The sky had been stormy for hours already, so the transition to night was difficult to discern. Disoriented, soaked through, and shivering—we waited for direction.
We had started out the day staring at an “x” on a map, a destination we needed to reach. As the day grew long, our surroundings didn’t look right and our little team began to grumble. The leaders of our expedition, my husband and another member of the group we were traveling with, finally confessed they didn’t think the path we had been following all day would take us to our destination.
Once they realized we were on the wrong trajectory they set off to right our course, but this correction took us down a hill that was already steep before the day’s rains had turned the decline into a muddy slide.
What would happen next lay in their hands. I could see the weight of the decision they must make pressing down on them. Would we continue through the brush trying to find the path, darkness barking at us like a hungry dog? Or would we go back the way we came, returning to the marked (but wrong) trail to find a place to camp? How much longer could we go on in this cold, wet terrain—weary as we were? Whatever they decided affected us all.
I squeezed my children’s hands, trying to pass some confidence into their shaking arms. My five-year-old son’s twenty-pound pack made him look like a turtle slumping under a too-heavy shell. My daughter, two years older than him and trying to seem much braver, winced. I knew her ankles hurt but she wouldn’t say anything about it again. She could see the worry in her dad’s eyes.
We’d been hiking for 48 hours, the last few in sloshy boots and packs burdened with rainwater. In those moments when we stood still waiting for a way forward, hope began to wane. Even if we found a suitable place to camp, could we start a fire in this rain? No longer warmed by the constant movement, we shivered in fear. Hunger gnawed at our confidence that everything would be okay.
Maya Angelou said,
“Each of us has the right and the responsibility to assess the roads which lie ahead, and those over which we have traveled, and if the future road looms ominous or unpromising, and the roads back uninviting, then we need to gather our resolve and, carrying only the necessary baggage, step off that road into another direction.”
“If the new choice is also unpalatable, without embarrassment,” she added, “we must be ready to change that as well.”
There are moments when there doesn’t seem to be a path that leads us back to good. We’re past the point of no return, and there is no map laid out for what happens next. Despair weighs us down like the straps of a pack digging into our shoulders.
I am reminded of another scared group huddled amongst the trees, waiting for directions for their next steps. Confused by the path their leader said he would lead them down and exhausted, they went aside to pray. In the garden whose name means “pressed,” he was crushed by the weight of what was to come like the olive crushed to extract the precious oil from its skin.
Jesus knelt in prayer and wrestled with the uphill climb he knew was ahead but committed to pressing on because of the faith he had in what lay on the other side. He knew the future would be hard for those men he loved sleeping under the olive trees: the weight they would carry, the despair that would try to defeat them.
But he knew hope isn’t stagnant.
It requires testing the road ahead and if we lose our way, keeping on.
Never giving in.
Night was coming and those men couldn’t see beyond it.
Yet they followed the One who led them on...
Maybe it’s the desperate hope that somehow the tide of the pandemic will finally turn and we’ll see a return to some semblance of the life we knew before. But I’ve been feeling the need to mark the days lately, to remember.
As summer unofficially ended in the U.S. with Labor Day, I noticed something strange in the air. Lately, each passing day has felt like another bead on the string of weeks woven together in this unending loop we’re in. We’ve rounded this corner half a dozen times now as we mark six months of pandemic life.
As the days have blurred together, we’ve had to be intentional to find things to make important days stand out. We didn’t plan to commemorate Labor Day in any sense. I needed to write, so I stole a few moments away at a nearby lake. I enjoyed the silence of nature but noticed the noise as well: families laughing, children screaming, dogs barking. Many had come out to enjoy the last day of summer.
While picnic blankets were spread farther apart than previous years and masks reminded us of what we’ve lost in recent days, the rhythmic beating of shallow waves against the rocks reminded me of what stays the same. I realized we can still hold onto those things if we’ll stop to notice them.
I stopped writing and called to tell my husband and kids to get ready. We needed to observe this day together. We needed to remember in hope...
