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?
The quiet is palpable but not heavy. In the way the warmth of a fire eases down into your very bones, the quiet here is the bearer of a strange kind of comfort. It isn’t the absence of sound. Every tiny noise reverberates off the white stone arches of the abbey. A monk coughs in the expanse between prayers. The squeaking of the wooden pews betrays the stillness. But what is found here is far deeper than the absence of sound.
“Silence is spoken here,” say the signs on the silent-dining-room tables. That’s it. The silence speaks. The Cistercian brothers that live in community in this monastery have carefully crafted and maintained it. They are the curators of silence. It’s what I come here time and time again to find. The silence has been built into something tangible and it speaks to your soul if you let it.
It’s never quiet here. The buildings fit together in this city like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The construction noise from the high-rise going up next to us is endless. Bang. Steel beams drop from a truck at one am. The next day we see more bricks have been added and are amazed that another building could be squeezed into that space. Millions of lives are tangled up together like the electric wires that supply the sometimes-sporadic power to the city. I forget what quiet sounds like in a place where noise creeps into every room like the mosquitoes that craftily find their way through the holes in the nets.
I miss quiet walks in the park, the way a tree can speak to me of the Creator. I miss hearing the silence speak. The clanging of construction, honking cars, ringing rickshaw bells, and barking dogs steal the quiet. They are the thieves of silence. The noise can drown out the sounds of your prayers if you let it.
I didn’t notice it until the third day I was here. The weekend was a blur of activity but when the house was finally quiet for one morning, four small children finally dropped off at school, I hear it...
It’s true what mother’s say about forgetting the pain of childbirth. My births are now seven and nine and a half years ago and I have to strain to remember the details. Giving birth is a moment we spend countless hours preparing for. It is the culmination of reading and birthing classes, showers, reordering our lives and homes, taking growing baby bump photos, and long months of waiting.
Then suddenly the moment has passed and the miracle and the pain all start fading into memory instantly. There’s a new life to care for. There’s not time to ruminate on the glories of childbirth. Just moments ago we screamed, “I can’t do this!” in agony but somehow, like millions of mothers before us, we did.
This time of year we talk a lot about birth. We read and sing about it, talk about it at our parties, reorder our lives and homes with decorations celebrating it, look at photos and miniatures of the place of the birth, and spend the long month of Advent waiting for the day of birth to arrive. Then suddenly the moment has passed and the miracle and the pain all start fading into memory instantly. We spend a month pregnant with the anticipation of the Savior’s imminent arrival.
There’s not time to ruminate on the glories of his actual coming. Life rages on and we forget the incarnation means God actually lived among us, that Jesus didn’t just go from angelic baby in a manger to resurrection. In between he cried out to the father in agony “I can’t do this!” and asked for the cup to pass from him. He lived in the pain with us. He still does.
Reading Lauren Winner’s Wearing God right before Advent this year had me thinking more literally than metaphorically about birth. I squirmed uncomfortably, as I am sure others do when they hear the graphic details of other’s birth stories, when I imagined Jesus’ birth truly for the first time in my life: “As the contractions pick up, Jesus would sense that he was being squeezed. His head helps stretch Mary’s cervix open.”
“Do I really want a God with a body?” Winner asks. “Would I prefer a God who lives as I try to live—mostly in my head?” It’s easier to hold Jesus at arm’s length, to live a sanitized version of Christmas. If he peacefully slipped into the world one silent night long ago, I can relegate him to the corners of my life, packed away with the manger scenes to be brought out once a year...
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