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. I can’t help but think Tahlequah knows this, and her unparalleled tour of grief was a cry for humans to notice the damage we have done to natural habitats. 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.
A Christian Approach to Suffering
In the summer of 2012, I knelt over the frail shell of a child, my son, strapped to all manner of medical monitoring equipment. His body failing, his frame thinning, the medical staff at Arkansas Children’s Hospital was at a loss. They had no answers, no direction. He was an anomaly, they said, and they’d need to regroup after making him as comfortable as possible. Though the medical community struggled to sort it all out, my faith community seemed to have every answer.
God would provide, one said, because God would respond to my great faith. God was setting up a miracle, another said. God works all things together for good, I was reminded. Platitude, platitude, platitude. I smiled through all of them, even nodded. Silently I wondered, Did all those words amount to anything, well-meaning though they were? Hunched over my son, all those platitudes haunting, my phone rang.
I looked at the screen, read the name. It was a pastor from a more reformed church in my hometown, and as I answered the phone, I wondered what platitude I might hear. There was a purpose in my son’s suffering? Everything has a Kingdom purpose? After an exchange of greetings, I clenched my jaw. Stiffened. Braced myself.
Through the phone, I heard only three words: “I’m so sorry.” There was a pause, and he told me to holler if I needed anything. He said he’d be praying, and that was that. It was a moment of selfless solidarity, a moment in which this man of the cloth didn’t force-feed me anemic answers or sell me some fix-all version of a bright-and-shiny gospel.
Instead, he did the work of Christ himself; he entered into my suffering. And years later, after a long season of healing (both my son’s and my own), his words served as a reminder of the Christian response to suffering—we enter into it together, share in it together, lament with each other.
I suppose it’s natural, our tendency to try to run from suffering, to somehow try to drag other folks from their own. We Christians use the holy tools at our disposal (particularly, the misinterpretation of Scripture) in an attempt to pave a path around suffering. The problem is that’s not the way of Christ. Christ—God with us—entered into the suffering of humanity. He lamented with those who lamented, extended compassion and healing to the hurting. Ultimately, he took on the existential suffering of all mankind as he endured his own suffering on the cross.
The Importance of Lament to Create a Healthy Society
In the book of Lamentations, Jeremiah responds to the tragedy and suffering of the fallen city of Jerusalem. The proper response to a tragedy of this proportion is to offer up a lament. The book begins with the poignant words, “How deserted lies the city, once so full of people!” How can it be? In the historical moment of crisis and destruction, it is proper to express to God our lack of understanding. It is appropriate to lament a situation that is not a fulfillment of God’s plan of shalom for the world. The Septuagint translation of the title of this book is “wailing.” Wailing in Near Eastern culture refers to a funeral dirge—when something has been lost or taken away, in this case the vibrancy of Jerusalem, the proper response is wailing. But the lament Jeremiah offers comes with power.
His wailing helps bring closure to this particular chapter of Israel’s history. Through his lament, Jeremiah embraces a troubled history and he is also able to look toward the future. American history tends to be filled with a sense of triumphalism. America’s greatest moments are found in winning wars, conquering economic difficulties, and inventing new modern conveniences. The story of America is often portrayed as the story of tremendous success. There have been, however, times in American history for which we should recognize the need to lament, following the biblical example that calls us to engage in the painful stories as well as the victorious ones. Celebration without suffering can become dysfunctional and provide a myopic view of God’s work. Our story needs to include lament.
The Journey of Reconciliation is Grounded in the Practice of Lament
The first language of the church in a deeply broken world is not strategy, but prayer. The journey of reconciliation is grounded in a call to see and encounter the rupture of this world so truthfully that we are literally slowed down. We are called to a space where any explanation or action is too easy, too fast, too shallow—a space where the right response can only be a desperate cry directed to God.
