Recently, I have made a new friend. I have been spending time with Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis. Well, at least through her books and sermons. Her love of the text and the imagination and reverence with which she plays with the biblical narrative resonate with me. I am impressed with the fluidity by which she moves between ancient story and modern principles.
Yesterday one of my appointments was cancelled, so I had some extra time to wander on a nearby nature trail. I visited another friend, this one arboreal. My American Sycamore. Its white bark was stripped as high I as high could reach. Its skin was soaked from all the recent rain, and thickened, peeling from decades of aging and weathering.
I touched it. Palm against bark. I always do when I pass by. We acknowledge one another, and we pray together. It has always lived its days perfectly to the glory of God. I cannot boast as much.
Some of us are coming out of mourning. We have all had a difficult year and a half with the pandemic. Many of us have experienced the death of loved ones, prolonged illnesses, isolation and loss of jobs and friends. So many of us are still in mourning. Some of us are just grieving over petty sorrows. Yet, honestly, who ever thinks their sorrow is petty? What does it all mean? How can we move forward when we feel our spiritual and emotional wheels spinning? We are heavy. And we carry wounds and scars that we would rather hide than expose.
Ellen Davis and the Sycamore have helped me recognize some of the lessons around growth and spiritual insight, vulnerability and community. Dr. Davis encourages us to listen to the wisdom and the illumination of lament.
In Preaching the Luminous Word: Biblical Sermons and Homiletical Essays, Davis includes the sermon “Faithful Mourning.” It is her way of addressing the strange statement in Matthew 5, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
Uncovering who we really are is certainly uncomfortable, but it is the trailhead to transformation. It is the beginning of offering ourselves as a gift to others. And having something to offer, well, that is a gift all in itself.
In his Life Together, German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer encouraged his readers to read the Psalms with and through Christ. I think he meant a couple of things by this. One, that we read them messianically. We read the Psalms seeing their ultimate fulfillment through the life and suffering of Jesus, even though, historically, they may have originally had a different context. Another way we read them with Christ is as his body, the church. While we trust in Jesus’ reappearance one day, we also trust in his immanent presence here alongside us. If we believe the Kingdom of God is the truest truth, if we understand that the veil between the spiritual and the material, between the heavenly and the earthly, is thin, indeed, we profess a sacramental trust in God’s presence and we can know that Jesus himself mouths the words with us just as surely as our brothers and sisters form the vocatives and plosives of the sacred prayers given to us by David and Moses and the sons of Korah. We get more uncomfortable, however, when we reach the psalms of lament.
I have lamented often this past year. Sometimes my lament has been selfish and myopic. Sometimes I have grieved for others, and over others. I have lamented more this weekend. A little boy shot in Chicago. A young man, barely of age, is gunned down in Minneapolis. In my own city of Indianapolis eight people were killed in a Fed Ex shooting. These are markers of hatred, mental illness, the glorification of violence, and the brokenness of the world and culture in which we live. Whether or not we agree about how we should proceed as a society, we must recognize, if we profess Jesus, that this is a travesty, and that we have created it. Our sin, our fallen state, our denigration of our fellow humans has entangled us in a problem so intricate we cannot easily unburden ourselves. Not until we admit our culpability, our fragility, and the glory that every one of us carries within us, even those of us who are the most different from us, because of our genesis, by the very breath of God.
If we shy away from the keening voices near us, we plug our ears to God, who is for the downtrodden, the oppressed, the weary, the ashamed, the neglected, and the despised. It is Jesus who was once all of these. And he stands in their place reaching his hand out to them and extending his other hand toward us, so that he might bridge the gap between mourning and joy, between broken and renewed, between slain and resurrected. He can only reconcile us if we are willing to “weep with those who weep.” (Romans 12:15 ESV)
Because Jesus’ sweat burst through his pores as blood, because he wailed the psalms himself while in agony at his shameful death, because he thought of the psalms at all, so we use the words of Christ to cry out for our sin and shame and deliverance.
God is not so weak that he is not able to withstand our cries of pain and anger and loss. We do not want to slip into vindictive attitudes, but we look to God for justice and for peace. Lord, keep our hearts. Protect them from bitterness. But, listen. Do listen to our confessions. When we mourn, we are like God. When we lament, we agree with God that the world is not as it should be, that we are not what we hope one day to be. When we cry out to God in the psalms, we are confessing our belief that he hears and that it is in his hands that all will be made new.
We cry out to God on behalf of those recently lost. We mourn. We mourn
Matthew R Alexander
the as-of-yet-unknown people who died in the Austin, TX shooting earlier yesterday.
