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 that you, Father, are the maker of heaven and earth.
- I confess that you, Jesus, were born of woman, lived among us, died with us, rose again for us, and now reign at the right hand of the Father interceding for us.
- I confess that you, Spirit, are present to transform us and comfort us.
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.
(The fourth chapter of my book on the Shack. I publish it here in light of the lament over terror, school shootings and the presence of tragic evil in the world.)
I hate you.
I meditated on this brief prayer for months after I read it. Initially, I was horrified by how much I identified with the prayer and I was troubled by the prayer’s resonance in my soul. My first reaction, however, was “I get the point.”
So did Mack. He had become “sick of God” over the years since Missy’s death (p. 66). But he went to the shack at God’s invitation, doubting whether it really was God. As he entered the shack for the first time in over three years his emotions exploded (p. 78).
Mack bellowed the questions most sufferers ask and most often they begin with the word “Why?” “Why did you let this happen? Why did you bring me here? Of all the places to meet you—why here?” In a “blind rage” he threw a chair at the window and began smashing everything in sight with one of its legs. He vented his anger. His body released the emotions he had stored up in it.
Anger, if not resolved or healed, simmers inside of us. It becomes part of our body and we feel it in our chest, stomachs, shoulders, or neck. It destroys us from within. One day it will explode. For over three years Mack had suppressed this anger but now alone in the shack it poured out with a vengeance. “Groans and moans of despair and fury spat through his lips as he beat his wrath into this terrible place.”
Fatigue ended his rampage, but not his anger or despair. The pain remained; it was familiar to him, “almost like a friend.” This darkness was Mack’s “closest friend” just as it was for Heman in Psalm 88:18. “The Great Sadness” burdened him and there was no escape (p. 79). There was no one to whom he could turn, so he thought. Even God did not show up at the shack.
It would be better to be dead, to just get it over with, right? When great sadness descends on us, sometimes—like Mack—we think it is better to simply die and be rid of the pain. We think we would be better off dead if for no other reason than that the hurting would stop. Or, like Job, we might wish we had never been born (Job 3). Contemplating suicide, Mack cried himself to sleep on the floor of the shack.
Rising after what “was probably only minutes,” Mack, still seething with anger and berating his own seeming idiocy, walked out of the shack. “I’m done, God.” He was worn out and “tired of trying to find [God] in all of this” (p. 80).
This scene is Mack’s true self. It is Mack in the shack. It is the pent-up, growing and cancerous feelings of anger, bitterness and resentment toward God. God, after all, did not protect Missy. God was no “Papa” to Missy in her deepest distress and need. The journey to discover God is not worth it. It is too hard, too gut-wrenching, and useless!
In his rage Mack expressed the words that seethed underneath the anger, resentment, disappointment and pain. “I hate you!” he shouted.
“I hate you.” Them’s fighting words, it seems to me. It expresses our fight (or, as in the case of Jacob, wrestling) with God. Sometimes we flee our shacks but at other times we may go to our shacks to find God only to discover we have a fight on our hands because God did not show up. This is Mack’s initial experience.
The word “hate” stands for all the frustration, agitation, disgust, exasperation, and bewilderment we experience in the seeming absence of God as we live in a suffering, painful and hurting world. “Hate” is a fightin’ word—a representation of the inexplicable pain in our lives; a word that is used as a weapon to inflict pain on the one whom we judge to be the source of the pain. Sometimes, perhaps, we are too polite with God. Sometimes we are not “real” with the Creator. Sometimes, like Jacob in Genesis 32, we need to wrestle with God.
I hear God’s suffering servant Job in this word though he never uses the specific term in his prayers. God has denied Job fairness and justice, and Job is bitter (Job 23:1; 27:2). God is silent. God “throws” Job “into the mud” and treats him as an enemy (Job 30:19-20). God has attacked him and death is his only prospect (Job 30:21, 23). Job is thoroughly frustrated, bitter in his soul, and hopeless about his future (Job 7:11, 21). He does not believe he will ever see happiness again (Job 7:7). God was a friend who turned on him—“hate” might be an accurate description of Job’s feelings as he sits on the dung heap.
And yet, just as Madeleine’s brief prayer, Job ends with “Love, Job.” He speaks to God; Job is not silent. He does not turn from his commitment to God; he does not curse God or deny him. He seeks God even if only to speak to him though he may slay him. He laments, complains, wails, and angrily (even sarcastically) addresses the Creator, but he will not turn his back on God (Job 23:10-12; 21:16).
