|Michael Brown Sr. and Lesley McSpadden |
lament the death of their son.
And then there was silence.
I can still hear it.
It began with the flashing light on an answering machine.
It was 14 years ago, and I was the Episcopal campus missioner for Washington University and I came to work at Rockwell House on the first day of Winter break. Some of the students were still around but many had been making their way home, including Julia, our student peer minister, who had driven home to Natchez, MS the night before.
I walked into the kitchen, and saw the flashing light and hit the button.
Julia had never made it to Natchez.
Julia, this compassionate, beautiful, full-of-light, full-of-life 21 year old woman had been killed on a lonely stretch of state route in rural Mississippi when her car hydroplaned in the rain and hit an oncoming truck.
I have learned most of my life to control my feelings. I’m a good Episcopalian, after all. I have learned to feel some of them and to jam the rest of them down inside for later. After all, there is always work to do. I went into comfort mode – my job was to be strong for the students. My pain could come later.
I began to call the students. Some were still in town and I could have them come over and we could share the news in person but others were already home and I had to tell them on the phone. Tell them that their friend, their sister was dead.
One by one I called them. I shared the news. They asked questions. There was silence. There were a few tears. We prayed.
And then I called Cori.
“Cori,” I said, in the words I had practiced and honed over an afternoon of phone calls. ”I need you to sit down. There’s no good way to say this so I’m just going to say it. Julia was killed in a car accident driving home to Natchez last night. She’s dead.”
And from the other end of the phone didn’t come a question, or tears, or even silence … but a deep, deep wail.
It was powerful. It was painful. It was raw.
You would think it would scare me. But it didn’t. It was like music. In that wail, Cori was expressing not just all her pain and shock but mine as well. That cry reached deep into my heart and soul and touched that place where I had jammed all that stuff down and as I heard her cry I knew that I wasn’t alone in that place.
I knew that someone else felt that, too.
I knew the Body of Christ was real and that Jesus was there, in that deep, deep wail.
Today we are using a word that is new to many of us. That word is “lament.”
Lament is many things.
Lament is a literary genre – there is a Book of Lamentations in the Hebrew scripture.
Lament is a liturgical form – we will have a litany of lament in our prayers of the people this morning.
But more than anything lament is a deeply honest human response to pain and grief. Lament is pushing aside all the voices that tell us we need to be in control and that there is work to do and that tears are for the weak and should be apologized for. Lament is pushing aside all those things and saying that pain needs to be felt and pain needs to be expressed. That we are not superwomen and supermen. That we are human and human beings feel and express pain.
It is recognizing that Jesus, in all his humanity wailed at the death of his friend, Lazarus, and cried out in agony from the cross – not the pain of the nails but the pain of feeling left by the one he loved … my God, my God, why have you forsaken me.
And if Jesus can, we can, too.
Today is a day of lament. We hear it in our scriptures. Our reading from 2 Samuel is the story of the death of Absalom. Absalom was the third son of King David … and he was not a model child. He plotted insurrection and tried to overthrow his father as king, and it looked like he might even succeed.
But even then, this father loved his son. And he gave strict orders that in the battle that Absalom not be touched. But those orders were not followed, and David’s forces found Absalom trapped in a tree and beat and killed him.
When David heard the news, the scripture tells us “The king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, "O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!"
But the translation is wrong. David didn’t just say those words. Grief so deep that we are wishing we were in the ground instead of our child doesn’t just get said. Grief that deep gets wailed. David wailed:
“O MY SON, ABSALOM, MY SON, MY SON ABSALOM! WOULD I HAD DIED INSTEAD OF YOU, O ABSALOM, MY SON, MY SON!”
The ability to lament is a beautiful piece of who David is. He is a great king, and part of that greatness is David’s humanity.
This is not David’s first lament. Earlier in 2 Samuel, he laments the death of another dearly loved one turned adversary, Saul. David somehow instinctually knows that these emotions need to be felt, need to be expressed, and in fact that his job as King makes it all the more necessary.
It is a message we deeply need to hear for ourselves.
In his commentary on Second Samuel, Walter Brueggeman writes:
“We (and I believe the we that Brueggemman is speaking here is the predominantly white Western society) have nearly lost our capacity for such grief. We are characteristically so busy with power, so bent on continuity, so mesmerized by our ideologies of control that we will not entertain a hiatus in our control of life to allow for grief. Such grief does for a moment require a relinquishment of control. David does not hesitate to enact such relinquishment."
David’s comfortability with lament, with giving up the control that is needed for tears and deep wailing shows that he recognizes a profound irony about us as human beings.
In her book Daring Greatly, Brene Brown names it clearly:
We fear being vulnerable with others because we believe they will see it as weakness. Yet when people are vulnerable around us – as Bren was in her sermon last week – we are deeply moved and see it as strength.
“Vulnerability is courage in you and inadequacy in me.”
“I’m drawn to your vulnerability but repelled by mine.”
Today is a day of lament. This week is a week of lament. And we need it desperately. Because there has been so much pain and so much to grieve and it doesn’t stop.
On this one-year anniversary of the death of Michael Brown, of course we stand with his parents who cry out like David, “O, my son, O my son, would I had died instead of you.” But just as this year has not just been about one child but so much more, our grief and need for lament runs much deeper.
We lament all the children that have died in our streets.
We lament the deep brokenness in the structures of our society and in our own hearts that led to that confrontation in front of Canfield Green Apartments.
We lament the friendships that have been strained or ended in the last year as we have confronted hard issues of race and class in our city.
We lament the trauma we have experienced and the trauma that many of us are just learning has been there all along.
We lament the other incredible losses that are gaping wounds that feel like they might never be filled and healed. The death of Cathedral family members like Norma Lemmon. Divorce. Illness. Losing our jobs. Betrayals both by us and of us. Diagnoses that in a minute say that our remaining time on this planet might be measured in weeks and months instead of years.
We lament because we trust with Jesus that feelings are not to be feared but that feelings are meant to be felt and expressed.
We lament knowing that the love of Christ is all about vulnerability, and that love in this place creates a space of safety where we can relinquish the control required not just to cry but to wail.
We lament knowing that it is only when we relinquish that control and let the tears and cries and deep wailing come, that the true healer, the love of the One who created us, sustains us and loves us without end, can reach inside and touch those wounds and begin to fill and heal them.
I’m still learning this myself, and most of the time I’m not a very good student. I still feel I have to be strong and I still spend a lot of time jamming feelings down inside in the name of keeping going and getting the work done. As much as I talk about vulnerability and laying our lives on the table with Christ, I know that I am as much a beginning student in that process as any one of us.
But after this year of Ferguson and Magdalene. After this year of deep pain and the hope of deep healing. After this year of people leaving and others joining this community. Of deaths and births. Of funerals and baptisms. After this year where so much seems so different than it did one year ago, I believe more than ever that this way of the cross is not to be figured out with our heads but emptied into with our hearts and our souls. That this way of the cross must lead us through deep pain before we get to resurrection. That we must do it together. That we must risk being vulnerable.
That not just today, but always together, we can be a people and a place where it is not only safe but encouraged to let those deep wails come forth.
That not just today, but always together, we can be be a community of lament.