“God Laments” — Remembrance Sunday for Child and Infant Loss

Psalm 139:1, 13-18; Psalm 13
Matt Goodale
October 17, 2021

We live in a society that values strength and resilience. The stories and myths that formed our nation’s identity and live in our collective imagination are ones that depict someone who was able to rise up against all odds, someone who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and succeeded where nobody else thought they would.

We live in a society that rewards optimism and chooses to perceive the bright side of things. Because after all, we’ve inherited a legacy of overcoming, so who says that shouldn’t be our story too??

These values of optimism and resilience and strength live on in the stories we tell about ourselves and that we expect from others. Social media is one of the places that most clearly platforms these values. If you use social media, whenever you log on, you’re met mostly with smiling faces, beautiful vacations, incredible diy and fix-it-up projects, news of successful endeavors, newly purchased homes, new promotions, and birth announcements.

Church too, I think, can often resemble our social media feeds. We believe that we must come to church in our “Sunday best”, whether that be slick clothing or a put-together life. Even if we are hurting inside, even if we feel broken and a mess, we feel that we must “keep it together”, to put on a brave face, to show that we have the right kind of faith or the right kind of “stuff” that makes for a good life. As a people we are well-versed in the language of triumph and success, of resilience and overcoming.

But what happens when tragedy strikes, and we can no longer pretend to be “ok”? What happens when we experience a loss that leaves us so broken, that we no longer believe resilience will be the ending to our story?

Today we’re addressing one of the awful tragedies of life: the loss of a baby or a child. A tragedy is a tragedy, and there’s no point comparing them, because any death, whether it be of a spouse, a loved one, a friend or a child, will break us. The words contained in this message can apply to any great loss we have suffered, but for today I will focus on the searing loss experienced by parents who have lost a baby during pregnancy or infancy, or have lost a child to death. It is a tragedy whether that child lived 10 years or 40 years, or whether that child ever experienced life outside the womb.

Jayson Greene notes, based on his own experience losing a baby, “that we have language to describe other losses. Children who lose parents are orphans; bereaved spouses are widows. “But what do you call parents who lose children?” Jayson writes, “It seems telling to me there is no word in our language for our situation. It is unspeakable, and by extension, we are not supposed to exist.”

The tragic loss of a child, whether they were taken from your arms or from your womb, brings with it the constant reminder that there will always be a hole in your life. Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, birthdays, anniversaries, questions like “how many kids do you have?”, no matter how far removed from the loss, will always bring back some amount of pain and heartache, reminding you that your life is not whole, and that it may never be whole again.

Over the days, weeks, months and years after a child’s death, well-meaning people try their best to comfort you and speak to you about what they can’t imagine. But they only have the language of optimism and resilience; they only have the stories of triumph and overcoming. And so they say horrible, painful things, like, “Well at least you got pregnant again, or at least you have three other children.” Or “It’s good you were only 10 weeks pregnant and not 40 weeks.” Or “God causes all things for a reason and God will surely make something good come from this.”

Zoe-Clark Coates writes about another phrase she would hear in Christian community after she lost her baby: “You will never be given more than you can handle.” Her response was: “to this I holler bull-crap!’ Of course life does … No one is built to be able to bury their child, to say goodbye to the person they created, this is way too much for a human soul to process and carry. We crawl through the pain on our knees, and we can’t handle it, we just have no option but to survive it.”

As the months and years pass after a loss, some people are unable to understand why you haven’t been able to move on, why you haven’t been able to overcome such grief yet. They politely smile and nod, or offer more platitudes, but they are unable to enter into grief with you. What are they supposed to say? Our society hasn’t given us language, hasn’t provided us with stories or a framework to sit in the immense grief of a mother and father bereaved by the loss of their baby or child. We do not know how to grieve.

As American Christians, we have lost the holy language of our faith ancestors. We have lost, or perhaps never learned that the Hebrew people had a language for this, a language for when tragedy or trouble struck. It was the language of lament.

Psalm 13 is written in this holy language of lament:

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
    How long will my grief triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my grief will say, “I have overcome them,”
    and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

This Psalm is one of many that express a holy anger, a holy protest, a holy sadness and grief at how things have turned out. Out of the 150 Psalms in the Bible, over one-third of them are prayers of lament. The Hebrew people were not afraid of the raw emotions that come with grief, but they gave space for that grief to be heard and expressed.

“How long, O Lord?” Hebrew lament provides space for the person in trouble or in grief to express the very raw and very real experiences that come with being human. Lament doesn’t require you to clean yourself up to be presentable to your fellow believers or your God. Lament is raw and uncensored. Lament is anything but family friendly. The psalmists and poets that engage in lament throughout scripture do not hold back. They name their pain. They show anger at God – fear, resentment, anxiety, and a deep, hollow sadness. “How long, O Lord, will my grief triumph over me?”