Shame was a language I learned early, right along with how to say “please” and “thank you.” There was an unspoken etiquette we learned growing up in the Southern United States. The tea should be sweet. You should address people older than you as “ma’am” and “sir.” I knew the taste of collard greens and banana pudding, as well as the proper use of the phrase, “bless her heart” to camouflage your disdain for someone in a prayer. We were known for our hospitality and kindness. We were always polite and proper—to people’s faces. Appearances mattered, often more than anything else.
I spent a good bit of my childhood being lulled into summer evening bliss by the rhythmic rocking of wooden chairs and the tinkle of the wind chimes hung on a long porch. My sister and I spent days down by the creek, running as fast as we could past our grandpa’s beehives. Our hands were stained from the red clay and black muscadine juice, calloused from shelling peas and stirring pots of beans.
But during those lazy afternoons on the porch, the stories flowed like molasses, sweet and sticky in the summer sun. Oh, that girl down the road the got married a little young. We all knew why. That neighbor had a liking for the bottle, everyone said. Shh, don’t say it too loud, someone might hear you. But wasn’t there a guy in school whose momma just got out of the hospital? You know, for taking too many pills?
If you stepped outside the cultural expectations, you would be the talk of the town. One thing I never learned was the language of grace. We were never taught to talk about all our failings or about the healing we can find when we say it out loud. We didn’t know what life could be like when we admitted our mistakes and asked for help. We just knew to sweep the dark corners of our lives under the rug, afraid someone would find out and whisper about us, too.
It was never said explicitly but the implications were clear. Don’t let people see your weaknesses. Manners matter more than transparency. And, for goodness sake, keep up appearances.
When I started attending church in my teens, I wrapped a new layer of right actions around me like a bullet-proof vest. I knew just what to say and do (and what and who to avoid) to appear like the best Christian. We talked all about a personal relationship with Christ, but what I really gained was another set of standards I needed to uphold.
Years later, after lapses that certainly made me the talk of all the good folks I knew in my church days, I longed for Jesus but I wasn’t so sure about his people. I knew I was a horrible mess and I was hungry for someone that could offer me more than appearances. I’ll never forget the kind people that poured into hurting students in the college ministry where I finally discovered a different dialect. They replaced the language of failure, shame, and secrecy with words like vulnerability, lament, mercy, and restoration...
Surveying the damage, they can’t imagine life again after the storm. They can’t yet see the trees that will grow to replace those pulled up by their roots. They can’t picture anything flourishing again in this place of devastation.
Looking out at the endless sea of cars sitting on the interstate, I felt restless and foolish. What was usually a five-hour drive was now entering hour nine. Stretching my legs at the rest stop, I chatted with others fleeing the coming storm. Like me, they weren’t native to the Gulf Coast; I didn’t know one local person who was heeding the mandatory evacuation.
But when news of the hurricane barreling towards the Mississippi Coast hit the airwaves, the call came. My dad on the other end said, “Either you come now or I’m coming to get you.” The evacuation of everyone below I-10 included the little stilted guesthouse where I lived on the edge of the bayou.
I dutifully packed a few belongings. As I drove away I achingly looked back at the green live oaks tendrils framing my rear view mirror like fingers trying to pull me back. My friends laughed: “Yeah, she’s not from around here.” There were parts of me that wanted to defy my father and stay like everyone else. I believed it was safe to stay but my sensible, fearful side agreed with him. So, I ran.
It was a pattern set early in my life. When the storm clouds started to gather on the horizon, I took the path that promised to take me away from the squall. I don’t know why fear has always been my default. Broken relationships, abandoned dreams, and chances never taken out of fear were evidence of my cut and run tendencies.
I wanted to stay and ride out the storms. But time and time again, I didn’t believe I was strong enough to endure the floods. So, I ran.
That time I evacuated, the storm turned to the east (like most locals assumed it would) and ended up bringing heavy rains directly to my parent’s house, missing the Gulf Coast completely. Downed pines clogged the roads and made it impossible for me to return home for a few more days.
