Editor’s Note: In light of Ash Wednesday and this time of repentance, confession, and lament before Easter, we will be hosting once a week posts on the theme of lament.
Around the time of the Great Recession, wildfires were burning in the county where I lived in Southern California. In the early autumn, the Santa Ana winds blow down from the high desert to the coast, gaining in speed and thermal energy while sweeping downslope to the sea cliffs. In the hills and arroyos, spot fires would spark the dry brush along the way, then merge and spread, fueled by chaparral and arid weather.
Occasionally, the fires were featured on the national news—causing millions of dollars in damaged property, displaced families, exhausted firefighters, and lost lives. Ash fell from the sky onto the shingles of my home, covering the patio with a layer of peppery flakes. One year I heard that the wildfire might jump the freeway, and the likelihood of a neighborhood evacuation was imminent.
As I glanced around my living quarters, taking stock of what I would take with me if I received an evacuation order, a thought flashed across my mind, echoing the apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13:13. If everything I possessed were tossed into the wildfire, what would be the one possession I did not yet own, but which I would exchange for all?
A harp, made of cherrywood, that I’d soon love almost as much as love itself.
Fortunately, the evacuation order never came. The fire never jumped the freeway, and the rain soon fell, extinguishing the wildfire, and the cooler weather of late autumn arrived.
While I rejoiced at surviving uncertainty in face of natural disaster, I lamented in the wake of its destruction. For days after the rain, I would sweep away the ash from the sills and crevices of the patio’s sliding door and my windows, a constant reminder of the fallen environment in which we dwell, if not a lingering trace of grief.
In this ash-laden time of lament, I decided to learn to play the folk harp. I bought a cherrywood harp hand-carved by a retired aerospace engineer, now a luthier by avocation. His spouse is a professional musician whose life turned upside down when she was in an accident; she repositioned her gifting and skills to composing for the harp and folk harp performance.
The cherrywood harp—I selected cherrywood in honor of Emily Dickinson’s writing desk—rode a Greyhound bus all by herself across three states to my front door, wrapped in yards of cellophane, tape, popcorn foam, and cardboard. The harp’s name is Alabanza, which is Spanish for praise.
By teaching myself to play the lyre-like instrument, my songs of lament gradually changed into songs of praise. The folk harp is usually played or performed across cultures in community—with other harpists, at festivals, as a part of rituals or ceremonies. I joined a virtual community of global harpists who would sign up to play together at certain days and times, wherever they were, for the sake of peacemaking.Now in this time of a pandemic and the Great Resignation, the harp calluses on my fingers have long vanished along with daily practice, yet Alabanza waits like a silent, three-foot tall angel in the upstairs poetry room of my house, a gentle muse with the power of lament, through the Holy Spirit, to bring God’s people to repentance and confession, out of exile, and finally, to change our mourning into dancing as in Psalm 30:11 NKJV.
When campuses across the U.S. were pivoting to distance education, N.T. Wright sat down with Christianity Today to discuss his essay on God, the pandemic, and the psalms of lament which appeared in Time magazine. Andy Bannister asked the question, “So, in light of the suffering caused by the pandemic: What should Christians be doing now? How then should we live?”
In reply, Wright points us to Acts 11, when the disciples in Antioch hear a prophetic warning about a famine; instead of asking existential questions, the disciples want to know what they can do to help. The subsequent outcome is that Paul and Barnabas go to Jerusalem with money for the impoverished church. Similarly, in John 9, when the disciples ask Jesus whose fault it was that a man was born blind, or who sinned, the relevant question to pose is, “What would God have us do in response?”
I consulted with Tim Larsen, McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, who suggested that I should consider gathering faculty voices to consider lament as a Christian pedagogical tool for this series. For educators, how does lament as a category of “heart action,” both individual and corporate, guide us from the sackcloth and ashes of repentance to meaningful change? How does the knowledge of a weeping God—that Jesus, the Son of God, wept at the death of a loved one—frame, edify, or inform our instruction about natural disaster, poverty, or conflict?
Additionally, how can we use lament as a Christian pedagogical tool in our instructional approach and our curriculum, cultivating those habits of mind and virtues actively reflected in lifestyle and vocation? It’s my hope this blog series will explore these questions by presenting a variety of lenses through the disciplines of theology, literature, psychology, anthropology, and possibly more to elucidate a range of pedagogical approaches: whether we traverse the pathway of lament to repentance and revival, or rise from the ashes despair through lament to praise, we do so in a spirit of expectancy, wherein we seek—not always God’s immediate answers— but rather, what God would have us do.
I really look forward to how she unfolds this. “Negative” responses to the realities of living in a world that is rich in opportunity for lament are often papered over rather than allowing the lament response to play itself out. Thanks.
Reading this essay reminded me of the hundreds of times that I have listened to Bruce Springsteen’s (1995) Ghost of Tom Joad album. It was an album of laments about the dust bowl, border issues in California, and poverty, ending with the final track entitled “My Best was Never Good Enough.” The next time that I listen (won’t be long), I will hear it with new ears.
Thank you, Karen! We miss you in Southern California!