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Sometimes, kind words just aren't enough

Facebook fury about cancer similar to neglected Psalms

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"F*** you cancer, you indiscriminate fog of death; you’ve taken three dear friends too soon over the past four years, two since the fall. Remorseless diseases; I continue to mourn."

So began a Facebook post by a friend, a leader in his denomination. It was a deep and honest cry of pain and anger at the death of yet another friend.

"F*** you science," he continued. "You pretend to know so much, think you have answers to big questions, but you know nothing of what is important. We may be dust, we may be spirit, you do not know; and you don't know why our bodies ache to see a friend smile one more time. You know nothing of love."

"F*** you religion; you've backed yourself into a corner, defending your existence, quibbling over your own definitions. You have become blind to love and community and laughter and song. You still flog your club membership but you're done."

"Good night Kirsten. You embraced the stories of so many; always bringing strangers into community. Who you are mattered. The connections you made will continue to bring smiles to this world."

The language might disturb some, but it connected for me. Like my friend, I also lost a friend to cancer recently. Just 49 and a single mom, Nancy left behind two teenage boys.

As I read his post, I was reminded of the Psalms. Most people think of the Book of Psalms, or what Jews call Tehillim, as being all about comfort and security and praise -- about lying in green pastures by still waters. Some are certainly like that, but others contain stark expressions of pain, anger and deep disappointment with God.

These Psalms are known as the Psalms of Lament. Since they aren't often used in many churches, they are sometimes referred to as the neglected Psalms. But they play an important role. They give voice to the more difficult parts of life, ending with the hope that good will ultimately come from current challenges.

Take Psalm 13, for example (from The Message):

"Long enough, God, you've ignored me long enough.

I've looked at the back of your head long enough.

Long enough I've carried this ton of trouble, lived with a stomach full of pain.

Long enough my arrogant enemies have looked down their noses at me.

Take a good look at me, God, my God:

I want to look life in the eye so no enemy can get the best of me, or laugh when I fall on my face."

Or these portions of Psalm 42, also from The Message:

"I wonder, "Will I ever make it -- arrive and drink in God's presence? I'm on a diet of tears -- tears for breakfast, tears for supper. All day long people knock at my door, pestering 'Where is this God of yours?' "

Psalm-like laments, like my friend's Facebook post, are still being written today. Some of the most evocative are being written by aboriginal Canadians who survived residential schools. Dennis Saddleman wrote a poem about his experience, called Monster. It starts like this:

"I hate you residential school, I hate you.

You're a monster.

A huge hungry monster.

Built with steel bones. Built with cement flesh.

You're a monster,

Built to devour innocent Native children."

Songwriters are sometimes able to write Psalm-like laments, like Bob Dylan's song, Not Dark Yet:

"I was born here and I'll die here against my will.

I know it looks like I'm moving, but I'm standing still.

Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb.

I can't even remember what it was I came here to get away from.

Don't even hear a murmur of a prayer.

It's not dark yet, but it's getting there."

Lament can be hard. It feels wrong to admit our disappointment with life, with others, and especially with God. But being able to express bitterness and anger is a valid expression of religious faith; for Christians and Jews, it's even biblical.

It can also be cathartic. As author Anne Lamott puts it: "Nothing heals us like letting people know our scariest parts. When people listen to you cry and lament, and look at you with love, it's like they are holding the baby of you."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 3, 2014 D15


Updated on Saturday, May 3, 2014 at 5:41 PM CDT: Replaces first paragraph.

May 6, 2014 at 4:21 AM: Corrects spelling of 'Tehillim'

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