Rooted Recommends: Lament for a Son

I discovered Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Lament for a Son through a pastor/friend.  He regularly gave copies away. “How many times have you read this?” I asked him.  Reaching for the copy that would become mine, this pastor-of-pastors replied, “After twenty years, I’ve lost count.”

At just over 100 pages, Lament for a Son concisely places the reader within the reflections of a godly man in mourning. Lament is a “love song” to Wolterstorff’s son Eric, who died in a climbing accident at age 25. A theologian, Wolterstorff writes with anguished economy, working out an unfathomable sense of loss that lurks around every corner and never goes away.  At the time I was given this book, I was brand new to ministry (I still am) and had yet to do a funeral. However, in the span of one month, death unexpectedly came into the lives of two dear friends, and I was in need of the wisdom Lament gave, particularly the below:

1. Your devotional life can impact people you’ll never meet in places you’ll never go.  Lament was never meant to be published. These were the private thoughts of a theologian clawing his way through tremendous suffering. Yet through his disciplined time alone, writing and wondering aloud, God used his unique pain to minister to countless people all over the world. Sure, most of us will never be published. Still, it is true that when we bring our circumstances to God in personal reflection, study and teaching preparation, God produces wisdom for living that comforts others. Personal devotion time in all seasons of our lives gives life to communities.

2.  A child means more to a parent than we can imagine. It is always helpful to be reminded, especially for those pastors who do not have children, of how utterly precious the students are to their families. Consider the impact of his son’s death on Wolterstorff: 

There’s a hole in the world now. In the place where he was, there’s now just nothing. A center, like no other, of memory and hope and knowledge and affection which once inhabited this earth is gone. A gap remains.”

The parents of our students know these truths and live with the fear that this might become their reality. When I consider the love a parent has for their child, I’m inspired to look for ways to honor and affirm them in front of their kids when they are not around.  My impression is that because it’s coming from me, their youth pastor, they hear it a little differently. That’s a good thing.

Of course, reminding one another of a parent’s love is a helpful exercise for all who consider themselves children of God, for we need to hear and remember the love our Heavenly Father has for us.

3. Even as hope reigns, grief abounds. With Lament, a spiritually mature Wolterstorff shares an honesty about faith lived out that is humble and refreshing. He speaks of a kind of doctrinal surprise, a recognition that the beliefs which he anticipated would comfort didn’t, at least not in ways he imagined. He writes:

“Elements of the Gospel which I always thought would console did not. They did something else, something important, but not that. It did not console me to be reminded of the resurrection. If I had forgotten that hope, then it would indeed have brought light into my life to be reminded of it. But I did not think of death as a bottomless pit. I did not grieve as one who has no hope. Yet, Eric is gone, here and now he is gone …. That is my sorrow … what consolation can be other than having him back?”

Those who trust in the resurrection will continue to long for things that we believe will ultimately find resolution. But it is clear from Lament that Wolterstorff will not find resolution in his lifetime. Heaven appears to be a long way off. Much of ministry is bearing one another’s burden in the interim.

4. In the interim, our words don’t always have to be wise. Wolterstorff writes that friends and pastors don’t have to be gifted with wisdom to comfort mourning friends.  They have to be present in the grief. Naturally, pastors feel pressure to say just the right thing. For young pastors, the expectation of saying something profound can make the experience less about those mourning and more about ourselves. Without a doubt, there are times in ministry where I’ve said too much and times where I’ve not said enough. My attention was on myself and not on whom I was seeking to comfort. Lament provides a glimpse into a parent’s nightmare while extending grace to those who care enough to simply sit beside them on the “mourning bench.”  

5. You may outlive some of your students. More than any other demographic, high school students believe that nothing can stop them. They are so full of life and ideas that it is easy to be persuaded that they are right. Though always hopeful, we must never be naïve. Job says, “all our days are numbered.”  As youth workers, we are given special entrance into the spiritual lives of families. Trusting in God, we know that time is of the essence. The fact that we may outlive some of our students ought to spur us to serve them in the gospel.

Lament for a Son is a “love-song” that I will pass along to my own son so that he might know how profoundly we love him. I’ll share Lament with my mom and dad because I want them to know that I appreciate their love for me. And I’ll pass it along to my friends who do not know Christ so that they read and experience a developed Christian worldview that exalts the Lord through heartache.

David Plant serves as Assistant Pastor and Community Group Director at Redeemer Presbyterian Church's downtown New York City campus.  He formerly served as the Director of Youth Ministry for Redeemer.

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