The contrast between “I hate you” and “Love, Madeleine” is powerful. It bears witness to the tension within lament and our experience of the world’s brokenness. Though deeply frustrated with the reality that surrounds us (whether it is divorce, the death of a son, the death of a wife, the plight of the poor, AIDS in Africa, etc.) and with the sovereign God who does whatever he pleases (Psalm 115:3; 135:6), we continue to sign our prayers (laments) with love. We have no one else to whom we can turn and there is no else worthy of our love or laments.
We can all get to the point that we are “done” with God, that is, where we are “done” trying to “find God” in our shacks. The search for meaning, relationship, and love is often frustratingly slow and fruitless. “I hate you” may be the most simple and shocking way to express our feelings about the whole mess.
Sometimes we blurt out language that expresses our feelings but does not line up with our faith. This can happen when our faith is shaken, confused, threatened, or slipping away. It is a common experience among believers when they go to their shacks.
We go to our shacks because we yearn for love, for relationship, for healing, or perhaps because we are desperate and there is nowhere else to go. We sign our prayers with love–”Love, Madeleine” or “Love, John Mark”—as an expression of hope. We want to love, to know love, and experience love. It is out of this yearning we pray; it is out of this love we lament.
It is with love we say “I hate you.”
The poignant irony of that last sentence is, it seems to me, the essence of honest lament in a broken world.
Leaven–a theological journal designed for ministers and “lay” leaders–is now available online. This is a significant resource. Various issues focus on biblical texts and theological topics. Every issue includes additional bibliographical and liturgical resources. The most recent issue focuses on Romans 5-8. I encourage everyone to look into the various issues and use the search function to access different topics.
I have contributed five articles to Leaven over the years and am even now working on my sixth. I will use n occasional post to link this blog to those articles.
In my article, “‘If I Should Die Before I Wake….’ The Death of Children and the Story of Job” I reflect on my own experience with the terminal illness of my son Joshua as I intersect that with the story of Job.
Last weekend I was honored to spend some time with the University Park Church of Christ in Maryland. I was encouraged by their desire to serve the Lord and the integrated nature of their family. Dorn & Carolyn Muscar are serving the church there in a wonderful way. They are a dedicated couple in the service of the kingdom.
The University Park website has posted my presentations on their website. I have provided them below should you care to listen.
Five Anchors of Faith in the Storms of Life — How Long, O Lord: Psalm 13, by Dr. John Mark Hicks, 8-26-2012
Five Anchors of Faith in the Storms of Life, Bible Class, by Dr. John Mark Hicks, 8-26-2012 “Comforting Sufferers: What Should We Do…Say?
Five Anchors of Faith in the Storms of Life, Session 1 – Learning to Lament: What the Psalms Can Teach Us About Grief, by Dr. John Mark Hicks, 8-25-2012
Five Anchors of Faith in the Storms of Life, Session 2 – Suffering with Jesus: How Jesus Transforms Suffering, by Dr. John Mark Hicks, 8-25-2012
Five Anchors of Faith in the Storms of Life, Session 3 – Trusting the Love of God: Assurance in the Storm, by Dr. John Mark Hicks, 8-25-2012
On many different occasions, and some recently, I have been asked about how I conceive or conduct the Lord’s supper as a home meal. Others who are doing something similar have wanted to compare their practices with my own. I have never explicitly addressed this on my blog but now is an opportune moment.
The Lord’s supper as a meal is not a weekly event for me but it is fairly common. In my small group, several of my classes and other occasions I have led or participated in group meals as the “Lord’s supper.”
Why do this? Well, first the Lord’s supper is a supper, that is, it is an evening meal (the meaning of deipnon). Second, I think the supper was intended for smaller groups. The Jerusalem church, though 3000 strong on the day of Pentecost, met to “break bread” in their homes in small groups. Third, the supper as a group meal engenders intimacy among its participants. There we experience fellowship at the most basic level through eating together; there we show hospitality toward each other; and there we experience grace around the table.
When I lead the Lord’s meal, I have a fairly general outline of how the meal will proceed. This is not rigid but I think ritual is important or else the meal will lose focus and degenerate into a generality that cannot carry the weight of the moment. Nevertheless, the meal varies in order, Scripture texts, and meditation. But here is the general order in which I lead the meals (by the way, the food is already on the table as we sit down).
