Service of Lament – 04/19/2020

Invitation to Lament

Today, we come together to take time and acknowledge the hardships of life. Whether they be the trouble we face communally in this era of COVID-19, or our personal struggles and the many forms that they take. Whatever the burdens we carry, today we bring them before God. This is a service of Lament, the forgotten language of faith which is God’s gift to those in pain.

Introduction to Lament – Orientation

          Today, we embark on a journey through the waters of lamentation. We gather, Easter still fresh in our mind and the promises of Christ’s resurrection still ringing in our ears. Yet, when the candles are snuffed and the incense clears from where the sermon is filmed, we still face the world. We face hardships again and again, after we already mourned so much last year, we now find new reasons to cry, new people to mourn the loss of, more trouble in the world we live in.

Lament is that Biblical language that we have been given, thousands of years of our spiritual ancestors have granted it to us as a gift. It is the means by which we explore our emotions, interrogate God’s promises, and ultimately begin to heal from the distress that we have suffered. Walter Bruggeman, a scholar of the Hebrew Scriptures, gives three general categories of our human experience.[1] There are the moments in life where all is well, we are happy, and our mind and soul are at rest. All is right with the world, and we can praise God without reservation. This is a place of Orientation in our life. It is from here we can pray out confidently the words of Psalm 16. Let us hear the words of the Psalmist as they proclaim the goodness of a God who gives them security in the face of all adversity.

A Psalm of Security                                                                                                             Psalm 16

Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge. I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.” As for the holy ones in the land, they are the noble,  in whom is all my delight. Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows; their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names upon my lips. The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage.

I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. I keep the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure. For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit. You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

Introduction to Lament – Disorientation

What a wonderful prayer to pray. What praise offered up to the God who provides… Yet, what happens when we begin to move away from a place of security. When the check doesn’t come in the mail, when the hospital calls us in to hear the results of our latest test, when no matter how long the door is look at, it will never open up with the beloved coming home again.

When the certainty of the world breaks down around us, we move from orientation to disorientation. We look out into the world and cannot find respite. We seek and do not find. We knock and find a door slammed in our face. Provision becomes a fantasy, and we cannot sleep because our tears keep us awake. We are transformed, we shrink into ourselves, we are lost in the wilderness of life and worry. It causes us to cry out to God, as the Psalmist does in Psalm 74.

A Psalm of Lament                                                                                                              Psalm 13

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? Look on me and answer, Lord my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death, and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,” and my foes will rejoice when I fall. But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.

Introduction to Lament – Re-Orientation

The Psalms of Lament all follow a general pattern. While heavily detailed rubrics exist to explain the flow of the Psalm, we will break it down into three main sections. Firstly, the lamenting Psalmist cries out to God. “How long, Lord?!” This usually flows into an introduction of their problem to God, in this Psalm, “my enemy triumph[s] over me.” We will call this – Plea and Complaint

The Psalmist will then make a request of God, “Look on me and answer,” and express what is at stake if God does not act. “My enemy will say, ‘I have overcome him,’ and my foes will rejoice when I fall.” – this highlights both why God would be good to act and the iniquity of the Psalmist’s enemies. – We will call this Naming the Stakes

Finally, the Psalmist lets God know what they are willing to do in response to God’s work. This is not, as it may seem, an instance of Divine bribery – as if one person who offers to praise is less than a person who offers to praise and give – but is an invitation to God to re-enter the Covenant relationship with the plaintiff.  – This is a section of Praise and Hope[2]

This re-entry is what constitutes the third stage of human experience – Re-Orientation. Here we find ourselves secure again, able to praise God freely and trust as we once did, but not in the same way. It is a re-orientation in a different place and time to the original place of orientation. We have grown, and our relationship with God and self has changed.

What happens when our disorientation extends beyond our limits? What happens when we cannot seem to come back to a place of peace and trust? Do we just grin and bear it? Do we force ourselves to move beyond our problems and force our way into a place of comfort again? Let us look to Lamentations, a book devoted to our crying out to God, and find out.

