June 4, 2020

Sundays with Michael Spencer: April 12, 2015

Jeremiah, Chagall

Jeremiah, Chagall

Note from CM: I’m editing and posting today’s message from Oneida, KY, Michael’s home and place of ministry. Gail and I are visiting Denise and enjoying the beauties of the early Appalachian spring. This message was originally posted in May 2008.

• • •

***sigh***

When someone says I’ve written something I shouldn’t have written, you can be almost certain that I’ve written something using the language of lament. L-A-M-E-N-T.

All of you that just said “huh?” please step into the side room. If you came in a bus, they’ll wait. It’s time for a lesson on some of the most important parts of the Bible that you won’t be hearing in church.

Lament is a form of language used THROUGHOUT THE BIBLE (excuse the shouting) when human beings respond to their experience of God seeming to not keep his covenant promises to them. Lament is “Where are you Lord? What are you doing? Why are you against me? How could you let this happen? I did what you commanded, and now this? My life is miserable. Where is God?” If you’re like most Christians, you know this stuff is in the Bible, but your pastor never gets near it at the risk of a deacons meeting to ask why he’s lost his faith.

Lament is a kind of mourning, and it’s a very legitimate and common Biblical form of prayer. It’s part of how the Bible teaches us to pray and worship. It sounds radical in the Bible, and it sounds downright dangerous in contemporary usage.

For example, read Jeremiah 20:7-18. Here are some some highlights, rephrased into the vernacular by me:

God, you’ve conned me. You’ve made me into a laughingstock. Your word is a cause of derision and rejection. I’d love to stop talking about you, but unfortunately I can’t. Cursed be the day I was born. It would have been better if I’d died in the womb, or my mother murdered, than to live this life.

Or try Jeremiah 15:15-21.

God, I did everything you asked me to, but it now appears you have just given me unceasing pain, refused to take it away and proven yourself to be deceitful.

Yes, he said deceitful. Lamenters don’t always get their theology right. In the midst of pain, our prayers and complaints are covered up in emotion, and that emotion often isn’t the kind of “everything in its place” theology smiley happy religious people need.

Similar material can be found throughout the Bible, from whole chapters in Job to long sections of the Psalms to statements by Jesus that we all know, like “Why have you forsaken me?” As I said, we all know it’s there, but we don’t like to think about what it means. We’re trained to stick with what won’t make anyone blink and wince.

Lament can be direct and blunt, full of anger, depression and bitterness, directed at God in direct address. It can be subdued and quiet, barely detectable. It can be complaints to other persons of faith, or it can simply be the lamenter talking to him/herself.

Abraham lamented. So did Moses. So did David. So did Job. So did most of the prophets and yes, even Jesus on occasion.

Communal laments are common in the Psalms, reflecting Israel’s experience of questioning the covenant and experiencing the dark side of their faith. You’ll never read the Psalms in a disciplined way without having to deal with the implications of lamentation and the goodness/sovereignty of God.

An entire book of the older testament laments the destruction of Jerusalem, the temple and covenant certainties.

So, how does this get a writer or preacher in trouble again?

When contemporary Christians, especially preachers and teachers, use the language of lament, it’s Biblical context is lost on some hearers, and all they hear is doubt and denial. (Trust me on that one. I have much experience.) In fact, what they are actually hearing is faith; faith finding its voice and regaining its foundation after distressing life experiences and disappointments.

The language of lament is not welcome in most contemporary Christianity. Evangelicals in particular must be held responsible for creating an atmosphere where a person in pain and loss cannot speak in the SAME LANGUAGE THE BIBLE USES (excuse the caps. Sorry.) without running the risk of controversy and heresy.

How many churches have people who need to have their own unspoken laments affirmed by the Biblical language of lament and the experiences of God’s people in lamentation, but are denied the opportunity to feel human because Christians are so invested in maintaining illusions.

