Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for July, 2022

By the time the book called Isaiah crescendoes to the culminating dizziness of its final chapter, the prophetic voice has trafficked on the image of Daughter Zion with no reluctance to speak of her beauty and dazzlingly unlikely ornamentation.

Not for this prophet the reticence to shape words that admire the feminine body and a woman’s beauty. These were different days, a different aesthetic. The rules were not our rules.

Now, as the end of the massive work draws near, the author turns yet again to feminine metaphor. This time, the point is YHWH’s unstoppable determination to redeem Jerusalem, indeed to convert her or to restore her to her rightful place at the cosmos’ center. The very envy of nations.

To the biblical eye, redemption is always unexpected. Quite often, its component moments are sudden. So here:

Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things? Shall a land be born in one day? Shall a nation be brought forth in one moment? For as soon as Zion was in labor she brought forth her children.

“Shall I bring to the point of birth and not cause to bring forth?” says the LORD; “shall I, who cause to bring forth, shut the womb?” says your God.

(Isaiah 66:8–9 ESV)

Now Zion—so often the surprised or bemused or astonished female personification of YHWH’s unlikely chosen—is pregnant. Indeed, she is in labor.

Yet it is an unusual labor, one that lasts but a moment. Contractions have only begun when suddenly her children—not one, but many—race through throbbing womb to join us here in the light. In this light.

This doesn’t happen under normal conditions. No one has ever heard of such a thing. Yet in this moment, it is YHWH’s purpose and so it shall be.

Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things? Shall a land be born in one day? Shall a nation be brought forth in one moment? For as soon as Zion was in labor she brought forth her children.

The mere description of accelerated and preternaturally productive labor is then framed in YHWH’s own interpretation of events.

“Shall I bring to the point of birth and not cause to bring forth?” says the LORD; “shall I, who cause to bring forth, shut the womb?” says your God.

Perhaps the metaphor hints at YHWH as Divine Father of Israel, a people’s Divine Progenitor. Or perhaps YHWH stands in here as Midwife. The imagery is patient of polyvalence, its reference perhaps singular, perhaps multiple, always suggestively open to reflection beyond initial impressions.

In any case, YHWH is determined to redeem Mother Zion, to multiply her children, to populate her future with daughters and sons. His live-giving, community-engendering purpose shall not be stopped in its tracks any more than a woman well entered into labor shall be told ‘No go!’.

Redemption, here, is inevitable.

Yet one wonders whether the metaphor of a woman’s heaving labor invites its reader to consider another inevitability about the process: its pain.

Zion has throughout sixty-five of sixty-six chapters of the book never been far from trouble. Indeed, she has been bloodied by trouble. Made bereft by trouble. Cast out and rejected, by trouble.

Perhaps YHWH’s unstoppable thirst for redemption, the very inevitability of it all, must be seen as leading his daughters and sons to the glory of it through pain that loudly cries redemption’s impossibility.

Yet for this prophet, the giddy, redeemed cacophony of the people’s final glory only appears to be impossibly, a damned mirage, the haunting practiced upon the hopeless by a thousand zombied dreams.

In fact, suggests the Isaianic voice, it was always going to be this way. This joyful, abundant, glorious way. Inevitable.

“Shall I bring to the point of birth and not cause to bring forth?” says the LORD

Read Full Post »

The opening lines of the book called Isaiah’s sixtieth chapter perfectly capture redemption’s cadence.

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.

 For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you.

 And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.

Isaiah 60:1–3 (ESV)’

If this is so, a subtle interchange between two closely related words drives the point home. Because cognate vocabulary maps differently from one language to another, this is easy to miss when reading in translation. The Hebrew words behind shine (אורי) and light (אורך) are in fact the same word, deployed first as verb and then as noun. The less obvious link between English ‘shine’ and ‘light’ is an unfortunate and inevitable loss in translation.

The reason this subtlety deserves a moment’s consideration is that the Isaianic voice persistently calls desolate Judah (‘Zion’ in its most common personification) to action. Yet the summons is never the call to an initiating action. It is always a response to what YHWH has just done or is about to do.

Arise! … Shine! … because your light has come!

We are talking not so much about cause and effect. The dynamic is rather best expressed as cause and response. The solicited response would never make sense, indeed would be impossible and perhaps unthinkable if YHWH had not acted first. But since he has done so, the summons is now a response to YHWH’s renewed mercies to Zion.

This cause-and-response dynamic splays out across this magnificent chapter, with its glory, its beauty, and its wealth of kings and nations streaming into Zion. Quite literally, Zion’s glory and its beauty are derived from YHWH’s glory and from YHWH’s beautifying intentions. Yet both Zion and her now subservient kings and nations participate with YHWH in the transformation of a city that will once again become both holy and beloved.

Whether those nations do so willingly and as a facet of their own redemption is a debated matter. My inclination is that this is so. Yet the passage also hints at pockets of resistance that shall know no future.

Down to its final verse, the chapter knows no good thing that does not flow from divine initiation.

The least one shall become a clan, and the smallest one a mighty nation; I am the LORD; in its time I will hasten it.

Isaiah 60:22 (ESV)

Yet not for a moment is the role of Zion’s sons and daughters, to say nothing of the children of the nations now caught up in YHWH’s project, anything less than exalted labor.

Read Full Post »

These lines are scribbled by a father, indeed a grandfather. My sixty-odd years somehow crystallize in the lives of my kin.

I would do anything for them. As years of harvest and locust have come and gone, my family, my kin, my flesh and bone have become a kind of existential bottom line.

In this, as in so many other things in this small life that has been mine to live, I am not unusual. What privileges we steward are most intensely known in family. Not in all families, but in many. We become within their embrace a kind of absolute, a non-negotiable. They become so to us.

