Biblical Lament and Tahlequah the Orca
Lament is the practice of mourning what is wrong in the world and calling on God to repair it. We lament the sins for which we are responsible, the sins for which we are only indirectly responsible, and, perhaps especially, the sins for which we are not remotely responsible. We lament the things that are broken, whether or not we broke them. Lament, then, is part of repentance—of grieving personal sins and turning away from them.
But it’s also part of grieving the large-scale injustices for which we may be only indirectly complicit, and those losses that have no evident moral failure or culpability attached to them, but which result from living in a fractured world. In other words, lament is a practice that is appropriate whether I am repenting of the lustful thoughts I’ve been nurturing yet again, or whether I am grieving the death of Michael Brown and the structural injustices that have historically privileged white people in America, or whether I am mourning the death of a friend to cancer. Lament is a fitting response in any of these situations.
Tahlequah lamented the loss of her daughter for a thousand miles, off the coast of Seattle, Vancouver, and Victoria, British Columbia, swimming unceasingly through the same cold waters that had held her safe through seventeen months of pregnancy. An orca, Tahlequah pushed her calf, who had lived for less than an hour, through the Pacific Ocean for seventeen days before letting her go—an unprecedented show of mourning that drew international attention.
Tahlequah’s pod of killer whales is endangered; they are dependent on Chinook salmon for food, but Chinook salmon are also endangered, so food is scarce. Tahlequah’s baby wasn’t just her baby; it was her pod’s hope for the future. Now scientists say the seventy-five killer whales in the Salish Sea have only five years to produce offspring if they hope to continue to exist...
Orcas gestate for seventeen months. Tahlequah mourned one day for every month she’d bonded with her calf. Perhaps this is coincidental, but I doubt it. Lament needs structure. Lament needs form. It will come in waves that cannot be entirely predicted. God will seem silent. The suffering must be honored. Relief, when it comes, may be minor, more exhausted than triumphant. And we must expect to be changed by our grief.
The Christmas Gift
A preaching professor at Harvard University tells the story of the year his 5-year-old son was working on an art project in his kindergarten class. It was made of plaster, resembled nothing in particular, but with some paint, sparkle and time in a kiln, it was ready to be wrapped as a gift. He wrapped it himself, and was beside himself with excitement. It would be a gift for his father, one three months in the making.
Early in December, when the child could hardly contain the secret, the last day of school finally came. All the parents arrived for the big Christmas play, and when the students left for home, they were finally allowed to take their ceramic presents home. The professor’s son secured his gift, ran toward his parents, tripped, and fell to the floor. The gift went airborne, and when it landed on the cafeteria floor, the shattering sound stopped all conversations. It was perfectly quiet for a moment, as all involved considered the magnitude of the loss. For a 5-year-old, there had never been a more expensive gift. He crumpled down on the floor next to his broken gift and just started crying.
Both parents rushed to their son, but the father was uncomfortable with the moment. People were watching. His son was crying. He patted the boy on the head and said, “Son, it’s OK – it doesn’t matter.” His wife glared at the great professor. “Oh yes, it matters,” she said to both of her men, “Oh yes, it does matter.” She cradled her son in her arms, rocked him back and forth, and cried with him.
In a few minutes, the crying ceased. “Now,” said the mother, “let’s go home and see what can be made with what’s left.” And so with mother’s magic and a glue gun, they put together from the broken pieces a multi-colored butterfly. Amazingly, the artwork after the tragedy was actually much more beautiful than what it had been in a pre-broken state.
At Christmas, the gift was finally given, and as long as he taught at Harvard, the professor kept the butterfly on his desk. It was a constant reminder that grief is real, and that loss hurts. It was also a reminder that from great loss, great beauty can eventually emerge.
The Death of a Dream
A few years ago, I met Phil Vischer, the creator of VeggieTales. It was sort of surreal hearing the voice of Bob the Tomato in non-animated form, but Phil is as likable as the characters he created. Phil started out with loose change and a God-idea called Big Idea, Inc. The company sold more than fifty million videos and grossed hundreds of millions of dollars, but it all ended with one lawsuit.
