From Mauthausen to Melk

February 8, 2015

On Friday, February 6, I traveled with our Vienna Study Abroad group to the Nazi concentration camp at Mauthausen, and then we visited the Benedictine monastery in Melk. Geographically, the distance is not so great (about an hour bus ride), but the emotional distance is huge if not traumatic.

Mauthausen was the first concentration camp established by the Nazis in Austria after their annexation of country in March 1938. From its beginnings in August 1938 to its liberation by the U. S. Army in May 1945, the camp worked people to death (mining granite), and the regime summarily executed thousands (including a gas chamber). Over 100,000 people died at Mauthausen.

The Melk Abbey was founded in 1089, and its religious devotion is evidenced by fact that it was the center of Austrian monastic reform in the fifteenth century.  The present Baroque facilities were erected in the early 1700s, and its church is the burial place of St. Coloman, an Irish monk who was martyred near Vienna in the early eleventh century. The Abbey survived both Joseph II’s confiscation of monastic property in the late eighteenth century and barely survived Nazification even though most of its property was used for state education at the time.

The camp has a serene setting on a rise of above Mauthausen which presently has less than 5,000 people living on the Gusen river that flows into the Danube, and the abbey sits at the head of the beautiful Wachau Valley situated on the Danube above the village of Melk which is also about 5,000. Both the concentration camp and the abbey overlook their villages and sit on high points that offer magnificent views of their valleys. Their settings are similar, but their intents are radically different.

Mauthausen was a labor camp designed to kill its inmates. Their daily diet was only half the calories necessary for subsistence.  They were literally worked to death, and certain groups were simply executed. For example, Jewish inmates were sometimes, to the amusement of some of their SS guards, “parachuted” over the granite cliffs to their deaths.

Melk Abbey was an educational institution designed for life. It was a refuge on the borders of Bohemia, Moravia, and Austria in the eleventh century, and it conducted a school from the twelfth century forward. The Abbey has been a center of service, education, prayer, and worship for almost ten centuries.

The two compounds, rising above their Austrian villages, represent two very different intentions. One arises out of a hatred for non-Germanic people groups (Jews, Slavs [including Soviet prisoners and Czech/Polish intelligensia], Roma), perceived social threats (same-sex orientation and Jehovah’s witnesses), and political dissenters (Social Democrats, Communists). The other arises out of a love for God and neighbor that devoted itself to St. Benedict’s Rule of work and prayer.

The two represent very different conceptions of human life. One uses forced labor and violence to secure its ends. The other practices humble submission and service to secure its ends. While they may share some similar ends, that is, security and community, the means by which these are pursued are very different–one by violence and the other by prayer.

Mauthausen and Melk symbolize–only miles apart–the “two ways” of biblical wisdom literature. There is a way that leads to death and destruction, and there is a way that leads to life.  The foolish choose the former while the wise choose the latter.

Nevertheless, there was something uneasy about seeing the two back-to-back. While the contrast in intention and work is stark and illuminating, the contrast between austerity and wealth was also shocking.

Melk’s Baroque buildings, golden reliquaries, and magnificent church pointed to the wealth of the eighteenth century empire that enriched it. The church and the majestic art, floors, and ceilings of the monastery reflect the glory of the empire (the Holy Roman Empire) as well as God.

I have no doubt that this wealth was dedicated to the glory of God, though it was also a testimony to the glory of the empire. The two were not easily separated in the minds of most in eighteenth century Austria. So, I do not question the intent (to glorify God) as much as the means.

We could raise all kinds of questions about how the empire acquired this wealth, how it was distributed, and what the life of the poor was like. We could question a hegemony where ethnic Germans ruled politically disenfranchised Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Croats, Serbians, Italians, etc. The empire enriched this monastery. So, even as I admire the beauty of Melk’s art and architecture, I pause to wonder about the roots of this wealth.

Coming from Mauthausen, I wonder abut the origins of the wealth that created this beauty at Melk. The Nazi empire (the Third Reich) created a monstrous and unambiguous evil–labor camps and death camps. The Holy Roman Empire, through the Habsburgs, created beauty, though it also had its share of atrocities in its history.

Nevertheless, I am amazed by the beauty of the art, the craftmanship of the woodwork, and the genius of the architect. In that beauty I see the reflection of the God who created beauty and loves beauty. I see the giftedness that enabled such art. The glory of God surely shines through it.

