Saturday, November 19, 2016

Lament Between the Paws: Walking with Aslan through Pain and Suffering - Part 1

I recently submitted an article for the special Fall 2016 edition of the Journal for Spiritual Formation and Soul Care on the topic of Lament. I received a copy this week and wanted to post the article here as well.

As I re-read the article in the print edition of the Journal, I experienced several things.

First, I remember how the project felt like a new kind of collaboration with Jesus. It was difficult for me to find time to write, let alone believe I had something worth saying. At least one mentor heard my idea and thought it was not relevant or scholarly enough, so I gave up on it for a few months. The burden I felt returned, so I kept thinking and praying about it. It was quite formative to lift it up to Jesus, hear his responses and to get to work on it in trust that he was with me and for me. Actually deciding to write with the Lord's help was a huge step for me, believing that I had something unique to say.

Second, my hyper-critical editor self came surging out, finding everything wrong with it that could be found. I'm not saying there isn't a time and place for editing, there is; but there is also a time to let it go as it is and trust it will accomplish something good. In the midst of such esteemed writers, I felt very, very small and incapable.

I brought this too to the Lord and felt his smile; he likes the imperfections because if the article has beauty and strength in it for others, then it is because of something other than polished perfection.

Third, related to the above, I felt a strange mixture of shame for being seen alongside the desperate longing to be noticed. This is nothing new to me, but becomes more intense when I engage in something public - writing or speaking, etc.

The Lord has been stabilizing my heart and granting me grace to let go of outcomes. I pray that others might find hope and help in my ramblings. I will post it in two parts due to length, but you can order print copies or subscribe here.


Learning Lament between the Paws: Walking with Aslan through Pain and Suffering
by Scott Holman, M.T.S


"Son of Adam," said Aslan. "Are you ready to undo the wrong that you have done to my sweet country of Narnia on the very day of its birth?"

"Well, I don't see what I can do," said Digory. "You see, the Queen ran away and - "
"I asked, are you ready?" said the Lion.
"Yes," said Digory. He had had for a second some wild idea of saying "I'll try to help you if you'll promise to help my Mother," but he realized in time that the Lion was not at all the sort of person one could try to make bargains with. But when he had said "Yes," he thought of his Mother, and he thought of the great hopes he had had, and how they were all dying away, and a lump came in his throat and tears in his eyes, and he blurted out:
"But please, please - won't you - can't you give me something that will cure Mother?" Up till then he had been looking at the Lion's great feet and the huge claws on them; now, in his despair, he looked up at its face. What he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own and (wonder of wonders) great shining tears stood in the Lion's eyes. They were such big, bright tears compared with Digory's own that for a moment he felt as if the Lion must really be sorrier about his Mother than he was himself.
"My son, my son," said Aslan. "I know. Grief is great. Only you and I in this land know that yet. Let us be good to one another.”[1]

Young Digory Kirke is in a bind. He desperately wants to find a way to save his mother who is dying from an illness and he thinks Aslan can help; but he also has to own up to harmful choices he has made. He is feeling torn apart by it all. As we eavesdrop on this scene from Narnia, we see lament at work. Lament is a desperate expression of grief, sorrow and loss. It is a useful tool to give voice to the pain one is experiencing, and it is a very human means of asking for relief, help and wisdom. It is the primary way persons have to incorporate difficult and traumatic experiences into their stories. Through lament, Digory connected with Aslan the Great Lion, and found something more precious than relief; he discovered shared intimacy. In the intimacy of shared experience with Infinite Goodness, there is a beauty that pierces deeper than pain.[2]
Placing Lament in Story
The revelation of God in Scripture is told in the form of a story - one vast, beautiful story centering on and culminating in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Within the broad strokes of this Story, we are presented with a variety of other literary genres that serve as lenses and connecting points between us and God. Since this is the way God chose to make himself known, we can assume that a great variety of genres are what is required for us to become entirely human, whole and holy before God in Christ. We need to be taught how to worship God, so we are given psalms, prophecies, laws and poetry. We need to be schooled in joy, so we are given history, gospel and song. Poetry, story and particularly lament are given to us to provide space and language to bring our losses to God.
            We were designed to have a richly interactive relationship with a Trinitarian God, where every aspect of our day to day lives gets taken up and immersed in the intimate life of the Triune God. Such a life becomes eternal because it becomes united with God’s life. Though we lost this with-God life in the fall, it is restored through union and communion with Christ. Indeed, this immersion into eternal life occurs over a lifetime of trusting in Jesus in all the ways that it is possible to trust a person, which includes pouring out one’s soul to God through various means and practices.

