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

A Lament Prayer: I Hate Death

October 1, 2013

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.

Amen.

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.


Remembering Joshua: Life is Hebel

May 21, 2013

Hebel

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.joshua-1990-or-so

Hebel

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.

Hebel

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.

Hebel

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.

Hebel

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.

Hebel

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!”

Hebel

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.

Hebel

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.


“We Awake In the Night in the Womb of the World”

May 14, 2013

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
For deliverance
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.

“Hallelujah, Hallelujah.
Come back soon!”


Lament Songs: We Need More

April 18, 2013

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.


“God, I Hate You!” Read Before You Leap

April 17, 2013

(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.)

Dear God.

I hate you.

Love,

Madeleine (L’Engle)

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.