Saturday, May 11, 2019

Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy {A Book Review}

This decade, and especially the last 2 ½ years, have given me ample opportunity to grow well-acquainted with grief. Grieving, however, is not something I seem to be mastering with practice. Granted, I have some idea now what to expect: the initial physical as well as emotional incapacitation, the unexpected and inevitably inconvenient waves of fresh tears, the gradual lessening of the intensity of those first days, the sadness of firsts and anniversaries.

Deep down, I know that lament is the wise, healthy, uniquely Christian path through grief. I know the components and biblical basis for lament, the genre of at least one-third of the Psalms; I’ve even shared it with others at retreats and on my blog. Some of us neglect lament because of simple ignorance; others, like me, neglect it because it is hard work. After the initial all-consuming grief of the first month or two or six after a loss, it seems easier in the moment to stuff it into an emotional closet and slam the door. Maybe even padlock it. Sadly, it grows behind that door and will break through more powerfully and perhaps destructively at some later date if we persist in that pattern. (At least, that has been my observation. I am not a pastoral or mental health professional.)

Pastor Mark Vroegop’s excellent new book, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament, addresses both obstacles to lament: lack of knowledge and lack of motivation. He takes a pastoral and Bible-rooted approach to lament and extends its application beyond my previous reading and thoughts. This is the first published resource I would pull out for sharing the ideas of lament with a ministry professional or someone at a place in their grieving process where they might be ready to read again and take their own laments to the Lord. Moreover, it is the best book I have read so far in 2019, in its author’s success at the task he set for himself, the worthiness of that task, and the content’s suitability to my own place in life.

Pastor Vroegop’s book comprises 3 sections: a consideration of 4 lament Psalms for learning to lament, a thoughtful examination of the biblical book of Lamentations for learning from lament, and a personal and corporate applications section for learning with lament. The corporate application thoughts particularly expanded my thinking beyond previous study, but I think his ideas are good and helpful as a means of grieving together in the body of Christ, whether in small groups or as a congregation. He commends to the reader congregational lament as one helpful, healing response to tragedy, such as this week’s school shooting, and some of the weighty, painful social issues, such as racial conflict, that we face.

Here is one illustrative paragraph from the application section that may prove useful even separated from the greater context of the book:
I’m not naive enough to believe that lament is the single solution for racial tension. There is much work to be done in listening, understanding, addressing injustice, and fostering hope. But I do think lament is a starting point—a place where people from majority and minority backgrounds can meet. The beauty of this biblical language of sorrow is its ability to provide a bridge robust enough to handle outrage and empathy, frustration and faith, fear and hope. Lament can be our first step toward one another when racial tension could drive a wedge. It is a God-given means for vocalizing complicated and loaded pain. For centuries lament has been the minor-key voice of people in pain. It is the language of loss that should be prayed together. While lament can be applied to moments of individual loss, its redemptive power is multiplied as we pursue it together. Whether it is expressed in a funeral, modeled in a sermon, prayed or sung in a worship service, applied in a small group, or voiced in the middle of racial tension, lamenting together is an essential ministry of the body of Christ (2555).

To further support his intention of the reader using these thoughts and not stopping at comprehension, he closes each chapter with reflection questions suitable to individual or group use. I found these helpful, stretching, and thoughtful. The four appendices provide additional tools for the reader’s practice of lament: examples of complaints in the Bible, a sampling of Psalms of lament, a worksheet or template for processing one’s own laments, and examples of the but/yet emotional pivot common to the laments of Scripture. Though brief, these do add value to the book.

The easy-to-remember structure he uses for biblical lament can be expressed in 4 words: turn, complain, ask, and trust. First, the lamenter turns to the Lord, which can be surprisingly difficult when enduring pain we know He could have stopped but didn’t. Then the lamenter complains or cries out, asking the honest how and why questions and refusing to respond to pain by “giving God the silent treatment.” Then the lamenter asks the Lord for help, comfort, relief, healing,…. In deep pain, especially prolonged and intense pain, it is unbelievably easy for devout believers to stop asking. Perhaps we have already prayed our hearts out and the Lord said no, so hoping again with fresh requests feels to risky. Perhaps belief in God’s willingness to hear and answer is wavering. Vroegop encourages us to use the discipline of lament to push past those fears and ask boldly, with big requests. Finally, most laments in Scripture end with a resolution to trust God in the pain, however He may answer. The author shares anecdotes of the use of lament in community, which allows the faith of a person near the pain to bolster the trembling faith of the person in the depths of the pain. I have experienced this but not connected it with the practice of lament.

The extended examination of Lamentations struck me as unusual (never having heard a sermon on it or read perhaps even a single complete book chapter on it) but useful. Jeremiah’s need and complaints were extreme indeed, so this section fleshes out just how specific and ugly our complaint prayers are free to be. Vroegop also highlights the gem of a statement of trust at the heart of the book (in Lamentations 3).

Pithy, memorable sentences starting with “Lament is…” or “Lament [does]…” are scattered throughout the book. These would be worth compiling into a handout if using this in a grief group. Perhaps that would even be another useful appendix in a future edition. Here are several:
  • Lament is the honest cry of a hurting heart wrestling with the paradox of pain and the promise of God’s goodness (Kindle location 336).
  • Lament is a prayer in pain that leads to trust (370).
  • Lament creates a path through the messy wilderness of pain (1166).
  • Lament is the language of loss as we grieve together (2566).
  • Lament helps us embrace two truths at the same time: hard is hard; hard is not bad (2602).
  • Lament is the bridge between dark clouds and deep mercy (2612).
All in all, I found this book extremely helpful, clearly communicated, and pastoral in tone and tenderness. I intend to buy copies for some of the pastoral staff at my church (most likely to have direct care of grieving people) and a couple to have on hand as the need arises with others. I highly recommend it. Those who do not have direct care for the grieving or an immediate need of guidance through their own grief would find it useful in loving the grieving people they know who need encouragement or permission to turn to the Lord with their honest complaints and biggest requests and help to trust Him in the middle of the pain.

The author himself can perhaps conclude this reflection best:
Lament is how we bring our sorrow to God. Without lament we won’t know how to process pain. Silence, bitterness, and even anger can dominate our spiritual lives instead. Without lament we won’t know how to help people walking through sorrow. Instead, we’ll offer trite solutions, unhelpful comments, or impatient responses. What’s more, without this sacred song of sorrow, we’ll miss the lessons historic laments are intended to teach us. Lament is how Christians grieve. It is how to help hurting people. Lament is how we learn important truths about God and our world. My personal and pastoral experience has convinced me that biblical lament is not only a gift but also a neglected dimension of the Christian life for many twenty-first-century Christians. A broken world and an increasingly hostile culture make contemporary Christianity unbalanced and limited in the hope we offer if we neglect this minor-key song. We need to recover the ancient practice of lament and the grace that comes through it. Christianity suffers when lament is missing (300).

Crossway provided my free copy of this eBook in exchange for an honest review. In this case, that was a delight to provide.