Sermons

Raising our Lament…Rev. Dee Ledger, October 8th, 2017

There are times when God and I are not on speaking terms.  At these times, we have an understanding, God and I.  When I see a week unfold like this past week, I will not speak too quickly of God’s loving heart or God’s compassion for this world.  I can’t.  It is too soon for me to do so.  Before singing or speaking of God’s goodness and the light that exists in all of us, before testifying to some kind of hope in the future, I need to acknowledge the lack of goodness that I have seen, the present misery of the moment, and the extinguishing of God’s shining light in people who are bent on destruction.  I need to acknowledge the real murky, ugly, and awful shadows that give shape to evil.

As the death toll rose this week, both in numbers of the dead from the shooting in Las Vegas and also the dead in Puerto Rico and other places, I struggled to find encouragement and meaning.  All I could think of were the 58 funerals that would now be happening, 58 families without their beloved, 58 communities who would now question whether going to a concert or any public outing would be safe.

And I was angry.  Angry at the shooter.  Angry at our lack of political will.  Angry at my representatives in Congress and government leaders.  Angry at the NRA and it’s chokehold on America.  Angry at God for mental instability and angry at the sin of violence in general.

So I understand when the writer of this psalm declares, “Depart from me, all you workers of evil.”  And perhaps you, too, can understand when the writer of this psalm, this song of lament, prays: “All my enemies shall be ashamed and struck with terror…they shall turn back, and in a moment be put to shame.”  The psalmist prays that the fate of the sufferer becomes the fate of those who have caused suffering.

These are hard words, fighting words, and also a cry of deep pain.  If we fail to acknowledge that we can feel such pain, feel such feelings, we suppress the hurt to our detriment.  Such emotion and rawness will speak and surface in other ways, often to the harm of others.

Sisters and brothers, lament is a lost art in our culture.  Our Hebrew and Christian forebears understood the value of lament.  They understood that the ability to grieve publicly and to give voice to anger, helplessness, confusion, and suffering was necessary before speaking of resurrection and the ultimate triumph of good.  They understood that the songs in our scripture were honest, raw reflections of deep hurt, loss, and passion.   Even our brother, Jesus, cries out in agony from the cross and in Gethsemane.  From the cross, Jesus uses words from Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When he was in deep pain, his pain found voice in the psalms that reflected the painful absence of God.

Our Psalms are filled with lament.  Of 150 psalms, did you know that approximately 40 percent are filled with lament?  The words of these psalms are not pretty and are not often delicately embroidered to be framed and put on a wall.  How can one lovingly stitch the words of Psalm 6, “My soul is struck with terror, while you, O Lord—how long?”  It is as if the speaker doesn’t dare to say what he thinks of God in this moment—which is—while I am filled with terror, God, you—YOU—seem to look away…”  How long, O God, indeed?

The Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, also believes that we Christians have neglected the practice of communal lament.  He suspects that the reason why we tend to avoid prayers of lament is because these prayers are “too raw, candid, and abrasive for ‘nice Christians.’”[1]

Similarly, in an article published by Sojourners online, Soong-Chan Rah writes: “How we worship reveals what we prioritize. The American church avoids lament. Consequently the underlying narrative of suffering that requires lament is lost in lieu of a triumphalistic, victorious narrative. We forget the necessity of lament over suffering and pain. Absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. Absence makes the heart forget. The absence of lament in the liturgy of the American church results in the loss of memory.”[2]

Chelle Stearns writes, “The neglect of lament in current practice leads not only to an inability to feel our own grief and sorrow but also to an inability to grieve and respond to the pain and suffering of others.”[3] Sterns, like many others, recognizes that when we grieve with others, we acknowledge that something is not right with our world, that there is a gap between what we believe God’s kin-dom life is like and what we are actually experiencing.  We give witness to the tragic human condition that allows humans to inflict such pain, distress, and evil on each other seemingly without remorse or relief.

This week, there were vigils around our country.  A vigil, at first glance, may seem like an insufficient way to address the aftermath of a shooting like the kind in Las Vegas.  It may seem as if it is merely a group of people choosing to stand around singing, praying, lighting candles, or doing nothing.  It may seem like a waste of time or not worth the energy.  But as one of our congregants said in so many words, “People need to know that there are places to go where they can gather their thoughts, be with God, and be still.”  I would add that people need to know that the larger community and the Church especially cares and shares this pain.  The Church teaches that we are not alone in our suffering, our grief, our pain, or our anger.  But the Church not only teaches this belief; it embodies it in the world.

We lament because it keeps us from becoming immune to the brokenness of this world.  We lament to be in solidarity with those who are suffering and those for whom loss is felt keenly and intimately.  By doing so, we choosing to turn towards the pain and not away.  If we are not comfortable with such expressions of sorrow or pain or we find ourselves rebelling at the latest suggestion to gather in grief, we might ask ourselves why?  Can we stand at the foot of the cross and can we keep awake with those who are crying out in Gethsemane?

