written by Bradford Mercer, Senior Associate Pastor

O hushed October morning mild,

Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;

Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild,

Should waste them all. 

Robert Frost 

How long must I take counsel in my soul 

and have sorrow in my heart all the day? 

Psalm 13:2 

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears. 

Hebrews 5:7

I like cemeteries, old October cemeteries. I suspect I’m not the only one. There is something deeply moving about the quiet and the colors, and knowing that a chill breeze will soon “waste them all,” in the words of Robert Frost. For me, the experience strikes a much-needed minor key. The Bible has word for it: lament.

Last year, just before my biennial trip to New England with Cindy, I came across an article on the Gospel Coalition website, “Strong Churches Speak the Language of Lament,” by Mark Vroegop. He begins the article this way:

On a frigid day in February, I lowered the tiny casket of my daughter into a newly dug grave. A few days earlier, my wife had given birth to our stillborn daughter, Sylvia, after carrying her for nearly nine months. Her due date was just a few days away. And then Sylvia’s heart stopped beating with no explanation. . . . It was the beginning of a long journey.

He continues:

And while we finally conceived and gave birth to healthy daughter a few years later, we fought every day not to yield to the crushing grip of anxiety and fear. Through this painful odyssey, it seemed something was missing. . . . Looking back, I can now see that the missing element in our grief was a familiarity with lament—heartfelt and honest talking to God through the struggles of life.

“My heart longed for the minor-key tune of lament—a song for when you are living between the poles of a hard life and trust in God’s sovereign care,” Vroegop concludes.

When a man is drowning, so the saying goes, he doesn’t need a feel-good anvil. Neither does he need a lecture on streamlining his freestyle stroke. He needs a life preserver—now. For those drowning in grief, that life preserver is a biblical understanding and application of how to be sad, how to grieve, how to pray through the pain.

The Bible is honest with us about grief. The book of Job draws us into the problem of undeserved personal suffering. Lamentations tells us a story of fully deserved national suffering. One third of the Psalms are lament. When Mary collapses at Jesus’s feet in tears over her brother’s death, he is so “deeply moved” and “greatly troubled” that he just stops and weeps (John 11:31-35).

The book of Jonah gives us a paradigm prayer for lament. The context of Jonah 2 is storm, fear, depression, despair, and darkness. Jonah has hit rock bottom. He expects to drown, and then he finds himself in the belly of a sea monster! Here’s what he does:

  • He cries out to God (2:1). “I called out to God, out of my distress, and he answered me.”
  • He affirms that God is sovereign. God has a purpose and plan (2:3). “For you cast me into the deep.”
  • He is honest with God about his pain (2:1-7). He cries, “the flood surrounded me,” and “my life was fainting away.”
  • He admits that his idols can’t help him (2:8). It won’t help to “pay regard to vain idols.”
  • He thanks God for salvation (2:9). With a “voice of thanksgiving” he declares, “Salvation belongs to the LORD!”

In our worship service this Sunday we will sing Martin Luther’s hymn based on Psalm 130. Many of us have it memorized. It strikes the same longed-for “minor key” as Jonah 2:

From the depths of woe I raise to Thee

The voice of lamentation;

Lord, turn a gracious ear to me

And hear my supplication. . . . 

Our Shepherd good and true is He,

Who will at last His Israel free

From all their sin and sorrow.