Divine Lament | Maori Ministry

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Divine Lament

Silhouette of someone looking out a window at dusk
Posted November 3, 2020

It’s nearly 20 years since Rhondda Middleton discovered the only way that she could become a mother was to undergo IVF treatment. Undeterred, she soldiered on and was overjoyed to find she was pregnant with twins. Triumph turned to tragedy when both twins died shortly after birth. Confronted, and at times overwhelmed, by the depth and breadth of her grief and pain, Rhondda embraced lament and discovered a God vast enough to handle her rage and confusion.

‘They were both perfect—they had tiny fingernails and eyelashes. At both funerals we had open caskets, because I needed people to know that my babies were real and not something Rhondda had lost. I hated that word. Poor Rhondda lost her babies. But I didn’t lose my babies—I was quite adamant about that because loss sounded so irresponsible. They died. I wanted people to understand that. And I loved it when people sent cards and used their names, not just ‘the babies’. That was really important to me because they were real, and they were my children.’

When Holly and Billy died within a week of one another, following their premature birth at 25 weeks, Rhondda found herself in a dark space, shocked by the depth of rage she felt.

‘It was after Billy’s funeral that the real grief hit—that real lament of rage and the utter pain of not being able to breathe. I now know what it means when they say that your heart can break. The pressing pain in my chest meant that every breath was a sigh. I was sighing out my grief. After the funeral, I was so angry at God. I kept saying to him, “Why did you give them to me if you were just going to take them away again?”

‘I remember one day being out on the deck and screaming and swearing at God—giving him the big what for. That went on for months—the questioning—“Why God?” I kept thinking, Why am I being punished? There was sheer rage, but there was also guilt and confusion because I thought I must have done something to deserve this, but I couldn’t figure out what that was. I look back and I’m astounded that I not only let myself feel that depth of anger, but that I directed my pain at God. I didn’t hold it in—I couldn’t.’

Permission to lament

For some, raging at God might seem almost sacrilegious, but Pastor Mark Vroegop rejects this line of thinking and strongly affirms that, ‘lament prayers take faith. Talking to God … and laying out the messy struggles of your soul and then asking—again and again—for God to help you, requires a solid theological mooring. Laments turn toward God when sorrow tempts you to run from him.’

Vroegop describes lament as one of the most theologically informed actions a person can take. Rhondda may not have been entirely aware that this was what she was doing at the time, but her strong faith meant that God was the obvious person to direct her pain and anger toward.

Vroegop continues saying, ‘Lament is a form of prayer, and it’s more than just the expression of sorrow or the venting of emotion. Lament talks to God about pain. And it has a unique purpose: trust. It is a divinely given invitation to pour out our fears, frustrations and sorrow, for the purpose of helping us to renew our confidence in God.’

Rhondda firmly agrees: ‘I know now that God is such a big, vast God—he can take my pain and anger and everything I throw at him. He’s a God who can soak all of that up and still absolutely adore me.’

Not only do we have permission to lament based in Scripture—there are 40 Psalms of Lament, for example—but doing so can expand our notion of who God is and how he works.

Triumph to tragedy

Rhondda and husband Greg had been married for about five years when they discovered they needed help to conceive. Due to the nature of their infertility, it was immediately obvious that the only way forward for the couple was IVF.

‘Within about five months I was doing my first round of IVF,’ explains Rhondda. ‘You do lose your dignity in that whole process—it’s horrific. And there’s so much fear and anxiety and anticipation. But God came through. I got pregnant, and at the seven-week scan it was discovered that I was pregnant with twins.’

Rhondda and Greg were over the moon. ‘We felt like I’d won the lottery after a harrowing ordeal. In my innocence I thought that was the story—a testimony of the valley and the mountain top. We’d been tested through this trial of infertility, but God was good and had brought us through.’

But Rhondda went into premature labour at 25 weeks. Holly died after just 28 hours, with Billy holding on for ten days. Both babies died in Rhondda’s arms.

‘Feeling your baby pass away in your arms, that’s a feeling you don’t ever want to have. It was such a feeling of hopelessness,’ recalls Rhondda.

Rhondda found that during the unfolding tragedy and up to the time of the funerals, the church was amazing. People helped with food and the unexpected funeral costs. ‘It hadn’t even crossed my mind what a funeral costs, so we were immensely grateful for that generosity.’

