The Holy Spirit groans with us and for us. We are not alone in our weaknesses.
See my new post at Wineskins.org. http://wp.me/p4a1Ft-oN
The Holy Spirit groans with us and for us. We are not alone in our weaknesses.
See my new post at Wineskins.org. http://wp.me/p4a1Ft-oN
Below are links to two chapel speeches this year—my only chapel speeches this academic year.
The first was delivered to the whole Lipscomb student body after the loss of Isaac Philips who was found dead in his dorm room in late September 2013. You may view the chapel speech at this link.
The second was delivered at the Abilene Graduate School of Theology chapel on Ash Wednesday (March 5, 2014). You may view that speech here.
Both are focused on lament. The former laments death, and the later laments injustice based on Joel 2:1-17.
The College Hills Church of Christ in Lebanon, TN, invited me to teach a class on “Yet Will I Trust Him: Trusting God in the Storms of Life” throughout January and February 2014. It was a good experience for me, though whether it was for everyone else is something I cannot judge. I am grateful for the opportunity.
However, you can judge for yourself. They have made the videos available on YouTube. The study focused on “five anchors for the soul” which give stability to faith during the storms of life.
Whether Joel calls for lament in a specific historical situation or provides a liturgical frame for communal lament (or both!), the opening calls the people of God to cry out to God as they weep and wail in their despair.
There are times to lament, and the people of God need the regular rhythms of lament and hope to endure their tragedies, to seek forgiveness for their sins, and to implore Yahweh for justice. Whatever the circumstance here, Joel invites Israel to weep (bacah; 1:5), howl (yalal; 1:5, 11, 13), mourn (‘abal; 1:9), lament (saphad; 1:13), and cry out (za’ak; 1:14).
The first imperative, however, is “hear” or “listen.” The elders (city leaders) and the inhabitants of the land (those who “dwell” in the land) are told to pay attention and notice what is happening among them. The moment has significance. It is something they will tell their children and their children.
Some may read the question, “Has such a thing happened in your days, or in the days of your fathers?,” as a wholly unique event. But perhaps it is hyperbole to highlight the importance of the moment. Israel finds itself in a lamentable circumstance, one of considerable consequence. As a liturgical document, this may not refer to any specific moment but rather anticipates those moments in a people’s history that appear with some regularity. The United States remembers, for example, Pearl Harbor, the death of Martin Luther King, or 9-11. The invitation, then, does not so much announce a unique event as it emphasizes the depth of the lament occasioned by the circumstance, whatever it may be.
In this case, Joel identifies the occasion as a locust plague. In the ancient world, and up until very recent history, locust swarms devastated huge tracts of land. Locust devour everything and leave nothing in their wake. Famine, disease, and poverty follow.
Interpreters differ on how to understand Joel’s use of the plague. Some think it is a metaphor for an invading army (e.g., Babylonians or some other power). Others think it is a literal locust plague. Still others believe the locust function as a metaphor for weighty moments of lament. In other words, if Joel functions as a lament liturgy, the locust plague is a figure for every tragedy that might devastate a nation. Whatever the case may be, lament is the primary concern.
Lament is described in several ways.
Nothing is left. There are no resources for a prosperous life; there are no gifts for the temple. Everything is dried up. Life has lost its joy; it has dried up just like the vines, fruits, and trees (1:12). The lament is so great it is compared to a bride who never had the opportunity to enjoy her husband (1:8); she remains a virgin and her husband is dead.
There is reason to lament.
Religious leaders–the priests–must “consecrate a fast” in a “solemn assembly” (1:14). They are to gather the people–both elders and those who dwell in the land–at the temple, and there the whole assembly will “cry out to Yahweh.” Joel opened his oracle by addressing the “elders and inhabitants of the land,” and the call to lament concludes with the “elders and inhabitants of the land” crying out to God. The whole community gathers to lament.
The call to lament involves several elements which are important for our own practices today:
Lament is a common human experience. It is not about whining or even complaining, but weeping over our hurts, our sins, and the brokenness that fills the world. Rather than isolate, we gather. Rather than silence, we speak. We lament, and God listens.
The prophet Joel, whose name means “Yahweh is God,” taught Judah to lament and hope. His message announces the coming “day of the Lord,” which entails both judgment–for the impenitent among God’s people and among the nations–and the renewal of God’s vision for the reign of God in the world. Lament and hope.
No one really knows when Joel prophesied or when the literary work that bears his name was written. Scholars have postulated every era of Israel’s history after the division of the kingdom into Israel and Judah. Some think he was a contemporary of Elijah or Elisha, or Amos, or Jeremiah, or Zechariah, or even after Malachi. The temple stands, but no kings are mentioned. Some enemies are identified, but none of them are the superpowers Assyria, Babylon, or Persia. We don’t have many clues.
The words of the prophet Joel come to us undated and without any specific historical context. But perhaps that is neither accidental nor coincidental. It is unusual in some ways but perhaps intentional, that is, its lack of specificity has a purpose.