The Old Testament Lesson                                                                         Lamentations 2:17-22

The Lord has done what he purposed, he has carried out his threat; as he ordained long ago, he has demolished without pity; he has made the enemy rejoice over you and exalted the might of your foes. Cry aloud to the Lord! O wall of daughter Zion! Let tears stream down like a torrent day and night! Give yourself no rest, your eyes no respite!

Arise, cry out in the night, at the beginning of the watches! Pour out your heart like water before the presence of the Lord! Lift your hands to him for the lives of your children, who faint for hunger at the head of every street. Look, O Lord, and consider! To whom have you done this? Should women eat their offspring, the children they have borne? Should priest and prophet be killed in the sanctuary of the Lord?

The young and the old are lying on the ground in the streets; my young women and my young men have fallen by the sword; in the day of your anger you have killed them, slaughtering without mercy. You invited my enemies from all around as if for a day of festival; and on the day of the anger of the Lord no one escaped or survived; those whom I bore and reared my enemy has destroyed.

Meditation on Lament                                                                                 When Refuge Fails

Lamentations, like Lament itself, is a book we do not like to encounter. We fear looking to deeply into a book that begins and ends with desperation. The opening line, “How deserted lies the city, once so full of people!” Is never resolved, and the book ends with the terrible question lingering in one final request for help, “Restore us to yourself, Lord, that we may return; renew our days as of old unless you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure.”

We encounter the ambiguity of the book, its demand for us to question where God is in the midst of all the problems of this life, and we run away. The ruined city of Jerusalem, destroyed by Babylon, is the place we utterly do not wish to be. To borrow from our celebration of Holy Week recently, we love Palm Sunday and Easter, but we often do what we can to ignore Good Friday and Holy Saturday. The days of Death and Silence are covered up in our desire to put on a happy face. If we do not acknowledge the hurt we feel or the troubles in the world, then we imagine it will go away.

Even the book of Lamentations struggles with this back and forth. Early in the book an observer reprimands a woman, representing Jerusalem, for weeping. “You got what you deserved; you have to move on!” They say. Yet, as the speaker sits in the ruined city, they cannot help but acknowledge the sorrow that they and the city feel. This is where our scripture for today enters in. The voices that once criticized the weeping Zion is now calling on her to cry more.

The grief of the community is finally acknowledged, the once critical speaker is now forced to reflect on what God is doing in the world. They challenge God, “How can you claim to be doing right when innocents are dead! When people starve to death and sickness spreads like wildfire! Behold the ruins of the city and ask yourself, o’ God, how is this right?”

The sight of devastation was enough to move this speaker to join in on the lament. Where Zion was crying out before and initiating the conversation with God, this voice now offers the challenge to God – “Why, O’ Lord! How Long, O’ Lord!” They speak on behalf of Zion who, it would seem, is at a loss for words.

Yet, following our scripture comes what Lamentations is best known for. After still more descriptions of disaster a voice calls out, “God would never mean to hurt us! We must have done this to ourselves somehow. God will come back!” The whole of Chapter 3 almost reads like a lament Psalm. Complain becomes petition because praise of God… Yet, immediately the language falls back into the utter destruction surrounding those who are gathered in the city. The language of praise is quickly lost in a sea of tragedy – the knowledge that God’s love is steadfast was not in itself enough to silence the pain of the people.

Lamentations goes on and concludes in ambiguity and darkness. It is not a book of hope, because it is a book written by people readily suffering disaster. Hope is present throughout, cries that the various speakers throughout are confident (to varying degrees,) will be heard.  Yet, the hope coexists in the pain. The people are not ready to be at peace, their pain is too new, their complaint is too valid. They cannot grin and bear it, they refuse to pretend all is well, and they do not let themselves skip disorientation and land in re-orientation.

We too must not deny our need to lament, our need to mourn. God is in God’s Heaven, that is sure, but all is not right in the world. Grief is all around us – for some a fresh thing poured over them again and again, and for others a new visitor they are just now meeting. Mourning for opportunity, mourning for income, mourning for loved ones gone from us. Mourning overtakes us… Yet, we must not chase it away.

