God, take your hands out of your pockets and do something! Psalm 74:11a
A Lament Prayer. http://t.co/NpomTUK0HC
God, take your hands out of your pockets and do something! Psalm 74:11a
A Lament Prayer. http://t.co/NpomTUK0HC
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.
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.
Christmas may be the most joyous time of the year, but it is also the time when God says to suffering humanity: “I understand!”
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.
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.
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.