As Phil himself said, “Fourteen years’ worth of work flashed before my eyes — the characters, the songs, the impact, the letters from kids all over the world. It all flashed before my eyes, then it all vanished.” Big Idea declared bankruptcy, and the dream died a painful death. That’s when Phil heard a sermon that saved his soul. If God gives you a dream, and the dream comes to life and God shows up in it, and then the dream dies, it may be that God wants to see what is more important to you — the dream or him.
Eric and Kate
Before I really talk with Eric and Kate for the first time, I can already make a rough guess of their status and occupations. Eric is athletic, handsome, in a suit with an open collar; Kate is dressed with the effortless panache that takes a great deal of effort. It’s not hard to picture her on the paths along Boston’s Charles River with the other early-morning runners (a more apt name for her Lycra-clad tribe than “joggers”). He works in finance; she works in marketing—they both live on Beacon Hill, Boston’s neighborhood for young professionals with good jobs, good friends and good prospects.
They began dating, I find out, shortly before Eric started going to church. Eric is effusive in his newly discovered faith—Kate is more reserved. And yet you sense her opening up to the possibility that a loving God knows her and is seeking her, along with a growing wonder at the openness and generosity she has discovered among the followers of Jesus. On Easter Sunday, a few months after we meet, Eric and Kate attend church and go out for brunch with friends. In the middle of the meal, Kate’s head droops, and then her whole body goes limp. An ambulance rushes Kate, unresponsive, to the emergency room of Massachusetts General Hospital. By the time I get Eric’s anguished email to a few Christian friends later that night, she is in the neurological intensive care unit.
On Monday morning, and every morning for the next week, I visit to support Eric and to pray with him as Kate’s chest rises and falls with the mechanical rhythm of the life-support equipment. Her face is expressionless, pale, soft as with sleep. The hospital’s chief of neurology takes over Kate’s case and spends hours with the family and with attending physicians, interns and nurses at Kate’s side. They have arrived at a diagnosis: a rare and undetected genetic condition has made Kate vulnerable, all her life, to a massive stroke. It could have happened years ago; it could have waited years longer.
On Easter Monday, there is still some hope Kate might recover, at least partially. Over the coming days that hope dwindles. She will never open her eyes again. Late one afternoon, with her family around her, the doctors remove the equipment from her body and she is gone. I attend the funeral in one of Boston’s most affluent suburbs—not very different from my own home of Needham. The impeccably dressed mourners arrive in late-model SUVs, and I am reminded of how highly New England’s elite value their control—control over slippery roads, over appearances, over emotions, over relationships. Kate’s roommates give bewildered eulogies, grasping for profundity out of friendships born largely of carefree partying and the small trials of college life. The faith that she had just begun to explore hovers over a service that is hollow with grief.
At the graveside I am surprised to see the hospital’s chief of neurology. He is perhaps sixty years old—he has cared for countless patients, has risen to the very top of his profession at one of the most prestigious medical centers in the world, and yet here he is at this young woman’s grave, his face streaked with tears. He is shorter than I remembered from the hospital. He reaches up to embrace Eric and says, “I’m so sorry we couldn’t save her…Indeed, sometimes suffering is simply the painful payoff of risking love in a broken world. This is the burden of Eric at Kate’s grave, but it is also the burden of the chief of neurology at Mass General Hospital, with all his professional success and skill;
Getting to Do the Things She Loves
Chris Spielman was at one time a paragon of athletic performance. A two-time All-American Linebacker at Ohio State University, and later three-time all pro for the Detroit Lions, Spielman knew what it meant for a human body to function at its highest ability. Which may have made it all the more difficult as he watched his wife Stefanie battle breast cancer for twelve years. As the cancer metastasized throughout her lungs, spine and spinal fluid, it became clear that the end was approaching. Chris was a trained professional athlete. He knew how to discipline himself to achieve greatness, but now he had to tell his four children that their mother would not be with them for much longer.
When the time had come to let them know that the end was near, these are the beautiful words that Chris shared with his children:
I put an arm around each one of them and said, “Mace, Aud, Mommy isn’t going to get any better.
