2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27 ‘Lamenting…’
Reflection by Anne Stewart
Here’s another Old Testament doosey! Maybe some context will help us get started: David had just learned of the death of King Saul who was also his father-in-law. Saul had died in battle alongside Saul’s son Jonathan, who was a very close friend of David’s, and, of course, also his brother-in-law. David had had a somewhat bumpy relationship with Saul. They didn’t always see eye to eye even before they became related by David’s marriage to Saul’s daughter Michal. It all started well and David was initially much loved by Saul, but David’s competence and good nature soon had Saul mired in jealousy. This developed into an intense rivalry between them and when Saul turned on David, Jonathan tried to reconcile them but it was only briefly successful. It must have got pretty bad because at one point Saul even plotted to have David murdered. So, when David got the news that both Saul and Jonathan had died in battle David’s grief over the loss of Jonathan was not unexpected. But this genuine lament, this heart-rendering outpouring of grief, we heard this morning was over the loss of Saul and this reaction was most certainly not expected.
David expresses his grief in poetry. Poetry invites a response rather than simply explaining something. Poetry is not meant to be read as we might read a grocery list, for example, it is to be rested into with an openness to how it might bring about a reaction or response in the listener, or reader. Thus, there is an invitation in this lament for all people to pay attention to their own grieving. David’s unexpected big-hearted response also shines a light on his humility and compassion. He might have had an uneasy relationship with Saul but even so he is devastated at the fall of this mighty man and what has been lost through this.
It is the ‘what has been lost’ element that I want to give some focus to this morning. One of the most devastating aspects of grief is the fact, the unchangeable fact, that death brings with it a whole host of things that are lost; we can call these the ‘never agains’. We can never again have a chat with the deceased. They will never again be part of the things we celebrate. We can never again ask their opinion or advice. We can never again enjoy their humour or hold them. There is this long long list of ‘never agains’ to be negotiated, and that never goes away. And nobody, not even the government (who are meant to fix everything) can do a darned thing about it. This is surely the hardest brick wall we ever have to come up against and one that, to some extent, we will always be defeated by.
In 1983 Nick Wolterstorff who is/was a Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale Divinity School, lost a son prematurely in a climbing accident. In time, he wrote a book of reflections about this experience, called Lament for a Son. It’s an excellent little book in which he names the pain of loss in a very real way. He says this about the ‘never agains’ of loss: “There’s a hole in the world now. In the place where he was, there’s now just nothing. A centre, like no other, of memory and hope and knowledge and affection which once inhabited this earth is gone. Only a gap remains. A perspective in this world unique in this world which once moved about within this world has been rubbed out. Only a void is left. There’s nobody now who saw just what he saw, knows what he knew, remembers what he remembered, loves what he loved. A person, an irreplaceable person, is gone. Never again will anyone inhabit the world the way he did. Questions I have can never now get answers. The world is emptier. My son is gone. Only a hole remains, a void, a gap, never to be filled.”
That man gets lament! I know from my own experience that this is exactly how it feels – that gap that has to be negotiated. It’s there whether the deceased is 9 or 90 always there is a gap. Martin and I had the experience a few years back of attending a funeral in another town. The deceased was in his mid-90’s, and we had both known him in different contexts. He was a retired farmer, a real character, and a fine man. The funeral was huge as they generally are around farming folk. We grew increasingly uncomfortable as the minister talked about death at such as age, as nothing really, at all. As though he was just sleeping, or in a room next door, or it was simply a natural thing at his age. Sadly, it was left to the family to express the grief, to speak of the gap left by the loss of someone who had always been there for them. Always there and now never again. Of course, we know none of us can be here forever, but the reality is another thing again. It sucks, death sucks – always!!!
There is a curious thing in the nature of death. In a sense it is a natural event, we know we all have to face it, that’s the system we live under. I remember a lecturer I had at university talking about the fact that even at birth we begin the process of decay that can only end in death. There is an inevitability about the system of nature. There is birth and there is death and the time between is limited. Yet there is also an unnatural thing going on here. When someone dies there is a cataclysmic break in all of our lives. I can recall the experience of the world stopping for me as I grappled with loss, yet all around me the world was moving on just doing its thing.
