“Lament for Haiti”
By Benjamin K. Homan
Food for the Hungry
More than 220,000 people perished.
More than 700,000 people displaced from their homes.
70% of the schools destroyed.
Life disrupted – and changed forever – for millions more.
The Haiti earthquake staggers the mind – and breaks the heart.
I felt torn as I went to Haiti, a tragedy that evoked hard memories of past emergencies. Still, having walked through what I can only call an “open graveyard” in post-tsunami zones and seen terror in the bullet-ridden hospitals of Baghdad, Haiti’s lament summoned. Yet I also knew such calls included searching for elusive words to say in unspeakable situations.
Haiti was no different.
My first morning in post-earthquake Port-au-Prince, I glanced at the schedule. To my surprise, my name was listed next to “Staff devotions.” I winced. What would I say? What could I say? All around us was indescribable loss, the crush of debris and even the stench of bodies trapped in the rubble. In the dim morning light, I muttered a simple prayer: “God help me.”
The day before, I saw many of the 337 makeshift camps that contain an estimated 550,000 displaced people. Children roved by themselves. Bed sheets hung loosely as roofs and walls. Desperate stares. Pancaked buildings. Twisted rebar. Rescue crews. And the vacant eyes of survivors. I donned a face mask to fight the terrible odor. A staff member recounted pulling 15 bodies from his collapsed apartment building. “I was 5 minutes from death,” he said, reflecting on how far away he was from his home at the time of the quake. “I arrived home to find the bodies of six sisters huddled in one place; they died together.”
I fumbled through my Bible, hoping for God’s Spirit to speak to my soul and arrived at the Old Testament book of Lamentations – written, scholars believe, by the “weeping prophet,” Jeremiah. “A book about lamenting,” I thought. “That should do.” From my bedside, I devoured all five very hard, grief-filled chapters of Israel’s defeat, devastation, captivity and exile.
Questions streamed through my head. How do you process the intensity of Haiti’s tragedy? How does one understand the huge loss of so many, many people? I read the prophets words, “Your wound is as deep as the sea. Who can heal you?” (Lamentations 2:13). Exactly, I thought.
As I tried to grasp the pain and suffering around me, I clung to three big ideas that gave comfort and hope – notions that I needed for my own sustenance – and that I shared with our staff on that morning. Below I have recorded an updated version of those rough ideas:
Through Lamentations, God invites us to into 1) honesty, 2) relationships and 3) humility.
- God invites us into HONESTY.
As I read the pages of Lamentations, I was struck with the raw emotions and stark descriptions.
- “My eyes fail from weeping,
I am in torment within,
my heart is poured out on the ground
because my people are destroyed,
because children and infants faint
in the streets of the city,” Lamentations 2:11
- “…your children…faint from hunger at the head of every street…. Whom have you ever treated like this?” Lamentations 2:19, 20
- “This is why I weep
and my eyes overflow with tears.
No one is near to comfort me,
no one to restore my spirit.
My children are destitute
because the enemy has prevailed.” Lamentations 1:16
- “You, O LORD, reign forever; your throne endures from generation to generation. Why do you always forget us? Why do you forsake us so long?” Lamentations 5:19-20
As I read these rugged verses in Lamentations along with Psalms of lament, such as Psalm 10, I was struck at the emotional range and space that God’s prophet uses to lead others into lament. Is God really that big and expansive to invite His people to wail, to weep, to complain – and even to, at times, lodge charges of abandonment on heaven’s doorstep? The answer is “yes.”
God invites our honesty. He will meet us on the “holy ground” of our expressed sorrow, our lament, and He is doing this in Haiti. Yet I am convinced, as I read Scripture and understand more of God’s amazing emotional depth, that the path of healing for Haiti must first route itself through grief. Lament cannot be healthily by-passed. God can deal with our brutal emotional expression – and beckons us to come close with all of our hurts. He wants to touch us and heal us at that level.
- God invites us into RELATIONSHIPS.
Lamentations was not written as a private journal or secret diary. It was inspired and preserved for a collective purpose in the life of God’s people. Indeed, it was written as a community document, in poetic form, that would facilitate a shared historical experience. It builds a lexicon of suffering, a model of how to communicate about epic loss. Yet while the Book of Lamentations at its most basic structural level strings together five poems that key off of Hebrew acrostics, the book trail blazes vulnerability with others and a group sharing of hard emotions. But the prophet does not stop at the transparent exposure of feelings. He also goes down the brave path of confession.