Ironically, Christians specialize in the language of glory and triumph, gullibly believing any report of miracles and healings must be true in order to prove that God is still doing what they’ve been told he should always do, but it is the experience and language of lament- disappointment and sorrow- that would tell honest unbelievers that we live in the same world as they do, yet still believe in God. Our proficiency in triumphalism backfires with the genuine souls who want to know if God is still there when he seems so absent

Comments

  1. It is true that laments don’t fit in this “happy, happy, happy all the time, time, time” mentality common in the church today. Yet it is the laments, especially the Psalms, that have held me up in the darkest times of my life, when I was sure God had failed me, his mercies and love were at an end. Then I stumbled across Psalm 77, which echoed the same sentiments I was going through. It gave me hope to realize I wasn’t alone, nor was my dark night of the soul unique to me. It was in a time when people were telling me to cheer up, when I didn’t feel like doing so.

    And yet, God said it was OK, like in Psalm 42:

    Why are you cast down, o my soul,
    Why are you distressed within me.
    Hope in God, for I will YET praise him
    The hope of my countenance, and my God.

    It showed although I didn’t feel like praising God at the time, He understood, and said I will praise Him once again when I am out of the valley. I wouldn’t have survived without the laments.

  2. Yes! And when I/we lament G-d as forsaker, betrayer, …what then? How do I /we live with this? I am so there, lamenting, lamenter, forsaken, deceived, betrayed…

  3. MikeInIowa says

    Many days Psalm 6 and Isaiah 55 have been all I could pray, having no words of my own. We no longer know the language of lament in our words, songs and prayers. Even our funerals and dealings with death at times leave out the language as well. Maybe if we were true to lament and shared how we (really) feel the world would take us more seriously than they do. We have a God who knows how we really think and feel anyway and His Word gives us beautiful language to comfort our souls. He is big enough for our doubts and loves us none the less for having them

  4. I don’t know this word. My father passed unexpectedly 20 years ago. I couldn’t think of him without tears for over ten years. My father taught me how to lay tile and work so everything I did everyday reminded me of him. I have been so empty here I haven’t wanted to live. I can’t remember a time since I was little where I haven’t asked this being why did you make a place like this. So many things here hurt me inside. I stopped watching the news long ago because every morning I would hang my head and cry and sob uncontrollably of the things I was hearing. I tried to drown it out with whiskey and drugs which ended in the emptiness of myself wanting to kill myself. No one can bear the weight of living without God which is the end of trying by yourself. He hadn’t left me. He hoped in Christ’s love. I was the one who lost hope. I am sorry. I am this being that just was and was taught by a world I never would want and have to live in and want for so much better. I work physically and hurt and I lay the floors of ceramic tile the saints walk on and I pay my taxes to help those who can’t or those who won’t. My sister, my best friend here. Tears have dampened my desk regularly. Cindy you didn’t leave me down. I love you.

    My God has spoken to me. The sentences have been few. I remember them. He hasn’t left me. He catches and shares my tears. Do you think he knows how I feel. There isn’t an animal dead along the highway I don’t feel a twinge of pain for. Do You think I know this word. I’m not weird I just feel like I don’t belong anywhere most of the time. Sometimes I’m very lonely. Thanks for letting me share what now you only know.

    For awhile the light was shining through my heart. I was happy and knew this love. I held my first grandson who died in my hands. My soul was shredded. I went to the mountain and He was there and we cried. Oh how I have cried on the mountain walk regularly. In between there was rays of light and I kept going. Cindy died and I can’t get out of this yet. There is not light yet in between. I grow tired and I hurt all the time. I wait. I want to dance again in the light. Please Lord soon.