Take everything else. Don’t touch my children.

The prophet plays a redemptive melody in the key of this family truth.

Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say, ‘The LORD will surely separate me from his people’; and let not the eunuch say, ‘Behold, I am a dry tree.’

 For thus says the LORD: ‘To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.’

Isaiah 56:3–5 (ESV)

In the prophetic imagination here spun into a temple story—the most sacred kind of story YHWH’s seer knows to tell—Jacob’s enigmatic deity speaks of his house and of his family and his family legacy. The divine Paterfamilias—half-hidden, half-known—makes vows in the dialect of what is most precious to him, that which is more his own than anything else.

The irony that pulsates through this speech is that YHWH speaks of those who by lineage and history are not his. Those who do not belong in any conventional sense the notion of kinship might conjure.

Curiously and potently, he makes promise that thrust his historical sons and daughters into second class.

YHWH’s declaration is absurd unless it is true. If it is true, it turns all that we thought we knew on its head.

For thus says the LORD: ‘To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.

Isaiah 56.5

The generous teachings of Jesus will, centuries hence, pivot on this same upsetting truth. Salvation is of the Jews but for the whole wide world.

As those surprised by the invitation find their way to YHWH’s sacred house, the prophet dares to suggest, they will find themselves his favorites. The most privileged. The most richly endowed with unforgettable glories that shall endure for centuries, for millennia, until ‘never’ and ‘forever’ become exhausted of meaning at redemption’s glad destination.

Better, these castrated, pagan foreigners hear spoken of their fate from the spokesmen of this incomprehensible God of Jacob with his strange, ominous, promising name.

Better than sons and daughters.

Read Full Post »

The reversal of Zion’s fortunes is a theme so intensely passionate in the book called Isaiah that the prophet ransacks the full range of metaphor to make his case. Zion, the personification of a city that incarnates both the city’s deported-and-now-returned citizens and its own restored metropolitan glories, is about to learn that her God reigns.

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’

Isaiah 52:7 (ESV)

The issue in play is not so much theology proper or divine ontology. YHWH’s announced reign is not here a theoretical experience but rather an intensively lived experience. Zion is about to taste the power of her God in the form of restoration from the cataclysm that has leveled her walls, emptied her of her people, and snatched away her future. ‘Your God reigns’ must refer to the evidence that YHWH is not inert, but rather decisively present and active in the imminent turning of tables to Zion’s benefit.

The book’s fifty-second chapter presents the striking metaphor of the watchmen on the city’s walls breaking into song—or at the very least into noisy and joyous exclamation—as they leverage their privileged altitude to see the return of YHWH to Zion before their less elevated neighbors are so fortunate.

The voice of your watchmen—they lift up their voice; together they sing for joy; for eye to eye they see the return of the LORD to Zion.

 Break forth together into singing, you waste places of Jerusalem, for the LORD has comforted his people; he has redeemed Jerusalem.

Isaiah 52:8–9 (ESV)

It is impossible to know whether the author intends actually singing. There is the lifting up of their collective voice, the double deployment of verb that can represent song but might also be a less melodic shout for joy (רנן), and a breaking forth into whatever that exuberant sound actually is. The Septuagint, in a show of translational modesty, underscores the joyousness of the sound and leaves its substance to the imagination. Translations ever since opt in roughly equal measure either for song or for joyful shouting.

Regardless, we have a somewhat odd image that nearly refuses to sound strange precisely because it is part of a metaphorical narrative where larger impossibilities are taking place within the ordinary space and time. We almost fail to register the entertaining spectacle of night watchmen giddy with shouted delight or bursting into manly song from atop their walled perches.

The smaller strangeness of the image fades before the brilliant impossibility of YHWH striding across Judah’s desolate terrain towards Zion with his rescued captives following just behind.

If YHWH has done all this, why strain at a cadre of watchmen who can’t stop laughing–or singing—as they take it all in?

It is tempting to see here a narrative playing-out of the new song that becomes the people’s boisterous response to YHWH’s improbable redemption in Isaiah and in several psalms.

Soon the whole city will be loud with grateful sound, redemptive surprise powering its decibels, raised above normal volume as watchmen stand atop high walls.

Read Full Post »

El orden no es un hecho. Es más bien un logro.

Las revoluciones fracasan porque no comprenden que la eliminación de un statu quo opresivo no consigue por sí misma un orden más agradable. El caos se produce con mucha frecuencia.

El caos es el Boogie Man detrás de las esperanzas y temores de la literatura bíblica, como lo es en muchas culturas, incluidas las que abundan en nuestra generación. El idealismo que considera que la reversión a un estado primitivo o natural de la existencia es algo bueno, nos enceguece ante el espectro del caos, que por todos lados acecha en los silenciosos terrores de los pueblos que no han sido protegidos de su violencia por décadas, de orden pacífico logrado a un gran costo.

Si es difícil imaginar este aspecto de la arquitectura del mundo, es porque el privilegio nos ha ablandado. Ya no entendemos lo que es el caos. No le tememos adecuadamente.

El salmo cuarenta y seis es explícito en cuanto al caos. Sin embargo, el corazón del salmista encuentra descanso en la contra-intuitiva confianza que ha logrado en YHVH como baluarte contra la furia del caos.

Contra el tumulto de las trémulas montañas y las aguas que rugen con su capacidad de ahogar, aniquilar y arrasar, el escritor encuentra en YHVH una ayuda siempre presente. De hecho, imagina a YHVH no sólo domando el rugido de las aguas hasta convertirlo en una amenaza pasiva. Da otro paso conceptual y pide a sus lectores que consideren esas aguas convertidas en un río pacífico que sustenta, en lugar de devastar, a la comunidad de hijas e hijos confiados de YHVH.