We are called to learn the anguished cry of lament. Lament is the cry of Martin Luther King Jr. from his kitchen table in Montgomery after hearing yet another death threat: “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. . . . But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now, I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. Now, I am afraid. . . . I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”
… Lament is not despair. It is not whining. It is not a cry into a void. Lament is a cry directed to God. It is the cry of those who see the truth of the world’s deep wounds and the cost of seeking peace. It is the prayer of those who are deeply disturbed by the way things are. We are enjoined to learn to see and feel what the psalmists see and feel and to join our prayers with theirs. The journey of reconciliation is grounded in the practice of lament.
Taken from Reconciling All Things: A Christian Vision for Justice, Peace and Healing by Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice Copyright (c) 2008 by Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Lament: A Definition and Example
In his faithful memior/treatment of the subject of lament, professor J. Todd Billings defines the practice of lament through his own experience of receiving a diagnosis of Multiple Myloma:
Lament. The English word has some ambiguity, particularly as it relates to the laments in Scripture. It can mean grieving and mourning, such as those weeping for a lost loved one at a funeral; or it can mean protest, a form of petition—seeking to take God to “court” to make one’s case. Both senses of “lament” are important in the Bible, and although they differ, there is also a continuum between the two.
Writers of laments and complaints in the Psalms often seek to make their “case” against God, frequently citing God’s promises in order to complain that God seems to be forgetting his promises. They throw the promises of God back at him.
I say to God, my rock,
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I walk about mournfully
because the enemy oppresses me?”
As with a deadly wound in my body,
my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me continually,
“Where is your God?” (Ps. 42:9–10)
God is the rock and refuge to his people, the One who always remembers Israel. Based on this promise, the psalmist thrusts the promise back to God in protest: “Why have you forgotten me?” Why does God allow the psalmist’s enemies to mock God’s promises, tauntingly saying, “Where is your God?”
When I shared the news of my cancer diagnosis, the response of my friends and family was varied. Sometimes it was lament, in the sense of mourning and grieving. There were many tears. Sometimes those responding quickly moved to remind me of God’s promises and of their commitment to pray for me and my family. And, less often, there were responses in the mode of protest-lament, as in this note from a friend (used with permission).
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk tonight. . . .
I wanted to apologize because what I wanted to say didn’t manage to come out. It’s beautiful just how much better the little girl from your church was able to articulate it. God is bigger than cancer. It’s true. And also, perhaps less faithfully . . . I hate this f or you more than anything. I hate this for your family. I want you to beat the heck out of it. Forgive us all for the stupid things we say and don’t say. I am praying tonight for you and Rachel.
A Time to Lament
In a time of acute crisis, when death sneaks into houses and shops, when you may feel healthy yourself but you may be carrying the virus without knowing it, when every stranger on the street is a threat, when we go around in masks, when churches are shut and people are dying with nobody to pray by their bedside – this is a time for lament.
For admitting we don’t have easy answers. For refusing to use the crisis as a loudspeaker for what we’d been wanting to say in any case. For weeping at the tomb of our friends. For the inarticulate groaning of the Spirit. ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice,’ said Paul, ‘and weep with those who weep.’ Yes, and the world is weeping right now. The initial calling of the Church, first and foremost, is to take our place humbly among the mourners.
Grief, after all, is part of love. Not to grieve, not to lament, is to slam the door on the same place in the innermost heart from which love itself comes.
Whatever Your Need
From the early centuries of the church, the Psalms were memorized and used regularly in Christian worship. Fourth-century bishop Athanasius spoke eloquently about how they are God’s medicine for humans in all different circumstances:
“Whatever your particular need or trouble, from the same book you can select a form of words to fit it, so that you not merely hear and pass on, but learn the way to remedy your ill.” Whether in St. Benedict’s monasteries or John Calvin’s Geneva, a wide range of Christians have experienced the Psalms-in good times and bad-through meditating, praying, and singing. They are ideal for corporate worship as well as personal devotion.