Lament, faith and hope. Lament is an act of faith which leads to hope. That sounds like a strange thing to say about lament: that it’s an act of faith which leads to hope. It’s strange but it’s true.
You see, for the people of faith, lament is not about questioning the existence of God but is rather about questioning the presence and involvement of God in a time of suffering. Lament is an act of faith, an honest expression of faith, crying out to God in grief and frustration at the brokenness of the world.
Lament leads to hope – not an easy hope, but a deep hope – because in our lament we recognise that God is the only one with the power to bring about a change in circumstance, and that God is the only one who can truly know our experience. Lament leads to hope – not hope the noun, but hope the verb – because of the refusal to settle for things as they are but to struggle and strive for a new way of life.
The book of Lamentations is a collection of five poems of sorrow and lament and is the record of how a Hebrew poet copes with the destruction of the city he loves when Jerusalem was invaded by the Babylonians in 587 BC who burned the temple, destroyed the city and took away the people. There is horror in these words, and little hope, because the writer is unwilling to suggest that ‘she’ll be right,’ that it will be alright in the end, because it might not be. It might be horrible in the end, tragic and dreadful. Yet there is hope, write in the middle here in the middle of the book, right here in the middle of chapter three:
This I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions (mercies) never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.’
In the midst of despair there is hope. In the midst of our despair there is hope.
Right now our world despairing over the destruction of cities around the world: Paris, Beirut, Baghdad. Our world is also despairing over the destruction of societies; the Syrian refugee crisis, the inequality of the education system in Sierra Leone, sex trafficking in parts of Asia. We despair at the destruction brought about by the work of human hands.
And we lament.
Streams of tears flow from my eyes because my people are destroyed.
My eyes will flow unceasingly, without relief,
until the Lord looks down from heaven and sees.
Not everyone experiences the destruction of their city, but everyone, at sometime or other, experiences despair. Lamentations and the Psalms of Lament help to express with honesty what we are feeling when we experience destruction, disorder and despair.
Walter Brueggemann wrote about this in his book ‘Praying the Psalms.’ He says this about the Psalms of Lament:
[Each one of us knows the reality of chaos, disorder and disorientation in our own lives.] It may be a visible issue like a marriage failure, the loss of a job, a financial reverse, the diagnosis of the doctor. Or it may be nothing more than a cross word, a disappointing letter, a sharp criticism, a minor illness. Or it may be disturbance of a public kind, anxiety over the loss of energy, revulsion at the sickening spectacle of war, the sense that the world is falling apart before our very eyes, the unspeakable horror of a possible nuclear war. It may be the discovery of loneliness or the sense of being rejected and unloved. All – or any – of these is the awareness that life is not whole, that it is not the romantic well-being that we may have been comforted with as children and that is so shamefully and shrewdly reflected in television ads. Indeed the world is a dangerous, frightening place, and I am upset for myself. And when I can move beyond my own fear and grief, I do not need to look far to find the hurt and terror in others, whether these others are my own friends or people I see and hear about in the media.
The Psalter knows that life is dislocated. No cover-up is necessary. The Psalter is a collection over a long period of time of the eloquent, passionate songs and prayers of people who are at the desperate edge of their lives.
Lament is an opportunity to express and process what we are feeling. The writers of Lamentations and the Psalms of Lament are clearly suffering – that’s what they are feeling deep in their souls. However, the issue is not about whether or not suffering is deserved, the issue is that suffering is felt. And that feeling cannot be brushed aside by the more intellectual problem of whether the feeling is deserved. (Eerdmans 620) This is not a question of ‘why is there suffering in the world? And who is to blame?’ Rather, it is a statement that suffering exists and the question is, ‘what do we do with the reality of suffering?’
When I was studying at Knox we watched the movie ‘God on Trial.’ It’s a film about a group of Jewish men in a bare wooden hut in the Auschwitz concentration camp during the Second World War. These men turned their hut into a court room and were asking the tough questions of faith; they were asking God and each other why this hellish stuff was happening, and why God wasn’t doing anything about it – they were putting God in Trial.
We watched the movie and our lecturer asked each of us what we would say if we were the next person to speak to the assembly. I think what he was expecting was rebuttal. However, I’m not so good at that kind of communication. I am really good at imagining things though.
