New Mercies Pt. 1: Learning to Lament in a Culture of Denial

Illuminated Manuscript, Book of Hours, Lamenta...

Illuminated Manuscript, Book of Hours, Lamentation, Walters Manuscript W.168, fol. 34v (Photo credit: Walters Art Museum Illuminated Manuscripts)

New Mercies

A Lenten Study of Lamentations

Session I – March 16, 2011

Learning to Lament in a Culture of Denial

“Sometimes, there are things we haven’t grieved or mourned because we’ve been too busy moving.  Lent is a season that allows us to dig up the things we’ve been hiding, avoiding or denying.  We can live in them and they don’t have to be resolved. Lent is a season where you can just have questions. You don’t have to answer them. You can just let them be what they are.”

— Rob Bell

The above quote is from a first Sunday in Lent 2010 sermon by Rob Bell in which he was responding to parishioners questions about “What is Lent?”, “Why do we observe it?”, and “What does it mean for the modern church?” I start with it because of a couple of similar questions I heard from St. Paul’s members.  I was always taught that Lent is a time of contemplation. Yes, Lamentations is not a traditional choice for Lent, but I believe it is one what will allow us to live our questions and perhaps, if we are ready, to look at some of the things we haven’t resolved.  Lamentations leads us into an exploration of how to grieve.  We are examining how Lamentations speaks to do us as individuals and as a community.  We can experience God’s mercy in this process as we look forward to the resurrection on Easter Sunday.

Some definitions to start:

To Lament:


To express grief for or about; mourn: “lament a death.”

To regret deeply; deplore: “He lamented his thoughtless acts.”

To grieve audibly; wail.

To express sorrow or regret.


A feeling or an expression of grief; a lamentation.

A song or poem expressing deep grief or mourning.



The act of lamenting

A Lament

An act of protest or resistance


It is believed that Lamentations was written in the time period immediately following the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. In the previous 200-250 years Jewish people had been participating in a continuing game of power politics involving six kingdoms and three empires.  It all comes to an end when the Babylonians under King Nebuchadnezzar destroy the Kingdom of Judea and the city of Jerusalem after an 18 month siege.  Egypt promised to come to Judea’s aid, but the help never came.  In the end Jerusalem was in utter ruins, the temple was plundered and over time many thousands of people were taken into captivity.

The Book of Lamentations consists of five chapters and each chapter is a poem the verses of which begin with the successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The Hebrew word for this book is Eikhah , meaning  How. The book of Lamentations is the book of How.  “How did I/we get here?”  “How did this have happened to me/us?”  “How could (insert name here) have left this happened to me/us?”

Eikhah is also the formula for the start of a song of wailing.  The Book of Lamentations is recited annually by Jews on Tisha b’Av, the anniversary of the destruction of both the Jewish Temples.  It is also one of the passages repeated at the “Wailing Wall” in the Old City of Jerusalem the Jews assemble every Friday afternoon to bewail the downfall of the holy city, kissing the stone wall and watering it with their tears.

In the Christian church, we use readings or chantings from the Book of Lamentations in Tenebrae services on Good Friday.  In the Coptic Orthodox Church chapter three is chanted on the twelfth hour of the Good Friday Service.

There are multiple characters that come and go throughout the book.   The first chapter begins with a Narrator, an objective observer that reports on what has happened.

  • Verses 1-4
    • The She in the narration is the personification of Jerusalem.
    • No one comes to the festivals anymore.
  • Verses 5-6
    • The City has been flattened, burned to the ground, pulverized.
    • No one is left except a couple of people sitting in the ashes; most have been hauled away into captivity or sent into exile.
  • Verses 7 – 8
    • How could this have happened?
    • No one came to help.
  • Verse 9
    • First part is the Narrator commenting that no comfort is forthcoming to Jerusalem’s people.

Halfway through Verse 9, the second character enters. She speaks in the first person.