No temeremos…

Salmo 46:2 (LBLA)

Es una de las confesiones absurdas que salpican las páginas de la Biblia. Es un sinsentido a la luz de un mundo caótico de montañas inestables y naciones desbocadas que dan motivos para temblar de horror. Un sinsentido, es decir, a menos que la convicción subyacente de que YHVH de alguna manera maneja, frena e incluso sostiene estas fuerzas desordenadas represente mejor la realidad que cualquier teoría alternativa.

En el plácido Occidente, de nuevo, no es un lugar de calma natural, sino de un logro a gran costo, rara vez contamos con ese caos que sacude la vida tan fácil como los abarrotes de los estantes de una tienda volcados por un hombre salvaje errante. Sin embargo, no estamos privados de la oportunidad de vislumbrar el feo poder del caos. Conocemos un caos mental tan amenazante que es mejor no pensar en él, no sea que el poder latente que percibimos se apodere de nuestras mentes y nos convierta también en locos.

Resulta que el caos no está tan lejos de nosotros.

El salmista invita a su lector, una vez más, a enfrentarse a esta amenaza permanente, a medir su alcance y su escala, a sentir su absoluta pequeñez ante su furia, a confesar su desnuda vulnerabilidad ante su potencia nihilista.

Luego, confiar.

Decir palabras absurdas sólo tienen sentido solo si la teoría de la realidad que representan es, de alguna manera, irremediablemente auténtica.

No temeremos.

…Aunque la tierra sufra cambios. Aunque los montes se deslicen al fondo del mar. 

Salmo 46:2 (LBLA)

Read Full Post »

Los salmos bíblicos que comienzan en forma de lamento casi siempre terminan con confianza y con una paciencia inteligente. Un movimiento sutil pero seguro lleva estas oraciones hacia un tono de reposo.

‘A ti clamo, Oh Señor, roca mía’, dice el escritor del salmo 28 a su Creador, ‘no seas sordo para conmigo, no sea que si guardas silencio hacia mí, venga a ser semejante a los que descienden a la fosa’.

Sin ninguna pose teatral, el orador expone una situación de vida o muerte y la impotencia que define su incapacidad para hacer algo más que dirigirse al Cielo. Sin embargo, se siente irresistiblemente atraído hacia lo que parece una seguridad antitética o dudosamente piadosa.

El Señor es mi fuerza y mi escudo; en Él confía mi corazón, y soy socorrido; por tanto, mi corazón se regocija, y le daré gracias con mi cántico.

La doble cosecha del escritor es más paradigmática que accidental. Él no sólo experimenta la ayuda—se supone que ésta viene en forma de una liberación concreta y específica de su situación—sino también la confianza. Su corazón se reconfigura incluso cuando su realidad, llena de riesgos, se reconstruye.

En palabras del Salmo 30…

“Tú has cambiado mi lamento en danza, has desatado mi cilicio y me has ceñido de alegría”.

La lógica es la misma. La liberación es segura, pero el cambio circunstancial no es más que el precursor hacia la conversión del corazón. La energía del llanto aviva ahora la danza.

Así es la espiritualidad de la oración bíblica. Las reducciones modernas del efecto de la oración a un resultado curativo y calmante en el sistema nervioso central tienen razón, como todas las reducciones llamativas. La oración sí cambia el ‘corazón’ y, sin duda, hace que el orador se enfrente a la plenitud en lugar de la desintegración.

Así también la teología de calcomanía y pancarta que garantiza a los suplicantes en su carrera que ‘la oración cambia las cosas’ se apoya en parte en la verdad.

Sin embargo, la espiritualidad de los salmos se resiste a todas esas reducciones. Dios no está sólo en los detalles, ni se detiene suavemente sólo en los asuntos del corazón. Ningún espacio pequeño es suficiente para albergar a una deidad que está presente y es lo suficientemente poderosa como para haber convertido la desesperación en confianza y los lamentos en danza.

Read Full Post »

A sermon preached at David’s Community Bible Church

Millersburg, Pennsylvania

July 19, 2022

Life is hard.

My wife often turns to me after a phone call or an email has brought really tough news that someone we know is suffering and says it: Life is hard…

I often feel this way after reading the news. I close up my laptop or lay down my phone and murmur to myself or say to Karen or groan before God: Life is hard…

We’ve had our own, more personal reasons to recognize this Home Truth over the past two years. Each of us has had a cancer diagnosis. Karen and I have both undergone cancer surgery. Each if us is doing well, but we’re far more conscious of our own mortality … our own fragility … our own dust-to-dustness … than we were before ‘the C word’ entered our home.

Some of my dear Colombian students, wonderful, emerging Christian leaders, face unspeakable odds in life. You wonder how they even get up in the morning sometimes. As they confide in me about their lives … as I hear them out … as I seek for ways to put wind in their sails, I regularly come away from conversations shaking my head and saying it: Life is hard…

As I volley the illness and the bereavement and the tragedy that comes across the wires courtesy of the DCBC prayer list, I once again shake my head against this undeniable, grim reality: life is hard…

And I watch the gradual but steady passing of my personal generation of ‘local heroes’ from Lykens Valley. My own parents’ graves, freshly dug over the past four years not a hundred yards from use his morning, are surrounded by the resting places of my Sunday school teachers, my Dad’s baseball buddies who were always so good to me, and the parents’ of my friends from childhood and teenage years. Right out there!

Life is hard…

I suppose none of this should surprise those of us who are  followers of Jesus, sons and daughters of biblical faith. We of all people should be the most clear-eyed about reality, the most in touch with how things really are, the least prone to look away from both the goodness and beauty and joy of this world that our Lord has made … and from its hard edges, twisted and deformed as they are by human rebellion.

