I had dinner with my 84 year-old neighbor last week. Recently widowed, he has been alone and fending for himself. When we ran into him walking, I asked him what he might need. Immediately, he said that he had been eating the same thing for weeks and weeks because that is the only thing he knew how to make, and would we be willing to come and show him how to roast a chicken? So my husband and I showed up with ingredients in hand and set out to prepare a meal he could replicate so that he had some variety in his diet.
Not only was my neighbor recently widowed, but he had also had an orthopedic surgery that has left him in quite a bit of pain and without the strength and use of his bones and muscles in the way he once was able to use them. An avid tennis player all throughout his life, the agility that propelled him back and forth across the court had left him. What remained were brittle bones and fraying tendons. He could barely hobble around the night we made him dinner, and he had to keep sitting down because he was in so much pain. Even with two surgeries to correct the years of tennis playing, he still told me that he hoped he would die on the tennis court playing the game he loved.
While I know intellectually that bodies grow old and die, it is hard not to think of the aging process as a kind of betrayal. Those limbs, muscles, bones, and tendons that support and empower throughout life, now become the very instruments of treason as they tear, break, and decay, being worn down by life itself. While we fight the aging process in every conceivable manner, our bodies stay on automatic pilot and simply follow a course that is inevitable. To be sure, there are always those individuals who live long into their 90’s and 100’s—their bodies seemingly impervious to the ravages of aging. We marvel at their longevity, especially at those centenarians who drank pots of coffee, or ate bacon and eggs every day, ignoring their doctor’s warnings of a shortened life span. And yet, one day their bodies will also give them away to death.
But one doesn’t have to be old to experience bodily betrayal. The young succumb to various illnesses just as the old do. We all know those individuals who have died far too soon, the victims of cells gone awry or bodily system failure. And the mystery of ‘premature’ illness or death surely strikes at the confidence of all who appear healthy. Whether old or young, all go to the same place. All came from the dust and all return to the dust.
For my aging neighbor and for all of us who are growing older, our inevitable physical decline and death sometimes leads to despair, especially when that decline inhibits one from living life in the ways that brought engagement and meaning. For all who sorrow and stoop under the weight of life’s cares, lament becomes a constant companion.
Yet, there is an unexpected kinship that comes in befriending lament. Throughout time and history poems, songs, and cries of lament accompany us as faithful companions. Indeed, a great portion of the Hebrew Scriptures comes in the form of lament, both individual and communal lament. The Psalms, as the hymnal of Israel, record the deepest cries of agony, anger, confusion, disorientation, sorrow, grief, and protest. In so doing, they express hope that the God who delivered in the exodus from Egypt, would once again deliver by listening and responding to lament.(1) The prophets of Israel, who cry out in times of exile, present some of the most heart-wrenching cries to God in times of deep sorrow and distress. One can hear the anguish in the cry, “Why has my pain been perpetual and my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Will God indeed be to me like a deceptive stream with water that is unreliable?” (Jeremiah 15:18). In addition, Jeremiah cries out on behalf of the people of Judah: “Harvest is past, summer is ended, and we are not saved…I mourn, dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has not the health of the daughter of my people been restored?” (Jeremiah 8:20-22).
Many face realities in life that feel completely overwhelming: physical decline or illness, death and loss, poverty, hunger, job loss or under-employment, relational disruption. Lament seems the only appropriate response for those who find themselves on the losing end of things, or who through no fault of their own always find themselves in last place or left behind. Lament arises from looking honestly at these realities for what they are, and wishing for something else.
Yet it has been said that “the cry of pain is our deepest acknowledgment that we are not home.” The author continues, “We are divided from our own body; our own deepest desires; our dearest relationships. We are separated and long for utter restoration. It is the cry of pain that initiates the search to ask God, ‘What are you doing?’ It is this element of a lament that has the potential to change the heart.”(2) If this is true, then the overwhelming sorrow or feelings of bitterness over having to deal with what feels like more than one’s share of the harsh yet inevitable realities of life are, in fact, the crucible for real change. The same waters of despair that seek to drown and overwhelm can become the waters of cleansing. And in the midst of lament, the writers of Scripture give witness to the overwhelming compassion of God: “For if [the LORD] causes grief, then He will have compassion according to his abundant lovingkindness.”(3) Perhaps in the one who was described as a man of sorrows, who was acquainted with grief, lament offers a crucible in which we might experience a broader compassion and care. Indeed, his way of sorrow may yet have its own way of transformation.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.