Lamentations: a call to prayer

Oh my goodness!  How did it get from July 19 (my last post) till October 9?


Bertram Mackennal [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Well, first of all, PhD land has its own particular time zone!  Second, it’s been a big couple of months for me, with my Dad passing away on July 28.  Grief has been a dominant part of my life recently, as it is a part of every life from time to time, sometimes a long time.   I mention that to introduce this post of writing that I did for a sermon last Sunday (lectionary readings for 6 Oct 2013), in the hope that you can note the theology done through experience: scriptures and life operating together in the crucible of prayer.

Actually, this is a sermon that is less about personal grief than it is about the grief involved in being the People of God, and that too has been a painful part of life for me, as it is for so many Christians.  The Church lets us down, Life lets us down, and sometimes we even feel like God lets us down.  So we need Lamentations as part of our prayer repertoire.

This was an important piece of writing for me, so I offer it in the hope that others find some encouragement.

With love,


Lamentations 1:1-6

How lonely sits the city that was full of people!
How like a widow has she become, she who was great among the nations!
She who was a princess among the provinces has become a slave.
She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks;
among all her lovers she has none to comfort her;
all her friends have dealt treacherously with her;
they have become her enemies.
Judah has gone into exile because of affliction and hard servitude;
she dwells now among the nations, but finds no resting place;
her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress.
The roads to Zion mourn, for none come to the festival;
all her gates are desolate; her priests groan;
her virgins have been afflicted, and she herself suffers bitterly.
Her foes have become the head;
her enemies prosper, because the LORD has afflicted her for the multitude of her transgressions;
her children have gone away, captives before the foe.
From the daughter of Zion all her majesty has departed.
Her princes have become like deer that find no pasture;
they fled without strength before the pursuer.

These are the opening lines of the Book of Lamentations, and I thought today I would say a few words about that book, because its not one we are often encouraged to read.  So, I would like to try and convince you today, that Lamentations might be something you want to open up at home and not only read, but pray with, reflect upon, and let God speak words of comfort to you through.

These verses we read give quite a good indication of what you will encounter in the rest of the book:

“How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!”

In the Hebrew bible, the books are labeled by reference to the very first word, and the first word of Lamentations is ‘ekah, meaning – Alas, how, or oooh – it is a cry of despair, a word whose meaning is conveyed by its sound, a deep, heart wrenching sigh –  argh.

Lamentations is a book of poetic prayer, about those moments in life when all seems lost.  In terms of the history of Israel, scholars believe that it relates to life after the fall of Jerusalem, when the Hebrews were sent into exile in a foreign land.  Theologically, the people were forced to question where God was, what happened that their God had seemingly abandoned them.  But coming to an intellectual understanding of God is never enough, especially in times of deep grief, so this is theology that must be done with feeling, and this language of poetic prayer is heart language.  It is the deep sigh of grief.

My father died in July this year, and a friend of mine warned me that when her father had died, amongst other things, she found herself walking around the house sighing.  Deep breaths in and almost guttural breaths out.  Oohhh.  Lament.

“Like a widow she [Israel] has become, she that was great among the nations!  She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal.  She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks”

There are times in the life we live with God, where we find ourselves in grief.  It is a normal part of every life and every relationship.  When you experience grief in your relationship with God, you should take heart that is a sign of genuine connection with your heavenly Father!

In the verses we read from 1 Timothy, for example, we see a hint of difficulty that comes from running the hard yards – sometimes we need encouragement just to keep going, as Timothy is urging his readers – don’t give up!  Rekindle the gift of God within you.  Join with me in suffering for the gospel by relying on God.

In the gospel reading we have a different scenario hinted at in the sometimes troubling advice about the mustard seed.  Jesus says, you are like a slave in ancient times: a person who has no control over their own life, subject to the will of her owner.  He would not have intended the negative judgement we automatically read into this passage with our twenty-first century western lens, rather, he is simply stating the way things were.  There are slaves and masters.  One obeys the other.  It’s just he way things are.  And sometimes the way things are in our lives are pretty unpleasant but there is nothing to be done about them, and no judgment to make – the onset of serious illness, the happening of a tragic accident, unrequited love – they are all outside of our capacity to remove them.  We have only the choice to respond as best we can.

But God has the capacity to engage in the world of God’s creation.  Faith can move mountains because it is faith in God, and God can move mountains.  Deep grief comes to us in those moments when we experience the full impact of our own powerlessness in the world – when we are diagnoses with a serious illness, when a loved one is struck down in an accident, when a friend decides they don’t want to see us anymore.  Oohhh how that hurts.  We lament.

Lamentations assures us that deep grieving is part of life, and is urges us to make it part of prayer.

“among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies.”

Not just her, singular though.  Lamentations is a book for public prayer, for grief is also a part of being the people of God, first the Hebrew nation, now also, the Church of Jesus Christ.

“Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations and finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress.”

Israel were sent into exile because God judged them and found them wanting: that much is clear from the prophets Jeremiah and others, which we’ve also been reading in the lectionary lately.  So, we have to be careful not to turn self-indulgent in our grief, we have to be honest about our circumstances.  The Church of God makes mistakes, gets caught up in power plays, gets too involved with the world and hence subjected to ebbs and flows of the culture around it – we are not immune from being human.  But the response, the invitation offered by the book of Lamentations is, don’t resist the sadness – grieve and grieve well, it’s part of staying in relationship with God.

Every gathering of the Lord’s Church that forms community is subject to the same disappointments, and every church community is called to live the same life.  In the era of deep grief, we pray.

“The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals”

[The pray-er is lamenting the fact that the city of Jerusalem is empty, because the people of Jerusalem have all been taken away into exile]

all her gates are desolate, her priests groan; her young girls grieve, and her lot is bitter.”

We grieve our empty church buildings, we grieve the unbelief of our sons and daughters, we grieve the broken relationships in our fellowship.

“Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper, because the Lord has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions; her children have gone away, captives before the foe.

From daughter Zion has departed all her majesty.  Her princes have become like stags that find no pasture; they fled without strength before the pursuer.”

Grieve for what has happened, know your own part in the terrible mess, know the limits of your own part – for as much as some of it will be about your sin, it will also be about things much bigger than you!  Grief has an uncanny way of putting us in our place – we are as insignificant as slaves in the first century, when it comes to running the universe.  And so we cast ourselves onto God.  We trust fully in God.  We have faith in God, as the only place of redemption and new life, and then, we discover, that kind of faith, even in the midst of the deepest grief, can move mountains!  There is life after death!

No Fantasy Families in this Christmas – sermon for St Johns Camberwell

sermon for st johns camberwell, 30 dec 2012

the fantasy of the perfect family christmas

readings:  1 Sam 2:18-20, 26Ps 148 Col 3:12-17Luke 2:41-52
(Hint: it’s worth reading at least the gospel reading before you proceed to reading this post.)

Christmas is one of those times when I am very glad to be a Christian.  It’s not because of the beautiful music at church or the quaint nativity pageants (Lord, no!); it’s because that if it wasn’t for the grounded reality of a virgin teenager giving birth in an animal enclosure, I would become thoroughly depressed by our contemporary culture’s fantasy of the perfect family Christmas.  A perfect day with perfect weather, perfectly behaved children and adults, uncomplicated relationships and enough money to pretend Santa loves your kids and provide an extravagant feast for a loving network of family and friends.

Some of us would have had a lovely day on the 25th, complete with all the trimmings, but most of us would have had at least a moment or more of the grim reality of family life: anger, grief, anxiety, sadness.  Perhaps there are people whom you love who were missing from your table.  Perhaps there are people whom you love who belong to someone else’s table.  Perhaps there are people whom you love who were making life difficult at your table!

The Christian story of incarnation does not permit such fantasy.  Instead, it gives us the resources to live in reality and a vision of living which is far more powerful to transform the everyday relationships in our lives.  The key to the story today, is in the epistle reading, Colossians 3:
‘As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.  Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.’

If we go back to the ancient story of Samuel’s family, we begin to see what this means.  When Hannah couldn’t bear children, what did she do?  She trusted the LORD and he answered her prayer!  When it came time for Hannah to act on her commitment to God in that prayer, what did she do?  She trusted in the LORD and released her longed-for first-born into the service of the LORD at the temple.  She trusted the LORD and the LORD blessed her again with more children.  I can imagine that if I was Hannah I really, really would have struggled to keep my promise to give up my child when it came to rub of releasing him from my arms.  Think about what the actual experience would have been: miraculously becoming pregnant after decades of painful barrenness, nine long months of carrying the child, the labour of birth and the outpouring of love in nursing a baby.  The promise to God might have seemed a distant memory, easily eradicated from consciousness in the thrill of realising her dream.  I can think of a million excuses for Hannah not giving up her child!  It is a heroic act of faith from Hannah; a determined choice to trust God with every blessing in her life.  A child was not just a romantic form of self-fulfilment in the middle east of Hannah’s day.  A child was about survival: you needed workers in the extended family economic unit and you also needed children for social status and respect.  The moment Hannah hands over Samuel to serve in the Lord’s house, she doesn’t choose survival, she doesn’t choose fear, she chooses to trust God despite the heartache and regardless of the cost.

In the apostle Paul’s advice in the letter to the Colossians, we are urged to ‘forgive as you have been forgiven’.  But we can also state this in the positive, which exactly sums up Hannah’s actions:  as you have been given, so you also should give.