Lament features heavily throughout the biblical story, and is especially intertwined with the experiences of bereaving mothers. Scripture shows us the grief and lament of mothers like Bathsheba, Hannah, Mary, Sarah, Hagar, Moses’ mother, and Rachel.

“A cry is heard in Ramah—loud wailing and bitter weeping—Rachel, weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted for her children, who are gone” (Jer. 31:15; Matt. 2:18). Rachel, one of the matriarchs of Israel weeps for her children who are gone. She is quoted again in Matthew, during Jesus’ birth narrative when Herod kills all of the infants in Bethlehem.

Even Jesus’ birth story, which was supposed to be one of the most beautiful stories of all time, is riddled with grief and death. Even as God enters human history, it is human lament that rings out. Rachel turns in her grave as her children are killed. And she will not be consoled. She will not allow the message of triumph to drown out her grief; she will not allow optimism to silence her sorrow. She stakes her ground and let’s her grief be heard, because she knows it is the most honest and holy thing she has to offer.

The Hebrews knew that in the face of such tragedy, in the midst of such grief, there are no easy answers, there are no sufficient platitudes, there is no final comfort to be offered. There can only be a raw plea to God, a cry for help, a cry of “How long, O Lord?” The beauty of these passages is their very realness.

“Christians, I think, don’t know how to talk about miscarriage, or about child loss, because we’ve forgotten how to really talk about grief. We’ve forgotten that there is no clean church answer” (Ciera Horton McElroy).

We don’t know how to enter into the grief of parents who lost their baby during pregnancy and will never hold them in their arms. We don’t know how to grieve what it’s like to have so few memories or only painful memories attached to a child who never took a breath. We don’t know how to listen to the shame of a mother who wonders whether the miscarriage was her fault, whether there was something different she could have done. We don’t know how to enter into grief, and so we try to make things better, we try to fix it, we try to say things that ultimately cause more pain.

We demand that grief (our own and others’) be linear and sequential, like stepping stones. But the reality of grief is more messy than that. It comes and goes, it ebbs and flows, much like the waves of an ocean. God sits with us as the waves of our grief wash over us. We do not grieve alone.

As N.T. Wright wrote for TIME magazine last year, at the start of the pandemic, “The point of lament, woven thus into the fabric of the biblical tradition, is not just that it’s an outlet for our frustration, sorrow, loneliness and sheer inability to understand what is happening or why. The mystery of the biblical story is that God also laments [with us].”

The language of lament does not offer us a clean answer, it does not promise us a final comfort. But it does offer a hope that there is someone who is listening and who sees our grief. Lament affirms that ours is a God who mourns with us. Lament, even if it is only protest and anger at God, creates a holy space that affirms our grief matters to God. It affirms that your baby’s life, no matter how short, is precious to God, and that God’s tears fall to the ground with yours, in a sacred protest that knows life was never supposed to be this way.

At the climax of the biblical story, when God has finally come to save his people, we witness a strange sight. We witness, not a God who rides in on a white stallion, triumphing over evil and suffering with a sword or an act of strength. We do not witness a God who overcomes through strength, through resilience, optimism or superior faith. No.

At the climax of the biblical story, we witness a God who is battered and broken, who succumbs to suffering. We witness a God who laments, crying out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” The reality of grief is the seeming absence of God. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” “How long, O Lord, will you hide your face from me?”

We know how this story ends. We know that resurrection is on the horizon and after three days in the tomb, Jesus comes back from the dead. But we often forget the suffering of the cross. We forget the terrible, wretched silence that lasted for three whole days, while everyone who knew Jesus thought that was the end of the story. We jump too quickly to resurrection Sunday, forgetting that our very lives take place in between the cross and the resurrection, during that terrible, wretched silence when we hope for resurrection, but we have not yet tasted it, and we wonder whether it will really come to be.

Theologian, Clifton Black, writes about a December a few years ago, when he returned to the town he had grown up, to the cemetery where his family is buried. He tells this story, “Not far from my parents’ graves, the sunlight caught something that twinkled. Walking over for a better look, I discovered a Christmas tree: a foot tall, meticulously ornamented. Beside that miniature sat a tiny bear immaculately dressed. Though I saw no one else nearby, both decorations looked fresh enough to have been placed at the grave only five minutes earlier. I peered at the [gravestone], wondering if I would recognize the child’s name. I didn’t—but was thunderstruck by the inscribed dates: 1957-1959. In an eternal moment, the gravestone shuddered; tree and bear wept for a full sixty years of relentless loss.”

