Lesson Four: Lamenting Death
Focus Scripture: John 11:28–37
Lesson Four may be about the aspect of lament we have experienced most personally. The death of someone we love is something we know how to lament, and lament in the truest Biblical sense. We cry to God knowing there is nothing we can do to change the situation. The person we love is gone. When we cry to God to act, the only acting that can be done is to us. Ease our grief, loving God. Redeem our memories, eternal God. Give us acceptance, merciful God. Let us heal, God of wholeness.
It may be that congregations do their best ministering during times of grief. The Congregational Care (or whatever you call it in your Church) committee springs into action, reaching out to families who are grieving even as a Pastor meets with them to talk about services and schedules. How can we help? What can we do?
I have been the pastor in some of those situations and I was on the outskirts of such things when my grandparents died. But I was in the thick of it when my Dad died in 2016. Twenty years earlier, my parents (living in a different state) were part of a congregation whose pastor was excellent at helping members think about their own funeral services. As a result, long before it was needed, we had a list of Dad’s preferences for hymns and scriptures that witnessed to his faith in God and his belief in resurrection. I wrote the liturgy and planned the service in consultation with my mother. The service was very much my Dad. We rejoiced for the gift of Dad’s life, and we lamented his loss. Our laments were sung and prayed in that service. I also called out for God to heal my heart and my spirit.
In a recent PW Zoom Gathering I was asked if laments had to be words. And the answer is, “Absolutely not.” Laments can take many forms, and I think one of the most universal forms is when we provide funeral food. Providing food for grieving loved ones is a lament we can do.
After my Dad’s service the church provided lunch for our family (and there were a bunch of us—aunts and uncles, cousins, friends, and more). I had made dozens of giant chocolate chip cookies, Dad’s favorites, and packaged them in cellophane bags tied with ribbon. Every time I made those cookies Dad would say something like, “You aren’t going to give those to other people, are you? You should leave them all here with me.” We laughed as we gave every last cookie away, each with a tag that said, “Please enjoy a cookie on your way home. These were Dad’s favorites.” We knew Dad was laughing, too.
After lunch, family and friends from out of town came back to Mom and Dad’s house. We visited and laughed and told stories and caught up. With people coming to Mississippi from as far away as Oklahoma and Virginia, and every state in between I think, we wanted as much time possible together before everyone headed to hotels for the night and then, as the weekend ended, returned to their homes.
Our time together was extended that Friday because no one had to leave to get dinner. A longtime friend, Betty, had brought supper for us. Betty and her husband and my Mom and Dad had been single people and young married couples together. They were in each other’s weddings. Literally, they had been friends for half a century. And they were all members of the same congregation.
Betty had brought lasagna. Salad and bread, too, because salad makes it healthy. Now I don’t mean she brought a little casserole. It was a large glass casserole dish full to the brim with a multi-layered lasagna. That thing was almost 5 quarts of lasagna. I looked up the particular casserole size online, and the dish alone weighs more than 5 lbs. Imagine it filled to the brim with noodles and meat sauce and gooey melted cheese. It was a giant casserole dish, heavy with its contents.
You would have thought we hadn’t eaten in weeks the way that lasagna disappeared. I took a photo of the mostly empty casserole to send to Betty so she would know how much we all appreciated our dinner. The dish was mostly scraped clean with one sad little corner of lasagna waiting to be put into a container for the refrigerator.
We often use the phrase “comfort food” to talk about the foods that make us feel better. That lasagna was comfort food. The cookies were comfort food. The meal at the church after the service was comfort food. They were comfort in the original meaning of the word. While we think of comfort as soothing and consoling, something that eases our grief, the word’s origin tells a different story. The word comfort in English is a prepositional phrase in Latin (com, with + fortis, strength). Comfort, at least in its origins, isn’t about soothing us, it’s about making us stronger.
Lament does the same thing: it makes us stronger. Stronger because we acknowledge that God is the one who can help, and we remember that we have an ongoing relationship with God. We proclaim that though there is nothing more we can do with our own strength, the God who created and redeemed us will sustain us, will hear us, and will act for us. We are comforted.
P. Lynn Miller.
Author and Illustrator of the 2020–2021 PW/Horizons Bible Study
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