Scripture: Lamentations 1:1-6
Thanks to the Internet, the ability to travel anywhere, and the prevalence of cell phones the world feels a lot smaller and more connected than it used to. Which is why it amazes me that today there are still 7,151 active languages in use in the world today. Of that large number about 40% of the languages are endangered with less than a thousand speakers, but that still means there are hundreds and hundreds of active languages in the world today. Each of these languages have a slightly different take on communicating. One of the ones that I find amusing is how German handles some complex ideas. The syntax of German does not allow for groups of nouns to describe something. This leads to some interesting compound words in German that are meant to describe some incredibly complex ideas. For instance there is the German word Luftschloss, which literally means “air castle”. This is a word to convey a dream or an idea that you have, but it only exist in your head. There is also the word Waldeinsamkeit which is forest solitude and is used to describe the serene and peaceful feelings that come from being in the woods alone. Perhaps the most powerful of these kind of German words is Wetschmerz. The literal translation is “world pain”. It is a word that conveys the overwhelming sadness we feel when the actual state of the world does not compare and line up with our ideal state of the world. Wetschmerz is more than just an expression for depression and grief. It is the word that defines how we feel when our lives feel off kilter, when the center is not holding, when it feels like things have fallen apart and they are not going to be right again. While some of us feel it a bit more strongly than others, chances are all of us have experienced wetschmerz in our lives over the past couple of years.
While it originates in a different language than German and then got translated to English, we get a biblical word with a similar connotation: A lament. While lamentations is not the only lament found in the scriptures, it is the only book of the bible that entirely consists of laments. In a lot of ways a lament is a poetic expression of westchmerz. It is a way to express the grief, sorrow, and sadness felt from the world not feeling right. We can hear that come through clearly in this morning’s scripture. I greatly appreciate that the bible includes Lamentations. Of all that God could have included in the scripture, I appreciate that taking time to express sorrow and grief is one of the things included. The fact that the bible contains laments, means we have permission to lament. That is a message that I think we need to hear, because there is still a lot of sorrow, grief, and westchmerz in the world today. There is a need to lament, and this scripture reminds us that we can be faithful to God and still let it all out.
Lamentations records a series of laments that are made for a very specific reason, and we can see that reason expressed in this morning’s scripture reading. After years of prophets warning the people of Jerusalem to give up idolatry and turn back to God the people still did not listen. This meant God had to follow through with what the prophets declared would happen and Jerusalem was sacked by the Babylonians. The city walls were broken, the temple destroyed, the city burned, and the people hauled into captivity and exile. This is the scene that this morning’s scripture describes. It does so by personifying and imagining the city of Jerusalem as a woman. Lamentations was likely written shortly after the fall of Jerusalem. The raw emotions ascribed to the city are the emotions that were collectively felt by the Israelites removed from their home and taken into exile. Feelings of desolation and bitter anguish are described and given form in weeping that carries through the night.
This morning’s scripture reading stands in as a good sampling of what can be found in Lamentations. I really appreciate how honest lamentations is. In all of the laments we find an acknowledgement of why this calamity happened. The author of the laments does not attempt to hide reality or justify themselves as a passive victim. Verse 5 of this morning’s scripture states the reason plainly, “The LORD has brought her grief because of her many sins.” This does not mean that every bad thing happens is brought on by God, but I appreciate that Lamentations tackles the sin of the people head on instead of attempting to minimize it. Again, I appreciate that even though these laments name the cause they are still honest about the feelings they name. Laments are honest and they are spaces to name and feel grief.
In our culture in general, but especially in Christian circles, we do not always give enough space to name and feel grief. In part this is because we have attempted to brand Christianity as “positive and encouraging.” We rarely see laments as positive and encouraging, so we rarely see lamenting as being an action that belongs in our sanctuaries. This unfortunately can lead to toxic positivity. This is where attempts to be positive and encouraging are not at all helpful and can even be hurtful. Toxic positivity happens when someone is unloading their hardships and we tell them “well, it could be worse” or “don’t be so negative.” Instead we should be saying “that must be tough, can I do anything for you?” or “it sounds hard, I can listen if you want.”