Still, despite the confidence and stability our faith provides, life somehow beats us up. It arrives with a rude thud more often that we’d like and brings out of us … out of me, at least, that whispered recognition that … life is hard.

And I don’t think we’re caving into some kind of therapeutic wimpiness if we say so.

I have a little project going about the 22 men and women from Millersburg who never came home from World War II. I call it Valley of Lions: The story of the Millersburg 22 and the families who lost them. If I ever manage to retire, I hope to turn my little ten-year-old hobby into a book.

Do you realize that in the final eighteen months of the year, a family in this little town was getting a telegram notifying them that their son or daughter was Missing in Action or Killed in Action on the average of once every month. The final push into Germany in late 1944 and the first half of 1945 was really brutal. So far, I’ve tracked three of those awful telegrams arriving to little Moore Street alone. Moore Street, across the street and a few blocks down from what was my little Moore Street School, with the likes of Mrs. Heckert, Mrs. Wert, Miss Shomper, and Mrs. Lenker loving us forward.

I can’t imagine the darkness that descended on this little town from the time that Blaine G. Walter, Jr. was lost on Guadalcanal in 1942 to the days just after the end of the war when Josephine Strohecker died in Naples, Italy and 2nd Lieutenant William Jones’ plane exploded and crashed on landing as it took off from a Pacific Island on his way home after the war. He’d logged more than 900 hours across 43 bombing runs over Japan. And now the war was over … and he was coming home. Lieutenant Jones is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery beside his mother, his only survivor.

Life must have been incredibly hard in our little Valley of Lions during those years.

Life was hardLife is hard. Probably life is always gonna’ be hard.

Or am I the only one who feels this way?

===============================

Well, if the heaviness of this reality presses you down this morning … or if it has … then you’re not living something that’s contrary to the Lord’s people at any time.

The so-called psalms of lament provide us with words to pray when loss and sorrow are our lot.

And then there’s this one spectacularly vivid example of faith as it expresses itself in sorrow. We call it the Book of Lamentations.

It’s just five chapters long and easy to miss.

But we shouldn’t miss it. It’s there in our Bibles, waiting to orient us … to gather us in its sad arms … to teach us to wait without denying our pain.

===========================

But let’s not float up on the surface this morning now that I’ve taken the risk of preaching a one-off sermon on loss and sorrow and how to conduct ourselves when those experiences overwhelm.

Let me take us deeper into the hardness of life. Let’s take this to a whole new level.

586 years B.C, the part of Israel that still clung to the name was all but wiped from the map. These people are actually known as Judah, but they’re all that’s left of Israel those six centuries before the time of Jesus. Jerusalem was is capital. When they wax romantic, they call their beloved city ‘Daughter Jerusalem’ or ‘Daughter Zion, the Beautiful/Beloved’. 

So much that represents God keeping his promises is anchored in that city. The king in the line of King David. The Temple, where the Lord is encountered as nowhere else. The priests, charged with moderating the relationship between this sometimes dangerous God of Israel and the people who locked themselves into covenant with him. The sacrifices, that all-important, God-given mechanism for maintaining access to the Lord and closeness with him.

It is in every sense of the word the promised land. Every building, every stone, every family who manages to get to Jerusalem every year or from time to time is participating in something that the Lord has promised and delivered. Jerusalem is for the sons and daughters of the Exodus from Egypt no ordinary place.

And then, decades—even generations—of warnings from the prophets and political/religious battles about whether the Lord would actually allow Holy Jerusalem to be lost, it happens. The Babylonian Army, its lines fattened up by all kinds of hired mercenaries, descends on Jerusalem. They tear down its temple. They level its royal houses. They turn the place of sacrifice into dust. They kill many of the priests and put the rest in manacles. They catch the fleeing king, but they don’t kill him right away. First, they gather up his sons and snuff out their lives one by one as he is forced to watch. Then they put out the king’s eyes, so that the last thing he will ever see is the reality that none of his sons will ever sit on his throne again.

Then they carry off the nobles who’ve survived to Babylon to disappear into the mists of loss and tragedy, just like every other deported people of the time eventually disappeared and were forgotten.

=======

Psa. 137:1         By the waters of Babylon,

                                    there we sat down and wept,

                                    when we remembered Zion.

Psa. 137:2            On the willows there

                                    we hung up our lyres.

Psa. 137:3            For there our captors

                                    required of us songs,

                   and our tormentors, mirth, saying,

                                    “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

Psa. 137:4         How shall we sing the LORD’s song

                                    in a foreign land?

Psa. 137:5            If I forget you, O Jerusalem,

                                    let my right hand forget its skill!

Psa. 137:6            Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,

                                    if I do not remember you,

                   if I do not set Jerusalem

                                    above my highest joy!

Psa. 137:7 ¶        Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites

                                    the day of Jerusalem,

                   how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare,

                                    down to its foundations!”

Psa. 137:8            O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,

                                    blessed shall he be who repays you

                                    with what you have done to us!

Psa. 137:9            Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones

                                    and dashes them against the rock!

=========

Now we’re talking loss. Now we’re talking sorrow.

We call this disaster ‘the Exile’. It is to the Old Testament what the death of Jesus is to the New Testament. And the Jews’ unlikely return to the land seventy years later is to the Old Testament what the resurrection of Jesus is to the New. We are talking about a national death … and eventually, a national resurrection.

=============

I wonder sometimes, when I’m trying to convey to my students the absolute horror of the Exile what modern events we could compare it with without cheapening either the one-of-a-kind experience of Exile or the modern comp we’re using to try to bring it home.

