Last month two new International students arrived to live with me and Heather for the school year to study at local high schools in Burnaby. One is from Italy and one from Germany. Within the first few days of arrival, maybe even the second day, when we were getting to know each other, we were talking about Canada and I mentioned something about Indigenous issues and wondered if news reports of the discovery of the children’s remains at Indian Residential Schools had reached them in Italy and Germany. Hannah, from Germany, told me that the organization in Germany that arranged her year of studying here in Canada, told all the students at an orientation session, that they were not to speak to their host families about Indigenous issues or about the remains found at the schools over the summer.
I was quite shocked to hear this, and then as my initial shock wore off, we had a really rich discussion about what happened and why and what is still happening.
When I reflected later on why the students would be told to not discuss that issue, it got me thinking in general about how this actually shouldn’t be surprising to me, because this is something that we have avoided talking about for decades in Canada on a widespread level. In our Indigenous book study that we began last fall – we read about the atrocities of residential schools, the cultural genocide that resulted. We read about missing children and missing women, and the laid back response or non-response that resulted. We read about the history of the reserve system, Indian agents, and treaties and the lack of clean water even today. In our book study, the topic of conversation that was probably raised the most was the question of why some of the members did not know about these issues until recently and some didn’t know until they read the books that we discussed as a group. Why was this not a collectively felt lament before now? I think for many Canadians it was not until the news hit in May about the children’s remains found in Kamloops, that the experiences of Indigenous people at Residential School really was heard.
There is often a tendency in our society to not talk about the difficult things, the sad things, the upsetting things in relationships, in communities, in our own lives.
The writers of the psalms seemed to know what it was to express emotions, difficult ones and happy ones and everything in between. The psalms are found in the centre of the Bible and were written as songs rising up from the hearts of the people. The psalms were written for every mood and emotion, from fears to ecstasy, despair to joy. The biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann says a psalm may do one of three things to a reader. Sometimes a psalm will orient you, remind you where you’re going. Sometimes it will disorient you – turn you upside down. Sometimes it will utterly re-orient you. That’s when it gives us another way of seeing, or suggests another road to take.
The psalms wrestle with the deepest sorrow and ask God the hardest questions about suffering and injustice.
In almost every psalm, the people appeal to God, who to them is a very personal, active, strong and loving ruler – a God that can make a difference in their lives.
The psalm writers often asked ‘Where are you, God?’ ‘Why don’t you help me?’ Despite their love for God, the people felt often abandoned, misused, betrayed.
Psalm 42 is one of the psalms of lament “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God. My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually – Where is your God?” “I say to my God, my rock “Why have you forsaken me?”
Lament is a language that was common to God’s people, and it is a language that we seem to be losing in our self-sufficient culture. A language that just might save us. Lament is not a whine. Not a complaint. It is Lament. It is a cry out to God. It is an acknowledgment of a difficult situation, it is an admission of helplessness. Lament. It is a surrender.
Lament is not a comfortable place to be. Often we want to skip over the lament and get right to the happy stuff, the stuff that we celebrated last week in church and on our green ribbons. This is human nature and quite a typical way of being for a lot of people. I’m sure you have all had the experience when people ask you how you are, and if you are feeling honest and maybe a little open to being vulnerable, maybe you say something other than “oh, I’m fine/great/fantastic” and your response instead is “I’m really struggling today. I’m really sad about a situation happening in my life right now.” Sometimes the person asking us how we are is not sure how to take this honesty, and we can tell that they are feeling discomfort. And sometimes that honesty leads to a beautiful connection with another caring soul, which happened to me with a Thrift Shop volunteer this week.
But if we have learned anything during Covid it is that sometimes we remain in a place of lament or sorrow for longer than we expect or longer than we wish to. And sometimes we need to remain in that place, in order to acknowledge pain and suffering and ugliness.
And like the psalmist we may ask – Where are you God?
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
In the storms of life there are people who cry out to God all the time. And during this past year we especially have reason to cry out to God.
The cry of a fourth wave of Covid, and the cries of essential workers, exhausted with no end in sight.
The cry of those born in poverty who die as yet another statistic in a roll call far too great for our hearts to bear.
The cry of loneliness and isolation as we limit our social contact.
Where are you God?
The cry of those without work and whose dignity is lost and those whose lives spiral into despair.
The cry of those who live with constant pain as age and infirmity make them feel diminished.
The cry of protesters, making their voices heard that black lives matter, and climate change matters, and Indigenous children matter
Where are you God?
Where are you God?
The cry of the families who have lost loved ones to the opioid crisis.
The cry of those who suffer from a terminal illness as they long for a miracle.
The cry of having Christmas and significant celebrations separated from our extended family and friends.
The cry of students graduating with no ceremony or celebration.
Where are you God?
The cry of children who are too young to receive the protection of Covid vaccines and the cry of their parents who try to keep them safe in the midst of it.
The cry of grief as we were unable to be with loved ones when they died, and the cry of postponed memorial services
The cry of our own lives as we look for a glimpse of the divine in the midst of our joys and sorrows.
Where are you God?
Sometimes in the depths of our sorrow – we feel the presence of God, the work of divine love in the midst of our pain. But what about when we don’t feel God’s presence or can’t recognize that divine love or God seems silent?
Maybe the silence of God that we experience is simply that moment which rests on the cusp of God speaking
and maybe God is never absent from the silence
and maybe if God is silent it never means that God is absent,
and maybe it even means that God is listening, deeply listening to our lives and our voices and our lament. Deeply listening to our grief and loss.
We can look to the psalms and know that we are not alone in our grief. Someone has felt as we do before.
The psalms of lament are an expression of grief, but they are also an expression of hope. They are an insistence that things cannot remain this way and they must be changed. Such prayers are partly an address to God, but they are also a communal resolve to hang in and take transformative action. Being United in our lament, joining together in a common grief or sorrow, can unite us in a common goal for change.
Being united in our lament with Indigenous people has led to the creation of the designated National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, happening this Thursday, where we are invited to wear an orange shirt in honour of the children who survived Indian Residential Schools and to remember those who did not. Orange shirt day was created as a way to share communally in the grief experienced by one woman specifically, but all residential school survivors collectively. It relates to the experience of Phyllis Webstad, an Indigenous woman in BC. On her first day of residential school, she arrived dressed in a new orange shirt, and it was taken from her. The orange shirt is now a symbol of the stripping away of culture, freedom and self-esteem experienced by Indigenous children over generations. By wearing an orange shirt this week, it is a way of saying to our Indigenous neighbours, we see you, we want to walk with you toward a deeper relationship.
In joining together and sharing our lament and our loss, we may feel less alone. As a result, our grief might feel a little lighter. Sometimes hope comes when you see that your sorrow is not only yours, that others have had similar experiences, and together when that grief is shared, it gives a glimpse toward hope for that promise of resurrection and new life that we know and experience from our Christian story.
Let us find hope and heart in the silence of God and know that we are not alone. We are not alone in our lament, we are not alone in our sorrow and we are not alone in our grief.
Thanks be to God.
What is a loss that you would like to honour and share.