Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Primal Scream

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Lamentations 3:1-24:

Today we complete our Lenten series on prayer, by tackling the one area that most of are not good at and the one that many of us want to avoid and that is lamentation.  We are certainly good at complaining and making a big deal out of little things, but that is not what lamentations are about.  While breaking a fingernail or our favorite sports team losing might be reasons to be upset, they are not truly lamentable.  Lamentations are about those things which touch us deep down in our souls, which bring us to the depths of despair, which put us on our knees, literally or figuratively, which have us not only questioning but even cursing our existence and sometimes even cursing God.

“How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!” is how Lamentations begins, “How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations….  She weeps bitterly in the night with tears on her cheeks...”  The she that is being referred to here is Jerusalem and her mourning comes in 587 BCE after the Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple and taken the leaders into exile.  This was one of the most important and the most traumatic things to happen in Judaism, indeed the form of Judaism that we know, and that Jesus knew, probably would not exist without this event.  As destructive and traumatic as 9/11 was to us as a nation and to our psyche as a people, 9/11 does not really compare to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.  Picture that event and magnify it by a factor of ten, and you might begin to get a picture of what this meant.  All the promises that had been made to the people by God seemed to have been destroyed, wiped away, in one devastating act, and it left the people wondering what had happened, why it had happened, and what the future held?

Tradition holds that the prophet Jeremiah wrote Lamentations, and Jeremiah is known as the weeping, crying or suffering prophet, and his writings certainly reflect that.  They are difficult to read, and thus not preached on very often, not only because they are sometimes hard to understand, but more because they are sometimes brutal in their message, as we heard from this morning’s passage.  Now while Lamentations is usually said to have been written about the time of the destruction of the temple and the exile, there is actually nothing which dates it to this period.  Instead, it is a lament that could just as easily apply to the Holocaust as it could to the time of Jeremiah, and it can also apply to the times in which we have needed to offer lament in our lives.

One of the things that I find incredible and which, for me, adds to the beauty of the Book of Lamentations is its construction.  This is something we miss in its translation to English, but in Hebrew the first four chapters, which are four separate poems, are written in what is known as an acrostic poem.  That means that the first word of the first line of each stanza represents one of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet and each stanza is written in alphabetical order.  So, for example, if it was written in English the first letter of the word that began the first stanza would be an A, and the first letter of the first word of the second stanza would start with b, and so on.  The third chapter, which we heard this morning, is a special type of acrostic poem.  There are three verses per stanza, and each verse begins with the same letter, so again, if in English, the first word of each line of the first verse would begin with the letter A, then the first word of each line of the second verse would begin with the letter b, and so on.

Finally, since the poems follow the Hebrew alphabet, which has only twenty-two characters, the alphabet determines the length of the poem.  Even chapter five, which is not acrostic, still adheres to the length and is 22 verses long.  This is an incredibly difficult way to write, and if you don’t think so, I challenge you to try and write a poem like this.  Jeremiah is not them simply sitting down and writing out all his feelings and saying whatever comes to their mind, not that there is anything wrong with that, but this took a lot of thought, effort and work, and it is one of the reasons that I think it has come down to us today.

But, these writings also come down to us because lamentation is important, and are found throughout scripture.  Of the 150 Psalms, 61 one of them are laments, either individual or communal, and an additional 6 more have portions of laments in them.  One of the most famous of these is Psalm 130.  It is a cry to God made from the depths of utter despair, “Out of the deep, have I called unto thee O Lord, Lord hear my voice.”  I don’t think it would be too strong of an argument to say that some of the most important stories in scripture, the foundational stories, have elements of laments in them.  When the Israelites are in slavery in Egypt, what do they do?  They cry out to God.  There is the cry of despair uttered by Job, and even Jesus has a lament when he cries out from the cross, quoting the 22nd Psalm, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”

At their most basic level, laments are prayers of grief to God over some event, and with deep passion they appeal to God for deliverance.  Again, while we might be upset about some little thing, like burning our dinner or missing that perfect deer we were hunting, I would argue that these are not things that we properly lament over.  Instead it is the great tragedies of our lives that cause us to pause and lament, and we’ve all had such moments in our lives.  Maybe it’s the diagnosis of a severe illness, either in ourselves or a loved one, the death of a spouse or the death of a child, a natural or manmade disaster which has wiped out everything we have.  These are the things which knock us to our knees, which cause us to take pause, and which cause us to appeal to God.