Whatever its origins, beauty–whether created by the Colorado river flowing through canyons for millions of years or Baroque buildings designed and built by Jakob Prandtauer over a thirty year period–testifies to the beauty of God’s own life and God’s love for diversity within the creation.

At bottom, is it possible to appreciate and enjoy beauty when places like Mauthausen exist in the world? Can we laugh and enjoy the good when evil surrounds us? Can we go from Mauthausen to Melk in one day without feeling sick to our stomachs?

I think so, but only with care. Indeed, an ancient Hebrew sage wrestled with this very question. We call his work Ecclesiastes.

Qoheleth saw oppression, folly, and death in the world. He lived with a sense of frustration about how evil and senseless the world really is. Indeed, his motto was that “everything is absurd!” Life does not make sense!

At the same time, he saw goodness within the creation. He believed that God created the world and, though it is filled with evil, there is nothing better to do than to love, work, and enjoy creation’s gifts. He confessed that there was yet “good” in the world even though life was absurd.

I felt the same way on Friday.

Mauthausen bears witness to the absurdities of humanity! But Melk–both in terms of its medieval origins and its present beauty–testifies to the reality that beauty and goodness still exist in the world.

Melk and Mauthausen contrast–prayer and service battle violence and oppression.

I am grateful that Melk can serve as a response to Mauthausen, though we must be careful that Melk does not also lead us to sanctify empires.

 


Lament Prayer

January 20, 2015

God, take your hands out of your pockets and do something! Psalm 74:11a

A Lament Prayer. http://t.co/NpomTUK0HC


The Empathetic God

December 27, 2014

God became flesh.

God became human.

Incarnation is the act through which the Creator experiences the creation as a creature. This is both the uniqueness and mystery of the Christian faith.

The one who was with God in the beginning and was God from the beginning became human. The same one through whom the cosmos was created also became part of the cosmos, part of the creation.

The divine one lived in the flesh. Though previously God dwelt in the Garden and later in the Temple, now incarnate, God lives in the flesh. God no longer simply lived among human beings as God but now lives among human beings enfleshed; God lives among humanity as one of them, a human.

Why? There are many reasons.

The Western church has often, especially since Anselm’s Why Did God Become Man?, focused on the necessity of the incarnation for atonement, that is, paying the price for our sins.

The Eastern church has, practically from the beginning (starting with Irenaeus), emphasized that the goal of the incarnation is the union of God and humanity, that is, God becomes human that humanity might unite with the divine in close communion as God shares the divine life with humanity.

In the light of the Holocaust as well as the overwhelming sense of suffering within the world, some (including Moltmann among others) have emphasized that the incarnation enables divine empathy.

The difference between sympathy and empathy is an important one. We sympathize with another when we hurt for each other. We acknowledge their pain and express our love for them in their condition. In that sense we suffer with them. Yet, we suffer with them as outsiders to their suffering. We stand on the outside as we grieve their loss and express our love.

Empathy is different. We empathize with another when we share the hurt or feelings of another because we have experienced that same hurt or feeling ourselves. Empathizers are insiders; they know the hurt as people who have experienced it themselves.  They have previously walked in the those same shoes; they understand because they have been there.

As we remember the story of God given in Scripture, we recognize that God sympathizes with our suffering. God grieves the sin and suffering present within the world, and God expresses love for us in the midst of our hurt and pain. The relationship between God and Israel includes God’s sympathy for their suffering. For example, God hears the cries of Israel in Egyptian slavery, and God responds.

But we can see more. In God’s relationship with Israel, God is more than sympathetic. God is also empathetic. God knows what it is like to suffer. For example, God knows the pain of broken promises. God knows what it is like to be betrayed by a spouse. God knows what it is like to be rejected. God knows what it is like to be hated. God knows disappointment as God watched Israel become what God abhorred.

God understands betrayal, rejection, and loss. Consequently, God understands some of our most basic hurts.

But still God seems distant. Can God truly and authentically know my hurts in the way that I feel them? When God experiences rejection is it really what I experience? The transcendent otherness of God renders our sense of divine empathy practically empty. I don’t think this is the case, but when we are suffering, God seems too distant to fully understand our own experience.

