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 pregnancy6. 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.
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.
Turning the Other Cheek
They see in it an unattainable ideal. How can they develop this heart-righteousness, turn the other cheek, love their enemies? It is impossible. Exactly! In this sense, the Sermon is ‘Mosissimus Moses’ (Luther’s expression); ‘It is Moses quadrupled, Moses multiplied to the highest degree’, because it is a law of inward righteousness which no child of Adam can possibly obey.
…We need, then, to observe that the Christian life, according to Jesus, is not all joy and laughter. Some Christians seem to imagine that, especially if they are filled with the Spirit, they must wear a perpetual grin on their face and be continuously boisterous and bubbly. How unbiblical can one become? No. In Luke’s version of the Sermon Jesus added to this beatitude a solemn woe: ‘Woe to you that laugh now.’ The truth is that there are such things as Christian tears, and too few of us ever weep them.
Taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7: Christian Counter-Culture) by John R.W. Stott Copyright (c) 1985 by John R.W. Stott. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
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
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.