Wednesday, July 6, 2016

A Psalm of Lament, or Fuck-You, Cancer


A friend’s wife was recently diagnosed with colon cancer. Hearing the diagnosis was not a good experience. “I’m gonna say it was shitty,” he wrote. “Can I say shitty? Can we all agree that the normal conservative protocols for public discourse can be set-aside in times like these? Cause if you can give me a better fitting word that encompasses all of that (and doesn’t get my mouth washed out with soap by my mother) than I am open to suggestions. I bet mom even gives me a pass on this one. So, to sum up, it was shitty.

His comments reminded me of column I wrote a couple of years ago, after another friend posted his lament about a friend lost to cancer. 

“Fuck-you cancer, you indiscriminate fog of death; you've taken three dear friends too soon over the past four years, two since the fall. Remorseless diseases; I continue to mourn.”

So began a Facebook post by a friend, a leader in his denomination. It was a deep and honest cry of pain and anger at the death of yet another friend.

“Fuck-you science,” he continued. “You pretend to know so much, think you have answers to big questions, but you know nothing of what is important. 

"We may be dust, we may be spirit, you do not know; and you don't know why our bodies ache to see a friend smile one more time. You know nothing of love.”

Fuck-you religion; you've backed yourself into a corner, defending your existence, quibbling over your own definitions. You have become blind to love and community and laughter and song. You still flog your club membership but you're done.”

“Good night Kirsten. You embraced the stories of so many; always bringing strangers into community. Who you are mattered. The connections you made will continue to bring smiles to this world.”

The language might disturb some. But reading the post, I was reminded of the Psalms.

Most people think of the Book of Psalms, or what Jews call Tellihim, as being all about comfort and security and praise—about lying in green pastures by still waters.

Some Psalms are certainly like that. But others contain stark expressions of pain, anger and deep disappointment with God.

These Psalms are known as the Psalms of Lament. Since they aren’t often used in many churches, they are sometimes referred to as the neglected Psalms.

That's too bad. They can play an important role for Christians, giving voice to the more difficult parts of life.

Take Psalm 13, for example (from The Message):

“Long enough, God, you've ignored me long enough.
I've looked at the back of your head long enough.

Long enough I've carried this ton of trouble, lived with a stomach full of pain.
Long enough my arrogant enemies have looked down their noses at me.

Take a good look at me, God, my God: I want to look life in the eye so no enemy can get the best of me, or laugh when I fall on my face.”

Or these portions of Psalm 42, also from The Message:

I wonder, ‘Will I ever make it—arrive and drink in God’s presence? I’m on a diet of tears—tears for breakfast, tears for supper. All day long people knock at my door, pestering ‘Where is this God of yours?’”

For many, lament is hard. It feels wrong to admit our disappointment with life, with others, with God.

But being able to express bitterness and anger is a valid expression of religious faith; for Christians and Jews, it’s even biblical.

And, as author Anne Lamott says, it is good for us. 

Nothing heals us like letting people know our scariest parts,” she writes. “When people listen to you cry and lament, and look at you with love, it's like they are holding the baby of you.”

Last month I also lost a close friend to cancer. A single mom, just 49, she left two teenage sons behind.

I was able to spend time with her before she died, hearing her pain and experiencing her deep sense of loss.

Like my friend, I too could only lament: “Fuck-you, cancer.”

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