The clue to this ambiguity is the topic itself: lament and hope. For example, the Psalms often lack historical context, but this is often a good thing. It means the language of the Psalms may fit any number of circumstances; it is not limited to the particulars of a specific moment in history or a narrow experience. Instead, the Psalm is open-ended in its application. It can be used over and over again in similar circumstances.
Joel fits this pattern. Joel is a poetic, liturgical lament. In the opening two chapters, the prophet calls the people together to lament (1:5, 8; 2:12-14), fast (1:13-14; 2:15-16), and wait for the day of the Lord (1:15; 2:17). Hope, then, is located in God’s gracious response to such lament (2:18. 23, 28-29; 3:1, 18). Lament is followed by hope.
The biblical narrative identifies many occasions when Israel gathered in sacred assembly to lament, repent, and await God’s answer (cf. 2 Chronicles 20:1-17). Joel is a prophetic call for such an assembly (Joel 1:14; 2:15). Consequently, it functions something like Psalm 12 where the liturgy cries out in lament (12:1-4) but waits in hope (12:5-6).
The message of Joel is lament, repent, and hope. Since no specific historical situation is identified or perhaps intended, it becomes a liturgical text that serves Israel in diverse circumstances. It calls the nation to assemble for lament, to confess sin, and to hear the word of hope that God offers.
The people of God need that rhythm in their life. We need lament liturgies to voice our hurts, confess our sins, and embrace the promises of God. We need lament assemblies where as a community we gather in the face of tragedy, national sin, or impending doom in order to draw near to God and seek God’s redemptive mercy. Joel provides such a liturgy.
In the Christian calendar, Lent is the season of lament, repentance, fasting, and prayer….but also hope. Lent follows in the footsteps of Joel, and as Christians embrace the season of Lent they can also give voice to the words and message of Joel.
We lament, but we never lament without hope.
[See my Ash Wednesday Graduate Chapel presentation at Abilene Christian University on March 5, 2014.]
You, God, who made the heavens and the earth and have promised to remake them, hear my voice.
I plea for a hearing because you often seem so distant to me and sometimes I fear that you do not listen. Awake, O God, and hear my prayer for I struggle once again with death. Death has again invaded my world.
God, I hate death. I trust that you hate it, too. Death is my enemy; it is your enemy as well. It rips apart the very fabric of peace, hope and trust. Where are you in the midst of death, O God? Why, O Lord, do you stand so far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
How, God, does death bring any meaning to your world? Would it not be better…would it not be to your glory…that you would rescue us from death so that we might praise you in the land of the living? Where is your praise in the grave? Is your steadfast love declared in the grave?
Lord God, every death raises questions about you, about the meaning of life, and your purposes. I confess that I cannot answer them, and “every death is a question mark”*. Death is like a fog that blinds me.
How Long, O Lord? Will you forget us forever? How long must we have sorrow in our hearts every day? How long must we live with these questions, doubts and tears? When will you rid us of this shroud?
God, take your hands out of your pockets and do something! Arise, O Lord, and destroy this enemy. Redeem us, O God, according to your unfailing love!
God, you are my God, and I entrust my life, including my eventual death, to you.
I confess the story is not yet over, and that you, God, will yet rise up and destroy the enemy, and you will give birth to a new world without death and without tears.
Rise up, O God, and give birth to your new world. Create your new world, Father. Comfort us, O Spirit, and come back soon, Lord Jesus.
Given in the Gathering (Lipscomb University Chapel) on October 1, 2013 in Nashville, TN in mourning over the death of Isaac Phillips.
*From the song “Come Back Soon” by Andrew Peterson on his “Lost Boys” album.
That is an important word for the writer of Ecclesiastes. It is a word that comes to mind on May 21 every year since 2001. That was the day Joshua died. It was also the day John Robert died in 2008. Indeed, it is a day on which many people have died.
You may not recognize the word, but it is used 37 times in Ecclesiastes (only 70x in the whole Hebrew Bible). At a literal and formal level it might be rendered “breath” and thus allude to the brevity of life. At a metaphorical level it might be rendered “vanity, empty, meaningless” and thus allude to the pointlessness of life.
The word has much more of a punch than even “meaningless” or “vanity” in Ecclesiastes. It encompasses the unfathomable nature of life, the deep impenetrable mystery of life….and death. Bartholomew’s commentary suggests “enigma.” Life is enigmatic because we simply don’t know; we are limited in perspective and we can’t figure it out.
But the word has more punch than that. This is why some, like Michael Fox and Peter Enns, suggest “absurd.” Life is frustrating. The seemingly ceaseless, circular, and pointless merry-go-round of life has no goal, no meaning, and no worth. Life–because of death–is simply absurd.
