A Short Note on Grieving and Celebrating on Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day is a bittersweet day for the Almons. We choose to be open and honest about this; despite the realization that sometimes, for some reason, this fact seems to make some others uncomfortable.

Yes, we acknowledge there’s cause for joy and celebration on this day for moms and motherhood. Yes, indeed celebrate!

But we also acknowledge that some women have been made to feel unloved, or less important, or forgotten, or less of a woman on this day because they are not married or do not have children (whether by choice or chance) on this day.

And we also acknowledge there’s cause for lament, mourning, and grieving on this day. The suffering and pain of miscarriage, infant loss (and yes, even abortion though most churches seem to want to steer as far clear of this as they can), infertility, failed adoption, and losing an older or adult child through estrangement or death, and other sufferings that fail to come to my mind at this time (feel free to acknowledge these in the comments below) can be especially acute on this day. Remember to mourn as well.

So, today I celebrate my wife Christie (C.C.), the mother of my children, for her love and unwavering, tenacious devotion. Today we celebrate our daughter, Damaris, for the gift that she is, and for the Jesus shaped young woman she is becoming. Today we celebrate our mothers, ‘Nana’ Jimmie (my mom) and ‘Bma’ Becky (Christie’s mom), for their love and care in raising us and being devoted grandmothers.

Yes, indeed we celebrate!

But we also grieve our babies who are not with us due to miscarriage – our little Jordan Taylor, Micah Jayden, and Noah Avery – who we never got a chance to know, but deeply love all the same. We hold on to (and celebrate) the hope of the resurrection and the new heavens and new earth when we will be able to hold them in our arms, and not only our hearts. We grieve our failed adoptions, which feel like another kind of miscarriage, particularly Kerioth Cherie who we knew for far too short a time.

There is not a day, on this side of the ‘already but not yet’ Kingdom of God, in which we cannot feel their absence. So, yes, we mourn deeply as well.

And for those churches, that have realized that Mother’s Day is not always ‘happy’ and seek in some way to acknowledge the difference of experience and pain involved for some – we sincerely thank you. But also remember that, unless the church in its everyday life and liturgy has endeavored to lament, mourn, and grieve with those lamenting, mourning, and grieving the other 364 days of the year, such acknowledgements will likely seem hollow and fall on deaf ears. Just like celebrating must extend beyond a ‘special day’, so must the practice of grieving in community with others if it is to be genuine.

Celebrating with those celebrating, and mourning with those mourning are not mutually exclusive. They mix together and are coterminous with each other. We need to learn to do both well at the same time.

To all those celebrating and grieving on this day, have a blessed Mother’s Day.

A litany for Mother’s Day…

In peace let us pray to the Lord.
Lord have mercy

For all the women of God’s church across the face of the earth, who have loved and nurtured others into the faith.
Lord have mercy

For those who are single mothers and struggle to provide for their family.
Lord have mercy

For the poor and widowed whose child has been taken from them because they couldn’t care for them.
Lord have mercy

For those held captive by abuse who fear for their children and their life.
Lord have mercy

For those who are estranged from their chlidren.
Lord have mercy

For those have suffered the loss of a child either through miscarriage, abortion or the premature death of a child.
Lord have mercy

For those who have lost their own mothers and feel the dull ache of their loss.
Lord have mercy

For those who have never, and may never, have the opportunity to have a child.
Lord have mercy

For strength in joy and hope for all women and confidence in God’s care for them.
Lord have mercy

For . . .(names of women you feel led to pray for)
Lord have mercy

For all those who call on you from their hearts.
Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy

 

Lament

The grief of losing a child is all too familiar for Christie and I, having lost three babies to miscarriage. Upon hearing news of friends who have lost children as recently as yesterday, my heart is shattered once again. There are no words. The triune God revealed to us in the person of Jesus and by the Spirit has given us a particular (though neglected) language, grammar, and practice of the Kingdom for these times … lament.

We lament the death of a beloved (a spouse, child, family, friend, etc):

Lamb of God
You take away the sins of the world
Have mercy on us.
Grant us peace.

For the unbearable toil of our sinful world,
We plead for remission.
For the terror of absence from our beloved,
We plead for your comfort.
For the scandalous presence of death in your Creation,
We plead for the resurrection.

Lamb of God
You take away the sins of the world
Have mercy on us.
Grant us peace.

We lament in the aftermath of evil and tragedy:

O Holy One, I can no longer see.
Blinded by tears
that will not cease,
I can only cry out to you
and listen
for your footsteps.

Are you, too, O God,
blinded by tears?
Have you watched this world
pile its hate
onto the faces
of your little ones
until your eyes are so filled with tears
that you cannot see me
waiting for you?
Are you, O God,
deafened by the expletives
of destruction and death?
Have you heard
so many obscenities
that you cannot hear
my moaning?
O God, if you are blind,
can’t you hold out
your hand to me?
If you’re deaf,
can’t you call my name?

How long, O God,
am I to sit
on the plain of blindness?

How long am I to listen
to the profanity
of my enemies
who mock:
“Where is your God now?”