We can make this by spiritualizing toxic positivity. This sounds like when someone is going through a hard time full of grief and heartache we say things like, “maybe God is just testing you”, “God does not give you more than you can handle”, or “Just have faith because everything happens for a reason.” These are toxic statements that minimalize the experience of the feelings of someone experiencing hardship and these statements seem to imply how they currently feel is their fault do to a lack of faith. I understand that often these statements of positivity that end up being toxic, tend to come from a place of pure intentions. They are said with the intent of being helpful. They are an attempt to provide answers to questions that do not have an answer. I understand the desire to want to have an answer, I understand the desire to want to be able to say the right thing that somehow makes it better, and since we sometimes cannot we fall back on worn out, unhelpful clichés.
Perhaps we should take our lead from Lamentations and be honest, even when our honesty may not give answers or be overly positive and encouraging. I remember a time a few years ago when I was sitting in a funeral home. This was the first and only time that a parishioner asked me to accompany them to a funeral home to make arrangements. She asked me to come with her because she had never had to do that before and she wanted someone she thought knew something about funerals there with her. The reason for this is because she was making the arrangements for her six year old son. He had a brain tumor, it was inoperable, and it was terminal. About 18 months after the initial diagnosis he passed away at home. I sat there with her as she answered the funeral director’s questions. As he went to get the final paperwork, I was left alone with her and she asked the question that I knew was likely coming and that I had been dreading. She asked, “Why did this have to happen?” Friends, I have graduated from seminary, I have attended who knows how many training sessions, and read more books about ministry than I can remember. I have been trained to do this, but I did not have the perfect pastoral answer for that question. So I was honest. I told her “I don’t know.”
That is the honest answer because it is the honest truth. Things happen that we do not want to happen. We can suffer and go through pain because we experience the consequences of our own actions or we unfairly impacted by the choices of others. But there can also be times of pain and loss that feel random. Life can feel unfair, cruelly so at times. When we are faced with those times and when we ask “why” the most honest answer is not “just focus on the positive” the most honest answer is “I don’t know.”
Since that was the most honest answer, that is what I said. But that is not all I said. After he passed, and knowing that I would have to do a funeral for a child, I read through Lamentations. I read the book in hopes that it would prepare me for the sea of grief and sorrow that I would have to wade through. This morning our scripture reading was just the beginning of the first lament, but my part of Lamentations comes from chapter 3:19-23: “I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefor: I have hope: Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”
So when asked why, I did say I don’t know. But I also said what I do know. I know that even when we don’t know, there are still reasons to have hope. Even when the world no longer feels right, great is God’s faithfulness. Even when our hearts feel shattered, God’s love for us still remains. I know that we can express how we truly feel, and we do not need to try and hide behind masks of false strength and fake positivity. We can lament. We can take to God all of anger, all of our pain, and all of our sadness because God is big enough to hold us and catch all of tears in the palms of his hands.
Most of all though I know that even when we do not know the whys of life, we can have hope. I know that in the midst of our sorrow and our heartbreak, in the middle of our lamenting, we can have hope. We can have hope because we have a risen savior who the grave could not hold and death could not defeat. Because Jesus is victorious we can have hope that there will be a day of no more suffering, a day of no more pain, and a day with no more tears. We can fully express our grief, we can lament our loss and pain, and we can still have hope that there will be a day when the perpetual light of Christ shines and that the darkness will never overcome it.
So today I do not know how much westchmerz you feel. Maybe for you right now, all feels right in the world. However, if everything does not feel right, if you are struggling with loss, pain, or heart break, then may you let it out. May you lament. May you take all that you are experiencing and honestly express how you feel. May we give one another the space to do that. May we not try to smother emotions with toxic positivity, but may we let our brothers and sisters in Christ lament as we sit beside them while we all hold onto the hope that we profess, a hope in Christ, a hope in eternity, a hope that does not and will not fail us.