No one is immune from family struggles, so it is only when we give up the fantasy of the perfect family that we can begin to deal with what actually is.  The principles from Colossians are key to how the people of God are to live in the messiness of everyday life, for their own sake as well as for the betterment of the world.  Whatever happens, whatever your particular family disfunction or disappointment, in life, in love, in brokenness… live as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved.  Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience.  Bear with one another, not because that is ‘right’ or ‘good’ or ‘reciprocal’ but because that is how God has treated you!

I feel that I can speak from experience here, because in the face of terrible betrayal four years ago I committed myself to this course of action.  I enlisted the help of my friends and set myself the goal of maintaining my own principles for relating to others out of the love that God has poured into my heart by the holy spirit (Romans 5), rather than the hurt inflicted upon me by the choices of another.  Thoreau said there is no remedy for love but to love more.  When your heart is broken, anger doesn’t fix it.  Bitterness is a poison not a healing balm.  Only love heals broken love, and no matter what life asks you to endure, God loves you.

I’m sure you are familiar with the cycle of anger which can disable families: Fred upsets Hilary, Hilary is furious so she lashes out at Fred, which makes Fred even more angry so he deliberately hurts Hilary and on and on it goes, until one person decides to opt out of the cycle.  As people loved by God, God is inviting us to be the people of peace, following in the footsteps of the King of Peace, standing against the flow of anger, because we are people who have the inner resources to contain the hurt and make better choices.  The invitation is to treat others not as others have treated you, but as God has treated you.  Do unto others as God has done unto you.  God drawn near to us through the love of a virgin mother and her faithful husband: but again, let’s take care to be real about the holy family, this is no perfect fantasy.

Even the Holy Family were not immune to painful misunderstandings at times of major celebrations it would seem.  In the gospel reading we have the story of Jesus asserting his independence as a 12 year old, remaining behind in Jerusalem whilst his parents assumed he was part of the larger family group making their way home after the festival.  Was Mary right to admonish her son for causing his parents grief?  Was Jesus right to rebuke his parents for their lack of understanding?  Actually, I think like in most family disputes, who was right and who was wrong is a distraction, what is more important is the choices that come after the event.

There is not a lot of detail in the text about how this family dispute resolved itself.  There is no indication of apologies being made and family group hugs but they all headed back to Nazareth together so clearly they moved on somehow.  And Mary ‘pondered all these things in her heart.’  She was on her way to understanding her son, but clearly her perception of what God was doing was incomplete at this stage.  However, Mary doesn’t need to understand any more than she does at this moment, in order to be able to respond according to the Colossians principle.  When push comes to shove, we don’t need particular painful situation to be resolved and we don’t even need reconciliation to be realised before we choose to start to act as God has acted towards us.

Be careful to see the middle step however: the step between heartache and choosing to love – the key to it all – is the turning to God.  We can’t do it without turning to God.  Forgiveness, bearing with one another, it’s emotional and soulful hard work: the hard work of prayer which is an inner dialogue between our deepest selves and God.  Of letting God fill you with God’s love until you can act out of fulness of heart again, rather than the hurt of brokenness.  Love only comes from love; we are always able to love because God loves us.  So when the love from your family isn’t forthcoming, you can still fulfil the Colossians principles, because when Paul says ‘clothe yourselves in love’, he means God’s love.  God’s love for you.

This kind of prayer requires time, stillness, silence.  If you think about how long it takes to sob uncontrollably, yell and scream into the pillow, fall asleep exhausted and then have a calming cup of tea, that’s the kind of time we need to spend with God in prayer when we are hurting.  Often there are no words which suffice and our tears and grief speak for us in God’s presence, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit who prays with us.  There are fellow travellers in this kind of praying, but there are also long times of solitude, for our pain is our own and must be felt in our own unique way.  Our brothers and sisters in Christ support us with their own prayers, but more importantly but gently directing our attention back to the love that is still present even in the darkest hours.

The grounded reality of God incarnate doesn’t deny the messiness and disappointment of life.  God doesn’t expect you to have the perfect family – in fact the exact opposite is true!  Because God knows we humans can’t get through the life of family without stuffing it up and hurting the people we love. God comes as one of us, to be disappointed by love along with us and to reveal to us God’s greater story, that God’s love never fails.

So, if there is fallout from your Christmas this year, be encouraged: just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you have the capacity to forgive those who have hurt you.  Just as the Lord has given to you, so also you can give to those who have betrayed you. Just as the Lord has loved you, so also can you give up retaliation, give up bitterness, let go of the hurt, and clothe yourself with love.

‘Two things can be true at the same time’

I preached at St Johns Camberwell last Sunday and someone actually asked me afterwards if I was going to put the sermon on my blog so they could read it again!  Well, I am not immune to flattery, so here it is.  May you find some encouragement in it for your Advent, wherever you are and whatever season you are in.

Readings for the day:  Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-38

If there is one thing I’ve learnt from the trials of life, it is that ‘two things can be true at the same time.’