I imagined what I would say if I were there in that concentration camp. I imagined that my kids were sick, or stolen, or dead. I imagined that people had cut off my hair along with any connection with the reality I once knew. I imagined that my clothes and my dignity were in tatters and that there was nothing I could do to cover my shame. I imagined that I’d say this:
It’s dark and I can’t see you
It’s so noisy, I can’t hear your gentle, quiet whisper
But sometimes, it’s so quiet, yet all I can hear
is the voice in my head
and the voice of my soul
screaming in agony
It’s cold, and I can’t feel the warmth of your presence
I can’t see you
or hear you
or feel you
And I’m scared
Because I’m lost, I don’t know where I am
But worse still, I don’t know where you are
O Lord, do not be far from me
Come quickly to help me
For trouble is near and there is no one to help
Lament – that’s what I would do. I’d wail like a Kuia at a Tangi. I’d tear my clothes and cover my body with ashes and dust. I’d curl up on the cold, cold ground and cry out:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me
Why are you so far from saving me.
So far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out to you by day, but you do not answer,
By night, but I find no rest.
Jesus cried these words too. Jesus knew suffering. Jesus was a Man of Sorrows, a Suffering Servant. In Jesus our God suffers for us and suffers with us. Who needs a God like that? Who needs a shivering, stuttering, suffering mess? Who needs a God who suffers? We do. We need a God who suffers because we are suffering, and God is the only one who can restore us.
And so we lament, for ourselves and for our world. We cry out in faith to our God of all hope, asking him to bring order out of this chaos like he did in the beginning when the Spirit of God hovered over the waters. What we are doing is asking God to remake, re-create, restore us and our world.
Earlier this year I went to the Philippines with the Youth. One day, while we were staying Tondo in Manila, Neil, Frances, Andrew, Neimke and I had the opportunity to go onto Smokey Mountain. I’ve told you this story before, but I’ll tell you again. Smokey Mountain is the old rubbish dump that was closed down in the 80’s. Basically, it’s a big mountain of rubbish, but now it was plants and crops growing on it, so it depicts a strange kind of hope. People aren’t allowed to live up there, but they do anyway, so we went to visit some of them.
Afterwards we walked across this massive highway to a giant supermarket. We bought rice and sardines to take back to some of the families on Smokey Mountain and while we were there I bought more toothpaste because I’d run out, and Neil bought us all Kitkat’s. They were all individually wrapped and as we made our way across the road and back up the mountain the teenagers wondered what they should do with the rubbish from their chocolate bars. I took it and stuffed it into my pocket. But honestly, it wouldn’t have mattered if I’d dropped it on the ground and trampled it underfoot. I was putting it in my pockets to take it back to the YWAM base where we were staying, I’d put it in the rubbish bin there, and in all likelihood it would have ended up back on the streets of Manila.
That night I cried – a lot. Litter breaks my heart. I can’t handle it. For me, litter and pollution like that is indicative of the fall, of our separation from God and our disrespect for our creator. We create rubbish and we let other people live in it, they make their lives in it, and we ruin the earth which has been gifted to us.
Over dinner, as we shared our experiences with the others I was talking to some of the girls about my repulsion for litter. That’s when the crying started. I had to go to the bathroom to get more toilet paper so I could soak up the tears and wipe away the soot and dust that covered my face. I was lamenting for a broken world. I had to sit down on the tiled floor and put my head over the toilet bowl because I started gagging. What I had seen made me feel sick. I didn’t tell anyone at the time because I thought that Todd might think I had a stomach bug or something and then I’d be in quarantine.
Yet amidst the rubbish and the wailing and the dry reaching there was a strange kind of hope. On Smokey Mountain there are plants growing, redeeming the earth they are a part of. There are people cultivating and caring for creation. It’s kind of beautiful. God actually is restoring and remaking the world he created.
When we lament we are asking God to remake, re-create, restore us and our world.
That reminds me of that refrain we sung a few weeks back when we looked at Psalm 80.
Mighty God, restore us,
make your face shine on us
that we may be saved
that we may be saved.
I couldn’t get that tune out of my head for days, you know. I’d wake up in the middle of the night singing it. Well, not actually singing it out loud, but singing it in my head for sure.
So, last Sunday Penny and I sat down and wrote the rest of the song. It turned out to be a bit of a lament. I guess that’s not surprising seen as how it is based on Psalm of Lament.
Mighty God Restore Us
We are in awe,
we whisper your name:
the One who saves.
Can you see us here?
Mighty God restore us
make your face shine on us
that we may be saved
that we may be saved.
We are in need,
we cry out to you.
We're worn out, we're run down,
O Mercy, renew.
Can you see us here?
We have been blessed,
we'll speak of your grace.
Rebuke us, revive us,
come rest in this place.
Can you see us here?