Arise, cry out in the night,
    as the watches of the night begin;
pour out your heart like water
    in the presence of the Lord. (Lamentations 2:19a, NIV)

Trust in him at all times, you people;
    pour out your hearts to him,
    for God is our refuge. (Psalm 62:8 NIV)

In the course of this interactive life, many deaths are required to fully embrace the Kingdom of God. As Paul and Barnabas reminded the believers of Asia Minor, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22 NIV). We are addicted to the running of our own kingdoms, so suffering often accompanies us in our journey toward Christlikeness. It is one of the most formative elements we encounter as we live life this side of Eden. Yet, it remains one of the least understood elements. How does suffering and loss fit into a curriculum for Christlikeness? How does lament help form us? In order for the Spiritual Formation movement to maintain traction with ordinary people (the kind of people Jesus hung around) then we must venture into how we can bring our sufferings to God in such a way that, through them, we are made more like Jesus.[3]
In our day, we don’t know how to suffer well. We feel pressure to maintain some semblance of strength, wisdom and control. We avoid pain at all costs or as something to get through or “get over.” Not only do we avoid pain, but we assign incredible value to happiness that is pain-free.[4] Unfortunately, Christians seem to be just as ill-equipped as non-Christians in these matters. We typically do not give space for experiencing and expressing sorrow and loss in our lives or in the lives of others. Oftentimes our severest sufferings are due to the fact that we are not free to suffer. The cruciform life of God in Christ does not allow for such a position. Jesus on the Cross has forever redefined how we see and experience suffering. We cannot avoid it, for in the Christ life, suffering always precedes glory.
As we walk with Christ we repeatedly experience circumstances beyond our control that strip us of clarity, control and comfort. This world can feel like a cruel and arbitrary place! We need help connecting with God in our pain. Further, we require instruction in how to integrate our darkest experiences into our overall life with God so that they do not own us. If we don’t engage in practices like lament, the result may be orphaned parts of ourselves floating around waiting to be triggered and overwhelm us. What we disown may come to own us. Thus, whether or not we engage in lament practices will have a profound bearing on our spiritual formation in Christ. The best place to begin is a learning posture in the presence of a trusted, safe and wise Master.

Discipleship and Loss
A disciple is a learner, or apprentice, that is with someone else who knows how to do something. As they are with the teacher or master, they become like them. Thus, a disciple of Jesus is with Jesus learning to be like him. It involves having a vision of how Jesus would live my life, if he were I. This obviously involves all of life, the good and the bad, the joys and the sorrows. Without the context of this learning relationship, and all the humility it affords, attempts to engage in spiritual disciplines (including lament) will likely result in one more project that I engage in to maintain clarity, control or comfort.
Dallas Willard used a “golden triangle of spiritual growth” diagram (Fig. 1) to try to capture the essential components involved in our life with Jesus. At the top of the triangle is the person and work of the Holy Spirit. On the right bottom corner are our planned disciplines to “put on a new heart.” On the bottom left corner is our daily trials, our everyday lives which contain all sorts of beauties and dangers, joys and sorrows. Disciplines like lament (bottom right) can help ground our everyday experiences (bottom left), especially the darker more painful ones, into the life and work of God (top).
Image result for willard golden triangleFig. 1[5]

Lament as Spiritual Discipline
Lament can be a disciplined form of prayer that connects our dark and painful plotlines to the ongoing work of Jesus through the Spirit. As disciples of Jesus, we look to Jesus to teach us what lament is and how it is to be expressed. We are with Jesus learning how to suffer, to see how he did it so that we can become the kinds of person who also suffer in faith.[6] We can learn to express our sorrows as he did as he struggled with the will of God.

Obstacles to Overcome
Unfortunately, the people who most need this discipline – the most broken and hurting among us – often seem the least able to access it. The severely wounded and traumatized person often faces significant obstacles giving voice to their pain. We have removed lament from our liturgies and homes with the result of either great guilt (something wrong with me) or great denial (just keep pretending everything is ok).
“Obviously, what we must never do is get over it as soon as possible or make as little of it as we can. ‘Get over it’ and ‘make little of it’ are unbiblical and inhuman. Denial and distraction are the standard over-the-counter prescriptions of our culture for dealing with loss; in combination, they’ve virtually destroyed the spiritual health of our culture. The societal effect is widespread addiction and depression.”[7]