  • Verse 9
    • 2nd part – the Woman speaks
    • Personification of the City
  • Verses 10-11
    • It is a struggle to survive.
    • People are one meal away from death, selling anything they have left to buy food.
  • Verses 12-16
    • Whose fault is this mess?
    • God’s fault –“ God sent…”
    • My fault? – “My sins have been bound into a yoke…”
    • Others fault? – No one rescued me. “No one is near to comfort me…”

The Narrator and Woman finish the chapter.

  • Verse 17
    • Narrator again – the Search and Rescue teams are not coming
  • Verse 18-22
    • Woman finishes chapter – Speaking of suffering, distress and betrayal. “My groans are many and my heart is faint.”

God does not speak here.  There is no mention that Jesus or that any salvation or rescue is coming.  Are you confused about who might be at fault for the destruction detailed here? Is it God’s fault? Is it Her fault? Is it because no one came to the rescue? Depressing? Absolutely! I’ve been here before.  How about you?

Some questions to consider:

  • What does this first chapter say to me/us?
  • Can you relate to this personally?
  • What does this say to or about the culture we live in?
  • Is there something here for me/us?
  • Do we allow ourselves or our culture to voice this kind of pain?
  • What happens if we deny our own or others grief and suffering?
  • Could our laments, personal or corporate, provide a vehicle for transformation of ourselves or our culture?

In our discussion of these questions I shared my own story about how I came to read Lamentations. I grew up in a rural area in which the school district had no kindergarten at the time.  Because I was smart I was allowed to start First Grade even though my birthday was not until November.  I was always the youngest in my class and therefore I was only 17 when I started college.  Despite my parents protests I chose a University in a large city. I had taken an advanced placement English test and did not have to take Freshman English Comp, but I was still required to take an English course for both semesters of my freshman year.  I chose an avant garde course on “Happenings” in theatre and movies.  Six weeks into my freshman year, while attending a movie at an art house theater as part of my course work, I was sexually assaulted.  I TOLD NO ONE.  For years I told no one – not my roommate, not my friends, not my family, not my pastor. I thought it was my fault. I thought I wouldn’t be believed. I thought, since no one came to my rescue, perhaps it wasn’t that important and I should just “get over it.” I got no messages, in the mid-1970’s, that this was something I could or should share. I stuffed it down into the deep and light less places in my soul, rarely looking at it and seldom discussing it.  Such denial came at a price.  In the years following that experience I suffered severe panic attacks and had to leave school for a while.  In my late twenties I was hospitalized for several weeks.  Still, I am often hyper vigilant in theaters. However, I think the most devastating and far-reaching effect of this denial is that I have difficulty trusting men in a variety of settings and many levels, but especially at work.  Thirty years later I was sharing this story with a pastor friend of mine and he looked over his coffee and said, “You need to read Lamentations.”

“I find this first chapter strangely comforting,” said another person during our discussion.  “I know what is coming,” he said. This is setting the stage for Nehemiah and the rebuilding of Jerusalem. Sometimes you have to hit bottom before you can climb up again.

Consider death. We don’t know what to do with it.  Cosmetic surgery is a multi-billion dollar industry in this country.  We want to deny that we are getting older. We want to deny that we die.  We don’t know how to grieve the fact that we are aging.

When things are not properly lamented we drag all this stuff around. If we don’t speak of our suffering or address whatever is the source of our pain, it will go somewhere and it will express itself somehow. The power of Lament is that it speaks what which the culture, or our workplace, or our marriage or our family system would love to repress or push to the edge.

Judith Lewis Herman, Harvard professor and psychiatrist who coined the term “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” has focused much of her career on understanding and treating incest and traumatic stress.  According to Herman, the typical response to atrocity or trauma is to banish it from consciousness. I did that and it worked for a little while. How many would have been better off if someone would have said, “We are going to talk about that?”   What differences would that make in our lives, in our families, in our workplaces, in our churches, in our nation?

Laments expose the dangerous truths. In the first chapter, what is the Woman’s most pressing need?  She wants to be heard, she wants someone to listen.  “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?” (Verse 12)  How can you walk by and not hear her?  Do we do this sometimes?

