that we are not alone in the pain.