    • Today’s poem, may I share. I have found new meanings in this word lament. Thank you for sharing it.
      Look

      Now is the time and now is the place
      The sun shines so beautifully
      Here is to find and be face to face
      May we not miss opportunity

      So now my eyes are open wide
      It has begun in lamentations
      You here have been by my side
      My only hope and my salvation

      Let me here lay myself down
      So that I may look and take hold of Your hand
      The very best here I ever found
      On those timbers I see I understand

      A piece of stale bread and cup of aged juice
      The thing that You came here to share
      So when I throw up my hands and say what’s the use
      You say I still love and still care

      Lord forgive me for all that I do
      When I know not all of Your ways
      On a mountain top share the view
      My hope is to meet You there today

      • w, I hope you are compiling all these poems so they can be published. They always touch my heart.

      • w, you are wringing my heart with your woes. This world is full of awful things; it’s difficult to prevent the world from making one’s heart itself. Your comments tell how you are fighting the valiant fight to keep your heart tender, despite terrible and unintelligible suffering. I only wish I could be as successful at guarding my heart as you; God bless you and keep you.

  5. Christiane says

    ““Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith” (Paul Tillich)

    I suppose ‘doubt’ is a step up from not caring or wondering about the things of God. At least, the ‘question’ is formed in one who doubts, and the person begins to seek some answers. If this is done honestly, as in the example of the man seeking Christ’s help, then God CAN respond to the ‘help Thou my unbelief’.
    Doubt is not the same as outright denial. Doubt is a question that does not yet have an answer. Christ showed infinite patience and kindness to St. Thomas as a way to show people how to help those with doubts . . . we need to remember how Our Lord was with St. Thomas. And, if we are honest, in our human condition, the time will likely come for us also to be brought to our knees saying
    ‘Lord, I believe. Help Thou my unbelief.’

  6. Another great Michael Spencer article. Even Jesus lamented, right? On the cross, when he said, “Why have you forsaken me?”

    I loved this line:
    “Lamenters don’t always get their theology right.”

    That’s a keeper right there. And though I think it goes unsaid in his article, I think it’s safe to say that God doesn’t care if our theology goes whacky periodically, especially when we’re being brutally honest with our lament. After all, Jesus wasn’t truly forsaken, and his crying out and feeling forsaken didn’t wipe out his work on the cross.

    • I always thought that line was in reference to 22 Psalms as it is the first line.

    • I once got in heated debate with friend about God deserting Jesus on the cross. His position was God did. Mine was the he didn’t and that it would go against all that is good for Him to have done that. My position was and is that God experienced it with HIm that was on that cross. The line to me is amazing that hundreds of years before David got to see this. Maybe I’ve got that wrong and I would be interested in anything that would further me. I also see Rick that you must think somewhat like me. It is when I hear this line I can’t take it out of the whole.

      • w, a thought…if Jesus WERE truly separated from the Father then the Trinity would be broken. God is ONE and one cannot be broken into pieces.

      • To me, whether Jesus was actually deserted on the cross or not is irrelevant, The point was he FELT deserted. Deserted and forsaken, just as we feel at times. And to me, his use of Psalm 22 scripture was the same as how he always used scripture (like when responding to the temptations in the desert): to remind himself that truth was often different than what seemed like truth.

        • Actually, whether he was deserted or not IS relevant, because it gets at whether WE are actually ever forsaken even whenever we feel we are. I think the answer is No.

          • After I read your comment it is not relevant my mind is working overtime. The HE FELT part also…. I wonder what feeling has to do with it. I have heard so many say it isn’t about how you feel. David saw and who knows maybe even felt as in the 22nd. In Jesus saying that it was always as David got to see it fast forward and we get to see it past yet still present. My mind is working on this. It didn’t matter how I felt about Cindy she died. Yet Jesus saw the woman’s pain of losing her only son. I have been given emotions and everyone tells me not to trust them. I would agree maybe I shouldn’t but I was made in an image. I feel. He is acquainted with my sorrows. Then PM says now what. Yea now what is it it finished and done or not. God being with me just doesn’t do anything for me. Nope on that one. God not being with me just do anything for me. Yes Rick you got me thinking…

  7. This article is spot-on. Thanks for posting. For me though, I’m at the point where the idea of God being with me in my suffering just doesn’t do anything for me. So, many of us have the lamenting down, now we need the next step, the “now what?”.