1. Lighting of candles. I like two central candles on the table to symbolize the light of creation and the light of new creation. We give honor and praise to the Father and Son in this way as we remember that the Holy Spirit (the flame of love) illuminates us and brings us into the presence of the Father and Son.
2. Each participant has a small candle in front of their plate. I ask each, in turn, to light their candle (the lighter is passed around) and give thanks for something that God is doing in their lives. We begin with our basic response to the light of God, that is, we give thanks.
3. I offer a meditation on the Lord’s Supper using a text of Scripture. This may range from the traditional texts like 1 Corinthians 11 or Luke 22. But I don’t limit myself to them. Other texts also come into play such as Psalms of thanksgiving (like Psalm 116, 107, 118) and other texts that carry the meaning of the meal within them or through application.
4. Breaking of the Bread. I use a whole loaf that is large enough for every person at the table to take a substantial piece (not just a pinch). I take the bread in my hands and talk about the meaning of the bread. The bread is from the earth that nourishes our bodies but the bread is also a means of experiencing the new creation through as the raised, living body of Christ. We eat this bread for both physical and spiritual nourishment. I then break the bread and offer a prayer of thanksgiving, and then distribute it. I give it to the people on either side of me and they break off a piece and pass it down to those around the table. As each one gives the bread to the other, they say: ”This is the body of Christ which is given for you.” We all eat the bread.
5. We begin eating and drinking what is available on the table.
6. At some point at the beginning of our eating (after we all have food on our plates), I will remind the participants of the two candles and that by the presence of the Spirit, the living Christ is the host of this table. If we have some ongoing intimacy as a group (that is, this is not the first time we ever met or a special occasion), I will ask each to share something that is happening in their life in their walk with God (struggles, triumphs, etc.). This is a community meal. At the end of the sharing, we pray for each other.
7. Towards the middle of the meal, I will remind the table that this is the communion of the saints, which includes the saints around the world at present but also the communion of the saints who now inhabit the heavens with God. I begin by recalling the presence of Sheila, Dad and Joshua at the table with us, and ask each to remember one who is already in the heavens but present at the table with us even now. We remember that we commune with the saints as well as with God.
8. In connection with this remembrance, I ask each to share a name for whom we might pray. Depending on time, they may explain why the name, but usually I just ask for names without explanation. This is for a time of intercession. We pray over the names, and I don’t usually list the names again in the prayer but simply acknowledge that God has heard and we call up God to act.
9. In this context, I will share or ask another to share another scripture. One of my favorites at this point is Psalm 116. It is a thanksgiving Psalm that reminds us that we cannot repay God’s goodness except to lift up the cup of thanksgiving and celebrate a meal with God (the Psalm is written in the context of a thanksgiving sacrifice).
10. Towards the end of the meal, I take the pitcher that is filled with the fruit of the vine and talk about the “cup” we are about to drink. I remind us that this is the blood of Christ which is poured out for us for the remission of our sins. In this moment we experience reconciliation with God–we are forgiven. But I also remind us that the “cup” is something we share with Christ, that is, we share the cup of suffering as persons who follow Jesus to the cross. We are reminded that we are disciples committed to follow Jesus daily, even to a cross.
11. Pouring the Cup. I take the pitcher and pour some into a cup (something like a wine class perhaps) for the person sitting next to me. As I pour, I say, this is the blood of Christ for you and invite them to share the cup of Jesus. In turn, they pour the cup for the person next to them and around the table till all have their cups filled. Someone then prays over the cup, giving thanks for what God has done in Jesus. And we drink together as we say “Thank you, Jesus.” Many times we cling our glasses together in a toast.
11. As each pours the cup for the other, I ask that they affirm that person for something in their life. In what way do they see Jesus in this person who sits at the table with them? For what do they give thanks for them and acknowledge their communion in Christ? In this way, we share an intimacy with each other and express our gratitude for each other as we express our gratitude to God.
13. As we drink and conclude the meal, I don’t want the cup to simply end with a sip. Rather, as we drink and continue to drink (and finish eating as the case may be), I ask each person in turn to share one word (with an explanation) that is prominent in their heart and mind at that moment. What are they experiencing? We share a word that expresses our heart.
14. Sometimes dessert is offered as a taste of the eschaton–as a present foretaste of coming joy.
15. As the meal winds down and we conclude eating, I end the meal with some kind of benediction. It could be a prayer, a blessing, a Scripture reading.
