A sales receipt long tucked between the pages of a book can tell a story of its own. I am known for using the receipt handed to me at checkout as a bookmark for the purchase I don’t wait long to read. Discovered years later, it often seems like a clue, giving away a snapshot of a former day and a former self—the date of the transaction, the location of the store, the other books I bought along with the one I chose to read first. Something more seems to be said about the book itself and the thoughts going through my head at the time—a memoir chosen on a road-trip far from home, a classic wandering story acquired during an uncertain time of transition in college. Moby Dick was purchased alongside Till We Have Faces, a novel I picked up simply because the title caught my attention and a book I would later describe as changing my life. It is a glimpse at myself often forgotten, a specific day in the past speaking to the present one: I was here. I was searching. And in hindsight, the present often seems to answer: And perhaps I was not alone.
A receipt fell out of a book I was rereading not too long ago. It was tucked in the pages of a small book depicting the fragmented thoughts of a grieving father. Written by a professor of philosophical theology, Lament for a Son relays the beating heart and exasperated soul of a man forced by a tragic accident to bury his son at the age of twenty-five. But the sales receipt that marked its pages furthered the illustration of grief therein: the book was purchased on the year anniversary of a lament that rattled me to my core.
There is a language of loss that we share as humans, though many of us need help remembering how to speak it–and grace to offer others as they learn to remember it too. Rediscovering the memory of sitting in a bookstore on the anniversary of a death that seemed hard to believe, I am struck with this thought. We need the language of lament. We need permission to voice the broken hope within. We need to know lament is a song we are allowed to sing and that we are not alone in singing it.
In the preface of Lament for a Son, author Nicholas Wolterstorff relays a brief interchange with a friend who told him that he had given copies of the book to all of his children. Confused, Wolterstorff asked why he would want to give away a book of so much despair and pain. “Because it is a love-song,” came the reply. Returning to the preface, Wolterstorff writes, “Yes, it is a love-song. Every human lament is a love-song.” And then he asks a question that begins the outpouring that is the entire book: “Will love-songs one day no longer be laments?” Gracious God, please, let it be.
A story recounted by a therapist raises a similar prayer for human lament. A woman who had a history of abuse and a difficult past had been coming for treatment and had been showing signs of healing. Yet one day the woman came in and announced what she felt was another sign of her brokenness that needed to be addressed. She described her recent tendency to cry in the presence of her physician as he showed concern for her as a person with significant health problems. She felt as thought her tears must be an indication of something more that needed to be examined.
The counselor immediately thought of the woman in the gospels who responded to Jesus with weeping, even washing his feet with her tears and drying them with her hair. Luke writes, “[A]s she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them” (Luke 7:38). In this story, the woman’s tears were not simply an illustration of her brokenness; they were an expression of life. She was marking in gratitude the feet of the one who gave voice to the lament within her, the value within her, the humanity she uniquely bore—in the context of a love-song. The woman in counseling identified immediately with this reaction to Christ, eventually learning to see her own tears as a shared lament for a world marked by suffering and a sign of the God who knows all too well its sting.
The lament within the gospel story inasmuch as the hope of the gospel story is powerfully relevant to a weary and broken world. Aware or unaware, we live before a God who gives us permission to utter the words of loss and weariness and despair in the pits of our stomachs, even as Christ himself weeps among us. In his humanity, we are given both a mandate and a voice to decry cancerous narratives that suggest there are some less created in God’s image than others. In his invitation to take up our own crosses, we are given the way to denounce the structures of sin that keep injustice and racism and despair at play and the directive to stand with the abused and the persecuted. Yes, if human lament is a long and labored love-song, Jesus is singing there in the midst of it, perhaps at times using our own tears to call us closer to his own broken body on the cross and the promise in his scars. This song, too, shall one day be a lament no more.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.