Less than a year later I said “see you later” to the sticky heat of the Gulf to return to Georgia. I lingered a moment, running my hand over the peeling paint of the living room of that little house I loved so deeply in the short time I lived there. I closed the slatted windows that let the salty air waft through the house, the crank creaking as it turned. I glanced at the pond to the right of my porch, hoping I’d see the leathery nose of our friendly neighborhood alligator rising out of the water one last time. The surface was like glass.
Little did I know I wouldn’t see that apartment again, nor many of the places I frequented in town. The next time I visited, I couldn’t even find the road where my first apartment by the beach had been located. Everything around it had been flattened in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and there were no street signs, no landmarks. Only destruction...
Why can’t anyone just sit with me and be sad? Why is it that Christians don’t give each other permission to actually feel what they feel?
The words to my husband came out more forcefully than I had intended. Everything that had been simmering inside for days was boiling over and he was the unfortunate recipient. He had watched me cry for two days straight as we wordlessly carried the knowledge that someone we loved was hanging onto life moment by moment in an intensive care unit 8000 miles away. He stayed silent because he knew I couldn’t handle anymore well-meaning “let’s just trust God” comments by people smiling and saying it was all going to be okay.
The weight of personal anxiety and family tragedies on top of local and global suffering I was carrying was bearing down on me. I can only pretend living in close proximity to suffering doesn’t weigh on me for so long.
I can try to stuff down the stories of my friend who can’t escape her husband’s anger in a society where women have little voice or power. The eyes of the Rohingya woman who told me about escaping her burning village and trekking ten days to the refugee camp where we sat together burn in my mind. The hatred spewed in my social media feeds. The divisions in our world. More and more, my heart was dying to know how to carry the weight of these things to God. Rote answers and brushing it off wasn’t working anymore.
I held my breath when I started reading Aubrey Sampson’s The Louder Song: Listening for Hope in the Midst of Lament. I held onto a prayer that the timing of these words would be a balm to my heart and a lifeline I could hold out to others I knew who were searching for ways to express what they didn’t have the language to yet.
“Not all suffering is the clear result of something. Not all suffering is reasonable,” I read. “In our deepest grief, we don’t lament to find answers. We lament to stop searching for them. We lament to be still in the unanswerable.” I exhaled, a groan too deep for words that I know Jesus received as a prayer. Finally, I found the words of someone not rushing in to fix or explain it all.
Lament is not an expression today’s Christians know. It’s not something we have learned in our churches or feel we have permission to do. But it is written into the fiber of our Scriptures and God knew we needed a language to lead us to healing. That’s exactly what Sampson explores in her book that chronicles not only personal accounts of walking through grief but how God’s word brings us to the place where we see “God sings a louder song than suffering ever could, a song or renewal and restoration.”
“To lament is to speak to the reality of our formless, chaotic suffering and to ask God to fill it with his very good,” explains Sampson. She mixes stories from her own life and others with Scriptural basis for the prayer form of lament, helping us find our way through suffering to restoration.
If you’re like me, you never lingered too much on the parts of Scripture that focus on suffering. We all want to rush on to the good stuff, the victory. But then when we find ourselves in the midst of suffering (of our own or others) we fumble through the words to express the pain without dismissing the reality of it. We need someone to tell us God can handle our doubts, that not rushing on is okay, and that yes—hope will come, but not without walking through the place we find ourselves first.
One aspect of the book I loved and needed to hear was the focus on lamenting with others. We can do so much damage when we see others in pain and do not know how to walk with them through it. Sampson gives us tools to come alongside others in a way that will ultimately allow God’s healing for us all:
“No matter where you live or where you come from, it is within your power to love your neighbor. As you lament, you reveal the compassionate hope of Jesus to a world in need. Don’t rush to fix. Just listen. Learn. Be present. Bear witness. Humbly acknowledge any biases and privilege you might have. Above all, love others as you lament with them and for them.”
Not sure what lament really means? Check out this post by the author, "What Does Lament Mean?"
Have you struggled with how to express find God in the midst of suffering? How have you found your way to hope in those times? Where can you see a need for lament in your life or in our world?
If you have had an experience with this expression of prayer, can you share how lament has helped you on the way to healing?