Making space for lament

However, as the weeks and months wore on, it felt to Rhondda as though her church family were impatient for her to ‘come right’ and ‘move on’.

‘I remember people coming to lovingly pastorally care for me, but I wasn’t prepared to put on airs and graces and pretend it was okay. It wasn’t. It was utterly horrendous. I couldn’t have been easy to be around,’ reflects Rhondda.

‘People need to understand that for months and even years you will need to speak of this, not because you’re dragging up past hurts, but because that pain is still so much a part of you. And that’s okay. Tears and anger are necessary for processing pain and loss. This is lament, and God is big enough—he’s proven to me that he’s big enough to deal with our biggest, angriest rage.’

While Scripture may be filled with lament, Rhondda is very conscious of the need for the church to make more space for lament.

‘There were so many clichés and Christianese thrown at me about how God must have wanted my babies in heaven with him, and that he knows what he’s doing and has good plans for my life. It all caused me so much more pain. Sometimes it was my non-church friends who were better at being able to sit with me in my pain without trying to come up with answers or explain why this had happened. They just sat with me and agreed that it was crap. The church must be able to make space for people to feel safe enough to express their deep disappointment and the confusion felt when experiencing such an unfairness. There has to be time to express the agony and horror and let the heartache out.’

Rhondda implores us as the church to realise that sometimes the Sunday service setting can feel unsafe for people who are grieving.

‘It can be a very long time before some people feel ready to return to church. For me, there were babies everywhere and it was so hard. Don’t expect people to pretend or conform to your expectations of how to behave on a Sunday. We need to give people the space for deep lament. I didn’t always find that space.’

Lament is necessary, essential, biblical and healthy. Vroegop explains that, ‘Lament is the language for living between the poles of a hard life and trusting in God’s sovereignty. It’s a prayer form for people who are waiting for the day Jesus will return and make everything right. Christians don’t just mourn; we long for God to end the pain.’

Appreciating joy again

Rhondda wasn’t able to go back to her job as the manager of Community Ministries for a very long time, because so much of her work was with families. ‘I knew it wasn’t true, but it felt like everywhere I looked everyone else could carry their babies—number one and two and three—but both of mine were taken away from me. Why, when many of these families were struggling to care for their children, or hold onto custody, was I unable to have children? I just couldn’t get my head around why they had children and I didn’t.’

Rhondda began to wonder how she could be part of this reality in a positive way. ‘Greg and I decided to foster two little girls. They kept me busy and having them enabled me to go back to church because now I felt I could fit into the wholesome family scene.’

In time, Rhondda became pregnant again. It was a year after Holly and Billy’s deaths. ‘I was still so very raw. There wasn’t joy—especially when we discovered I was pregnant with boy–girl twins again. I was petrified. I knew God hadn’t promised me anything. But people kept saying, “God is good!” And he was good—God was amazing, but I didn’t want people to forget that being pregnant again didn’t mean everything was fixed. I will always be a mother whose first two babies died.’

Ironically, full-term twins, Katie and Henry, had to be induced and were born 18 months after Holly and Billy died.

‘I now have two amazing, beautiful fifteen-year-old teenagers. Babies are cute, but man, teenagers are fascinating. I love them!’ says Rhondda.

‘When my son Henry was four and I was holding him when they put him under for surgery. It was such a triggering moment for me because it felt like he’d died in my arms; and as I thought, Why did my mind go there?, I realised I’m one of the few people who’ve lived through the horror of having my children die in my arms.’

That triggering moment for Rhondda highlights the cyclic nature of trauma and grief. There’s a time for returning to lament—picking up pain and looking at it again from a new angle when memories are triggered by day-to-day life. This is healthy and necessary and something we need to be mindful of and give space to, as we love one another.

‘What I can say definitively is that even in the midst of all that horrendous pain when Holly and Billy died, I would not change what I’ve been through, because living through that pain has made me who I am. I now have the ability to see the sparkly shiny light in life because of the darkness and depth of that agony, and being truthful about it at the time. When you’ve been through great loss—loss that nearly ripped my heart out—you have this appreciation for joy. I didn’t have that previously. I can be a bit suspicious of happy endings, but I don’t doubt the reality of joy because of what I’ve been through.’

Lament is an offering of sorrow, offered to a God who is ‘...a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief [Isaiah 53:3]’.