Tuesday, May 21, 2013
Learning to Lament: lessons from Eugene Peterson and a coffinmaker
The Coffinmaker from Dan McComb on Vimeo.
The spate of tragedies this spring has me pondering the role of lament in our lives and in our worship. We modern, western folks are not so good at lamentation. In his book, Leap Over A Wall, Eugene Peterson writes that the ancients understood that in order to truly embrace life we must embrace death. One of the ways we embrace the reality of death is through thoughtful lamentation. Far from glorifying death, lamentation declares that life matters.
Our culture promotes "getting over" grief as quickly as possible. Through denial or distraction we attempt to deny the reality of death. Peterson writes, "The societal affect is widespread addiction and depression. Addiction is our most popular method of denying death. Addiction, ranging from workaholism to alcoholism (and I would add addiction to entertainment), preocuppies us, drugs us, with the impersonal so that we lose the capacity to deal with the personal details and intimate feelings of loss."
In contrast to this, David responds to the death of his best friend Jonathan, and even his enemy Saul, by facing their deaths head on. At the news of their deaths, David took the time to write a sweeping lament in their honor (found in 2 Samuel 1:19-27). It's notable that in his grief David took the time to give expression to his grief in poem. Writing a poem takes time. Writing a poem is not the best way to "get over" one's pain quickly. Writing a poem recognizes that there may not be any "getting over it" in the way so many people foolhardily talk about the grieving process. Peterson writes that slow, purposeful lament "notices and attends, savors and delights - details, images, relationships. Pain entered into, accepted, and owned can become poetry. It's no less painful, but it's no longer ugly."
Death is a part of our human story. Not the whole story mind you, but part of the story nonetheless. We will not be fully ourselves by avoiding the topic. Peterson concludes, "Lament is a bridge from life to death to life. A failure to lament is a failure to connect. If we refuse to learn Davidic lamentation, our lives fragment into episodes and anecdotes, a succession of jerky starts and gossipy cul-de-sacs. But we're in a story in which everything eventually comes together, a narrative in which all the puzzling parts finally fit, about which years later we exclaim, 'Oh, so that's what that meant!' But being in a story means that we mustn't attempt to get ahead of the plot - skip the hard parts, erase the painful parts, detour the disappointments. Lament - making the most of our loss without getting bogged down in it - is a primary way of staying in the story. God is telling this story, remember. It's a large, capacious story. He doesn't look kindly on our editorial deletions. But he delights in our poetry."
What are ways that you practice lamentation? Have you ever written a song for the dead? I was impressed by the story of the coffin maker above. Poetry can take so many forms.
By the way, Peterson's book is worth picking up even if all you read is the chapter on grief. You can get it at the new FaithVillage bookstore.