In this country 1/3 of all African-American males between the ages of 20-29 are in prison or on parole.  More than half (65%) of African-American children ages 18 and under live in one parent households and of those 90% of those have no contact with their father.  There is deep grief here.  If no one listens, what happens?  Grief moves in, as it did for me, or it can move out to anger.  When I am awakened  at night to rattling windows as a car rolls slowly by blaring rap music, I am hearing a lament.  A generation is saying “NO ONE IS LISTENING to our PAIN.”  That sadness is turning to anger.

Our ability to listen to pain of another is proportional to how thoroughly you’ve dealt with your own pain.  This happens on multiple levels. In our discussion, another person shared how he was oblivious to the pain around 9/11.  As an older teen he used that period of mourning and its extended television coverage as an excuse to stay out late and play pool.  Now as a young adult he is looking back at the incident and seeing how he denied the sorrow, how he could not or would not listen to the suffering and considering what that might have cost him.

Perhaps there are painful remnants from our nation’s history that remain with us today because we’ve failed to allow their full lamentation. What has it cost our country to have forced this pain and suffering to dark and light less places on the outer edges of our national consciousness? What has it cost us as a nation and as individuals to deny that deep pain remains?  Maybe that is why we cannot hear what is being said today.  Maybe that is what we cannot relate when Native Americans say, “Please don’t use me as a mascot.” Can we learn to name the grief?

When we are sad and someone says, “Wow that must have been so hard” it is like water in the desert. We feel so much better even though no solutions were offered.  We just wanted someone to BE with us, to HEAR us.

Kathleen O’Connor, author of Lamentations and the Tears of World, writes “Lamentations names what is wrong. What is out-of-order in God’s world, what keeps human beings from thriving in all their creative potential? Simple acts of lament expose these conditions, name them and open them to grief and anger to make them visible for remedy.”  Through grief and anger Lamentations protests conditions that prevent human thriving.  This resistance may finally prepare the way for healing. It prepares us for God’s mercy. “I know what is coming.”

I would also argue that being with and hearing the pain and loss of others helps us to deal with out own pain, grief and suffering.  We are drawn to the news stories of the tsunami and earthquake survivors and for some of us we are drawn to the stories of break-ups and loss by celebrities.  When we get in touch with our own suffering and pain we are then able to better be with others in theirs. And so the circle, the spiral continues.

Irish writer and philosopher Peter Rollins describes it this way in a 2008 blog post, “Contrary to what people often think, the key to easing people’s suffering is not in offering some insidious theodicy but in allowing a place for people to mourn and to meet others who know what it is to have been burned by that black sun. By providing a public …location where we are able to symbolize our mourning… This is not about providing an answer but rather offering a site where we can speak our suffering. This may seem a little depressing, but such spaces are really sites of liberation and light.”  Can our churches be this place?  A woman in our group mentioned that she had a co-worker who says, “I don’t do funerals.”  To which another in our group responded, “That person doesn’t know how to live.”  In our St Paul congregation we have several women who had lost spouses and children in the last six months. Can we be a place where they can come without fear of being overwhelmed? Can we be a place of liberation and light for them?

This week, this Lent, is there anything you need to grieve? Is there something that needs to be spoken? Is there someone with whom you need to BE or to listen?

Next week – March 23 – Lamentations Chapter 2 – Who Can Heal Us?

Published in: on March 23, 2011 at 4:14 pm  Comments (4)  
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New Mercies

A Lenten Study of Lamentations

Lamentations is a both a book of loss and a cry for comfort and hope. Its pages acknowledge pain, suffering, grief and falling short and give us a message of hope, compassion, and justice that God speaks even in times when God seems silent.

5 sessions

Wednesday Evenings

March 16 – April 13, 2011


6:00 pm – beginning with a simple meal of Soup & Bread and ending with prayer


St. Paul Episcopal Church

Seneca & Susquehanna Streets



Come for one session or come for all




“I believe that the Bible alone is the answer to all our questions and that to receive an answer from it, we only need to ask with persistence and a little courage. One cannot read the bible as we read other books.  One must be ready to really ask questions… Only when we wait expectantly before it for the answer does it give it to us.” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer


Published in: on March 15, 2011 at 1:36 pm  Comments (1)