Updated: May 17, 2020
“I wonder if the only way to spiritually hold suffering – and not let it destroy us – is to recognize that we cannot do it alone.” – Richard Rohr
Our church just finished up a series on lament, and it was powerful. Instead of having someone give a sermon about what it means to lament, we actually practiced lament. Each week, one of our pastors and resident psychologist facilitated a conversation in which a member of our church recounted some deep pain that they have experienced. They vulnerably and courageously invited our community into their suffering, shared about the ways that it has affected their lives, talked about how God has brought healing in some areas, and expressed the complex emotions of sitting in what is not yet healed. Our community had a chance to carry that pain together, to learn from one another, and to encourage one another.
In our Western (particularly white) culture, I don’t think that we’ve been taught to lament very well. Rather, we’re often taught to brush things off and pick ourselves up. We’re taught to put on a brave face and look at the bright side. We often try to ignore or outrun our pain. We certainly don’t want to look weak.
But pain is inevitable. We live in a broken world and that brokenness is experienced in a myriad of ways. We will all encounter deep hurt within our lives, and when it comes, we are faced with the choice to either try to escape it or press into it. Looking our pain in the eye is never easy, but it is the only way to experience healing and to allow our pain to be transformed into strength, beauty, and freedom.
Our pain is not meant to be carried alone, which is why the Bible tells us to “mourn with those who mourn.” (Romans 12:15) Sometimes our grief is more than we can handle on our own. It threatens to consume us. It tells us that we are alone. It tells us that we will never recover. When others enter into the grief with us, it doesn’t make the pain go away, but there is power in knowing that others see our pain and will carry it with us. There is power in knowing that we are loved in the midst of it. That can give us the strength to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
I’m reminded of Jesus’ words in Matthew 11 when he said,
Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light. (vs. 28-30)
Jesus gave us this image of accompaniment (a word that our pastor brought up again and again during our lament series). Jesus didn’t tell people to cast their burdens aside and just choose happiness. He also didn’t say that he would take away every burden. Instead, he invited people to share their load with him and walk beside him. The reason that his yoke is easy and the burden is light is because it is shared. How beautiful that we have a God who does not just sit in a high place and require us to figure things out on our own. Instead, we have a God who sees us in our pain, who meets us where we are at, and who carries our burdens with us. That is the example that we have to follow.
Over the years, I have had the opportunity to sit with friends through the pain of death, infertility, difficult family dynamics, and divorce. I’ve also had people sit with me in my struggles and pray the words that I no longer had the strength to pray. Through these experiences, I have come to recognize that we enter into a sacred space when we are invited into someone else’s suffering and so we must tread lightly. There are times when all that is needed is to bear witness to their pain. It is not a space for problem solving or empty platitudes but a space to be near, to listen, to pray, and to cry. We must fight the urge to fix or minimize the pain.
Living in a primarily Latino community, my neighbors have taught me a lot about shared lament. When there is a death in the community, everyone comes together to mourn. There is a tradition called novena, in which the community gathers every day for nine days to grieve and pray for the one who has died. As I have participated in these novenas, it has moved me so much to feel the sacredness of bearing the pain together. Some people light candles, some pray, some cry, and some stand in silence. There is freedom to express emotion in whatever way is needed, but what is most essential is presence. My neighbors understand the importance of expressing, validating, and sharing the pain – so much so that they create space to show up day after day.
We must be willing to stay in the pain as long as is necessary. I know that I often want to get to the happy ending as soon as possible. I want to hold onto the hope of healing and restoration. But there are times when that doesn’t come or it takes a lot longer than I think it should. We need to learn to be ok with sitting in the messiness. We need to give people permission to feel what they feel. We need to remember to keep checking in and showing up for the long haul.
So much of the pain that our church community shared during out lament series has been a part of their lives for years. It was beautiful to hear how God has worked through the pain and brought some healing. But it was also evident that the process of restoration is not yet complete. So together as a community, we will hold space for both the celebration of the small victories along the way as well as the longing for what is still yet to come.
Is there an area of pain in your life that you need to press into? Who can you invite to accompany you and share your burden?
Is there someone in your community who is experiencing pain? How can you come alongside them and carry the burden with them?