Human pain is the great unifier. We all have pain in common. It’s a part of our solidarity. To be human is to hurt. But in our pain, we always look to find our way to Jesus, because if you can get to Jesus everything is going to be alright, amen!!
God in Christ is “Emmanuel“. GOD WITH US. God with us in the solidarity of human suffering. Beginning at Bethlehem, Jesus entered the world of the wounded, and was himself wounded. But here’s a beautiful and sacred mystery, “By his wounds we are healed“. If we can bring our own wounds to the wounds of Christ, it does not multiply woundednes but produces healing. But first we must acknowledge our own woundedness. This is hard for us as American Christians. We are raised on John Wayne, Bruce Willis, and pick yourself by the bootstraps. We are very slow to acknowledge our woundedness and pain. In many cases, we never actually do. In the words of Walter Brueggemann, we are schooled in denial.
The wounded in our society are everywhere. The hardest task is to break through denial so people can get in touch with their own pain. Our zeal for certitude and absolutism is an anxious, frightened response to the reality of pain. We think we can not bear the pain, so we protect ourselves by pretending we don’t know about our own pain. What we discover is that if we can get access to our pain within our community which we trust, then our pain is almost always bearable because the trustworthiness of our brothers and sisters will hold and not let us fall through. Sometimes we need to be helped to see or hear that our certitudes are mostly phony, that life does not conform to our certitudes, and our absolutes are much less than absolute.
So what do we do about a people schooled in denial?
Lamentations, that little book between Jeremiah and Ezekiel, was composed in response to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. It was end of world for the Jewish people. Imagine September 11 times 1000, that’s 587 BC for the Jewish people. It was a great national humanitarian and economic crisis. But it was also a great theological crisis. It caused them to question everything thought they knew and believed about themselves. Are we the people of God or not? We’ve not been rescued, we’ve not been delivered. This pagan nation has destroyed our great city and burned our temple. Everyone but the poorest of the poor have been carried off into captivity and exile. We don’t even have a land to call home anymore. That’s context for the book of Lamentation. It’s the Jewish hymn book of grief and sorrow. And the Jewish people have had plenty of opportunities to lament.
Lament brings pain, sorrow, and anguish out into the open where it can be acknowledged, shared, and eventually healed. What the book of Lamentations does is make it possible for the Jewish people after the destruction of the temple to be able to get past their certainties and absolutism and allow God to come in and bring true comfort.
Look at how the Lamentations opens.
“How lonely sits the city that was full of people! How like a widow has she become, she who was great among the nations! She who was a princess among the provinces has become a slave. She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has none to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her; they have become her enemies. Judah has gone into exile because of affliction and hard servitude; she dwells now among the nations, but finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress. The roads to Zion mourn, for none come to the festival; all her gates are desolate; her priests groan; her virgins have been afflicted, and she herself suffers bitterly.” Lamentations 1:1-4 ESV
Now look at how the book closes.
“Why do you forget us forever, why do you forsake us for so many days? Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old— unless you have utterly rejected us, and you remain exceedingly angry with us.”
Lamentations 5:20-22 ESV
Always, always, the question we want answered is “How long, Lord?” Notice how Lamentation reaches no nice resolution. There is no happily ever after. It hangs there in ambiguity. Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old— unless you have utterly rejected us, and you remain exceedingly angry with us. Restore us Lord, renew our days as of old…unless you are just going to be angry with us forever. No certitudes or absolutes to be found, even inspired by the spirit as this was. There is no happily ever after.
Leading up to the great catastrophe, all the prophets in Jerusalem said everything is gonna be alright. We have the temple, we have the promises of god, God is on our side. God is our defender. There will be peace. We have the covenant of god and the promises of God. This city will not, can not fall, because after all we have the temple of the lord!! All the prophets, that is, except for Jeremiah. “Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’” Jeremiah 7:4 ESV. Jeremiah brought a minority report. Jeremiah said there is idolatry in that temple. He said the city and temple will be destroyed. The people will be carried into Babylon Jeremiah warned, as all the other nations in the area fell, that they would fall too. Jeremiah warned them Do not trust in these deceptive words. “Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it because of the evil of my people Israel.” Jeremiah 7:4, 12 ESV. Jeremiah warned them to remember Shiloh, the place where the ark of the covenant itself had been kept. The original dwelling place of the lord had been wiped off the map, what makes us think we won’t be is the warning.
Jeremiah’s message was not very well received (go figure). He was arrested, censored, his prophesies were burned, he was even thrown into a well. At least they didn’t kill him…
All the other prophets said everything’s going to be alright, but it was Jeremiah’s prophecy that came to pass. In 587 BC, the city fell, the temple was burned, and the people were carried into captivity and slavery. The moon was red as blood, the sun refused to shine, all the stars fell from the sky. It was the end of the world as they knew it. And they could no longer take comfort in false promises of what turned out to be the false prophets.
Lamentations is about preparing a place for comfort to come by doing work of lamentation. It is a primer in overcoming our denial and false certitudes. What is meant by false certitudes? Isaiah 54:17 says that ‘No weapon formed against you shall prosper…”. There is a time and a setting, a context, where that is the word of the lord. But we grab hold of that verse (and others like it) and carry it around with as our own personal badge of bravado, we tell everyone who will listen how no weapon formed against me shall prosper, we carry on in our certitude and absolutism. Until the day comes when it seems every single weapon being formed against you is totally prospering. Then what do you do?? Just keep denying, keep on the brave face, never let ’em see you sweat, never show weakness, amen?
When the diagnosis is grim, the bankruptcy is filed, the divorce is final, our loved on has died, our certitudes go out the window. Lamentations was born at this point, at the pain point of 587 BC. Even the book of psalms, which we mostly see as the praise songs of the Bible, is full of lament. One-third of the psalms at psalms of lament. Israel is famous for its psalms of lament.
We need to really understand where Lamentations fits into the Bible. If you look at the book of Isaiah, it is divided into two parts. The first 39 chapters are warnings and prophecies of dire consequences which are coming. This part is pre-587, before the destruction of the temple. Chapters 40-66, that is all after the destruction of the temple. This us where most of our liturgies from Isaiah are actually from, from chapter 40 on. So we have Isaiah 1-39, warnings and prophecies of what is to come. Then August 587 BC comes, and the destruction of the city of God, the burning and destruction of God’s temple, and God’s people being carried off into exile.
This is where Jeremiah’s (we believe) lamentations come in. There is phrase that appears 5 times in the Lamentations, she has none to comfort her. There are none comfort, there is no comfort, this is said five times during the book of Lamentations. Bu5 what happens in Isaiah 40? “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” Isaiah 40:1 ESV. It’s no longer none to comfort, it’s comfort, comfort my people. The work of Lamentation that’s been done has opened the people up to real comfort, the comfort of God given by others.
Jesus himself says what about this? “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Matthew 5:4 ESV. Mourning, laying down our false certitudes, being vulnerable, opening yourself up to the comfort of a God carried by another. Grief is not a reality to be denied, but work to be attended to – Pastor Brian Zahnd. The work of grief and lamentation must be done if we are to allow true comfort into our lives. But we would rather anesthetize ourselves with entertainment…
We so crave happiness. You might say we are a happiness obsessed culture. We’ve even got a constitutional right to pursue it!! (I know, it’s not actually in the constitution. But we believe it is…). We think we can just whistle past the graveyard and forget that death is the very backdrop of human existence. We actually believe we can get out of this alive. We are so like the great whore of revelation – ‘I sit as a queen, I am no widow, and mourning I shall never see.’ Revelation 18:7 ESV. We think mourning we will never see, we can just whistle past those graveyards, but it’s all just a lie. It’s propaganda we so want to believe and live our lives based upon.
But when we are schooled in denial, we earn our degree in just staying miserable. We have become a people addicted to entertainment, and we earn degrees from Denial University. When we experience loss and the grief and pain that accompanies it but will not acknowledge it, it us simply internalized and begins to poison our soul. The effects of the poison can be seen in things like depression, anger, addiction, physical disease, other types of things. When we go off to Denial U, we earn our degree in how to stay miserable.
This is what is so powerful about our 12 step programs like AA, NA, SA, or my favorite Celebrate Recovery. It is through these programs and living the 12 steps that we can be unschooled in denial and begin road real recovery.
School of denial belongs to the empire that can not bear to face reality of death. You know someone’s been schooled in denial when they refuse to attend funerals. “I don’t do funerals“. Some say this like it’s a virtuous thing. We are so selfish, are we not? But what this really is just someone so schooled in their own denial that what they’ve told themselves is some virtuous decision not to attend funerals is really just away for them to face the reality of the one funeral they will be required to attend. Because we are all required to attend at least one funeral in our lives, are we not? We’ve turned funerals these days into an exercise of trying to cheer someone else up when the real purpose of a funeral is grief and lament as a community. We grieve together, we share in the loss with those closest loved ones. Because lament purges the soul. It does not add to the problem, it is a part of the healing process
One last bit here. Consider this prayer, tucked away right in the middle of the book of Lamentations, starting with verse 3:16.
“He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes; my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, “My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the Lord.” Remember my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall! My soul continually remembers it and is bowed down within me. But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.”
Lamentations 3:16-26 ESV
When we are honest enough about our pain and grief to share it with our brothers and sister, we can then be opened up the love of God carried to us by another. Because, really, how are we to receive the love of God in this world except through another made in his image? God almost always works through people, does he not? So the beginning of healing and recovery comes through sharing that pain, sorrow and grief, not covering it up. Become a Denial University dropout and experience the love of Christ the only way we know how – by being opened up to receive it through another human being.