The Lost Art of Lamentation
In a meeting last week, we planned for upcoming holidays like World Communion, Reformation Sunday, All Saints, and so on. While we’re working on updated yet still engaging worship opportunities for those holidays, so I trust those Sundays will be beautiful in their own way… it nonetheless made me sad to think of how much had changed in worship, in my life, in the world… since this pandemic hit. I grew up singing in choirs. Music is in my blood. I miss the old hymns and anthems. I don’t enjoy these changes. But all the genuine research I’ve read suggests singing puts folks at far greater risk. It’s hard, some Sundays, for me, and I imagine it’s hard for you. This covid-19 pandemic has changed a lot of things. I watch an old movie with my wife, and something with the film will feel off… until I realize it’s that nobody in the film is wearing masks. I’m so used to our new normal, I forget sometimes what life used to be like and what it—Lord willing—might be once this disease is better controlled. But it’s more than just the disease. Our church mourns two people this week. Our nation feels torn in half and getting worse. My hometown—once ranked as some of America’s cleanest air—has been shrouded in smoke and ash, while hurricanes ravage our south and east coasts so much that they exhausted the English alphabet for names and now are using Greek to label hurricanes. It’s hard to hope sometimes these days, hard to imagine things getting better. It’s just hard.
So if you haven’t noticed, our scripture today is Lamentations. What is it lamenting? Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC, its king brutally tortured, its people taken into slavery and exile. The people of God face the possible extermination of everything they know and are. Each stanza of Lamentations’ poem here lifts up a new dimension of their grief: loss of status, isolation, loss of stability, betrayal by supposed friends, bitter nostalgia for what was lost. Lament was an ancient genre of literature, usually written for funerals or when a city was destroyed, and lament poetry serves to complain to the heavens, to give voice to your heart when life falls apart, to offer words of grief when you have no words yourself.
But America’s dominant culture does not like grief. When I officiate funerals, almost always the family apologizes for crying, treating tears as something to be ashamed of. I always have to remind them there’s no wrong way to grieve. And many people these days—despite all the woes I named a few minutes ago—pretend the present day is normal, act business as usual despite so much unusual. Everybody wants life to be normal again. I want life to be normal again. But it’s not, not yet. And though my ignoring the pandemic and other current events is necessary from time to time for my own mental health, as I imagine is true for you from time to time… it doesn’t fix any problems. Whatever troubles you in life—grief, uncertainty, fear—acting like it’s not a trouble may feel better. But denial doesn’t fix troubles, just delays them. Denial is more like Baghdad Bob in the Iraq War, whose broadcasts routinely proclaimed how the Americans were surrendering, while in the background you could clearly hear the sound of US tanks and troops rolling in. Baghdad Bob made his listeners feel better, but they still lost. Or if you’re a Leslie Nielsen fan, The Naked Gun also captures the problem of denial perfectly.
And that’s why Lamentations exists, I think. Jerusalem’s destruction was not something that would go away if they ignored it. God’s people had to eventually face up to the immense tragedy, had to air their grief lest they go mad. They couldn’t deny Jerusalem was gone. Perhaps some might instead deny that Jerusalem ever mattered, might pretend that its loss was no big deal. Some might get along as best they could as exiles in Babylon, slaves to their conquerors. But Psalm 137—another poem lamenting the loss of Jerusalem—highlights the hardship of this other form of denial. “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there, we hung up our harps. For there our captors, asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.” Faced with the loss of their kingdom, the death of their king, the burning of their city… God’s people could not imagine it wasn’t real: self-delusion could not outlast such horror. And while the Babylonians pressured them to just move on, suck it up and get with the new program, that was also unthinkable, as the Psalm laments. So unable to escape the tragedy and grief, unable to move on or act like it didn’t matter… Lamentations and scriptures like it help believers… express what we cannot describe. We all have pains we cannot deny, cannot run from, cannot pretend away. Our culture often wants us to bury unhappiness deep down. But it is Biblical to lament, to weep, to cry out why God why.
Yet apart from airing grief, however, Lamentations does one other thing: it looks for God in the midst of such nightmare. Our scripture declares, “the Lord has made [Jerusalem] suffer for the multitude of her transgressions.” Now that sounds like it’s just made things worse: not only has Jerusalem burned and its people fled… but now also God Almighty is against us? Sounds like the exact opposite of comforting! But put yourself in an ancient person’s mind. Most other ancient peoples, after being conquered, would assume their gods abandoned them or were simply too weak. But not here. No. Instead, Lamentations sees God still in control. It’s not that the Babylonians were better, not that God abandoned them, not that God was weak. Rather it’s that God is using the Babylonians for his own ends: to chastise his people as he promised back in days of Moses were they ever to lose their way. Such an explanation is not happy, no. But after losing everything else, such an awareness that they were not at the mercy of tyrants forever, that God was still in control, that God would one day end this misery… gave them hope to endure. Or as Lamentations itself declares later on in chapter 3, looking towards that promised relief, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. God’s mercies never come to an end: they are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in God.’” Seeing their present sufferings in the context of God’s larger plan for the universe didn’t make the hurt less… but it gave the suffering a hope when all other hope was gone.
But us Christians, thank the Lord, we can go a step further. Because of Jesus Christ, we do not have only this grim explanation. While God certainly is in control and can indeed use tragedies to make us stronger, as Lamentations declares and draws hope from… as Christians we can go a step farther. Do you know the shortest verse in the entire Bible? John 11:35: “Jesus wept.” And later in the gospels, we see Christ cry out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Where Lamentations sees God in control amid the anguish and thus takes comfort… in Jesus we know that God has not abandoned us… because God gets down into the trenches with us, weeps with us, suffers with us, dies with us. God shares our lament, our rage and anguish, even as God in supreme glory weaves history towards our redemption.
During a commute I used to drive, there was a radio station with a jingle that drove me crazy. Probably some of you know it. The jingle goes, “Positive! Encouraging! K-LOVE!” Now K-LOVE is a fine contemporary Christian station. K-LOVE has done lots of good for lots of people. No disrespect to them. But personally, they hit a pet peeve of mine. All their songs… are, well, usually positive and encouraging. And that consistency annoys me! Because the Bible’s songs and poems… have anger! And sorrow! And doubt! Thankfully, on that commute I later found a Christian rock station that had tunes for when you were angry over injustice, when you were heartbroken over loss, when you just wanted to scream to the high heavens that this life is not fair. Yes, the Bible’s message is good news: the best news of all, of new life and justice and peace and truth! That’s an encouraging thing! But the Bible isn’t only sparkles and joy: its message is that the “people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” as we celebrate from the scriptures every Christmas. K-LOVE does a good job proclaiming the light bit, and that’s great. But in the Psalms and Lamentations, we see that it’s also Biblical to admit when we feel lost in darkness, when we struggle with hope, when we lose our way, when we don’t have it all together. As a Christian, you are not called to bury your feelings, to hide all negativity. You are simply called to follow Christ, who shows what it means to be human in its joy and sorrow.
I hope today… that y’all are happy. I don’t wish unhappiness upon you. But I hope that the next time you do feel down, that perhaps you turn to scriptures like this one. May you trust that the Lord is indeed in control, despite all the destruction and chaos in this world, and may that promise give you hope that change is gonna come. And may you also trust that in Jesus we see that God is also in the pit with us, in our grief and suffering… so that we can remain confident that God never abandons us, come what may. We are in the midst of hard days. Sometimes I just want to scream. But in the words of Lamentations, I see that God is with us even here, even now. May we find solace and strength in God, who never forsakes us. Amen.