This is a method; it is certainly not a standard or the method. I think the meal can be conducted in any number of ways. However, I do think several things are important:
- Scripture (the Word) to Open the Meal
- Bread and Fruit of the Vine
- Communion of the Saints
- Intercession for the Saints
- Expressions of Gratitude
- Benediction as Closure
Perhaps some might find this helpful. For whatever its value, there it is! :-)
The opening line is simple, direct and profound: “I have loved you, says Yahweh.”
That should be good news, but there are times when it may be heard with a bit of skepticism or even bitterness. It is a difficult word to hear when someone has just told you in the previous breath that your wife is dead. It can be a bitter pill to swallow when you are crying at your son’s funeral.
Or, in the case of Judah at the time of Nehemiah, it is difficult to hear “God loves you” when you have just sold your child into economic servitude to pay Persian taxes. We might even envision some bitterness as Judah hears that word in the midst of oppression and famine.
Their response to that question may often be our own: “How have you loved us?”
This is an authentic question and it remains even still the dominant question on the lips of sufferers. Tragedy, death and disease generate the question and biblical poets have often expressed the same question from Job to the Psalmists (e.g., Psalms 44, 77, 88). In the midst of the exile, the Psalmist (89:49) asked: “Where is your steadfast love of old which by your faithfulness you swore to David?”
It is a good question and we hope for a good answer. But is Malachi’s response helpful? He speaks of Jacob and Esau, and then of Israel and Edom. What does one have to do with the other? Does it make any sense? How does Malachi’s response answer the heartfelt question?
I think the answer lies in covenantal identity.
“Love” is not, in this text, a sentimental notion of undying affection and feel-goodism. Rather, it is the language of covenant. God chose Israel because God loved Israel (Deuteronomy 7:7-11). It is a family word—a word that describes loyal relationships like parents and children (cf. Hosea 11:1; Jeremiah 31:1; Isaiah 63:7-9). To say that God “loves” Israel is to say that God lives in covenant with Israel.
Vice versa, to say that God hates Esau (Edom) is to say that God has no covenant with Esau like he does with Jacob (Israel). The language of “love” and “hate” here are not about feelings and emotions as much as commitment, loyalty and covenant. This is the language of identity. Israel is the people of God while Edom is not. God is committed to Israel as a people but has made no such commitment to Edom.
This is the language of identity and election. God elected (chose) Israel, not Edom. In this way God “loved” Jacob but “hated” Esau. Since there is no covenant with Edom, God raises up and destroys nations, and does not promise their continued existence.
Edom, at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem, had aided the Babylonians and took advantage of Judah’s situation (cf. Obadiah; Jeremiah 49:7-22; Lamentations 4:21-22). They stabbed their own brothers in the back. For this wickedness, God wipes the nation from the map. During the 400s, Edom was supplanted by the Nabateans and Edom—as a nation—was lost to history. At the time of Malachi they may have still boasted that they would return to a former glory, but Malachi assures Judah that they will not return.
What is the evidence that God “loved” Israel? They are still there. They are still a people. Their eyes will yet see the difference between Jacob and Esau, between Israel and Edom, as history unfolds. Israel is yet a people of promise but Edom, as a people, has no hope.
Israel is loved because they are God’s chosen (elect) people. Why did God choose them? It was not because they were so righteous, strong or numerous. Jacob was chosen even before birth (Genesis 25:23; cf. Romans 9:11). God chose Jacob out his love rather than because of Jacob’s character, as is obvious from the Genesis story.
The evidence of God’s love in the life of Israel is their covenantal identity. They are God’s people and Yahweh is their God. This is a gracious gift. This is who Israel is, that is, they are God’s beloved.
Whatever else may be happening around them, this is their identity. They are loved. They are chosen. This is the foundation of their relationship with Yahweh. He first loved them before they loved him.
When we are surrounded by tragedy, death and disease, we are tempted to doubt the love of God. And we often do. I have. The word of Yahweh to such doubts is: remember who you are! Remember your identity. You are loved.
While Israel looked back to Abraham and the Exodus to remember that love, Christians look not only to Abraham and the Exodus but also to Jesus who demonstrated God’s love for us. He gives us our identity as God’s beloved.
While I may stand at the coffin of my first wife and doubt the love of God, it is impossible for me to do so when I’m kneeling at the foot of the cross.