Stina Kielsmeier-Cook is a writer and editor from Minneapolis, MN. She has a graduate degree in Forced Migration and Refugee Studies from the American University in Cairo and has worked with refugees for over a decade. Back in March, Kielsmeier-Cook wrote about her participation with local protests.  She wrote: “I have marched in several protests this past month and every time I’ve felt a jolt of new energy. Joining in with thousands of others who are chanting: ‘Say it loud, say it clear, Refugees are welcome here!’ has never failed to make me cry. It has given me hope when I’ve otherwise felt despair.”

She continues, “Coming together with others in protest has been cathartic, and catharsis is often a byproduct of lament. But for all the encouragement protests have given me, my skeptic’s heart turns a cold eye at the church and wonders at why this form of public lament has become a secular-led movement. I feel outrage over white Christian complicity with the current political administration’s treatment of immigrants and refugees, among others. Where are our Biblical exercises of lament? We are so out of practice.”[4]

And so, lament is a kind of spiritual practice.  Those who came yesterday—Dan, Dorothy, Judy, and Walt—volunteered to be present to the Rainey family who were, in this terrible week, also grieving the loss of their beloved Diane—a minister, a wife, a therapist, and servant of God.  They were practicing lament together.  Likewise, our Gary chose to practice lament as he carefully and thoughtfully set up the prayer stations for our building users and the larger community to attend.   Several of you practiced lament this week as you lifted prayers for the victims and your own frustrations, questions, anger, and feelings of helplessness.

And now, here we are in church together.  It is good to gather with each other to practice both Sabbath, lament, and the struggle towards resurrection.  We may feel helpless, friends, but we are not.  We are here to remind each other of that.  Paraphrasing Galatians 6:9-10, Eugene Peterson writes: “So let’s not allow ourselves to get fatigued doing good. At the right time we will harvest a good crop if we don’t give up, or quit. Right now, therefore, every time we get the chance, let us work for the benefit of all, starting with the people closest to us in the community of faith.” [5](from The Message, 2002.)

Even though I wanted to protect my children from knowing the news, my sons knew something terrible had happened.  We had the conversation at dinner when they asked why Mommy was going to church to make prayer stations in the middle of the week.  I answered their questions in the most reassuring way possible and then we moved on to other topics.  I thought that my sons had forgotten about our conversation until the next day, while driving home, one child asked out of the blue: “Mommy, are there more good people than bad people in the world?”

Sisters and brothers, we are here to remind ourselves that the answer to that question lies within our hearts.  We are here to help each other not to grow weary in doing what we can.  We are here to remind ourselves that we are not helpless in this struggle and that our laments are heard by God.

In Psalm 147:3, we read, “God heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds.”

Last night, my children tore up strips of cloth for all of you.  In a few moments, I am going to ask that we sit and discern where we might help to bind up the wounds of the broken-hearted.

Perhaps we can write to a church in Las Vegas and send words of encouragement and solidarity.

Perhaps we can take cookies or granola bars to our local fire dept or police station and thank them for their work, recognizing that their job places them in dangerous situations for society’s benefit.

Perhaps we can put pressure on our favorite representatives to enact safer gun laws.

Perhaps we can contact Cornerstone Montgomery or another community organization that supports endeavors to assist those suffering from mental illness.

Perhaps we can light a candle each night for 58 nights and for 58 grieving families.

Perhaps we can write to someone who has intimate knowledge of grief and offer to meet for tea or coffee.

Perhaps we can resolve to do a kind act for a stranger with no expectation of return.

Perhaps we can read a story to a child who is not our own, or attend a vigil in a church locally, or write a letter to the editor.

Sisters and brothers, we are not helpless.   Consider what you might do in the wake of recent events, and write that down.  Keep your piece of cloth as a reminder that a child is counting on us to be the good that outweighs the evil.  Keep as a reminder that you have power if you wish to use it.  Keep it to remind you that God tends the broken-hearted and that lament is a communal spiritual practice. Keep your cloth close by and be at peace.

Amen.

[1] Walter Brueggemann,” Reverberations of Faith: A Theological Handbook of Old Testament Themes, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002) 119-120.

 

[2] Soony- Chan Rah, “The American Church’s Absence of Lament,” 10-24-2013

https://sojo.net/articles/12-years-slave/american-churchs-absence-lament

 

[3] Chelle Stearns who summarizes Kathleen O’Connor’s study in  “A Theological Aesthetic Of Dissonance: Trauma, Lament, And The Seven Last Words Of Jesus From The Cross,” TheOtherJournal.com, October 22, 2015, https://theotherjournal.com/2015/10/22/a-theological-aesthetic-of-dissonance-trauma-lament-and-the-seven-last-words-of-jesus-from-the-cross/

 

[4] Stina Kielsmeier-Cook, writing for “Stories From Exile,” a writing collaborative, featuring pieces written by outsiders in Christianity, politics, and culture.  March 23, 2017. Deeper Story Media. See https://storiesfromexile.com/stories/on-finding-lament

 

[5] Eugene Peterson, The Message, NavPress, 2002.