Our youngest son is just now beginning to communicate vocally. His older sister is forming sentences and learning new words every day, but we are just as pleased with the occasional grunt or squeal we get out of him. On one level, we are excited because this means that he is developing normally—something we never want to take for granted. But on an entirely different level, it also means that each day we are closer to hearing him describe his world in a way that we can understand. He is slowly learning to use his words.
The ability to articulate our hopes, dreams, fears, and emotions is part of what makes us human. Yet there are moments when personal, national, or even global tragedies leave us speechless. Our normal ability to put words to our emotions is gone. When this happens, the tragedy itself is magnified. Not only did something terrible happen, but we now find ourselves unable to process the tragedy the way we usually process other significant moments in our lives. We are at a loss for words.
To complicate matters further, there are different types of speechlessness. There are times when a tragedy occurs and we are speechless from a sense of apathy. “I don’t hurt enough to put words to this tragedy, even though I feel like I should.” There are other times when we are speechless from a deep sense of pain. “I hurt too much to put words to this tragedy.” Either way, the speechlessness itself contributes to our experience of sorrow.
This is part of the beauty of passages like Romans 8:26-27. Christians facing tragedy are assured that the Spirit is able to “intercede for us with groaning too deep for words.” When we are left speechless from apathy, and we “do not know what to pray for as we ought”, the Spirit prays on our behalf. When we are left speechless because we hurt too much, the Spirit interprets our groans and aches for us. This is exactly the type of thing that we should expect the God of the Bible to do; at the heart of the Christian Gospel is God doing something on our behalf that we are unable to do on our own.
The same Holy Spirit who interprets our groans when we cannot find the words to pray also provides us with words to use in the midst of tragedy when we are unable to use our own. Literature of lament is found all throughout the Christian Scriptures. These passages offer more than a window into the lament of those who have gone before us; they offer us actual words to use in the midst of our lament.
About a year ago, in preparation for a class I was teaching, I listened to a series of Old Testament lectures by Dr. John Goldingay of Fuller Theological Seminary. As I skimmed through the lecture titles, I noticed that there was a large gap in the date between two lectures that would normally be delivered back-to-back. I skipped ahead and listened to the first lecture after the gap, and was shocked by what I heard. In the middle of his course on the Pentateuch, Dr. Goldingay’s wife passed away. In the first lecture back after his wife’s funeral, he did something with Scripture that I would never have thought to do. After sharing a bit about his wife and their life together, he invited his students to join him in reading the account of Moses’ own death and funeral found in Deuteronomy 34. At some point, the reading ended and his prayer began; a reading about the end of Moses’ life soon became a prayer about the end of Ann’s life.
Scripture gives us words to use when we are speechless. What do you say in a funeral of a loved one who was taken abruptly? Or when you are on your way to visit a friend who has lost yet another baby?
“He has filled me with bitterness,
he has sated me with wormwood.
He has made my teeth grind on gravel,
and made me cower in ashes;
my soul is bereft of peace.” (Lamentations 1:15-17)
And eventually, through the power of the Holy Spirit, you might soon be able to replace those words with these:
“But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end.” (Lamentations 1:21-22)
It would be impossible to exhaust the power of the words that Scripture offers us in the face of tragedy. But the same Holy Spirit who provided these words in Scripture has also remained active in the life of the Church. Some of the words prayed in the midst of tragedy by God’s people throughout the Christian centuries have been recorded and preserved. There are few better collections of these words than the various Prayer Books that have appeared in a variety of Christian traditions. For those of us in the English-speaking world, the most notable of these is the Book of Common Prayer. Consider these words, prayed at the burial of a child, which remind all those who are present that this child is now being cared for by the one who loves them best:
“O God, whose beloved Son took children into his arms and blessed them: Give us grace to entrust N. to your never-failing care and love.”
Or these words, which both affirm our continual love for someone while also allowing us room to use words to express the grief that they are no longer around:
“Father of all, we pray to you for N., and for all those whom we love but see no longer. Grant to them eternal rest.”
“There are no words.” And yet there are. Part of the task of the classical educator is to realize that when we introduce students to literature of lament—be it Job, A Grief Observed, or The Book of Common Prayer—we are actually being used by the Holy Spirit to help our students learn to process the tragedies we know they will face throughout their lives.