Probably the Jewish experience of the Holocaust, 1933-1945, compares, though the numbers are far larger. It’s no accident that many Jews prefer to use the same term Sho’ah that the biblical prophet Isaiah employed to speak of the biblical exile. Sho’ah means ‘storm’ or ‘destruction’ or both.

Maybe—and I say this carefully—Ukraine would be a modern comp if, God forbid, Kiev were to be leveled, Ukraine’s ability to self-govern erased, and all attempt to maintain a Ukrainian identity were successfully stomped down. Let us hope and pray that never happens. If it were to happen, maybe then we’d find it easier to get close to the darkness of the biblical Exile.

But let me just say this: our petty discomforts and injustices and our more modest and very real losses don’t come close. However, what they do share with the Jewish experience of exile is loss and sorrow. You and I both know, in some inescapable degree, what those things mean. And if you’re too young to know what I’m talking about when I use words like ‘loss’ and ‘sorrow’, well, I have hard news: One day you will.

==================

I mentioned the book of Lamentations. In fact, it’s the book that provides our Scripture text for today.

I love that a book like Lamentations gets included in our Bible, alongside other ruffians like the Book of Job, the Psalms of Lament, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs. These are not easy voices to listen to. They challenge and they prod sometimes far more forcefully than they console. But all of them are God’s own Word to us and we do well to linger over them from time to time.

We don’t know exactly who wrote the five chapters of this little book. What we do know is that they were penned in the aftermath—probably the immediate aftermath—of Jersusalem’s destruction. The lines of this poetic biblical text speak to us of what it meant for Israel to lose so very much. I’ve described Lamentations to my students as one, long poetic scream. That’s what it is.

Let me warn you about Lamentations. The writer is sure that God is behind the calamity. He describes the Lord through most of this poem as his enemy, as Israel’s enemy, as fallen Jerusalem’s enemy. He’s equally sure that Jerusalem has deserved all this. But he thinks the Lord has been awfully severe … even savage … in meeting out justice to his people and he wonders how much longer it will go on. He doesn’t know if he can take any more.

I wonder if you’ve ever felt like this. I have. The cause of our sorrow … of our loss … may be different than the stubborn rebellion of Jerusalem in this writer’s day. But the consequences may feel very much like what he describes.

=====================

What are we to do in the darker chapters of our pilgrimage? How can we live faithfully in the shadows of sorrow and loss that afflict us? How can Lamentations be a word from the Lord to us this morning?

Let me read (again?) our text for today. I must tell you that it’s the brightest spot of all five chapters. It’s the climax of some very steep hiking. The road from chapter 1, verse 1 up to this pinnacle I’m about to read is pretty steep. And shortly after this passage, things descend again.

Yet these verses allow us to see the truth and the hope to which this biblical author, writing as though he is Jerusalem itself, has battled. The verses read like this:

Lam. 3:19       Remember my affliction and my wanderings,

                        the wormwood and the gall!

Lam. 3:20       My soul continually remembers it

                        and is bowed down within me.

Lam. 3:21       But this I call to mind,

                        and therefore I have hope:

Lam. 3:22       The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases;

                        his mercies never come to an end;

Lam. 3:23       they are new every morning;

                        great is your faithfulness.

Lam. 3:24       “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul,

                        “therefore I will hope in him.

Lam. 3:25       The LORD is good to those who wait for him,

                        to the soul who seeks him.

Lam. 3:26       It is good that one should wait quietly

                        for the salvation of the LORD.

What I want to express to the people of God from the Word of God today does not depend completely on these eight little verses. Yet it takes the hope that is expressed here in this pinnacle of the entire book and it looks backwards in the book … and forwards in the book to get a grip on what Lamentations means to followers of Jesus today.

In this spirit of peering at the whole book through the lens of its finest verses, let me offer you four Biblical words of exhortation for when darkness and sorrow have become your companions:

  • Say it out loud!
  • Say it to God!
  • Say it all!
  • Then do the next thing.

===================

The ‘it’ I’m taking about is the reality of my suffering.

Sometimes we’re squeamish as Christians about naming before God just how bad things have become for us. We feel we shouldn’t offend God or that we should not feel as badly as we do.

The Biblical witness doesn’t share that reluctance to speak out of our depths, to name our sorrow, even to use strong words to present before God what we have experienced.

A book like Lamentations invites us to say it out loud

By the time we get to Lamentations 3, verses 19 and 20, the author has been crying out before God about what he calls there ‘my affliction and my wanderings, the wormwood and the gall’ for two and a half chapters. He’s been pouring out his heart in the strongest possible words, remembering, as he says here the very depths of his affliction. 

His lament … his complaint … is honest and open and authentic and very, very real. 

He takes risks in the way he names the cause of his pain. He is not ‘too careful’ or ‘too precise’.

He says it out loud!

He says it like the many psalms of lament, given to us so we’ll have words to pray in our darkest moment.

He says it like Jesus on the cross, when he prays aloud the words of Psalm 22, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’

He says it out loud.

I believe his honesty is a crucial part of his healing.

================

But note a critical element in all the lamenting that the Bible places into the hands of the Lord’s sons and daughters. This lament, from start to finish, is taken to God himself.

All that this writer has to say, he says it to God!

He knows that God can take it. He understands that the only sin that lurks around at moments like this is not saying offending things to God but rather abandoning the conversation with God. That’s the thing that’s to be avoided, not strong speech to God himself.

Scripture invites us to trust sufficiently in God that we can take all that we are to Him in prayer. And the invitation doesn’t get switched off when the only thing we have to offer him is groaning … and tears … and even, like the author of Lamentations, anguished screams and hopelessness.