God’s response to the human condition, however, is to become human.

When God becomes human, God becomes fully empathetic with humanity. God lives within the creation as a creature, and as a creature, the incarnate One is vulnerable to the same processes, hurts, and pains that characterize all human experience.

As the incarnate God, Jesus fully experiences the human condition. He not only suffers with humanity, he suffers as a human being. He experiences betrayal as a human being. He weeps with a family at the tomb of a friend as a human being. When his disciples desert him, he experiences abandonment as a human being. He dies as a human being.

But there is still something more here. Jesus’ experience as a human being introduces new experiences into the life of God. While God knows when others are tempted, God has never been tempted. While God knows when others are hungry, God has never been hungry. While God knows when others die, God has never died.

As God in the flesh, however, Jesus experiences temptation, hunger, and death. These are new experiences for God. They are possible only because God became human.

In this sense, the incarnation enables the full empathy of God with humanity. Only an incarnate God can be a fully empathetic God.

The incarnation, as an empathetic act, is the gracious and loving act by which God enters into our own experience of suffering. God becomes an insider to suffering. God not only knows about our suffering, but God suffers along with us as a fellow-sufferer, a fellow-human-sufferer.

God understands.

When we weep over the loss of a loved one, God understands. When we are tempted to the limits of our strength, God understands. When we are betrayed by a friend, God understands. When we are hungry, God understands.

God empathizes.

Christmas may be the most joyous time of the year, but it is also the time when God says to suffering humanity:  “I understand!”

 


On Reading Lamentations

September 3, 2014

There is always reason to weep.

We don’t have to look too far into our world—whether through social media, television, or newsprint—to find reason to weep. Yet, too often we—especially the church—ignore, hide our eyes, or look past the pain in order to escape into fantasy, denial, or hope. We rarely sit in our grief and lament.

Lamentations appears in the Hebrew Bible as a testimony to the value of lament. The whole book is a series of laments, a total of five. Responding to the devastation of the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. (described in 2 Kings 25 and Jeremiah 52), the heart-felt cries of sorrow and pain fill the air and ascend to the God of Israel.

However, though focused on a specific moment in Israel’s history, Jewish tradition has recited these poems every year on the 9th of Av (Tisha B’Av). This annual fast day remembers the day when the Exodus generation was told they would not enter the promised land, the day when the first and second temples were destroyed, the day when the Romans finally defeated the last Jewish rebellion against the Empire in 135 C.E., and the day when the Romans plowed under Jerusalem to rebuild it as a pagan city. Tisha B’Av is the saddest day in the Jewish year, and it symbolizes all the tragedies that have fallen the Jewish people.

Tisha B’Av is Israel’s day of mourning. There is no eating, drinking, or sex on that day. Normally every day is filled with God’s good gifts of creation. Even amidst our daily encounters with hebel (what Ecclesiastes calls the absurdities of life), people eat, drink, and enjoy their spouses (cf. Ecclesiastes 9:7-10). But not on this day! On this day, the day when Lamentations is read, there is no joy. It is a day of lament.

Lamentations, to use the title of Leslie C. Allen’s book, is a “liturgy of grief.” These five laments express the pain of tragedy, call believers to an introspective faith, and accept God’s work among them. The laments help believers walk through their grief. It does not ignore or suppress the pain. On the contrary, it voices it. The community neither walks around nor backs away from the grief. Instead, they walk through it.

Lamentations appears in the Hebrew Bible as a communal lament where the people of God remember their story, express their grief, and appeal to their God. Tisha B’Av provides Judaism with a rhythm that incorporates grief into their faith and thereby integrates their experiences of real pain with authentic faith. Sorrow is expressed rather than suppressed.

The historic liturgies of the church have used Lamentations during Holy Week in the light of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday (Tenebrae Services). The laments express the sorrow for sin and grieve death. The Christian Church, then, has adopted this resource within the Hebrew Bible to provide a rhythm of sorrow, repentance, and humility within its own calendar. Lamentations is incorporated into the climax of Lent as Holy Week moves toward Easter.

We read Lamentations, then, to (1) learn to lament, (2) to practice lament, and (3) to move through lament into God’s mercy.

