Lamentations and Transformation

One of my prayers coming away from Lamentations is based on the poet’s petitions that invite transformation. The petitions in chapter 5 urge God to remember, look, restore and renew (5:1, 5:21). This is a powerful pattern that compares God’s great acts of deliverance in the past (remember) to the current reality of suffering (look) and implores God to repair this breach (restore) so that a new future is possible (renew). It is a process of transformation and seeking help from the living God who “does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone” (3:33).

– Mitchell Eithun, Campus Edge pastoral intern

Reflections on Lamentations

The book of Lamentations is hard to read. Its five chapters contain some of the most angry and resentful passages in the Bible. While even the darkest Psalms usually contain some words of assurance, the book of Lamentations only has a few hopeful verses.

The lamenting poet knows the promises of God but feels like none of them are true. “He has driven and brought me into darkness without any light” (3:2) is in direct contrast to God’s creative action which “separated the light from the darkness” (Gen 1:4). When we are suffering or when all we see is suffering, we question God’s promises or we wonder if they have been subverted (3:35-36). Along with the poet we might say “my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, ‘gone is my glory and all that I had hoped for from the Lord.’” (3:17-18)

During the pandemic, some of the words in Lamentations might resonate with us as we try to understand a “new normal” separated from other people. It is a time of food insecurity when people “search for bread” (1:11), when the city is lonely that “was once full of people” (1:1) and cultural activities are suspended as “the young men [have left] their music” (5:14). In the United States it is also a time when economic and racial injustice are more clearly seen, bringing into question the true “greatness” of the country. Speaking about Jerusalem, the poet writes that onlookers sarcastically jeer and say, “is this city that was called the perfection of beauty, the joy of the earth?” (2:15)

I appreciate that this book is in the Bible because it speaks about reality. Suffering is a prominent part of the human experience and this book witnesses to the way that God’s people have long wrestled with the problem of human suffering. I believe that these words suggest that anger and lament are authentic expressions of faith rather than doubt. Too often in our culture we ignore pain and suffering and say “look on the bright side” or “just trust in Jesus,” like band-aids for flesh wounds. The pain of sufferings is even described in these terms: “he has made my flesh and my skin waste a way and has broken my bones” (3:4).

Liturgically speaking, what I learn from Lamentations is the necessity of lament: during times of crisis it is important to name the realities of suffering. Christian worship usually includes a time of confession to acknowledge sins, seek forgiveness and receive assurance. Perhaps this pattern happens too quickly. The chorus of “Great Is They Faithfulness,” one of the great hymns of assurance, comes from Lamentations 3, which has some of the only words of hope in the entire book:

But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end;

they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, therefore I will hope in him.”

Lamentations 3:21-24

The fact that these words are found among deep laments of sorrow makes them all the more profound. While we might seek a quick resolution from the sin and injustice of the world, the poet struggled through some 64 verses of lament before “calling to mind” this great hope, suggesting that we could do more to acknowledge our own realities in worship. Not only is our grief and suffering acceptable to bring to God, but we share it in Jesus.

– Mitchell Eithun, Pastoral Intern

Hope this Easter

It has felt odd celebrating Easter this year, as it’s hard to celebrate when we do not get to be physically with many of those we care about. Besides the challenges of social distancing, more and more of us here in the United States are experiencing COVID-19 close up, either knowing someone who has become sick or becoming sick ourselves. There is tension between the sadness and uncertainty of this time and the hope and joy of Easter. 

Tish Harrison Warren has written an encouraging article in Christianity Today that proclaims the hope of Easter in the middle of the challenges of this time:

“The truth of the Resurrection is wild and free. It possesses us more than we could ever possess it and rolls on happily with no need of us, never bending to our opinions of it. If the claims of Christianity are true, they are true with or without me. . . . .

Believers and skeptics alike often approach the Christian story as if its chief value is personal, subjective, and self-expressive. We come to faith primarily for how it comforts us or helps us cope or lends a sense of belonging. However subtly, we reduce the Resurrection to a symbol or a metaphor. Easter is merely an inspirational tradition, a celebration of rebirth and new life that calls us to the best version of ourselves and helps give meaning to our lives. But the actualities that we now face in a global pandemic—the overwhelmed hospitals and morgues, the collapsing global economy, and the terrifying fragility of our lives—ought to put an end to any sentimentality about the Resurrection. . . .

I am a Christian today not because it answers all my questions about the world or about our current suffering. It does not. And not because I think it is a nice, coherent moral order by which to live my life. And not because I grew up this way or have fond feelings about felt boards and hymn sings. And not because it motivates justice or helps me to know how to vote. I am a Christian because I believe in the Resurrection. . . . If Jesus is risen in actual history, with all the palpability of flesh, fingers, bone, and blood, there is hope that our mourning will be comforted and that death will not have the final word.”

In honor of Easter, we’re going forward with a new study on Song of Songs. We start tonight. Join us! We’ll keep looking at Lamentations on Saturday, though, holding the tension of the sadness of this time.

Coronavirus and Quarantine – Takeaways from Veritas Forum (held on Mar 24)

On March 24, Veritas held a Virtual forum on Coronavirus and Quarantine: What Big Questions Can We Be Asking? featuring David Brooks, Andy Crouch, Lydia Dugdale, and Andrew Schuman.

