I went for a walk a couple of weeks ago. Truth be told, I was in a foul mood. I was preparing for the following week’s Sunday morning service and, being honest, the thought of having to announce once more “Let’s try to engage with this song as others sing it,” and “Please limit the number of people you talk to,” filled me with something close to despair. On that particular morning there had been various people appearing on TV seeming to argue for restrictions to last forever. “How much longer can we cope with this as a church?” was the thought in my mind. The walk didn’t help a great deal actually- I merely succeeded in winding myself up to a greater level of irritation.
What did help was opening up Mark Vroegop’s book Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy later in the afternoon. It is a book about lament. Mark writes as a pastor who, together with his wife, lost children to stillbirth. He expounds various Psalms and the book of Lamentations alongside glimpses of his and others’ testimonies. Thus far, it is my book of the year.
Reading it that afternoon reminded me that crying “How long?” in the midst of a pandemic is only one circumstance in which those words are appropriate. I can think of countless more. The couple longing for children. The individual feeling their loneliness and wanting a companion. The Christian praying for their non-Christian family member. The person facing ongoing physical or mental agony. One of my discoveries as a pastor is that pretty much everybody has something- some aspect of life that is deeply painful that they wish were different. And one of the issues for many is confusion around the apparent inactivity of God.
What do you do with that? You can stay in silent despair. Talking to others can be useful but they can’t be the ultimate answer. The Biblical response is to lament. “How long?” cries the Psalmist. “My God, my God, why?” asks Jesus. I love the phrase that Vroegop uses- “Lament is the song you sing when divine blessing seems far away.”
There are at least three elements of the book that I appreciated. The first was the invitation to come to God in raw honesty. Many of us miss out on deep intimacy with the Lord because we come with a form of pretence that means the depth of our pain is hidden away. Vroegop speaks of counselling bereaved couples or those who experience same-sex attraction and encouraging them to tell God exactly how they were feeling. Using Psalm 13 as an example he says, “Biblical complaint doesn’t work if you aren’t honest with God about your pain, your fears or your frustrations.” That may be where some of us need to start. We have pain that we have never really poured out to the Lord.
However, he is equally clear that we mustn’t stay with an attitude of complaint for this is crippling in the long-term. In the vast majority of lament Psalms there will be a “but”. There will have to be a turning point (or, more realistically, multiple turning points in our lives) where we express our trust in the Lord’s myserious love. He speaks of how he uses lament Psalms in counselling those in distress to see “the journey from gut-level honesty to God-centred worship.” I’m not sure the book makes this point but this can be an area where writing our prayers can be useful- after all this is what the Psalmists did. It forces us to clarity as to what we think, allowing us to structure our grief and turn afresh to the Lord.
Towards the end of the book Vroegop moves us beyond our personal pain. Lament is also a way of entering into the agony of the world. “We watch the news so we know how to lament.” As we see or read of pain across the world, we don’t dismiss it as distant to us. No- the tears remind us of a world still marked by injustice leading us to cry out to God as we share in the distress of others. Vroegop speaks movingly of how he was uncertain how to lead the church through the agonies of racism and how he remained silent for too long. Eventually he found the language he needed in the Psalms of lament- and gave a way for the church to cry out to the Lord on behalf of a suffering community.
Indeed, one of Vroegop’s points is that the church as a whole needs to lament. He notes that there is more lament in the Bible than there often is in the church. “Church can be emotionally challenging for deeply hurting people.” There is a danger if celebration is the only mood in the church. It can give us a truncated vision of God if we don’t think He is around for the painful moments. And it damages church community if we give the impression that you have to be happy to join in.
There is much more I could add- the book is very helpful on lamenting our own sin and showing how suffering sometimes exposes our idolatries. But the overall sense is that lament can lead us to a deeper encounter with God. It means that He gets involved in the areas of life where, perhaps, we have been seeking to keep Him at arm’s length. “My personal and pastoral experience has shown me that lament can be a conduit of God’s grace…Dark clouds can yield deep mercy as lament leads to Christ.”
Having read the beginning of Vroegop’s book, I started the Sunday after my walk with Psalm 13 (“How long O LORD?”). To be honest, I didn’t lead it particularly well in that I spent too long on the ongoing restrictions and it felt like a rant about them. My aim had been something different. It was to say that many of us arrive on Sunday with deep sources of pain in our life. If that’s the case, church is the right place to be because the throne of God is the right place to go. And we go to Him, sharing our griefs with one another, crying out with raw honesty and ultimately trusting that, in His unfailing love, He will get us to the other side and the place where He will wipe every tear from our eyes.