Lamentations is actually five laments; each chapter is its own self-contained lament. We do not know who wrote them (they are anonymous), though an ancient (as early as the Septuagint translation) and strong tradition attributes them to Jeremiah. Whoever the author, they have functioned as significant communal laments for the people of God.

  1. Lament One is a poem where the first letter of each tricolon (three lines; represented as verses) forms an acrostic (therefore, twenty-two verses, which is the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet).
  2. Lament Two is also a poem where the first letter of each tricolon (three lines; represented as verses) forms an acrostic (therefore, twenty-two verses).
  3. Lament Three is a poem where the first letter of each colon (represented as verses) within the tricolon begins with the same letter of the alphabet and the tricolons form an acrostic (therefore, sixty-six verses).
  4. Lament Four is a poem where the first letter of each bicolon (two lines; represented as verses) forms an acrostic (therefore, twenty-two verses).
  5. Lament Five is a poem formed by a series of twenty-two bicolons but there is no acrostic pattern.

While the relationship between these five poems will require our attention in coming blogs, it seems rather obvious that the central poem (Lament Three) is the pinnacle of the book. There are several stylistic as well as theological reasons for such a judgment. It is appears at the center in a unique poetic form, and it reminds Israel of God’s everlasting mercy. Consequently, we might picture Lamentations as a rising crescendo in the first two chapters that is climaxed in the third and with a descending decrescendo in the last two chapters.

In this view, Lamentations begins with lament as the book opens with the word ‘ekah (how?)—as does 2:1 and 4:1. Indeed, this is the Hebrew title of the book (“Lamentations” comes through the Latin Vulgate.). But the book ends with a prayer to Yahweh, “Restore us to yourself” (5:21-22). Between the laments and the prayer is the bold assertion—and probably the most well-known line in Lamentations—“the steadfast love of Yahweh never ceases” (3:22) and the confession “Yahweh is my portion” (3:24).

Lamentations, then, has the classic elements of lament itself. There is (1) complaint, including a description of the horrible circumstances under which people suffer. There is (2) petition, which appeals to Yahweh to transform the situation. But there is also (3) praise, which comes in the form of confident confession and hope.

Lament is not simply wallowing in one’s sorrow as if it is a function of self-pity alone. It includes that as well as other forms of complaint. But it is much more. It is also petition and praise.

Lament moves us through the grief toward a confident hope in God. It takes time, and it takes practice, that is, it takes the practice of lament itself. We must take the time to talk it out with God and in community.

Lamentations provides a resource for the people of God to voice their hurts, offer their petitions, and express their faith.


Groaning, Weakness, and the Holy Spirit

June 28, 2014

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


Two Chapel Speeches on Lament

April 28, 2014

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.

 


Yet Will I Trust Him: Trusting God in the Storms of Life

April 19, 2014

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.

1.  Introduction

2.  God loves us and unrelentingly pursues us.

3.  God listens to our laments and invites us to voice them.

4.  God empathizes with our weaknesses and suffering.

5.  God rules over our suffering and gives it meaning.

6.  God wins and empowers hope in the present.

7.  How do we comfort sufferers?

 


Joel 1:1-14 — A Call for Lamentation

April 4, 2014

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.

  • Wine-makers and drinkers lament the loss of the vines and the lack of new wine (1:5).
  • The priests mourn the lack of crops and vines that would provide drink offerings and grain offerings at the temple (1:9, 13).
  • The farmers, who till the soil and dress the vines, weep over the loss of their crops (1:11).

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:

  1. Take note of the significance of the moment. We should not look past our pain too quickly nor underestimate the importance of our tragedies and hurts.
  2. Take account of the devastation involved that occasion the lament. We should notice the pain people endure and how widespread the pain is.
  3. Gather in a solemn assembly; covenant to fast as an expression of lamentation. We do not have to weep alone. Rather, we should encourage communal forms of lament that give voice to our hurt.
  4. Cry out to Yahweh. We may weep over our losses, but we also seek God in those moments. We address God with our needs; we intercede for ourselves and others. We voice our distress to God.

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.


On Reading the Prophet Joel: A Lament Liturgy

April 2, 2014

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.]

 


A Lament Homily

October 7, 2013

Last week Lipscomb grieved through a student’s death on campus. The University responded wonderfully and in every way. I was asked to speak in chapel last Tuesday. Here is the link if you wish to hear it. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GMc39Go6d7Q