Below is Psalm 140, written by King David, a man wrecked by violence. Notice how the psalm relies on God’s omniscience and justice to protect him. Notice how we might wince at the harshness of the prayer, but lean in to the concern for the afflicted. Notice how, in the end, the psalmist lands in the confidence and presence of the Lord. It is an extreme version of the prayers of Hannah (I Samuel 2:1-10) and Mary, (Luke 1:46-55) lifting up the poor and oppressed. While the prayers of these pregnant mothers were psalms of praise, Psalm 140 solidly remains an outcry against violence and injustice. It is an honest lament for today, “holy and acceptable to God,” our spiritual worship. (Romans 12:1 ESV)
“Deliver me, O LORD, from evil men;
preserve me from violent men,
who plan evil things in their heart
and stir up wars continually.
They make their tongue sharp as a serpent’s
and under their lips is the venom of asps.
Guard me, O LORD, from the hands of the wicked;
preserve me from violent men,
who have planned to trip up my feet.
The arrogant have hidden a trap for me,
and with cords they have spread a net;
beside the way they have set snares for me.
I say to the LORD, You are my God;
give ear to the voice of my pleas for mercy, O LORD!
O LORD, my Lord, the strength of my salvation,
you have covered my head in the day of battle.
Grant not, O LORD, the desires of the wicked;
do not further their evil plot,
or they will be exalted!
As for the head of those who surround me,
let the mischief of their lips overwhelm them!
Let burning coals fall upon them!
Let them be cast into fire,
into miry pits, no more to rise!
Let not the slanderer be
established in the land;
let evil hunt down the violent man speedily!
I know that the LORD will maintain the cause of the afflicted,
and will execute justice for the needy.
Surely the righteous shall give thanks to your name;
This week we lit the candle of joy for Advent. However, I am fixed in a season of lament. I am not in despair, nor am I enduring any particular suffering personally, but I know many who are. Among family and friends, there are those who have lost loved ones to COVID. Some are dealing with job loss, divorce, and yet more are spiritually discouraged. The political distractions have weighed us down and we are disheartened by the public discourse so full of vitriol. It is a heavy season.
We are isolated.
Or maybe it’s just me. But I suspect not.
What does it look like to wait for His glorious appearance as His church while not fully in community? What does it mean to remain faithful while at home, sheltering in place?
More of our worship times have gone to Zoom with the colder weather and spikes of COVID cases. While our family’s participation in the Eucharist looks like the photo above, I know the truest story is that we are still being lifted up to the heavens week after week as we take in the body and blood of Christ. The heavens and the earth yet rejoice.
Although it is difficult for me to muster the emotion, my faith knows the hope of joy and peace we will one day experience fully.
Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us. Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of undeserved privilege where we now stand, and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God’s glory.
We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.
Romans 5:1-5 (NLT)
Does God feel far away as we are in the midst of a pandemic-induced isolation? Does he seem distant from our political and social strife, or personal sadness?
Because our Creator created us for community, it hurts when we are without the physical presence of others. In truth, we are created in his own communal, trinitarian image. We most often experience God through others.
How did Mary, the mother of the Christ, endure? Did she feel God was far away with every sideways glance at her growing belly? She was likely shunned. Her life had changed drastically. And yet, when she may have felt the loneliest, there were Elizabeth and faithful Joseph, and God drawing closer to her, growing inside her, the closest he had ever been.
So he is with us, just as he promised.
He doesn’t necessarily carry us out of our grief and hardships, but sits with us in them. Entangled with our moments of sadness, we also have the joy of hope. We have Christ Himself.
Introverted. Analytical. Curious. Reflective. Prone to loneliness and sadness. These are a few of my personality traits. And joyful? Optimistic? Can they be reconciled with the first group mentioned?
Growing up, I heard how Christians should be joyful people, and not morose. Lately, I have been hearing public theologians like Miroslav Volf and Willie James Jennings, or prolific writers like N.T. Wright discuss the theology of joy. According to them, Christians ought to orient themselves toward joy. Jennings describes a theology of joy as a kind of “resistance against despair and death.” While I agree wholeheartedly, I think it is important to explain what we mean by a theology of joy. What does it mean and not mean to be a joyful people?
To be joyful does not necessarily mean we walk around with smiles on our faces, or laughter and jokes on our lips. This may be default behavior for the light-hearted or for extroverts. This describes more of a personality type rather than a person living out their faith based on conscious decisions and full of hope.
Being joyful does not mean we repress feelings of sadness, depression, nor do we ignore pain and suffering in ourselves or others. Mourning is still practiced appropriately by the joyful, and prayers of lament are comfortably in the vocabulary of a theology of joy.
Jennings’ description of a theology of joy is an antidote to the dystopian films and novels of today, as well as to the postmodern aversion to hopefulness. It is a defiance against despair. It is recognizing God. James, in his letter to the early Christians, claims this as counting it all joy when we meet trials of various kinds, even persecution and calamity (James 1:2-4). Paul reminds us that it is possible, even Christ-like, to rejoice always, even in prison, even in dire need (Philippians 4:4). These are not men oblivious to the plight of others or naive in their positivity. Their joy has a hopefulness for the ultimate future; it relies on the truth that once God promises his presence, it is as good as received (Romans 4:17-18). Joy is inextricably linked with hope. Not wishful thinking, but the hope that depends solely on the character and Word of God.
