The Cry Vol 16 No 4 . 1

Learning to Lament

By Dan Henry

“I’m so sorry to hear about Benita’s death.”

Those words forced their way into my consciousness after I was awakened by a cell phone at 2 in the morning. After I groggily told my friend that Benita wasn’t dead, he gasped, apologized and hung up.

I was left sitting in my bed, under my mosquito net, torn between waking someone up to see if it was true and not wanting to disturb anyone over what was obviously a mistake. Sure Benita had been sick for several months, but she had been out of the hospital for a few weeks now, and just the other day we had praised God for how much stronger she was getting. I spent about an hour clinging to the comfort of doubt while the fear that it might be true taunted me. Eventually exhaustion overcame worry, and sleep and peace were temporarily restored. Later that morning, however, my fears were confirmed. My fiancée was dead.

I had been in Sierra Leone for almost a year before beginning an internship with WMF. I met Benita when I first arrived, and as we grew to know each other, we began to dream about a future together. It was in August, when the rainy season was at its heaviest, that I asked her to marry me. Nov. 1, in the middle of my internship, as rainy season was ending, she passed away. Whether it was illness or poison that ended her life, I cannot say, but I’ve always suspected the latter.

After her death, my appetite dried up with the rain. I continued to eat by willpower alone. By the middle of December, as a cool breeze blew in from the north, my willpower cooled with the heat, and it was rare to find me eating one full meal a day. In December 2008, on Christmas Eve, I returned to the United States from Sierra Leone, “struck down but not destroyed.” I thought being back in the States might fix things, but it didn’t.

I found that my relationship with God was becoming more and more strained. Sometimes I would still thank Him for the way He was blessing me, but it often felt wrong because I was ignoring the one obvious thing between us. Other times, I praised God for who He was, but not for too long. The void between my understanding of Him and my understanding of my pain was too great, and I feared that trying to bridge that gap would break me in two. Still other times, I held onto my pain like it was all that mattered in the world. In periods such as that, I didn’t often talk to God, because I either didn’t know what to say or didn’t feel right using certain words in the presence of the Almighty.

Questions abounded. How do I talk about Benita’s death to the God who could have prevented it and didn’t? Isn’t that like blaming God? Is it wrong to blame God? But how do I not blame God? How could God be almighty and not responsible? I understand that the Bible teaches that God is both good and sovereign, but how those two truths related to my present reality was beyond me.

Despite all I had learned about prayer in my life, I had no idea how to communicate with God about my grief. I knew how to thank God, praise God, ask God for help and even confess my sins to God. I was clueless, though, about how to talk with God about grief. I needed lessons in the language of lament.

My most peaceful moments, in the first months after Benita’s death, came when I confessed that I didn’t understand and was content with not understanding. However, part of me believed that if I was in pain, it must be someone’s fault, and I wanted to know whose fault it was; so I was rarely content.

In the middle of January, I went to the Bridge Street Prayer House in Grand Rapids, Mich. The people there were in the middle of 10 days of 24-hour prayer. I’d decided I’d spend the night wrestling with God like Jacob did long ago. I started out praying for Grand Rapids, just like everyone else who was there that night, but before long, God and I got down to business. I threw the same one-two combo at God most of the night with little variation: “Why is Benita dead?” and “How come I’m left behind to suffer?”

As I swung those questions at God, I put the weight of my best logic and reasoning behind each blow. A sense of entitlement flowed through my spirit like adrenaline, because I believed I was owed an answer. I figured I would eventually wear God down, but instead my own rage was exhausting me. At times, I would just stop and listen to the prayers of the people around me. As I stilled my own soul, the faith expressed in those prayers began to refresh my spirit. Sometimes I was still for just a couple minutes, other times over half an hour, but eventually, something would strike a nerve and I’d return to my internal battle with God.

About 6 in the morning, I somehow found myself reading Acts 12, in which James gets beheaded and Peter gets miraculously saved. I wondered why James had died and not Peter. I thought that if I could find an answer to that question, I might understand why Benita died and not me. At first I skimmed through the passage, hoping the answer would be obvious. Next, I read slower, hoping to uncover something that would set my world aright. Then I started reading the chapter over and over again with the growing anxiety that I was about to miss the key that would set me free from all my pain. I started reading before and after the chapter to understand the context. Finally, I started thinking about what I knew of James and Peter, and remembered that they, along with John, were part of the inner three. Of Jesus’ 12 disciples, Peter, James and John were at times the only ones Jesus would allow to witness certain parts of His ministry.

With that, my thoughts turned to John. I thought about how John experienced the loss of his brother James and witnessed Peter’s deliverance from death, and yet faithfully served God for the rest of his life. Immediately, I began to ask two new questions: Why did John continue to serve God after his brother’s death? Where did John find the strength to keep serving God after his brother’s death? Right then, without any answers but only two new questions, I found a renewed sense of peace. It was like God and I had agreed on where to begin our conversation. As I’ve continued to ask those questions, God has been giving me a fuller understanding of their answers.

This revelation was a turning point in my walk with God, but, if I’m honest, there have been many turning points both toward and away from God since Benita’s passing. Other turning points were when I turned to food, the internet, sleep or video games in an attempt to avoid the pain instead of turning to Christ and His body to deal with the pain.

Those lessons in lament have led me through poems such as Psalm 44 and Robert Browning’s “Ae Fond Kiss,” stories such as Judges 6:11-18, songs from Michael Kelly Blanchard’s CD Good Grief, movies such as The Greatest and books such as Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Lament for a Son. Traveling to see different friends and family have also proved to be important steps along the way. A period of professional counseling at a retreat with Alongside, Inc., provided a necessary time of resting. Some of the best companions along the road have been widows who endure their own losses with such grace. All of those have brought healing as they helped me to find the freedom to talk with God about my grief.

I still hurt at times, and I’m still learning about lamenting. At times I do it well, and at times I do it poorly. I lament because I miss Benita specifically, or sometimes, because I just miss having someone. I’ve also found new reasons to lament as I serve Jesus among people who are poor and vulnerable here in Freetown. I’m thankful for what God has taught me over the last two years about lament, but I also look forward with hope to Christ’s return and to the new heaven and the new earth, where lamenting can be left behind as we grow in praising, thanking, glorifying and honoring our King.

dan-and-benitaDan Henry has lived in Sierra Leone for two years, most of that time living with a family from the Mende tribe. He loves this family and they have taught him plenty about how to enjoy their culture. He indulges his creative side by learning the Irish whistle and African dances.

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One thought on “The Cry Vol 16 No 4 . 1

  1. Regan says:

    I am touched and encouraged by your story and perseverance in Christ. I have to believe that in joyous times, times of abundance and in times of “happiness”, we see God and his love for us, but I can’t help to notice and be acutely aware of his love in time of grief and pain. Thank you for sharing such an intimate part of your life with the rest of the kingdom…. I him~ Regan

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