The First Funeral and the Power of Lament

John JohnIn 1963, I was in grade one. My memories of my five-year-old self are vague; filled with blurred images and impressions. But one memory stands out. George Kennedy sat up close in the front row with me. George Kennedy was an odd looking little boy. I only know that he was an odd looking little boy because my classmates were in the habit of teasing him about his looks. I cannot tell you why they thought that he was odd looking because in my memory he looks like a cute little five-year-old boy. George Kennedy and I must have lived near one another because I can remember him walking up ahead of me and so I choose to believe that we were headed in the same direction and not that I was stalking him. My most vivid memory of George Kennedy happened the day that we were all unexpectedly sent home from school.

The crackly voice of the school principal announced over the PA system that President Kennedy had been shot and was dead and we were all told to go straight home. I did not know what a president was, I only knew that Mr. Kennedy was dead and so I remember walking home behind George Kennedy and feeling really bad because George’s daddy was dead.

I have flashes of memory from that week, spent huddled around the TV set with my mother and father, knowing that they were so very sad. I remember their tears. It is my first memory of them crying. President Kennedy’s funeral was the first funeral I can remember attending.  The first three funerals that I remember from my childhood were John Kennedy’s, Martin Luther King’s and Robert Kennedy’s funerals. In my mind’s eye, I can see clearly little John John’s salute, Corretta’s black veil, and Ethel standing there with all Bobby’s children. There is a song from those long ago days, a song that to this day makes me weep no matter where or when I hear it. It begins with the sound of a mournful flute.

“Anybody here seen my old friend Abraham, can you tell me where he’s gone?
He freed a lot of people but it seems the good they die young.
You know I just looked around and he’s gone.”

The sound of the electric organ gives us but a moment to breath as verse by verse our good friends John, Martin and Bobby are snatched from us.  That song is a lament that lives in the souls of those of us who grew up grieving common losses.

There have been other times when we have grieved together, times when we have lamented, like September 11, 2011, our cries of lamentation at the loss of so many lives on a day that forever changed our world. Not all our losses have been shared so widely. Sometimes we have gathered to lament losses that don’t quite make it to the world stage, but which are earth-shattering in their own circles. Sometimes we have lamented the ongoing pain that exists as a result of the lack of justice in this world.

The art of lament, in a world that hungers for closure so that it can be about its business, is a struggling art-form. It seems that our ancestors were so much better and lamenting and could launch forth into wailing and gnashing of teeth with much more abandon than we like are likely to tolerate in public places.

These days we think it unseemly for mourners to wail at a funeral, choosing celebrations of life over the wailing in the face death. But the act of lament has over the centuries played an important part in our human development and I would argue that the act of lament has also played an important role in the life of our God.

Lament is a transformative act. Lament moves us from one place in our lives to another. Lament moves us and thereby transforms our humanity. Lament is very much a part of our human evolution. And so I lament the disappearance of lament from our worship. Lament is the voicing of one’s anguish or complaints to God. 

Lament provides us with the opportunity to gather together and express our anguish in the presence of the ONE who is, was and ever more shall be. The ONE we call God. For in the pit of despair we are made painfully aware that our hope lies beyond ourselves.  Because hope is the only way out of the pit of despair we look to the ONE who is so much more than we can comprehend to through us a life-line and so we wail and weep, and shout and rant until we can begin to know the presence of the ONE. Often, the knowledge of the presence of the ONE comes to us through the presence of one-another. Sometimes, the knowledge of the presence of God comes to us in the very lament itself as we discover God in the midst of our pain. All too often our modern sensibilities tempt us to arrive at hope by trying to avoid the lament. But when we fail to utter our rage over suffering or injustice we tend to arrive at false hope, or failing hope.

Lament allows us to fully engage our despair, and by engaging one another and indeed God in our despair we are transformed. Lament is where we must begin if our rage at the suffering and injustice in this life is to be transformed into peace and justice. Lament is the place where our grief begins to move us from deadness of our shock and horror into a place were we can begin to cope and find healing. Lament is the place where we can begin to discover our God weeping with us; grieving with us and being transformed with us.

There’s a line from the Mystic Meister Eckhart that has been a sort of mantra for me of late: Eckhart insists that: “Every act reveals God and expands God’s Being.” As I look around me at the pain and suffering that exists in the world, I can’t help but lament all the poverty, the violence, and the hatred that exists as a result of our incomplete humanity. Most of us cope with the magnitude of suffering by limiting our exposure to it. We try not to dwell on it because we are afraid that it will overwhelm us and we won’t be able to cope. From time to time we let just a little bit of the suffering in; just a little lest we be overcome by despair. Sometimes we have no choice and the suffering bursts in on us and we are forced to deal with it. Either way, whether we let ourselves be touched by suffering or we have suffering thrust upon us, that suffering transforms us. Suffering can transform us in unhealthy ways or in healthy ways. But suffering will change us. If we have the courage to lament, to engage our God in our rage over the suffering; I mean really engage our God, we can be changed in ways that were once unimaginable.

In our lament we touched the pain of the suffering, we didn’t heal it, we didn’t cure it we just touched it. And the power of our lament changed us. We were changed by their impotent silence. And God, well God was revealed in our lament. And God’s being was expanded. Now I know that some will say that it was our perception of God’s being that was expanded and not God’s being itself.  But to deny that God’s Being is capable of expansion as a result of interaction with us, is to deny the reality of relationship. God lives and breathes in with and through us so our evolution as beings changes God. In with and through us God weeps, God bleeds, God cries and God waits, for transformation. Our lament is an act of trust. An act that declares our intent to wrestle with God, to struggle with God as we begin the difficult transformation into the beings that we are becoming. The power of lament to transform our mourning into dancing, injustice into justice, and violence into peace is transformative. 

Lament is a process, a process of transformation. There’s absolutely no point in lamenting the suffering of the world unless you’re prepared to be touched by that suffering and transformed by it.We are called to suffer with the poor in order that we might lend our strength to transform suffering into life-giving joy. Our God will wipe away every tear from every eye and our God will do this as God lives and breathes in with and through you. Taking up the cross of suffering is not about signing up for suffering for suffering’s sake. Taking up the cross of suffering is about engaging with those who suffer in ways that will forever change the world. It is about lamenting alongside, so that together we can be transformed. Engaging in the act of lament is no easy thing.  But just like the blues, lament has the power to transform our mourning into dancing. To transform our weeping, bleeding, crying, suffering God, into a powerful loving, justice making, peace keeping, God who works in with and through us to transform our world. Let it be so.

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