Thursday, November 26, 2015

Prophetic Art of Lament

Sometimes the world just sucks. For the prophet Jeremiah in ancient Jerusalem, the world sucked because God has sent him, of all people, to explain to his city that because of their injustice, they will be destroyed, and then he had to sit and watch that destruction take place.  And so Jeremiah writes laments.  Laments are a Hebrew prayer of mourning that tries to find some hope from God.  And laments have a very specific poetic structure, which means anyone can write them. Laments have three notable structures: 1) Parallelism: giving two or more parts of the sentences a similar form so as to give the passage a definite pattern. 2) A five-fold movement
  • address (asking God to pay attention)
  • lament (what's wrong)
  • confession of trust (something about God that is certain)
  • petition (what is asked for from God)
  • (often) praise (or in the case of Jeremiah, despair)
3) Acrostic (the first let of each verse is the next letter in the alphabet) Let's take an example of a lamentation attributed to Jeremiah: Lamentations 5: [ADDRESS] 1 Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us; look, and see our disgrace! 2 [LAMENT] Our inheritance has been turned over to strangers, our homes to aliens. 3 We have become orphans, fatherless; our mothers are like widows. 4 We must pay for the water we drink; the wood we get must be bought. 5 With a yoke on our necks we are hard driven; we are weary, we are given no rest. 6 We have made a pact with Egypt and Assyria, to get enough bread. 7 Our ancestors sinned; they are no more, and we bear their iniquities. 8 Slaves rule over us; there is no one to deliver us from their hand. 9 We get our bread at the peril of our lives, because of the sword in the wilderness. 10 Our skin is black as an oven from the scorching heat of famine. 11 Women are raped in Zion, virgins in the towns of Judah. 12 Princes are hung up by their hands; no respect is shown to the elders. 13 Young men are compelled to grind, and boys stagger under loads of wood. 14 The old men have left the city gate, the young men their music.15 The joy of our hearts has ceased; our dancing has been turned to mourning. 16 The crown has fallen from our head; woe to us, for we have sinned! 17 Because of this our hearts are sick, because of these things our eyes have grown dim: 18 because of Mount Zion, which lies desolate; jackals prowl over it. 19 [CONFESSION OF TRUST] But you, O Lord, reign forever; your throne endures to all generations. 20 Why have you forgotten us completely? Why have you forsaken us these many days? [PETITION] 21 Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old— 22 [PRAISE OR DESPAIR] unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure.

For a more personal lament, I encourage you to read Jeremiah 20:7-18.

Parallelism can be seen in Lamentations 5, verse 1 in the balance of the phrases, "Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us" and "look, and see our disgrace!" The address can also be found in verse 1.  Lament takes up the largest section in verses 2 through 18.  The confession of trust in 19 continues into holding God accountable to that trust in 20.  The petition is just one verse in 21.  And verse 22 contains both praise in the sense that God is able to do whatever God wants, but also a sense of despair that it is beyond human control. The acrostic doesn't come across in English translation, but note that there are 22 verses for the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

The past Sunday at Parables, we wrote our laments, for both the personal and societal brokenness.  We tried to incorporate parallelism, and the 5-fold movement, but for the acrostic, I encouraged people to instead of starting each verse with the next letter of the alphabet, to try to incorporate each verse a word or image they had heard from the stories of the other people in the congregation that they had heard shared that day. Here are some examples of what they wrote (with the final lament actually being an acrostic):

Merciful God, I call on you with an open, but tired and damaged heart...The days have chilled my bones and my soul.  The love I long for and hope to receive from my peers is often replaced with judgement, curt and feigning responses or a frigid silence that shakes my core.  I’m in search of shelter, but all doors have closed to me.  I desire peace, comfort and stability, yet I am surrounded with uncertainty, fear and solitude that leaves me dark and alone.  I know all things are possible through you.  I trust in you, the strong, the just, the omnipotent.  Grant me, dear Lord, an environment that I can call home.  A place where all who praise and serve you leave judgement to you alone and embrace others, regardless of their spiritual, sexual or political preference. Where it is safe to trust not only in You, but in our neighbors.  All my praise and peace is through You, the Lord! May I contribute to the world and reach all that you have made possible for me and my loved ones through social justice, communication, motivation and love for and in all communities.

God, I followed your call to this city and now this call is shifting under my feet These people you sent me to have continued to fight against your gospel They are hateful and ignorant of your people not-yet-gathered They sling “these people” and “those people” around to speak of the community. My desire is that you bring them to ruin. May they come to see the destruction of their sacred cows. Yet I trust that you are God-- gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in love, even for them. Prosper my ministry for your sake and even the evil for your good.

Come and hear the origins of my unhappiness, O God Know the sources of despair even I have not had time to understand. Know the sources of despair even I have not had time to understand. The foundations of my life are dysfunctional The communication of my community breaking down. My place of dwelling is unsettled The streets are spinning around me as I seek a place of comfort. You fight for the right of your people, O Lord, You energize your folks like tea. Communicate your plan for me Build me support in the workshop of your love. Do not disappoint me, my God, and leave me with radio silence.

Almighty God Bring us near to you. Can you not see your people suffering? Deliver us from this place to a place prepaid for us. Everyone here it's at odds, Ferocious beasts with only self-concern. Great are the challenges of your children. Homeless and unsettled, even in their own land. I suffer desolations so broadly, Just finding their source is impossible. Keen eyes cannot see their way from this. Long hours of work bring little reward. My own people have long since left me. Nowhere are allies to be found. Only calling to you, God, will bring me hope. Prayers in your name are all that I have. Quickly, I ask Respond to me. Say onto me, "To you I will give rest," "Unto my breast I will hold you." Verily, I ask you, When will you come to me? Exiled from my home Yearning to return to Zion, where I belong.

For all who suffer grief and weep for injustice, may you find comfort and hope in the form of lament.
Hands Up Don't Shoot
A depiction of Jesus as a resident of our neighborhood, the southside of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, created by Ana O'Keefe for an art show at Parables last Lent.

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