======================

Third, Lamentations teaches us—it seems to me, anyway—that in moments of great suffering it’s important that we say it all.

Now here I want to take you on a little bit of a detour. Don’t jump off the train on me. I need you to stay engaged while I try to explain something about the book of Lamentations.

As one of my teachers at the Moore Street School used to say to us when she wanted us to pay attention and not drift off, Put your thinking caps on!

The book of Lamentations is an acrostic.

There, I used a technical term, something that an old prof like me tries to avoid when preaching. But if you’re a dentist or an engineer or a lawyer or a machinist or a farmer or an executive assistant, you know the value of technical terms. You don’t want to have to make up words every time you refer to an important point. You just wanna’ say it. 

So here’s a new word for some of you: ACROSTIC.

An acrostic is an alphabetical poem. The psalms and the book of Lamentations and much of the Bible are poetry. That simply means they’re constructed with very special attention to how words work. That’s what poetry is.

So it’s no surprise that a book of laments called Lamentations would be poetry … that it would care very much how words work and construct them so that they work in the way the author intends.

What is surprising is that Lamentations is an acrostic.

So what’s an acrostic? Well, I’ve already said that an acrostic is an alphabetical poem.

That means that the writer starts out with a line that begins with the letter ‘A’. Next, he writes a line that begins with ‘B’. Then ‘C’.  What do you think his next line would begin with?

In reality, sometimes it’s 3 or 4 lines that begin with ‘A’. Then 3 or 4 that begin with ‘B’.

Now we can’t see this in our English Bibles, because he wasn’t writing in English. He was writing in Hebrew.

So we miss out on this acrostic thingy. But he didn’t. He was deadly serious about it.

Now here’s the thing: Acrostics — alphabetical poems — fit well and work well when the topic is a happy one. In the psalms they show up when the psalmist is praising the order or the beauty or the productivity of creation … or of God’s law.

Happy themes, right? Well-ordered, predictable topics, right? That’s where an acrostic — an alphabetical poem — makes hay. Because the fit between the order of the topic and the order of the poem play very nicely together.

Are you following me?

Now here’s another thing: Sorrow, loss, and catastrophe are nor ordered events. Psychologist, sociologists, and just any of us who cares to think about it for a moment will explain that sorrow and loss are disordered moments. They are at the opposite end of human experience from the carefully configured construction of an acrostic … an alphabetical poem … with its almost obsessive dedication to order and design.

When one of the Millersburg mothers took that telegram from the postman in 1942 (Blaine Walter) or 1943 (Richard McBride) or 1944 (Ray Kohr, Asa Romberger) or 1945 (Gene Lentz) and read the words she hoped she’d never see, that was not an ordered moment. When you collapse in tears before the grave of your husband or wife, that’s not an ordered moment. When your spouse walks away, that’s no ordered moment. When millions of Ukrainian mothers climb onto evacuation trains with children and pets in tow and their husbands and fathers left behind, that is not an ordered moment.

When Jerusalem the Promised went up in pillars of smoke and clouds of ash, that was not an ordered moment.

So why does the writer of this biblical lament choose the most highly ordered form available to him for his long shriek before the God whom he hoped was hearing his prayer?

Well students of this book—and I am one—have come up with some interesting explanations. I’d like to share two of them with you this morning.

One explanation says that this prayer comes in this form because it obligated the pray-er to name every painful fact as he sat in Jerusalem’s ashes and expressed a people’s grief to their God. A to Z. One at a time. Nothing left out.

I think this makes some sense, and it leads me to my third piece of instruction that I believe Lamentations hands to us this morning: Say it all! 

When you’re praying out of the depths, name everything. Whether it’s your own sin, an unjust abuse you’ve suffered, the loss of a loved one. Take a page from the writer of Lamentations and walk through it in conversation with God. First A, then B, then C…

Say it all.

But there’s another way to understand the strange use of an acrostic to express the worst possible grief and loss. 

When you’ve been run over by a freight train, and you don’t know what to do, try this: Do the next thing.

No matter how small, no matter how ordinary, no matter how insignificant in the face of your pain, just do the next thing.

Look, my life has been a good life and God has blessed me beyond words. But like many or most of you, life has at different times chewed me up and spit me out. I’ve seen dreams die. I’ve had people walk away. You know, it’s nothing dramatic, but it’s my life and I have my quota of scars just like you do.

I’ve come to believe that the way faith manifests itself after loss is trusting God that there’s a future by taking a brick and starting to build the future. One tiny, measly brick at a time. It doesn’t sound very spiritual, does it? But I think it’s post-traumatic faith in action.

And I think it may well be what the writer of this Biblical lament is doing by saying to himself (and centuries later, to us), today I’m gonna’ work on ‘A’. Tomorrow I’ll get up, I’ll shower and shave, and then I’ll set to work on B. This is how the future is born. This is how we partner with God in creating a future when everything we’ve experienced suggest there won’t be one.

===================

But if everything I’ve shared this morning up to now represents reliable, biblical instruction on how to live and survive our loss and our sorrow, then I’ve managed to save the best part for last.

The best part is the God who accompanies us in our loss. Strangely, he is often silent when we feel like we need to hear his voice more than we ever have. But the biblical witness assures us that he is still there.

Let me read a portion of our text again:

Lam. 3:21       But this I call to mind,

                        and therefore I have hope:

Lam. 3:22    The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases;

                        his mercies never come to an end;

Lam. 3:23       they are new every morning;

                        great is your faithfulness.

Lam. 3:24       “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul,

                        “therefore I will hope in him.

Lam. 3:25    The LORD is good to those who wait for him,

                        to the soul who seeks him.

Lam. 3:26       It is good that one should wait quietly

                        for the salvation of the LORD.