But, laments are also complaints and protests laid at God’s feet.  They are a way for us to express anger and frustration, along with grief and sorrow, and a way to search and to seek for answers.  It is not just that we cry out from the depths of our despair, but that we expect God to hear us and to do something about it.  In lament we are demanding something of God.  I think this is why many Christians shy away from lamentations, because they don’t think they are allowed to do such a thing.  Many of us  have been told that God has a reason for everything that happens, so instead of complaining we should try to learn some lesson, figure out what God is trying to teach us, and give thanks to God.  This is a position with which I definitely disagree with my whole being.

The problem with not voicing our pain and anger to God is not only that it is not realistic, or that it does not match our scriptural witness, but I believe in fact that it is dangerous to our faith life.  How many people have we known who said they have left the church or lost their faith because they were mad at God?  They were mad, but didn’t know what to do with it, because we have been told that these are feelings that are not appropriate to express and sometimes not even appropriate to have, and so rather than telling God that they are mad, rather than trying to deal with what they are feeling, they have simply walked away.  Do we really think that God isn’t big enough to deal with all of our emotions?  That God couldn’t deal with us being angry and yelling at God?  Now, I’m not talking about yelling and being angry let an impetuous child, and saying “I want, I want and you didn’t give.”  I’m talking about a true express of our emotions, of crying out during the dark night of our soul, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  I have certainly been in that place, and I imagine most of you have as well.

A few days after Wyatt’s death, Linda said to Marianna to make sure to keep praying to God, and Marianna said she didn’t think that proper prayers began with “God damn it,” and I told her they certainly did, because several of my prayers that week had begun exactly that way, and what proceeded after that was a series of f-bombs, and you know why?  Because that’s what I had to say, it’s the only thing I could express to God in that moment, it’s where I was.  And notice that scripture does not have the book of happy, or the book of wonderful, or the book of joy, but it does have the book of Lamentations.  Indeed, as I already said, scripture is full of Lamentations, of people screaming and crying out “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.  Lord, hear my voice!” Lord hear my voice!  Lord hear my voice Lord hear my voice!

These are not emotions we want to feel, and they are certainly ones we are usually told that we shouldn’t feel or that we should just ignore.  Again, even within the church we have tried to ignore them, but they are there nonetheless.  And when we don’t give voice to these feelings then we internalize them and they can eat us alive, from the inside out.  But when we name that pain it begins to lose its power over us.  When we vocalize that pain to God and to others, to ask the question, why has this happened to me?, to demand an answer it moves from being personal to being communal, because our cries join all the other cries that have gone before, from all those in similar circumstances who have lifted up their cries of lament to God, and when we cry out we discover that we are not alone and that God cares and that there is something else, that there is hope.

It is our cry of pain and despair, our lamentation, that gives name to the pain, that helps us to begin to overcome.  It is when we finally fall to our knees and cry out, because as Lincoln said, we have nowhere else to go and we’re not strong enough to stand anymore, that hope becomes possible.  Hope and optimism are not the same thing.  As one of the church signs out on Golf Course road says, hope begins where optimism ends, because hope comes out of and is needed most in the worst moments of our lives, when we are surrounded by the shadows and we feel as if nothing can overcome it, and that’s where lamentations lead us.  They lead us from despair to hope, because they appeal to God for deliverance to show us something different, to know that we are important, that we are not alone, that someone cares, that our cries are being heard when we say “Out of the deep I cry unto you O Lord, Lord hear my voice.”

If you are afraid to express a lament, or if you have been told that you can’t be angry with God, that you cannot express your pain or your agony, your sorrow or your tears, your questions or even your accusations, let me tell you that that is incorrect.  Lamenting is part of our faith, it is part of what it means to be human, it is part of what it means to be in relationship with God, but here is the most important part, the only way that your prayers can be answered is if you pray them, and so you need to tell God exactly what it is that you are feeling.  Being angry and yelling at God, or crying out a wordless primal scream from the depths of our souls is just as much a part of prayer and just as important as saying prayers of thanksgiving.  While we might not like to lament, and while we certainly do not wish to be in a place where we need to lament, crying out to God is necessary, even Jesus’ cried out from the depths of his despair on the cross.

But what Jesus knew, what we know, is that God is always there, that God walks with us through that depth of despair, that God comforts us through our pain and our sorrow, and that God can handle our pain and our anger, for the only way we can get past it is to express it.  Lamentations are a way to help us move through that pain, to move through that grief, to something else, to a sense of hope and a renewed relationship with God.  So when we are experiencing that dark night of the soul, I encourage you, no I implore you, make your lamentation known.  Express it to God and it will be answered.  “‘The Lord is my portion’ says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.’”  May it be so my sisters and brothers.  Amen.

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