They started crying. They weren’t inconsolable, but the news profoundly affected them. I think, in their hearts, they knew this was coming.
Then I said, “But there is one way she can get better. When she gets to heaven, she’s going to get a whole new body. She’s going to get to do the things that she loves to do. You know. Mom loves to run. She loves to dance. She loves to play. She’ll get to do those things she loves to do, and she won’t ever have to worry about being sick again. That’s something we should be very, very happy about.
Audrey asked, “Is her hair going to grow back? ”
Isn’t that what heaven is all about? Where we will be given new bodies. Where the consequences of injuries, of ageing, of disease will no longer have their way, but rather, where God’s resurrection power will give new life, new bodies, where we get to enjoy Him forever.
How Do You Mourn?
In his thoughtful book, Our Good Crisis: Overcoming Moral Chaos with the Beatitudes, Jonathan K. Dodson asks an important question: how do you mourn the losses in your life:
How do you mourn? Think of a personal sorrow: getting laid off, being betrayed by a friend, experiencing marital conflict, suffering with gnawing loneliness, losing a loved one, or receiving a bad medical report. How did you respond? What did you do with your emotions? Where or to whom did you turn?
When disappointment strikes, many of us try to minimize our sorrow: “It’s not that bad.” “It’s really not that big a deal.” “I’m just waiting on Mr. Right.” Friends chime in with platitudes: “There’s a better job waiting for you.” “Just think, it could have been worse.” They minimize sorrow too. But what about when the pain resurfaces? When it just won’t go away? Pick up the phone? Eat some ice cream? Surf the net?
Taken from Our Good Crisis: Overcoming Moral Chaos with the Beatitudes by Jonathan K. Dodson Copyright (c) 2020 by Jonathan K. Dodson. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Lewis and Loss
Most who know anything at all about the Oxbridge professor C. S. Lewis know that he wrote two books on pain and sorrow. One is more an apologetic on the nature of suffering, The Problem of Pain, and another he wrote after watching his wife, Joy, die of cancer, A Grief Observed. They are two different readings on the same human heart, trying to understand what we do with the wounds of the world.
A caricature of Lewis is portrayed in the film Shadowlands: an academic who had lived his whole life in an ivory tower, limiting his knowledge of sorrow to the theoretical. But the truth is that Lewis had known unbearable pain from his boyhood on: from his mother’s death when he was ten, his horribly lonely adolescent years of schooling in Dickensian places of pedagogical horror, to his wounding in World War I and more.
Because these experiences were true of Lewis, I have been able to learn from him, knowing that he knows. Most of life is autobiographical for all of us—and so it was for Lewis. Growing out of his years of sorrow, especially the ones of watching his mother become sick and die, The Magician’s Nephew tells the tale of a boy named Digory who enters into the world of Narnia on the day of its creation.
Digory has mixed motivations, which is the way it is for all of us. On the one hand, it is for his friend Polly’s sake that he takes up the adventure that leads him into Narnia, sure that she is in distress and wanting to help. But on the other it is because of his mother’s sickness and his own great grief that he is willing to do anything for anyone that might make her better.
Aslan, the lion who is king of the new world of Narnia, draws Digory into a conversation.
In his heart, Digory begins to imagine that he can make a deal with Aslan: I will do this for him if he does this for me. But the closer he gets to the great lion, the more sure he is that no deals can be struck. It is then that he looks up at the lion and sees tears streaming down his tawny face.
Lewis writes that Digory was then “sure that the lion cared more about my mother than I did myself.” And knowing that to be true, he opened his heart to the calling that became his, as Aslan had work for him to do in addressing the heartaches of that very new world. “A children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last,” Lewis once wrote.
Over the years, in the moments when life seems bleakest, when I can only sigh or groan, I have come back again and again to The Magician’s Nephew. Not unlike the insights of Weil and Warfield, Lewis gives us an image that is profoundly rich and wonderfully tender. We need both.
