Complaining when you’re cast away

We are enveloped in collective grief. One of our dear friends, very close in our local faith community, suddenly and shockingly lost her husband in his sleep. What a stunning, sudden descent of sorrowful suffering. This wonderful wife and two heroic sons watched EMTs work for several hours in valiant attempts to revive him. Now, friends and family are rallying around them with great love. But everyone feels numb, shocked, and full of sorrow.

Life in our fallen world has once again dealt the cruel, crashing waves. We’ve come to know the crushing torrents with what feels like perpetual vengeance across 2020 and ’21. In so many ways, we are all castaways on our lonely islands of lament. Like never before—at least in our lifetime—we know the dreadful agony of collective complaint.

But do we really know how to lament well?

The now-classic film, Cast Away, stars Tom Hanks as Chuck Noland, an obsessive executive for FedEx. His plane plunges during a violent storm over the Pacific. Chuck drifts ashore, the lone survivor of the disastrous crash. Against all odds, he learns to live all alone on the deserted island—accompanied only by his faithful volleyball, Wilson, and his fiancés picture inside her treasured locket. Chuck survives for many long and treacherous years on the island, constantly longing to sail home to his love, Kelly, other dear ones, and his all-consuming career.

Upon a remarkable rescue and return, Chuck discovers his previous existence is stunningly changed. Everything about the life he once knew is utterly upended. Ironically, he is still the castaway, even though he is back home.

There’s an especially poignant scene toward movie’s end when he sits in a dim room. Though talking with his friend, Chuck stares into the distance and shares a deeply revealing soliloquy. With towel around his neck and a cold glass in hand, he solemnly reflects:

Kelly added it all up and knew she had to let me go. I added it up, knew that I had lost her, ‘cause I was never gonna get off that island. I was gonna die there, totally alone. I was gonna get sick or injured or something . . . I had power over nothing! That’s when this feeling came over me like a warm blanket. I knew that somehow, I had to stay alive . . . somehow. I had to keep breathing, even though there was no reason to hope. And all my logic said that I would never see this place again. So that’s what I did. I stayed alive. I kept breathing. And one day that logic was proven all wrong because the tide came in and gave me a sail. And now here I am. I’m back, in Memphis, talking to you. I have ice in my glass . . . And I’ve lost her all over again. I’m so sad that I don’t have Kelly. But I’m so grateful that she was with me on that island. And I know what I have to do now. I gotta keep breathing. Because tomorrow the sun will rise. Who knows what the tide could bring?

That’s lament. So much more than furtive tears or a twinge of sorrow. Here is a deep, authentic, sustained heart cry over the sad and sorry conditions that have descended and thoroughly saturated his soul. It’s genuine, rugged, unfiltered, raw.

Biblical literature is replete with examples, including portions of Job’s account, the prophet Jeremiah’s Lamentations, as well as the ancient Hebrew songbook of Psalms.

Expression of lament actually carries overwhelming weightiness, making up the preponderance of the Psalms. Praise psalms are next in volume, but lament looms larger across the lyrics. Walter Brueggemann aptly calls them complaint psalms, and he urges us to learn to pray them:

I suggest that most of the Psalms can only be appropriately prayed by people who are living at the edge of their lives, sensitive to the raw hurts, the primitive passions, and the naïve elations that are at the bottom of our life. For most of us, liturgical or devotional entry into the Psalms requires a real change of pace. It asks us to depart from the closely managed world of public survival, to move into the open, frightening, healing world of speech with the Holy One.[1]

In light of my friend and her family’s sudden loss, plus so many others this year being rudely ushered into sorrow and grief, I find myself asking: how might lament work something stronger, better, and growth-oriented for us castaways of 2021. Consider these ideas for working with lament, engaging in more productive complaint with the Holy One.

Sit with it. Don’t try to rush it.

It’s tempting to think we just need to cry for a few days, allow others to bring us some casseroles, then mop up and get on with life. Reality is, grieving is an arduous process. We should not rush our own souls or those of our fellow castaways. Give it time. Give it space. Let the sorrow and remembering do a fresh work of the Spirit’s grace. So we wait and trust his perfect timing.

Be as authentic in your description as possible.

When we hear Chuck Noland’s words and we read many of the biblical complaints, we find raw realism. It’s really rather stunning. Castaways courageously revisit the ugly scene, ask why and how long, and they pour out their frustration, both with their sorry circumstances and with God himself.

So, go ahead. Let your tears flow and your rugged questions gush. Can’t find the words? That’s okay. Pray some Psalms. Psalm 13 and Psalm 88 are especially good ones. Make them your own. When your own words do come, write out the torrent of your deepest dismay, fears, and frustrations. Let it all out.

Know that God can handle your complaint.

One of the most refreshing insights about our lament is just that. He can handle it. He’s not shocked by our horror, our heart cries, and our questions. Our loving Father does more than tolerate our complaints and gushing words. He joins us there.

Jesus joined his friends, Martha and Mary, in Bethany right after the death of their brother. Jesus was really good friends with Lazarus. We’re told Jesus expressed his own anguish with weeping and redoubled expressions of frustration. He was deeply moved and troubled (John 11:33, 35, and 38). As Jesus cried aloud, the story makes a big point of telling us that Jesus knew his Father heard him (vs. 41-42).

Upon his own crucifixion, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The question hollered heavenward was echoing the bold lament of Psalm 22. In those moments, Jesus was the Holy One, now feeling like a tragic castaway on Mount Calvary.

Watch for what’s next. Be open to the good God has in store.

Don’t rush your complaint. Good lament takes time. Take that first idea very seriously. But don’t wallow endlessly in despair, grow bitter, and live forever as the exiled castaway.

So many of the complaint Psalms, as well as Job’s story and Jeremiah’s heart cries are full of the eventual, wondrous turn upward. Eventually, the complainer starts to shift her or his vision in a new direction. Amidst the groaning, faithful complainers eventually churn again with holy anticipation because they’ve talked to the Holy One.

There’s hope for brighter days. Recall how our crucified castaway would not stay in the grave. Sunday would come, and he knew it. Hebrews 12:2 says, “For the joy set before him he endured the cross . . .” We can fix our eyes on him, persevere, and not grow weary or lose heart. We can join Chuck Noland and say:

 “I know what I have to do now. I gotta keep breathing. Because tomorrow the sun will rise. Who knows what the tide could bring?”

[1]Praying the Psalms: Engaging Scripture and the Life of the Spirit, p. 8.