Oh my goodness! How did it get from July 19 (my last post) till October 9?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.
Lamentations 1:1-6How 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!