    • Christiane says

      the next step?
      maybe it’s ‘trust’, as in
      ‘Jesus, I trust in You.’

      • Christiane, with all due respect, “Jesus, I trust You” are words we can say, but feeling and believing them, in the grip of unintelligible suffering, is another thing altogether. Sometimes suffering can so waste our resources that we no longer have the will or energy to believe or trust anything or anyone, even if we mouth the words.

    • Only the God who is both with me in my suffering, and at the same time transcends my suffering and all suffering, can help me; if he’s only in the quicksand with me, then he’s nothing more than another victim. I look to the resurrection of Jesus, the resurrection of the one who knows what it is to suffer and who has compassion for sufferers, I look to him, though I often have to con myself to do so. What else is there, but to curse God and die?

    • For a very long time, when I was in a lot of pain and despair, I would say these verses as a prayer:

      Remember my affliction
      and my homelessness,
      the wormwood
      and the poison.
      I continually remember them
      and have become depressed.
      (Here I would always pause, and sometimes weep, before continuing)
      Yet I call this to mind,
      and therefore I have hope:
      Because of the Lord’s faithful love
      we do not perish,
      for His mercies never end.
      They are new every morning;
      great is Your faithfulness!
      I say: The Lord is my portion,
      therefore I will put my hope in Him. (Lamentations 3:19-24, HCSB)

    • We had a sermon about suffering and lament in church yesterday. One good thing I took from it was that at times of lament, the sufferer probably does not need a “now here’s what to do”….you know, the “helpful bits of advice from the Bible” type of approach. It’s very likely that the imperatives need to be brought to those in the Body of Christ who are around the sufferer- “bear one another’s burdens,” “weep with those who weep.” This should be the attitude of “helpful ways to deal with grief”- instructions for me to take on my brother/sister’s grief, not instructions to the grieving for them to get more spiritual. Too often it slips back into burdensome good advice for the one in need.

      This “help yourself” way of thinking seems to me to be from the “personal faith, and how to sustain it by doing lots of stuff” modus operandi that Michael always hammered pretty hard.

  8. A bright planet,
    I don’t know which one,
    hangs low
    in the night sky.

    As I walk through
    the darkness,
    I feel the distance of the stars
    like an emptiness
    inside of me,

    a lacuna
    between me
    and the whole
    bright creation.

    This planet, these stars,
    this sky and its distances
    have their places;
    they belong to each other,
    they cannot be dispossessed.

    But I’m a shadow,
    anonymous and insubstantial,
    wandering between the dumpster
    and the front door
    of a home that’s not mine.

    • A bright planet,
      I don’t know which one,
      hangs low
      in the night sky.

      As I walk through
      the darkness,
      I feel the distance of the stars
      like an emptiness
      inside of me,

      a lacuna
      between me
      and everything
      that exists.

      This planet, these stars,
      this sky and its distances
      have their places;
      they belong to each other,
      they cannot be dispossessed.

      But I’m a shadow,
      anonymous and insubstantial,
      wandering between the dumpster
      and the front door
      of a home
      that’s not mine.

      In a minute,
      I’ll close the door behind me
      and make my way back up the stairs
      to the role that I play,

      but right now
      I stand here in the darkness
      and imagine that I
      belong to the night.

  9. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Something I wrote six years ago, on an IMonk comment thread about Happy Clappy P&W music:

    Years ago, a writer contact of mine (now in Louisville) related a tale of a guest speaker at his church who asked “Maybe depression is your spiritual gift?” The speaker went on to say that the strong and “dark” emotions (such as you find in Lamentations) are often what empowers the strong and deep storytelling and art; that the emphasis on Happy Clappy Joy Joy (and “Are we Smiiiiiiling today?”) have resulted in a cotton-candy froth that drives away the more serious/somber creative types. “Where are today’s C.S.Lewises? We drove them away.”