Last week we discussed how we come to Easter as people who are in mourning, yet we can still find the resurrected Christ speaking to us. What we cannot lose in making such a statement is that we will still be weeping in the garden before Christ arrives. Until God makes the showing and the relationship is restored then there is the need to cry out and demand to be heard. The need to let our emotions be plain to God and the need to set on the table what we expect from the Covenant we are a part of.

Lament is not telling God that God doesn’t know what God is doing. It is not a sign of weak faith or immaturity. It is what keeps the relationship between God and humanity strong. The knowledge that we can cry out and be heard, that our concerns are important to God, that even in the midst of all the pain we have an advocate even when we cannot see or hear them.

Lament is necessary, lament is here for us, let us take for advantage of this gift of God. Let us not be afraid to listen to our scripture that demands of us, “Cry aloud to the Lord! Let tears stream down like a torrent day and night! Give yourself no rest, your eyes no respite!” – Amen

Prayers of the People

In acknowledgement of this service’s focus on lament. The Prayers of the People will be different this week. A time will be given following the communal prayer for us to share our concerns with one another and a prayer will be said afterward lifting up our concerns. However, instead of going through petition by petition, this week we are all encouraged to take the template, which is provided in our order of worship, and to give language to our concerns as laments to God.

Given our digital format, this means that after the prayer below is read, the general pattern of lament will be provided, and time will be given for everyone to craft their own lament. These can be shared in the comments of the video after the service, kept privately and prayed at home, or else shared any way you may choose. I will read out my own lament as an example, but other than that the service will conclude with the outline and the opportunity for each person to make their own. Our benediction will be in the prayers of the people, and otherwise your words to God will mark the end of our time together.

Please pray now with me: Most merciful God, hear our prayers when we are in trouble. Come to our aid and prevent us from perishing. Today as we gather together, we do so as people with heavy burdens, in particular we lift these up to you…

Time is given for sharing of concerns

Lord, hear our prayers this day and always, and as we come now to a time devoted to sharing our laments with you, hear to the depths of our pain. Let us learn to experience all our emotions fully and well, and may we take the long and winding road from disorientation to re-orientation knowing that you are with us all the way on the road. – Amen

“Cry aloud to the Lord” Writing a Lament

The following Template is provided for you to pray your own Lament to God.

The template is offered only to remind you of the Biblical models provided,

You may alter it anyway you wish and use it to share your laments or

To pray privately whenever you need to lament before God.

General Structure of Lament:

  •  Plea and Complaint – “Hear me, O’ God! This is my problem…”
  • Naming the Stakes – “If this does not happen then this will…”
  • Praise and Hope – “You will hear me; I want to know peace again… Please hear my prayer.”

Example Lament:

A Lament of Pastor John,

Plea and Complaint

O’ Lord do not forsake your servant! Though the rush of a wild world swirls around me, do not abandon me to the floodwaters. My mind is awash with worry, my bones ache with anticipation of disaster. Release your servant from all concerns, destroy the chains constructed within and for my mind.

Name the Stakes

Remember God your own agony in the Garden. How you wept and sweated blood contemplating the disaster awaiting you. Would you have another suffer as you did? Bring relief to the pain of your servant. Though the cup of your suffering cannot be refused, surely relief can be given to the soul who drinks of it. Do not abandon your servant in their despair!

Praise and Hope

I long to see your courts fully once more. Open my eyes to the joys of your light. Let me delight once again in the spring of your glorious provision. Eliminate all obstacles to our relationship, that no shadow of fear or anxiety should overtake the light of your love. Lord hear your servant’s prayer! Do not forsake and take me once again into your courts! You alone save, Lord! Save me now!

 

[1] Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984), 19.

[2] These three stages are adapted from Sally A. Brown. “When Lament Shapes the Sermon.” In Lament: Reclaiming Practices in Pulpit, Pew, and Public Square. (Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 2005) 29

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