Show them, O my God,
that you remember.
Reach out your hand
and dry my eyes
that I might see
a new beginning.
Open your mouth
and call me by name
that I might know
you remember me.
Claim me that I might
announce in the marketplace
that my God is here.

O my heart,
give thanks!
My God is here even
in the midst of destruction.

We lament in song:

We’ve seen mothers bury sons | And were begging You to come

The broken fill our towns | And the hopeless shout aloud

We cannot wait | We cannot wait | Oh, we cannot wait

When the poor are thrown aside | The sick are left to die

We need Your grace, oh God | Your grace, oh God | We need Your grace

We cannot wait, oh God

Your grace, oh God | We need Your grace

You are here | Your Kingdom come

Rescue us from all we’ve done | Help us move and be the love

Save us now from all we’ve done | We’ve seen mothers bury sons

And we are begging You to come | We are begging You to come

God, come

We pray the Prayer/Cry of the Kingdom (Matthew 6: 9-13 CEB):

Our Father who is in heaven,

uphold the holiness of your name.

Bring in your kingdom

so that your will is done on earth as it’s done in heaven.

Give us the bread we need for today.

Forgive us for the ways we have wronged you,

just as we also forgive those who have wronged us.

And don’t lead us into temptation,

but rescue us from the evil one.

O Holy and Compassionate Father, we cry out to you in the name of your Son, our liberating King Jesus, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, forever and ever. Hear our prayers … heed our laments … heal our hearts! Amen.

Lament, Liturgy, and Living ‘In Between’ (pt 2): What Have We Missed?

Yesterday, I posted some preliminary reflections on the need for lament in the wake of manifestations of evil and suffering like the Aurora shooting. In the wake of this tragedy I suggest that instead of offering words of comfort (however well meaning) up front, instead of offering clichés meant to defend God’s honor or keep other’s faith from failing (ie, ‘God has a greater plan in mind’), and instead of delving into intractable political debate at this time that we…

Stop!

Just stop…

And grieve…

And cry out to Father, Son, and Spirit…

And lament.

To lament is not to offer words of comfort, or to try to solve the problem right now, or even to attempt to come to God’s defense (which raises the question that if God is really as providential and sovereign as people claim, why then is there such a felt need to ‘defend’ God? I really suspect modern apologetics has failed us here). Politicizing the tragedy for political gain is not lament. Delving into a conversation about gun control right now, which in our gun worshiping culture obsessed with violence I think needs to happen at some point, is not lament either.

I want to additionally suggest that many of these things that are not lament still need to be done, but they cannot be done well until we take the time to share the pain of the ‘other’ (incarnation), cry out to God for a creation that is not as it should be, and lament. A couple of people at work today asked me about my weekend. I talked to them about the need for lament. One just looked at me funny … the other was offended and put off. ‘The Lord calls us to rejoice not lament’ they told me … ‘Its not right to question God!’ I wondered if they had ever read the Psalms, or Lamentations, or Romans 12:15.

The language of the cruciform people of our liberating King Jesus, in an ‘in between’ world where the already inaugurated kingdom is still also ‘not yet’, is not politics, programs, or platitudes but first and foremost lament.

So, this leads me to the main question at hand in this post: what have we missed that lament is not our first language … that it seems so many do everything they can to avoid lament?

I offer three suggestions (with help from Stanley Hauerwas)…

First, we have missed the inadequacy of our theodicies both formal and informal.

Hauerwas says in God, Medicine, and Suffering (note: I read this book during my year residency as a CPE/chaplain resident and it impacted me greatly, but I don’t own it myself. Therefore, I am having to pull these quotes from the Theology Forum blog)…

Only after the seventeenth century did the problem of evil become the central challenge to “the coherence and intelligibility of Christian believe per se” . . . That Christians now think the problem of suffering renders their faith in God unintelligible indicates that they now are determined by ways of life that are at odds with their fundamental convictions.

For the early Christians, suffering and evil . . . did not have to be “explained.” Rather, what was required was the means to go on even if the evil could not be “explained”—that is, it was important not to provide a theoretical account of why such evil needed to be in order that certain good results occur, since such an explanation would undercut the necessity of the community capable of absorbing suffering. […]

Apparently it never occurred to the early Christians to question their belief in God or even God’s goodness because they were unjustly suffering for their beliefs. Rather, their faith gave them direction in the face of persecution and general misfortune [quotes Rom 5:1-5]. Suffering was not a metaphysical problem needing a solution but a practical challenge requiring a response. […] (48-52, emphasis mine)

Hauerwas here is pointing out the basic inadequacy of theoretical accounts of evil and suffering and justifications of God in the face of such. In general terms a theodicy is simply an account for why evil and suffering exists. In more academic terms theodicies are attempts at the justification of God in the face of evil and suffering (ie, “If God is love, then why…?).

The study of theodicy can be very fruitful … in perspective.