So it is with lament. Its very nature is constant and enduring. An impatient, triumphalistic, death-denying society demands that sufferers “get over it.” Across millennia, by contrast, the psalmist asks over and again, “How long, O Lord? How long?” In this life are things for which there’s no getting over; such belong to the land of lament.”

The Christian story does not offer us a hope that our lament, that our grief and our broken heart will ever be fully mended in this life. Your baby or your child will always live in your heart, and so your heart will always be partially or wholly broken.

The Christian story does offer us a different hope for this life though. It is a hope that God sees you and that your grief matters, that your tears are God’s tears. It is a hope that we have a God who welcomes the little children and who knows and loves them even as they are being formed in the womb.

It is a hope that we worship a God who also was battered and broken, who wrestled with the loneliness of grief, and who even in his resurrected form, still bears the wounds inflicted upon him. Even after he is resurrected, Jesus tells his disciples to put their fingers in his wounds to feel and to share his pain.

As Christians this is what we are all called to: to touch and to enter into another’s grief, leaving a holy space for lament, honoring the shadow of hope we all live under. Because in the midst of our grief, we are usually reminded of God’s presence through those moments and places where we really feel seen, and therefore not quite so alone: the embrace of a loved one, a church casserole that shows up on your doorstep, flowers from a friend who remembered a painful anniversary, the silence left by someone who doesn’t need you to rush into healing. These actions all bear witness to a God who sees us in our grief, and who sits with us in it.

As Christians, we do have hope that one day all things will be redeemed and one day our hearts will be made whole and one day death will not have the final word and somehow your child’s death will be made right. But Nicholas Wolterstorff, after the tragic loss of his son, knew that that hopeful day we all long for is not today. And so he wrote: “So I shall struggle to live the reality of Christ’s rising and death’s dying. In my living, my son’s dying will not be the last word. But as I rise up, I bear the wounds of his death. My rising does not remove them. They mark me. If you want to know who I am, put your hand in my wounds.” Amen.

Prayer of Lament

These are two prayers woven together; one for someone who has suffered the loss of a baby during pregnancy, and the other for someone who has lost a child during infancy or childhood. (Taken and compiled from Every Moment Holy Part II by Douglas Kaine McKelvey)

O Christ Who Gathered Children in Your Arms,

You know our ache. You know this void no human words can fill.

You understand this grief for our little one, lost while in the womb.

You were witness to our rising joy. You saw our crumbling hope. Now you behold our sinking sorrow.

Christ be merciful, for we are frail. And in our frailty we have suffered such loss.

Heavenly Father, see what room our love had already carved out—in our home and in our hearts—for the welcome and the wonder of this child, whose face we had not kissed, and whose tiny hands we had not held, but who had already grown so precious to us.

Christ be merciful, for we are frail. And in our frailty we have suffered such loss.

For here we have entered a communion, O Lord, a fellowship none have ever wished to join, of all mothers and fathers and families across time who have wept for their lost children.

We lament so much that now will never be. This child we lost will be for us in this life like a song unsung, and a story untold.

Christ be merciful, for we are frail. And in our frailty we have suffered such loss.

[Silence is Kept]

O God, my God!

O child, my child!

Sometimes there are no words.

[Silence is Kept]

O God who sees my suffering, I care little now what becomes of me—whether I prosper or diminish. I only want to hold my child again.

And all of life is hammered thin upon the anvil of these hard questions:

Why? And What now?

Why? And What now?

You have left in my heart

A hole as wide

As the world, my child,

And as long as the rest of my life.

O Christ, how will this ever be made right?

Oh Christ, why do you tarry so long, before you make this right?

Christ be merciful, for we are frail. And in our frailty we have suffered such loss.

[Silence is Kept]

And yet, even in our deep loss, O Lord, you have not abandoned us or left us without light and hope.

For we remember how you, Jesus, loved and welcomed little ones, touching their heads and blessing them, declaring that the kingdom of heaven belonged to these.

And you have told us that your promises are for us and for our children.

Christ be merciful, for we are frail. And in our frailty we have suffered such loss.

So let us learn to steward well this holy sorrow, assured that it is in some way the buried seed of a flower that will blossom into eternity.

Indeed, this future hope will not end the pain we feel today. It does not negate the emptiness of the womb where new life stirred. It does not fill the empty cradle. It does not fill our empty arms.

But it does declare that the empty cradle and the empty womb will not have power to grieve us forever, for one day our eternal joys will flow backward in time, even to this broken place.

Let us, in this and in all sorrows, be met by your lovingkindness and consoled by your hope.

For yours, O Mother,

Is the kingdom,

And the power,

And the glorious redemption

Of all our losses.

Even of this one.