What lies behind Ecclesiastes is a whole Hebrew tradition, including the Torah, and more particularly the opening narrative of Genesis 1-11. When Qohelet probes life he finds the narrative world of Abel (the same Hebrew word hebel). The seemingly pointless, absurd and unjust death of Abel at the hands of Cain is a symbol for human existence. Our lives are like Abel’s.
We have to give Qohelet his due. We must sit with him–and it would do us good to sit with him for a season rather than move on too quickly. Sometimes we are forced to sit with him as we are overwhelmed with the horror of human existence. We recoil at death of children at nature’s hand in Oklahoma as well as the hand of the mentally ill in Connecticut. Sometimes all we can do is agree with Qohelet, “Everything is absolutely absurd!”
Paul alludes to this word (Romans 8:20). He uses the term that the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible used to translate hebel. He recognizes the frustration and futility of the present bondage which enslaves the creation. Life is not as it should be. The creation groans and the children of God lament. We lament days like May 21.
And, without forgetting that life is hebel, we also recognize the good and the joys God has provided today. Life is both hebel and filled with the gifts of the Creator.
So today, we lament and we remember that life is hebel.
But we also, today, accept God’s gifts with gratitude and joy.
How do we do both? Some days, I don’t know. Other days, it is obvious. Ask me tomorrow.
The above title is the first line in the refrain of Andrew Peterson’s “Come Back Soon.” On Sunday my old and dear friend Dean Barham, in his morning sermon at Woodmont Hills, alerted me to Peterson’s music and particularly this line. It has stuck with me for a few days now.
Yesterday I read Keith Brenton’s funeral eulogy for his wife. He has decided with faith and courage to grieve with hope. I grieved with my friend, prayed for his family, and protested her death.
April 30 to May 22 has become a season of lament for me. April 30th is the anniversary of my first wife’s death (Sheila), May 10 is my deceased father’s birthday, May 21 is the anniversary of the death of my son (Joshua), and May 22 is the anniversary of my first marriage. In the last five years my emotions during this time have been particularly evident to me as I have attempted to face my grief.
But I recognize that my lament is only a small part of the larger dimensions of sorrow within the world. The Psalms evidence this range of lament–lament for evil and injustice and lament over our own sins as well as lament over disease and death. It is not only the lament of an individual but the lament of communities, ethnicities, nations, and, indeed, the whole world.
We all “awake in the night.” At some point we all lose our innocence, and we realize the world is often a dark, lonely, and broken place. “Every death,” Peterson sings, “is a question mark.”
“We awake in the night,” and the refrain continues,
We beat our fists on the door
We cannot breathe in this sea that swirls
So we groan in this great darkness
Deliverance, O Lord.
Peterson’s language evokes Biblical images of chaos (sea and darkness) against which humanity protests (fists). “We awake in the night” when we lose our innocence and experience creation’s chaos.
Existentially, I had my awakening on April 30, 1980. I’ve had several since then as well–some due to tragedy, some due to my own sin and brokenness. But the groan remains the same….”we groan in the darkness” and we cry “for deliverance.” “So,” Peterson sings, “we kick in the womb and we beg to be born.”
We beg to be born. It is “in the womb of the world” where we awake, where we beg, where we groan. We cry for this broken creation to give birth to a new one.
The last song, “Don’t You Want to Thank Someone For This,” on the CD (“Light for the Lost Boy”) brings this yearning to a climax.
There is lament. “Can’t you feel it in your bones, something isn’t right here.”
But there is also joy. The sun comes up every morning, Spring follows Winter, and “beauty abounds.”
There is awakening. Though it is in the night, it is in the womb. Though we cry “How long?” we also pray “Come back soon.” And “when the world is new again,” then the children of the King will sing on, and their mourning will be turned to dancing.
Come back soon!”
We need more lament songs.
I was reminded of of this while studying Amos 8:9. The prophet offers the most chilling metaphor for lament imaginable for an ancient Israelite: “I will make it like the mourning of an only son.”
Children killed in their schools, on the streets of a sporting event, by abuse at home, by terminal diseases, and by tragic accidents. And there is much more than that to lament.
There is so much to lament, and we need more lament songs. Our assemblies, devotions, and private prayers should voice lament just as ancient Israel did (almost half of the Psalms are lament).
I am grateful that my good friends Konstantin Zhigulin, a Russian believer in St. Petersberg (Russia), and Jeff Matteson (a citizen of the United States) have produced a “Lament For the Innocents.” Konstantin leads and Jeff sings in a group called Psalom (Facebook page). Click on the link and listen to the beautiful tones and words (taken from Biblical texts of lament and hope).
We need lament to voice our anger, bewilderment, misgivings, doubt…and, yes, even praise and hope. Lament is spiritual therapy by which we process our grief and hurt as we sit on God’s lap…even as we protest, yell, and accuse. God listens and responds.
At the same time, there is so much for which to be grateful. We are blessed more than we could ever realize or grasp.
So, we give thanks and we lament. That is the life of faith.