About three years ago, I was driving the car, boys in the back seat and tears streaming down my face.  I don’t remember the particular difficulty that day, but I remember trying to explain this newly discovered truth to my children, then aged four and five: just because I was crying, didn’t mean the world was about to end (which it can seem to a young child when his mummy is upset) because two things can be true at the same time.   All of a sudden, Jono started to giggle, which of course made Chris giggle, but I couldn’t see what was going on because I was driving the car!  So I asked Jono, ‘what’s so funny?’  With a huge smile in his voice I heard him explain that if you are both happy and sad at the same time that would mean one side of your mouth would be ‘going like this’ and the other side would be ‘going like this’: and he was using his fingers to push the left side of his mouth into a grin and the right side into a frown!  All three of us were cheered up trying to contort our face into this half smile half frown.

It is true that today, the first day of Advent, is new year’s day in the Church’s calendar.  However it is also truth that new year’s day is still a whole month away, in the Gregorian calendar.  In Advent we wait for the Lord’s coming, even as we sit in a beautiful church proclaiming the Lord has come.  Often when we receive news, for example, we experience at least two things being true at the same time: happy for ourselves at winning first place, disappointed for our friend who came 32nd.  Excited for our friend who is moving on, but anxious for ourselves being left behind.

This ‘two things can be true at the same time’ theme is starkly evident all through-out Advent; directing us to find a way to embrace multiple truths and complementary explanations rather than withdraw into the false security of simple answers.  We declare the coming of everlasting peace in Christ, even as we know soberly that any peace in the Holy Land is unlikely to last.  We trust in the eternal healing of body and mind, even as we watch our loved ones slip away into disease and death.

This ‘two things can be true at the same time’ theme is also the key to reading Scripture in Advent.  When we hear passages about the ‘end times’, as we did from Luke’s gospel this morning, we need to listen with an understanding of multiple dimensions of time.

The End Times could be literally that, it’s certainly how the passages are present to us in Scripture, but it is referring to events in the future so in terms of time is in an unprovable reality.  Then again, it is easy to imagine an end of time with our present catastrophic environmental issues!  But this is not unique to our time and place in the universe, catastrophic threats are regularly a part of civilisation: did you know, for example, there was a massive environmental crisis in Rome towards the end of the Roman Empire?  They’d cut down too many trees to keep the Roman baths hot and steamy!  When I was in year 9 my history teacher asked the class if they thought the world was likely to end soon – about a third of us put up our hands, such was the fear of a Nuclear War.  So it’s possible the world as we know it could end, and as God-fearers it is natural to assume God is somehow involved in that.

However, it is also true, allegorically, that each of us will have our own, personal, end of time upon our death.  And it is also true that there is a constant death to ego and immaturity as we grow up, ‘death to sin’ as the apostle Paul would be it.  Furthermore, it is true that there are ends to an era: personal and societal.  Sociologists have been talking about the end of The Modern Era for at least thirty years, which is and of itself is an illustration of two things being true at the same time.  For surely much of Modern culture has ended, but the remnants of it linger on.  This is simply the nature of any transitional period, cultural or otherwise, and what God ushered in with the birth of Jesus was most definitely a transition period: the Kingdom of God is both now and ‘not yet’.

So, how do we respond to the message of the sign of the times?  I have two suggestions.

Sean Thomas, Billboard (Sign of the Times)First, we listen with open ears and minds.  This is where a spiritual reading of Scripture really comes into it’s own.  Yes, there was an original intention of the author; yes, there are various scientific readings of the text which illuminate it’s meaning; but, if the Holy Spirit inspires the Scriptures it is in the quickening of new life and new understandings within us; and so we also listen for the personal and the private meanings this passage might have for us.

I was speaking to someone yesterday who had noticed that whenever a big change was on the horizon of his life, there was a plethora of ‘signs’ that became too vivid to ignore.  Another friend described this aspect of life in reference to the footy field: sometimes everything just falls into place and a team takes on a magical quality where everything works synchronistically and they are unbeatable while that moment lasts!

So, we need to pay attention to what God and the universe might be suggesting to us in the present.

Second, we need to make a choice.  When I was driving the car with both tears running down my face and children giggling in the back seat, I needed to choose to shift my attention.  I needed to choose to focus on the positive.  In Advent terms, I needed to choose joy, love, peace and hope, even in the face of grief, fear, anger and despair.  Choosing the Advent path doesn’t mean the world ends – it will still be new year’s day on the first of January – but meanwhile, all the while, I will be striving for the eternal peace, love, joy and hope that today’s new year’s day proclaims:

Jesus has come: Jesus is coming.
Jesus is a baby: Jesus is God who died on the cross and rose again.
Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father: and Jesus lives in my heart by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

May the Lord bless you and I, as we chose hope, joy, love and peace together.