Mitchell and I both found that the Veritas Forum generated an inspiring discussion about learning from past national tragedies, seeking signs of hope, and developing creative ways to be community. The following are some notes that we (primarily Mitchell) took. We encourage you to listen to it yourself (as well as the following conversations).

The first bit of the conversation focused on gleaning insights from past pandemics. While pandemics can lead to isolation and fear of other people, they can also teach us what it means to be together. The main precedents we have are the plague and the 1918 Spanish flu. In 1918, WWI also ended and, with it, the idea that “life has meaning” passed away. What’s the logic in living if your neighbor dies? Many would argue that the Great War was the time when “Europe stopped believing in God.”

Will we see a cultural transformation as the result of this pandemic? The human vocation is the shared activity of creation and stewarding the earth. Going back to “business as usual” too soon or too late could have consequences.

How do countries hold together in times of crisis? Historically, countries do well when there is high social trust, trust in institutions, integrated population, and a sense of togetherness. Unfortunately, the US has struggled on all of these fronts. To compare, after the bombing of London, social connection increased and Churchill gave moral meaning to the war by fighting fascism. An important part of the situation now is that an overwhelmed healthcare system forces difficult ethical decisions on doctors. The role of the doctor is to alleviate suffering and care for everyone but sometimes doctors are forced to make difficult decisions, which results in suffering for some (e.g., potentially limiting care for pandemic victims or through limiting resources for ongoing medical issues and potentially increasing suicide cases).

One sign of hope in all of this is that people are wrestling with big problems. Times of crises also encourage social innovation (e.g. the Great Depression). In this “great reset” we can now ask “was normal that great?” In particular, Generation Z will likely become more aware of mortality and ask “what matters to me?” When we are confronted with death it can shape us to want to “invest in living.” When we remove certainty from our to-do list we are liberated.

A remarkable claim in Christianity and Judaism is that “God is active in the contingencies of history,” including the worst events. There is nothing worse than “the neighboring empire conquering your small nation, burning your temple, taking away your beautiful things and embarking on cultural genocide.” It is hard to imagine a more dire time than post-exile for Israel: “How can we sing the song of Zion?” (Ps. 137). The amazing witness of the Hebrew Bible is that God was there and there is a way to sing songs of hope. One positive outcome in the case of Israel was a national recognition of sin. Whatever your worst case scenario is, God is present and unlocking possibility.

As people of faith, the exile becomes part of our story. While in captivity Jews are told to “contribute to the health of city.” This is the formation of a creative minority, a call to be separate but not isolated. Another religious idea present in most religions is that suffering is redemptive. It destroys the ego. “Suffering carves through the basement of the soul,” and only “spiritual and relational food will fill this void.” Lament is also “the seed of genuine creative action.” Writing a lament that cries out and reaffirms trust in God unlocks creative power. We can anchor our creative work in the injustice in the world and a trust in God. Creativity is birthed out of the pain and groaning of the world.

In response to questions, it was noted that resilience is not having “good thoughts.” It is about discovering the stress and viewing it as a challenge instead of a threat. Suffering hurts you unless you can attach it to a narrative of redemption. Christ’s example in the garden (“take this cup from me”) suggests that we can mourn and grieve and ask for it go away, but it ought to be coupled with “not my will, but thine.” Rather than a surrender to fate, this is saying, “it’s not my life.”  So when you pray don’t ask for it to go away, ask what is “spiritually most useful to transpire.”

How lonely is the city

“How lonely is the city that once was full of people!” is how the Old Testament book of Lamentations begins. These words suggest that the life of the city is dependent on people and the relationships between people. When these are absent the city itself feels lonely and “the roads to Zion mourn” (Lam 1:4). 

The other week we began studying Lamentations in response to everything happening in the world because of COVID-19. The grief-filled words remind us that lament is an important part of a life of faith. We lament to express frustration and even our anger for the way things are. The book of Lamentations helps with that, as “Lamentations is a searing book of taut, charged poetry on the subject of unspeakable suffering. The poems emerge from a deep wound, a whirlpool of pain, toward which the images, metaphors, and voices of the poetry can only point.” Kathleen O’Connor, “Lamentations” in NIBC, 879

Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, in his book Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks, talks about how lament gives voice to the grief and sadness that result from the task of “reality,” or honestly identifying the state of things. This can be especially challenging when others do not share our concern. We hear this also in Lamentations: “Is it nothing to you, all who pass by?” (Lam. 1:12). O’Connor echoes Brueggemann:

“The book of Lamentations practices truth-telling. It refuses denial and reverses amnesia by inviting readers into pain and affliction in all their rawness. It urges us to face suffering, to speak of it, to be dangerous proclaimers of the truth that society wants to repress. … Advice like ‘Get over it,’ Get on with it,’ ‘Look on the bright side,’ reinforces the dehumanization of the sufferers by refusing to accept their stammering efforts toward truth” and healing. (O’Connor, 892). 

Wherever you find yourself in this journey, may we be supportive of each other, being people that “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15). In our communities may we share words of comfort and hope in the midst of struggle. Like with the book of Lamentations, may our “stinging cries for help, [our] voices begging God to see, [our] protests to God who hides behind a cloud – all create a space where communal and personal pain can be reexperienced, seen, and perhaps healed.” (O’Connor, 879).

– Mitchell Eithun and Brenda Kronemeijer-Heyink