If our access (conceptual and experiential) to Jesus has been hijacked by psychological baggage, we will likely need extra help to trust him enough to pour out our souls to him in the way above described. Metaphors, poetry, songs and stories are some of the richest means for us to access these realities “by the back door,” in subversive ways designed to bypass defenses without triggering them. Sin and psychological damage can, and frequently do, prevent us from accessing the healing presence of God in Jesus.[8]
Many of the friends I walk with are angry with God at times, though they are afraid to admit it. Most often they have experienced some trauma or loss and have not felt free to process it; they have no idea what to do with it. This is compounded by religious leaders not handling their pain well. I occasionally encourage such friends to let go of what they think they’re “supposed to do” or what “God expects from them.” If the timing is right and they’re open to it, I might suggest they take some time each day to “tell God what they really think.” I put it that way to try and communicate that God is already with them, right where they are. The starting place for all of us, always, is engaging with God from right where we are. In my world, this is what lament looks like – telling God what we really think – about him, about our stories, and about what we’ve lived and experienced. Such a lament takes a surge of faith to get past the initial hurdle of discomfort of speaking like this to a holy God, and often it’s our presence with others that gives them (and us) the courage to do such work. Since Jesus has taken all our curses upon himself, there is literally nothing obstructing us from doing this lament work except our own fears, expectations and prejudices. In lament I can give myself and others freedom, space and language to pour out the toxic brew that has been hidden away in my heart, sometimes for decades. A broken peace often follows such work, enveloped by a transcendent tenderness that is Trinitarian grace.
In addition to the obstacle of psychological baggage that we bring, we have an understanding of grace that also works against a practice of lament that is interactive and discipleship focused. We have an understanding of grace in our day that makes us passive consumers of religious goods and services. We can sustain this consumeristic life as long as it works; once it stops working and we experience the disorienting pain that comes with it, we have a choice: become open to other categories, other ideas, other practices or hide the mess and try harder. It is often a brush with traumatic, acute pain and suffering that ushers us into a world of responsive interactivity with God that our rational categories have no room for. I would call this Spiritual Formation. Whatever we call it, it is vitally necessary for becoming human and maintaining a viable Christian witness in a world where beautiful and terrible things happen.
How can we clear away the rubble and dust off this ancient literary genre called lament? What good is it when your body is screaming in pain, or when you would almost do anything to end your suffering? Even more difficult, how do we own and express our losses through lament when they are tied with wrong conceptions of God and Christ? When a person suffers religious abuse in the name of God, that person will be less than willing to talk to God about it unless an alternative metaphor can be introduced that helps them see God differently.
 The character of Aslan in the Narnian Chronicles can function as a wonderful alternate metaphor. From my own experience, I discovered the land of Narnia late in life when I desperately needed help interpreting my story and my world, which had fallen apart. I did not intend on finding the character of Aslan so compelling, but he seemed to bypass most of my own defenses and was able to communicate Christ to me in fresh new ways.[9]

[1] C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Magician’s Nephew (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1983), 167-168.
[2] This is shown in Digory’s own tale. After completing a mission given him by Aslan, it is written, “‘WELL done,’ said Aslan in a voice that made the earth shake. . . . But he was in no danger of feeling conceited for he didn't think about it at all now that he was face to face with Aslan. This time he found he could look straight into the Lion's eyes. He had forgotten his troubles and felt absolutely content” (Ibid., 197).
[3] This is why twelve step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous will always be a wonderful model for Christian spiritual formation. At it’s best, it takes into account the regular lives of ordinary people and their brokenness and connects them with the resources of God.
[4] The recent Pixar movie “Inside Out” characterized Joy that was detached from sorrow at first; as the main character (Riley) developed emotionally, sorrow was incorporated into joy to create a fuller experience of maturity.
[5] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1998), 347.
[6] cf. Hebrews 12:1-2; 1 Peter 4:1, 12-19.
[7] Eugene Peterson, Leap Over a Wall: Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1997), 120.
[8] I am assuming that the baggage obstructing our access to Jesus is due merely to sin alone, but also psychological damage in the form of wounds.
[9] C.S. Lewis once replied to a letter from a concerned mother whose son seemed to love Aslan more than Jesus. Lewis replied, “Laurence can't really love Aslan more than Jesus, even if he feels that's what he is doing. For the things he loves Aslan for doing or saying are simply the things Jesus really did and said. So that when Laurence thinks he is loving Aslan, he is really loving Jesus: and perhaps loving Him more than he ever did before.” C.S. Lewis’ Letters to Children, Lyle Dorsett and Marjorie Lamp Mead, eds. (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1995), 52-53.

Go to Part 2 here.

No comments: