Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Voice of Lament

Can sorrow honor God? Does our emptiness speak to God in a particular way?

The voice of lament is heard many times in Scripture, especially in the Old Testament. It is practically a refrain. Pain, longing, desolation – we hear these voices in the desert, on the road to Babylon, in ravaged cities. People describe their wounds to God in a way that, to some of us, is unseemly. All this loneliness, all that dependence – and the endless tears. Job, Hosea,and the writer of Lamentations could make us all a bit uncomfortable.

In our modern age, great shows of emotion, especially sadness is embarrassing. So is the voice of lament a sacred voice or is it a relic of less enlightened times? 

When my sister died two years ago, her youngest granddaughter wept. It was all she could do. All through the viewing, the funeral, at the cemetery and on the way home, she wept, quietly and continuously. Her parents and others held her, touched her, stroked her hair. She had nothing but her tears. Julia was 13 that year and nothing like this had ever happened to her.

Did she know she was praying? I couldn't say. But she was. She was wholly formed in that moment by her sorrow. She had nothing else, and, when you have nothing, what you do have is God, whether you know it or not, whether you want it or not.

Devastating emptiness like this is a rare thing in life. We might never feel it. Yet the voice of lament reaches out to us from Scripture across the millennia. But why heed this voice if it’s so far removed from us?

Consider the story of Hosea:
“Go, take to yourself a wife of harlotry, and have children of harlotry; for the land commits flagrant harlotry, forsaking the Lord” (Hos. 1:2). 

Hosea is required by God to marry a prostitute, Gomer. He is required to love her and be faithful to her, which he does and is. She gives him three children, two of which are not even his. These later two are called “Not My Loved One” and “Not my People”. Hosea is required to love them, too, and he does.

Even after she returns to her lovers, Hosea must love Gomer and ultimately take her back. God spoke to him:
“Go again, love a woman who is loved by her husband, yet an adulteress, even as the Lord loves the sons of Israel, though they turn to other gods” (
Hos. 3:1).

In Hosea, God himself laments:

O Ephraim, what shall I do unto thee? O Judah, what shall I do unto thee? for your goodness is as a morning cloud, and as the early dew it goeth away. Therefore have I hewed them by the prophets; I have slain them by the words of my mouth: and thy judgments are as the light that goeth forth. For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings. But they like men have transgressed the covenant: there have they dealt treacherously against me. (Hosea 6:4-7)

Could this be any clearer? 

God uses Hosea’s life as an illustration of God’s own love of Israel. Hosea is a kind of demonstration project for the faithfulness of God, and Hosea shines the light of it.  Just as Hosea loved Gomer no matter what she did, so God loves us and will always take us back. Moreover, all our sins and wickedness will be turned to glory, just as Gomer’s two children were finally accepted and renamed.

In the New Testament, the voice of lament is heard much less often. To me, the reason for this is clear. God is now with us. We are no longer talking about a people breaking faith with God; we are no more crying out for salvation; we are in the midst of it. It is present. Surely people were just as sinful in the first Century AD, but the story is now about the Kingdom of God which has come.

In such instances as the sinful woman's weeping at Jesus' feet, Jesus' weeping over Jerusalem, the death of Lazarus, Peter's denial, Judas' suicide, the weeping women on the way of the cross, we see lament.

And then the big one:

Jesus cries out from the cross. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” [Matthew 26:47

The most original thinker of all time lost, in that moment, his originality and relied on a quote. His unique voice left him. He drew his response from the psalmist. [Psalm 22]

If Jesus were a character in a novel, this would be the part that all the reviewers would want to talk about. It is that important. It's that revealing.

Jesus is lamenting, not as God lamented in Hosea, but as a human being, using a tried and true prayer. He laments with all of humanity who has sung this psalm before him and known its bleakness. 

Jesus’ Incarnation is, for me, at this time, most perfectly expressed. He drew his prayer from human experience.  He was (and is) absolutely with us and of us. And when we lament, we are, likewise, with him. 

Dorotheos of Gaza was a 6th Century hermit. He came up with an illustration of what happens in prayer. He preached that when we pray, as we become closer to God through our prayer, we draw nearer to each other. In fact, the closer we get to God the closer we get to each other. And the closer we get to each other the closer we get to God.

That was what Jesus was doing, drawing us to himself and drawing us to God. 

When we pray in the voice of lament, for example, we join ourselves to all those many faithful who also prayed in that voice. It's a big voice. Because lament always brings us to God, it is a voice of hope and, ultimately, a voice of joy. What else could it be? 

In prayer, it is never just God and me. Even if I am praying secretly in my room as in Matthew 6:6, I am praying as part of the body of Christ. Augustine of Hippo tells us: He who loveth little prayeth little, he who loveth much prayeth much. 

The reason this is true is explained in Dorotheos' illustration. Approaching God is to approach our neighbor. Loving God is to love our neighbor.

The love we felt for little Julia that day in 2012 was palpable. The care we felt from God moved us toward her and toward each other. We went out in the morning in sadness but returned home with joy.