Toorak Uniting Church

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The art of lamenting

Jeremiah 8
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
19 September 2004, 9am

I don’t know about you, but every now and again it gets to me: The news, the papers, the stories, the world, and the sheer hopelessness of it all. For a couple of days I feel utterly miserable, try to avoid the papers and fail to turn on the television for the news. Denial some would call it, of the harsh realities of life, a time out would perhaps be a more kind description, a desire to, for a moment at least, give my over exposed senses rest.

In the last couple of weeks there was again an overload of misery presented to us in the media. At least, that is how it felt to me. The Sudan, Beslan, Jakarta, Iraq, the Middle East, the remembering of 9/11, and a whole host of other things made me feel quiet hopeless and helpless at times. How on earth are we going to get out of this mess? And what can we, what can I do to make any difference from where I stand, live and work?

It is against that background I found the reading from Jeremiah on the lectionary for this Sunday plus an article in Spirits of the Seasons lectionary help for preachers on lamenting. Providing me with some insights that I found helpful and would like to share with you this morning.

The Bible includes many passages of a literary style that is known as lament. In the book of Lamentations (obviously), portions of the book of Jeremiah, Amos and the psalms we find passages where there is straight out and unrestrained lamenting the state of the world and the suffering and pain of the people in it.

There is a crying out to God where helplessness and despair in the face of disaster and suffering are expressed with a directness and a poignancy that, to our 21st century western minds may feel rather alien.

In our culture lament, direct and heart felt complaint, crying out and weeping is not seen as something that is desirable. Mostly it is regarded as a sign of weakness, of mechanical failure (we "break down" when we cry) and stoic reserve and endurance are seen as a sign of strength, being able to cope and "hold oneself together".
We’re not supposed to fall apart over serious hurt and grief; we’re not supposed to weep with abandon about the state the world is in. Mostly we are made to feel we should take life as it comes and submit to the circumstances that are thrown at us. And that has its merits: order and equanimity can be maintained at all times and life can go on even when planes fly into buildings and children are being blown up. We heave a few sighs, shrug our shoulders, shake our heads and go home to dinner.

In the Bible however, in the parts I mentioned earlier, we find another way of going about these things, another theological response to God given. Instead of sincere, thoughtful, restrained and polite praying for others there is heartfelt crying, questioning, shouting even, at God, acknowledging the terrible truth of so many lives and offering them to God with all the heartbreak and feelings of despair and powerlessness that go with it. Crying out loud for the sheer bloody horror and meaninglessness of it all and say:
God, the world is a mess and we really don’t know what to do about it. We can’t see the end of violence, we fear the growth of international terrorism, we are appalled and greatly worried about the ease with which some sacrifice innocent lives to their cause.

At the same time we despair at the amount of injustice, oppression, destruction and exploration that is going on in the world. And in our own lives: There is always something isn’t there? Broken or breaking.

I don’t know if you noticed (perhaps you need more lamenting before you can) but lament is a good antidote to despair and feelings of silent defeat. Voicing our concerns, crying out about what hurts helps us to face and acknowledge the powers that damage our world and our existence and make us aware of what there is to do before the Kingdom will have come.

In Jeremiah 8 however something very disturbing happens. It is not people that are lamenting there. It is God.

"My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick" says God. "For the hurt of my people I am hurt, I mourn and dismay has taken hold of me. O that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I may weep all day and night!"

God is crying! Fountains of tears! Not something a few Kleenexes will solve by the sound of it. God is crying out and full of dismay because people have turned away from him and have gone their separate way. Bringing hurt and havoc upon themselves and others. And they don’t even know they’ve done it! "Is the Lord not in Zion they ask, the harvest is past, the summer ended and we’re still not saved, what has happened to our God?"

Funny that, because it sounds disturbingly familiar. Why is all this happening? Why isn’t God doing anything about it? Shouldn’t he have done something about the situation by now?

Well, no. God’s complaint, God’s lament is that, where he has tried to bring justice and peace, where he has offered salvation and healing, it has not been accepted. And that the situation as it is now is a fruit of destructive attitudes and disobedience to his commands by people. And that maybe that is where we should start before we come to him complaining.

Poverty and injustice are breeding grounds for violence. We know that. Exploitation and oppression are not the situations where love, peace and mutual respect flourish. Not sharing of our wealth and our resources, refusing to see the needs of others and do something about it, rushing to protect our own interest without consideration of the interests of others a potentially harmful way of dealing with situations.

We all know that the problems we face on a world scale are far greater than what we as individuals can do. But we can do something. And we can do our best. And voicing some of the agony that is around, letting the hurt and the suffering of others get to us and permit ourselves to be moved by it will help change our world. Because if we do we position ourselves on the side of God, God who is weeping for all the senseless waste of lives and resources that is going on. Tears that will motivate us to take Gods call to a different life for all more seriously. An antidote against despair and silence, calling us to go out and actively find and apply the healing God has given. Jesus Christ died for this world, God brought him back from the dead. He died for us and he can bring us and even our world back from the dead, but he asks us to be an active part of that salvation and stand up for it, in the face of even the worst enemy.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2004

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