At times, joy may be paired with fear, as when the shepherds witnessed angelic messengers ripping through our skies and proclaiming beauty in such startling terms (Luke 2:8-18). Surely they raced to Bethlehem both rejoicing and struck by fear. Joy may come only after a night of terror and anxiety as when King Darius paced the palace sleepless and Daniel reclined uncertain with lions’ teeth uncomfortably in sight (Daniel 6).
Joy is not void of troubles. It is not necessarily conditional, but rests on truth. The apostles discovered this, when, threatened by the powers-that-be, they prayed for boldness (Acts 4:29-30). When their prayers were answered, and they were flogged after meeting with the religious legal body, the Sanhedrin, instead of simply mourning, they rejoiced (Acts 5:40-41).Although they suffered, it was because of their greater hope.
Whereas happiness may manifest itself as a visible emotion, joy is quieter, deeper, more constant, steady and fixed. It enjoys a foundation secure, not easily shaken or destroyed. For this reason, Nehemiah bolsters the spirit of the returning remnant with the words, “The joy of the LORD is your strength!” (Nehemiah 8:10). And this, as they were weeping in the face of strife and chaos.
How do we, then, become joyful people? It is through practiced faith and love, by leaning in and acting as if we believed these things. We are both formed by what we believe in, what we consider and think about, and we are even formed by the acting out of these ideas. This partly means in order to become joyful people, we act like joyful people, not in disingenuous ways, but stepping toward God in hope. His Holy Spirit will meet us and guide us the rest of the way.
“There is no suggestion at all that these signs of the world’s darkness will ever be absent. But still, God’s joy can be ours in the midst of it all. It is the joy of belonging to the household of God whose love is stronger than death and who empowers us to be in the world while already belonging to the kingdom of joy.”
– Henri Nouwen in The Return of the Prodigal Son, pp. 116-117
Many of you are busy, taking full advantage of the vast amounts of free time newly at your disposal due to the Covid-19 quarantine. As we shelter in place, one of my friends cleaned out all of her closets. My brother painted his back bedroom he uses as a studio. The neighbors are organizing their garages. I, on the other hand, have had no such motivations. I have been reading several books and have taken our mini labradoodle on even more walks. In other words, life has not been too different, except I do miss my people. I hope you are all doing well, staying healthy, remaining hopeful and loving.
Yesterday, however, something made me turn to my old friend Anna Akhmatova, the Russian poet who suffered under and survived the Stalinist regime. Yesterday was Palm Sunday, a day both joyous and sobering. As we picture ourselves in the story, we cheer with the crowds while knowing the path leads to death. We feel the triumphant victory of Jesus’ humble entrance into Jerusalem, yet know he will be buried by the end of the week. I feel these conflicting emotions in Akhmatova’s poetic laments. They are only the more beautiful as she uses biblical images and biblically-rooted characters to relate both her grief and her hope.
Born in 1889, Akhmatova survived the Russian Revolution and married fellow poet Nikolai Gumilev with whom she had a son Lev. Nikolai was imprisoned and secretly executed by the Bolsheviks. Many years later, in 1935, their son was arrested as an enemy of the state and Akhmatova virtually lived outside of the prison walls in Leningrad (St. Petersburg today) in hopes of catching a glimpse of him, bringing bread, fighting for his release. Although they were estranged at the time of his death, she had lost a husband to the Soviets. She could not lose a son.
It is as this grief-stricken mother she writes the “Requiem” over the next several years each section a part of a cycle of loss, lament and persistence. In this portion entitled “Crucifix” her lament is both human and holy, a grappling for justice when there seemed to be none. Her identification with the mother of the Christ in the hour of deep sorrow seems so honest.
This portion of the poem is beautiful because of its simplicity. In the original Akhmatova employs spare, clean language with an AB rhyme scheme. There is surely a good translation of this work, but I was not happy with the one I found online. I have produced an average translation mostly for the sense and understanding, not really capturing the style. As we approach nearer to Good Friday, I am thankful we have this poet’s perspective on grief. It reminds us that in Christ’s story no one is forgotten.
“Не рыдай Мене, Мати, во гробе зрящи…”
Хор ангелов великий час восславил,
И небеса расплавились в огне.
Отцу сказал: “Почто Меня оставил!”
А Матери: “О, не рыдай Мене…”
Магдалина билась и рыдала,
Ученик любимый каменел,
А туда, где молча Мать стояла,
Так никто взглянуть и не посмел
“Weep not for me, Mother, seeing me in the tomb….”
A choir of angels glorified the great hour,
and the heavens melted in fire.
To the Father he spoke: “Why have you forsaken me?”