There are numerous academic theodicies one can formulate as well as numerous ‘folk’ theodicies that come out in response to evil and suffering. ‘God has a better plan in mind’ is an example of a ‘folk’ theodicy. We must remember that theoretical accounts of evil and suffering and theodicies are revealed to be inadequate in the face of the real experience of human suffering and anguish. I have learned both through personal experience (which I will share more of in a subsequent post) and as a hospital chaplain, that no matter how correct we presume our ‘explanations’, defenses, or accounts – in the face of evil and suffering all our theodicies are stripped and laid bare. When revealed to be inadequate and laid bare we are simply left with lament.

Second, we have missed how Christianity actually ‘works’.

Hauerwas comes to our aid again (HT Matt Tebe),

[There] is a deep misunderstanding about how Christianity works. Of course we believe that God is God and we are not and that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit but that this is not a set of propositionsbut is rather embedded in a community of practices that make those beliefs themselves work and give us a community by which we are shaped. Religious belief is not just some kind of primitive metaphysics, but in fact it is a performance just like you’d perform Lear. What people think Christianity is, is that it’s like the text of Lear, rather than the actual production of Lear. It has to be performed for you to understand what Lear is — a drama. You can read it, but unfortunately Christians so often want to make Christianity a text rather than a performance. (emphasis mine)

In the wake of, and under the influence of modernist impulses, much of Western Christianity is proposition or in the words of Hauerwas, ‘text’ oriented. As such, it often seems that what really counts is just saying ‘true’ and ‘correct’ things about God. With the prominence of such propositional thinking, Christian responses to evil, suffering, and tragedies simply reduce to reading from the script with no variation from the ‘text’ … in fact, many people seem to think it is enough to simply quote Bible verses out of context about the ‘joy of the Lord’ and such – as if a Bible verse a day will keep the grief away.

The Christian faith is not simply a repeating of the ‘text’ of the Bible. It is rather like a performance of the story of the Bible – a performance of the drama of our liberating King. Of course this will include propositions, but propositions are not the main thing here. They are instead ‘storied’ and embedded within the faithful performance of the Jesus story and biblical narrative. Propositions without fitting improvisation and faithful performance by a community of practices simply leave us with moral theory and abstraction unable to withstand the weight of the experience of human suffering, grief, and despair. Instead of treating the Christian faith like a ‘text’ we ought to commit ourselves to fitting improvisation and faithful performance – even in the face of evil and suffering. We must recover the cruciform practice of lament.

Third, because of the above we have missed our proper ecclesial response to suffering.

Hauerwas continues from God, Medicine, and Suffering

Historically speaking, Christians have not had a “solution” to the problem of evil. Rather, they have had a community of care that has made it possible for them to absorb the destructive terror of evil that constantly threatens to destroy all human relations (53, emphasis mine)

Hauerwas contends that what is needed is not a ‘solution’ to evil or a theoretical account of suffering but the proper response. And Hauerwas contends that this proper response is in essence an ecclesial response – a response of a community of care (ie, the church) able to absorb suffering and the ‘destructive terror of evil’.

The upshot here I think is at least two fold…

1) That lament itself is the most fitting response, improvisation, and performance of the drama of the Jesus story in the wake of human suffering (ie, it is intensely incarnational).

2) That this response, improvisation, and performance of lament, while personal, must also be communal (ie, that is intensely ecclesial).

Lament is something that we do even when we are alone, but not something we can simply do on our own. I propose that we must recover lament as a cruciform, sacramental practice both as a daily discipline and as a weekly corporate performance. We must learn to lament weekly as incarnational communities of our liberating King Jesus.

Lament is not optional for those of us who claim to be incarnational, missional Christians and participants in the cruciform story of Jesus. We cut ourselves off from the mission of the triune God and the cruciform story of Jesus when, both personally and communally/ecclesially, when we fail to lament as the people of the liberating King. Let me restate: the language of the cruciform people of our liberating King Jesus, in an ‘in between’ world where the already inaugurated kingdom is still also ‘not yet’, is not politics, programs, or platitudes but first and foremost lament. May we seek to take up the practice and performance of lament as a cruciform people of the kingdom in the coming days.

A prayer of lament:

O God, you are our help and strength,
our refuge in the time of trouble.
In you our ancestors trusted;
They trusted and you delivered them.
When we do not know how to pray as we ought,
your very Spirit intercedes for us
with sighs too deep for words.
We plead for the intercession now, Gracious One.

For desolation and destruction are in our streets,
and terror dances before us.
Our hearts faint; our knees tremble;
our bodies quake; all faces grow pale.
Our eyes are spent from weeping
and our stomachs churn.

How long, O Lord, how long
must we endure this devastation?
How long will destruction lay waste at noonday?
Why does violence flourish
while peace is taken prisoner?
Rouse yourself! Do not cast us off in times of trouble.
Come to our help;
redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.

For you are a gracious God
abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.

By the power of the cross,
through which you redeemed the world,
bring to an end hostility
and establish justice in the gate.
For you will gather together your people into that place
where mourning and crying and pain
will be no more,
and tears will be wiped from every eye.
Hasten the day, O God for our salvation.
Accomplish it quickly! Amen.