People were shopping, talking, laughing, and I couldn’t get why they didn’t know the world had changed because someone had died. Death, any death always leaves us as less, just as something great happening always makes us all better. There is a saying that goes, ‘when the tide rises all the boats rise’. We are so tightly connected that we are all affected by the tide rising and the tide falling – by good times and bad time, by new life and by the end of life.
Some of my lament lies with the little things around death that can trip us up. Thirty years ago, I lost a dearly loved brother, who was also my best friend. Thirty years on that simple question, ‘how many siblings do you have?’ still gets me. I still find myself weighing up which answer will fit best to the context. Do I say well I had three brothers, now I have two and wait for the inevitable confusion, the sense of oops I said the wrong thing or the judgement, if I say how he died. Or, do I rescue the questioner and take the easy route and say I have two brothers and keep everything simple and happy. But in doing that, do I effectively erase my lost brother from my story? My concern is for how others will be left feeling if I reveal too much. I don’t actually need others to feel sorry for me, strangely I feel sorry for them because they never got to know this awesome guy who was my brother for my first 29 years – time I am so thankful for. By not naming him do I perpetuate the ‘we mustn’t talk about the hard stuff’ way of being? Is it my job, I wonder, to help others find the language of loss by making it a normal thing to talk about? I find now, thirty years on, that I still miss him horribly, but I don’t need him to be here anymore. Too much has happened in those thirty years he has been absent, to ever be able to explain to him, so I am able to leave him where he has been for those years and it’s ok. Maybe this is what we mean by ‘moving on’…
David has something to teach us about lament. In our ‘Western’ world, lament has become a thing to be avoided. We must ‘get over things’ ‘come to terms with things’, ‘move on’. But how is any of this possible without dealing with the pain, the loss, the rage that a world of’ never agains’ leaves us with? I think mostly this avoidance of lament has come about because we don’t know what to do with it, we don’t know how to fix someone else’s pain so we need it to stop, or to happen out of sight. Our feelings of helplessness drive us into demanding that others’ ‘just get over it’. But the reality is that we probably won’t get over it and we probably shouldn’t. We do need to find hope in a life lived around the gap, and that will come, but avoiding the gap won’t get us there – well, not intact anyway. If we don’t deal with these things well and in a healthy manner, weird stuff can and does happen. Strange behaviours that leave people isolated because others don’t understand, or acting out because the pain locked away inside isn’t containable and is taken out on others, who may have no idea why.
‘A mighty man has fallen’, David cries. And the people about him all fall with him; such is the grief over what has been lost. Love is a risk, always, because we risk having to deal with the loss of it. I notice at funerals often there is such a fear from some people that they might cry or ‘lose it’ when trying to speak so they often avoid it. Honestly, if we can’t cry at a funeral where can we? That’s exactly why we have them, as a place to celebrate a life but also as a place to express our grief at the loss of that life! We should not be perpetuating the myth that being grown up, or being strong means holding it all in. That’s simply not healthy!
However, lamentation is not meant to be a big deep hole that we lose ourselves in. It’s a way of helping us to get to the surface again because we have let enough of the over-whelming weight of loss go, in order to begin to float again, in our faith framework. Lamentation should always lead us to closer to Jesus. Jesus offers us relief from the heavy ladens of life. Jesus the good shepherd, who walks with us through the valleys of darkness, and who leads us home to green pastures and abundant life.
Wolterstorff again: “Put your hand into my wounds.” Said the risen Jesus to Thomas, “and you will know who I am. Slowly I begin to see that there is something more as well. If sympathy for the worlds wounds is not enlarged by our anguish, if love for those around us is not expanded, if gratitude for what is good does not flame up, if insight is not deepened, if commitment to what is important is not strengthened, if aching for a new day is not intensified, if hope is weakened or diminished, if from the experience of death comes nothing good, then death has won. In my living, my son’s dying will not be the last word. But as I rise up, I bear the wounds of his death. My rising does not remove them. They mark me. If you want to know who I am, put your hand in.”
Lament matters, lament helps us live the loss. As followers of Christ that’s our call, to choose life, to live, even with our wounds, which, while they identify us, have to take us somewhere and teach us something. They might just be the very things that help us to live this life more fully, as we are invited to do. David took to poetry to express his lament, I wonder if you have found an expression that works for you?