In these most amazing verses, the pray-er of this long lament discovers that there is in fact reason to hope in the Lord and to wait for the Lord.

If you’re reading slowly and thinking clearly, you might wonder how in the world a person who has suffered so much … who has been so articulate about the God-wrought devastation of his people … should turn and affirm that it makes sense to hope in the Lord … that it’s not crazy but actually reasonable and life-giving to wait for the Lord’s salvation.

How did he come to this conclusion?

Well, I bet what he claims to be true here will bring an ‘Amen!’ out of more than a few bruised hearts here this morning, because what this writer has discovered to be true is also what you have discovered to be real and true. 

It goes like this: 

The steadfast love (חסד) of the Lord never ceases.

His mercies never come to an end.

They are new every morning.

Great is your faithfulness.

Do you hear the totality of the claim in the words nevernever, and every?

The whole declaration pivots on one of the Bible’s richest claims about the God of Israel and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

That claim insists that his loyal love // covenant love // persistent loyalty is simply inexhaustible.

What that doesn’t mean is that we experience God’s love in a kind of straight-line, unremarkable, always-on sort of way. It doesn’t mean that. And we don’t!

In fact, we sometimes cry with the writer of Psalm 22 and with Jesus on the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why do you stand so far off?’

But we also learn that his chesed is like a life-giving river … that sometimes goes underground and stays there for a very long time … but eventually … in our desert … we find ourselves amazed when that river springs up again to the surface and invites us to drink of its waters, to cool ourself in its refreshment.

His mercies, we learn, are experienced as though new with every fresh morning. Some of those mornings come after a very long night.

This we know. This we base our lives on.

This is why verse 3.25 can pick up Israel’s long chant that ‘the Lord is good. His lovingkindness is forever’ and add a little twist that makes all the sense in the world: ‘The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him.’ 

And then this little bit of instruction for those who have ears to hear: 26. ‘It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord’.

Now he has hardly been quiet, this writer of Lamentations. His waiting has been pretty noisy. But he’s battled his way to the realization that the Lord is indeed trustworthy, even in the darkest of nights.

I think his lament is his way of living out that second part of 3.25‘The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him.’

And I think it can be yours, too.

So when sorrow and loss become your companions, don’t you dare abandon your conversation with God. Pursue him … seek him out, with whatever words you have. And when you tell him about all that’s wrong….

Say it out loud!

Say it all!

Say it to God!

And then what are you gonna’ do? Do the next thing.

When we do these things, we so often discover what we could never discover in our comfort and our ease:

The steadfast love (חסד) of the Lord never ceases.

His mercies never come to an end.

They are new every morning.

Great is his faithfulness.

Amen.

Read Full Post »

¿En qué estaba pensando…?

Nos hacemos la pregunta cuando nuestra idiotez ha quedado bajo la irrefutable luz del día.

Fui un tonto. Fui un iluso. Distraído. O borracho. O estúpido.

La pesadilla de todo creyente es haberse equivocado en todo. Independientemente de la ideología que haya pretendido el corazón, la mente o la cartera -fielmente secular o convencionalmente religiosa-, el miedo es haber estado simplemente equivocado. Dado que la fe va a la raíz de las cosas, que se demuestre que estamos equivocados en nuestra convicción principal significa que también lo estamos en todo lo demás.

Se acabó el juego.

¿En qué estábamos pensando?

El salmista conoce este miedo moderno, que como la mayoría de las esperanzas y ansiedades resulta ser antiguo, respetable y compartido.

Dios mío, en ti confío; no sea yo avergonzado, que no se regocijen sobre mí mis enemigos. Ciertamente ninguno de los que esperan en ti será avergonzado; sean  avergonzados los que sin causa se rebelan. 

Salmo 25:2–3 (LBLA)

En el lenguaje de los salmos, ser ‘avergonzado’ es ser expuesto públicamente como un idiota. La realidad abofetea en momentos como éste, reduce toda el trayecto cuidadoso de la vida de uno a una secuencia ordenada de errores. Lo peor de todo es que lo hace públicamente, donde la gente se burla y se mofa.

La gente se burla de dichos tontos. La literatura bíblica es más honesta que los piadosos modernos sobre lo mucho que duele que se rían de uno. Cuán profundo es el remordimiento, qué impotente se siente uno cuando es arrojado a la playa por la corriente de la vergüenza.

El escritor del Salmo 25 ruega no sufrir ese destino, que no le sea quitado el fundamento de sus pies. 

Luego, tras haber expresado su anhelo, se acomoda a lo que la experiencia le ha enseñado: ‘Ninguno de los que esperan a YHVH será avergonzado’.

Este es el resultado seguro de su vida hasta la fecha: YHVH, único entre los objetos de la confianza humana, no deja que esto les suceda a los suyos. A la final no decepciona. No se queda pasivo mientras la realidad destroza la base de la vida de sus hijos y de sus hijas.

En esto, afirma el testigo bíblico a nuestro favor, YHVH es incomparable.

Son los intrigantes, los hipócritas y los malintencionados los que se encuentran con que las tornas han cambiado, nos tranquiliza el salmista. La marea de la vergüenza puede derribarnos, calarnos hasta los huesos, deslumbrarnos el cerebro.

Son los intrigantes, los hipócritas y los malintencionados los que se encuentran con que las cosas se han vuelto en su contra, nos tranquiliza el salmista. La marea de la vergüenza puede derribarnos, calarnos hasta los huesos, deslumbrar nuestros cerebros. Pero, esperando a YHVH, nos levantamos para vivir otro día.

La resiliencia ocupa su lugar entre las virtudes subestimadas que uno adquiere mansamente al confiar en YHVH. El siervo humilde y confiado aprende a entender las mil desgracias como baches en el recorrido de la maratón.