- “My sins have been bound to a yoke….” Lamentations 1:14
- “The Lord is righteous, yet I rebelled against His command,” Lamentations 1:18
- “The crown has fallen from our head. Woe to us, for we have sinned! Because of this our hearts are faint, because of these things our eyes grow dim.” Lamentations 5:16-17
After I shared my thoughts about Lamentations with our staff in Port-au-Prince, I was with one of Food for the Hungry’s trained trauma counselors inside the wreckage of a neighborhood Haitian church. With holes in the ceiling above and crumbling walls, he distributed blank sheets of paper, pencils and crayons to each of these precious Haitian quake survivors. At a crude table, he invited the group to draw pictures of their earthquake experience. Where were they? What do they remember? The group quietly drew – and then they spoke, wept and discussed. The community of quake survivors found a common voice in their drawings – and it allowed them to take an early step toward processing their pain and receiving God’s comfort – in the context of relationships.
My own natural tendency when I return from disaster zones is to shrink away into private reflection. “Leave me alone,” I sometimes think. Yet withdrawing from relationships is no path for restoration or depth of healing from trauma. God grants relationships as a means of recovery from wounds. “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn,” (Romans 12:15). We are invited in the community of faith to meet each other across our vast spectrum of both easy and difficult emotions. Of course, this has implications not only for folks who experience suffering, but also those in close proximity. Sometimes, the bystanders of pain must go in pursuit of a friend or loved one who is hurt. No one who is injured should bear the burden alone. “Bear one another’s burdens and thus fulfill the law of Christ,” Galatians 6:2.
As I emerged from post-earthquake Haiti, I dedicated the better part of a day to talk with a friend who is also a pastor and trained counselor. I shared what I saw and experienced in Haiti. I grieved for the man with mangled legs who dragged himself everywhere with his arms. I told of a restless, almost mob-like situation surrounding our distribution of health and hygiene boxes – and I felt graced with the restorative impact that flows from close relationships. One of my prayers for Haiti is that it will become a nation of “wounded healers” who bless and restore each other, in part, through the ability to express loss. In the context of relationships, we can remind people in pain that what Jesus said is true, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” Matthew 11:28.
- God invites us into HUMILITY.
The prophet in the Book of Lamentations, viewing the tragic events for the Hebrews, offers no pat answers or definitive answers as to the “why” question of suffering. He offers no explicit, one-size-fits-all philosophical statements on the problem of pain. To be blunt, the book affirms that suffering perplexes and that we lack God’s full perspective. The Hebrew reader at the time of the book’s writing would likely have been instructed in the Law of Moses and be familiar with Deuteronomy 29:29, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.” There are realities hidden from view. There are answers we do not have.
In the life of my own family, we have no clear understanding of why my wife has the disease Multiple Sclerosis. My father and my wife’s father both died from the same form of cancer. One lived to age 86; the other did not reach 70 years. Why such different courses for the same diagnosis? We do not know. The complexities of not knowing can be frustrating – yet we are allowed and even invited to struggle, wrestle and dispute. At the end of the day, mysteries and secrets remain – and starkly remind us of human limits. In short, the secret things of this world humble us. I am finite; God is not. And it is perhaps in this recognition of my shortcomings and limited view of reality that I can gain a larger view of the greatness of God. As we learn in Lamentations 3:22-23, “Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” God is great; I am not great. It is a humbling truth to which pain and suffering can bring us.
A reflection on lament cannot be complete without acknowledging Jesus’ lament. Recall that desperate moment on the cross as Jesus completed His selfless act of redemption and sacrifice, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).
Jesus’ lament, which marks an amazing moment in redemptive history in which He bore the penalty of sin, was likely not in clear view of the writer of the Book of Lamentations or its initial audience. Think of it. The Creator God becomes human, bears our burdens and cries out in lament. Though the prophet Isaiah predicted the Messiah to be a “Man of sorrows” (Isaiah 53:3), the notion then of a suffering Savior was not fully grasped. Yet being a reader of the Book of Lamentations on this side of the cross, I can only stand in greater amazement and worship of God for entering our world of lament, suffering on the cross and truly becoming a “Wonderful Counselor” (Isaiah 9:6) who meets us in our pain and binds up our wounds.
As we pray for Haiti and as we connect with each other through our own lamenting, be reminded that lament also represents an invitation. Lament can be a part of our journey into honesty, relationships and humility. God meets us there in hard, but intimate communion.
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