Taken from Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good by Steven Garber, Copyright (c) 2014, pp.15-16. Steven Garber. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Love Turned Inside-Out
In an interview discussing her most recent book Hamnet, the novelist Maggie O’Farrell shares a great analogy on grief. It started with research she needed to do on embroidery, an area in which she was previously unfamiliar. O’Farrell approached a friend with experience on the subject, and as she recounts,
We were looking at this beautiful thing she had made and she turned it over and the back was much more complicated, quite messy,” she says. “In a sense that’s what grief is: you turn love inside out, like a sock or a glove, that’s what you find, isn’t it? Grief is just the other side of love.
Interview: Maggie O’Farrell: Severe Illness Refigures You-It’s Like Passing Through a Fire, Lisa Allardice, The Guardian, March 27, 2021.
Platitudes not Necessary
Writer Harriet Sarnoff Schiff has distilled her pain and tragedy in a book called The Bereaved Parent. When her young son died during an operation to correct a congenital heart malfunction, her clergyman took her aside and said, “I know that this is a painful time for you. But I know that you will get through it all right, because God never sends us more of a burden than we can bear. God only let this happen to you because He knows that you are strong enough to handle it.” She looked at the pastor and drew the logical conclusion. “So,” she said, “if only I were a weaker person, Robbie would still be alive?”
Every pastor and mature Christian learns, sooner or later, that there are times when the best thing we can do for one another is simply to cry together.
Preparing for Change
Change invariably leads to loss, loss to grief, grief to anxiety and, finally, anxiety to hostility. We need therefore, to acknowledge grief. We need to understand and choose to walk with the grieving. We need to lift up the truth that God calls us to change. We are pilgrims on the move and not settlers in the parlor. As I reflect back, I can recall sharing new ideas and watching, feeling and sensing the pillars of the church react with fear. It was my goal to listen to them, encourage and affirm them.
The Purpose of My Life
I once asked my New York Times readers whether they had found purpose in their lives. Thousands wrote back to describe their experiences. One in particular sticks out and illustrates Rohr’s concept of bright sadness and okayness. Greg Sunter from Brisbane, Australia, wrote:
Four years ago, my wife of 21 years passed away as the result of a brain tumor. Her passage from diagnosis to death was less than 6 months. As shocking as that time was, almost as shocking was the sense of personal growth and awakened understanding that has come from the experience for me through reflection and inner work—to a point that I feel almost guilty about how significant my own growth has been as a result of my wife’s death.
In his book A Hidden Wholeness, Parker Palmer writes about the two ways in which our hearts can be broken: the first imagining the heart as shattered and scattered; the second imagining the heart broken open into new capacity, holding more of both our own and the world’s suffering and joy, despair and hope. The image of the heart broken open has become the driving force of my life in the years since my wife’s death. It has become the purpose to my life.
What A Return to God’s Mercy Really Meant
Rembrandt painted the picture of the prodigal son between 1665 and 1667, at the end of his life. As a young painter, he was popular in Amsterdam and successful with commissions to do portraits of all the important people of his day. He was known as arrogant and argumentative, but he participated in the circles of the very rich in society. Gradually, however, his life began to deteriorate:
First he lost a son,
then he lost his first daughter,
then he lost his second daughter,
then he lost his wife.
Then the woman he lived with ended up in a mental hospital,
then he married a second woman who died.
It was a man who experienced immense loneliness in his life that painted this picture. As he lived his overwhelming losses and died many personal deaths, Rembrandt could have become a most bitter, angry, resentful person. Instead he became the one who was finally able to paint one of the most intimate paintings of all time—The Return of the Prodigal Son. This is not the painting he was able to paint when he was young and successful.
No, he was only able to paint the mercy of a blind father when he had lost everything; all of his children but one, two of his wives, all his money, and his good name and popularity. Only after that was he able to paint the mercy of a blind father when he had lost everything: all of his children but one, two of his wives, all his money, and his good name and popularity.
Only after that was he able to paint this picture, and he painted it from a place in himself that knew what God’s mercy was. Somehow his loss and suffering emptied him out to receive fully and deeply the mercy of God. When Vincent van Gogh saw this painting he said, “You can only paint this painting when you have died many deaths.” Rembrandt could do it only because he had died so many deaths that he finally knew what the return to God’s mercy really meant.
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on Loss. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!