Pero YHVH sale adelante, Jesús salva, la realidad creada sobrevive a su prueba. Esperamos, con cierta paz extraña, el resultado final.

Read Full Post »

El undécimo salmo se ha citado frecuentemente como un consejo de la desesperación.

Si los fundamentos son destruidos; ¿qué puede hacer el justo?

Salmo 11:3 (LBLA)

Ya sea como un llamamiento a votar por tal o cuál partido político o como una advertencia contra el poder desarticulador de la decadencia de una cultura, el salmista interviene para comprobar que las acciones justas se vuelven impotentes cuando la cultura en general ha cruzado cierto umbral de barbarie.

La mayoría de las traducciones modernas de la Biblia hacen un uso crítico de las comillas lo que convierte estas palabras en el consejo de los desesperados que han perdido su confianza en YHVH. Probablemente tengan razón al hacerlo.

En el Señor me refugio; ¿cómo decís a mi alma: Huye cual ave al monte? Porque, he aquí, los impíos tensan el arco, preparan su saeta sobre la cuerda para flechar en lo oscuro a los rectos de corazón. Si los fundamentos son destruidos; ¿qué puede hacer el justo?

Leído así, el salmo no aconseja la desesperación. La refuta.

Por dos razones, el poeta considera que el desaliento es inverosímil. En primer lugar, la palabra desalentadora dirigida a él no tiene en cuenta su propia decisión programática de confiar en YHVH.

En segundo lugar, ese pesimismo no contempla la mirada escudriñadora y examinadora de YHVH, quien no ha abandonado su trono. Tampoco contempla las pasiones morales de YHVH.

El Señor está en su santo templo, el trono del Señor está en los cielos; sus ojos contemplan, sus párpados examinan a los hijos de los hombres. El Señor prueba al justo y al impío, y su alma aborrece al que ama la violencia. Sobre los impíos hará llover carbones encendidos; fuego, azufre y viento abrasador será la porción de su copa. Pues el Señor es justo; Él ama la justicia;
los rectos contemplarán su rostro.

Mientras YHVH siga aborreciendo al amante -espléndida paradoja- de la violencia, la palabra desalentadora suena vacía. Mientras YHVH siga amando las acciones justas y lleve a quien las realiza a una conversación íntima con Él mismo, la desesperación no sólo es inverosímil, suena algo ridícula.

Read Full Post »

Tanto el Salmo 77 como el 78 aluden al pasado, hasta el punto de emplear el mismo vocabulario para llegar a él, para recuperarlo y definirlo con palabras.

Sin embargo, los dos poetas ven un panorama diferente. El autor del salmo setenta y siete examina un pasado glorioso desde las dolorosas ansias de un presente en el que Dios se ha ausentado. De hecho, su lenguaje -lleno de pathos- se atreve a sugerir que Dios ha cambiado. La deidad de aquellos buenos años ya no habita con su pueblo:

Has mantenido abiertos mis párpados;
estoy tan turbado que no puedo hablar.
He pensado en los días pasados,
en los años antiguos.
De noche me acordaré de mi canción;
en mi corazón meditaré;
y mi espíritu inquiere
¿Rechazará el Señor para siempre,
y no mostrará más su favor?
¿Ha cesado para siempre su misericordia?
¿Ha terminado para siempre  su promesa?
¿Ha olvidado Dios tener piedad,
o ha retirado con su ira su compasión? (Selah)
Entonces dije: Este es mi dolor:
que la diestra del Altísimo ha cambiado. 

Salmo 77:4-10 (LBLA)

Quizá el aire muerto de un ateísmo conveniente sea mejor que esto, la agonía al filo de la navaja, la de Job, de quien ha conocido a Dios y luego ha descubierto que ha huido. O cambiado. Un tal teísmo ni sirve como opio para el alma, es más bien su tormento. Uno no construye una fe así para hacer frente a las desdichas de la vida. Por el contrario, uno descubre su lado más sórdido al haber conocido a Dios cuando los tiempos eran mejores y luego encontrar imposible negarlo cuando las circunstancias se descomponen.

No hay consuelo en el resto del salmo, sólo memoria. De manera inusual, el salmo 77 no muestra ningún movimiento hacia la solución. La confianza se muestra evasiva. Sólo la memoria, su precuela, entra en escena. Los que sufren saben que por cada onza de confianza que se sirve, la memoria reclama primero su libra de angustia.

¿Y si, como se atreve a declarar este salmista, Dios ha cambiado?

El Salmo 78 mira hacia atrás, hacia un pasado configurado de forma diferente. Israel ha sido rebelde hasta la médula, duro de corazón desde su nacimiento. El poeta habla de ‘enigmas de la antigüedad’ a su generación. Estas son las sílabas de la teodicea, la justificación de YHVH por su obstinada bondad hacia un pueblo cuyas lenguas eran conocidas por la mentira, y sus corazones corroídos por la ingratitud hasta el mismo borde del abismo.

Sin embargo, YHVH persiste, prepara su tierra para ellos, construye su santuario para ellos, elige a su rey para ellos.

Su corazón -o el de su rey-pastor David, es difícil saberlo- ‘las cuidaba, y las guiaba con la destreza de su mano’.

Esa mano, dice el poeta anterior, ‘ha cambiado’, guía sólo para aplastar, busca para sus ovejas el precipicio, las destierra de su tierra.

‘Oh, Dios’, ruegan los salmistas en su lamento colectivo, ‘ven a nosotros de esta manera y no de esa otra’. En su templo, YHVH escucha el dolor, inclina su oído a la murmura de la confianza. Desnuda su brazo.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »