Blue Christmas Lament
Rev. Caroline Lawson Dean
November 27, 2016
Reader #1: Our reading today is from the book of Lamentations Chapter 3.
Reader #2: During the period of Babylonian rule, King Nebuchadnezzar burned down the city of Jerusalem, including the sacred Temple, the house of God. The king sent most of the population of the people of Israel into exile in Babylon, leaving only the poor to till the land and keep the vineyards.
Reader #1: The poems of the book of Lamentations are written from the perspective of those who stayed behind grieving, in their city of ruins.
Reader #2: A reading from Lamentations Chapter 3:
Reader #1: “I am the one who has known affliction under the rod of God’s wrath. God has brought me into darkness without light.
Against me, God alone turns God’s hand, again and again all day long.
God has broken my teeth on gravel, God has ground me into the dust
My soul is bereft of peace, I forget what happiness is. My strength and hope have perished.
To recall my distress and my homelessness is wormwood & poison.
Whenever I think of them, my soul is bowed down within me.
*Is it nothing to you, all of you who pass by? Look & see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow*
Reader #2: But this I call to mind and therefore I have hope.
The kindness, the steadfast love, of God never runs out.
God’s mercies never come to an end.
They are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness oh God.
The Lord is my portion, I say with full heart; therefore I will hope in God.
The Lord is good to those who trust in him. The Lord is good to the one who seeks her.”
Let us pray: God of sorrow and God of mercy breaking in each day. We ask that you would guide us as we hold these tensions in our lives. And through all of these things may we grow in faith & in love we pray – by the power of your Spirit and in the name of your Son – Amen.
This is the first day of Advent. Which is also the first day in our new church year. We begin our church calendar with the birth of Jesus, & we prepare for the birth of Jesus in the season of Advent. So today we are celebrating a New Year in the life of our beloved church! In our culture, when we think of a New Year, we think of resolutions, hope, new beginnings, & new chances. In fact! Lamentations Chapter three is a perfect sentiment for our New Year. The poet writes, “God’s mercies are new every morning!” Go out, capture that newness in your life! Begin again!
But instead of celebrating the new church year with resolutions, at Christ Church we begin our new year with a ritual of lament. We pause to honor, to remember those whom we will miss this sacred season. The holidays bring to life the cherished memories that make us smile, right alongside the memories that break our hearts open in grief again this year. And for those of us who are grieving a fresh loss, personally or a communally, the holidays can put pressure on those wounds in ways that feel torturous.
And so at the beginning of this church year, we take time to lament, to release some of those tensions. Grief is complicated. We pause to honor family members or friends who have passed on. We also gather to honor our grief around the loss of a job or a dream, lost community, or the loss of home, a sense of safety.
We pause to honor the great love that undergirds our grief. Dr. Martin Luther King writes, “Where there is great disappointment there is great love.” If you read the five poems of the book of Lamentations – you see just under the surface of the grief – the poet’s great love & commitment to God, to the people of Israel, to their sacred way of life.
The author of the book of Lamentations certainly plumbs the depths of lament. The poet grieves the loss of the sacred city of Jerusalem. Perhaps more importantly, the poet laments the loss of the Temple – the central place of worship for the people of Israel – the holy space to meet with and worship God. The poet’s sacred connections with the people of Israel and with God are now severed.
In Lamentations we find, verse after verse of grueling grief & painful embodied suffering. Imagine the people of Israel, those who are left behind in their ruined city, gathered at the site of the destroyed Temple. Imagine the poet’s tears, “We are the ones who have known affliction. God has driven us into darkness without light, God has broken our teeth on gravel, ground us into the dust. To recall our pain is like taking poison, our souls are bowed down within us.” The message of Lamentations is that sometimes when life hits you hard with suffering, it is okay to almost lose hope, it’s okay to be angry at God, it okay to feel deeply and to do so for a long time.
And yet, when I read Lamentations Chapter three, I get a bit of literary whiplash. How can the poet make such strong statements of loss & magnified suffering right alongside a powerful declaration of faith in God’s mercies, new every morning?
In this tension between lament & hope I wonder, what is the difference between clinging to real hope in the midst of deep despair & jumping a bit too quickly to shallow optimism? How can we tell the difference between true hope & positive framing as a form of denial or emotional suppression? Can what feels like a superficial platitude to one person truly provide some healing and hope for another? How can we face suffering with faith in God who is bigger than our pain, while also honoring the depth of our suffering?
On our search for what I like to call “gritty hope,” we must begin with the depth of lament. If you do a quick research online or in old divinity school textbooks, the book of Lamentations doesn’t get much airtime. And if Lamentations gets any attention, theologians & scholars usually focus on this third chapter, particularly verses 21 to 26, “The steadfast love of God never ceases, God’s mercies are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness oh God!”
Now we often read a verse on its own merit & don’t get me wrong there are some beautiful passages in the Bible that can stand alone. This however, is not one of them. And I should say that every biblical text is more poignant when you dig deeper into the storyline. The context of this beautiful image of God’s mercies that dawn anew with each new day, is one of the greatest moments of loss in the history of the Jewish tradition.
The book of Lamentations has 154 verses and of those verses, 6 of them are hopeful. And these verses are beautiful but, when we lose lament as the context for this statement of faith, we minimize the depth of pain that make these lyrics what they are: a true miracle.
“I believe in the Sun, even when it’s not shining. I believe in Love even when I don’t feel it. I believe in God, even when God is silent.” These are beautiful lyrics. They stand alone in their power & yet when you know the context – this poem is testament of “gritty hope.” These lyrics were inscribed on the wall of the basement of a Cathedral in France during World War II, a basement which sheltered Jewish families.
I don’t always know the difference between false optimism & true hope but in this case it is apparent that if you read either of these poems out of context – you miss the grit, the depth of courage.
So what are we missing when we skip over lament in the Bible? Perhaps more importantly what do we miss when we skip over the times of lament in our own lives? What if there is something beautiful on the underside of lament & when we numb or suppress our pain we are also missing out on something transformative?
Glennon Doyle Melton writes in her best-selling memoir, “Carry On Warrior”, “You have been offered ‘the gift of crisis’….the Greek root of the word crisis is ‘to sift,’ as in, to shake out the excess and leave only what is important. That’s what crises do. The shake things up until we are forced to hold on to only what matters most. The rest falls away.”
After the fall of the Temple, the people of Israel are forced to recalibrate. They have to sort through their practices, their identity, their way of life to create something new. They adapt their way of life to their new reality in exile, to the reality worship without a physical Temple, apart from their sacred land.
When we allow space for seasons of lament in our lives, this pain can reorient us around what we love. Loss can be like an earthquake, shaking the foundations that hold us up, such that the rest of our lives have to shift around the fault line of this pain. And yet the beautiful part of this “sifting” and this “shifting” is that we have the opportunity to let go of the things that do not serve us and we can return to our true self. In these times we can reorient our new self around God, who, it turns out has been here all along. And when we find God in our suffering, we remember that God knows the depths of suffering & pain. Even in Advent, we remember that Holy Saturday between Good Friday & Easter, when the disciples wept, when God was dead. You see the new hope of Easter resurrection, doesn’t quite impact us, unless we have had the courage to feel the pain of the suffering “Holy Saturday.”
So the first beautiful gift of seasons of lament is that they can remind us what is important in our lives, drawing us closer to our true selves & to God. The second gift of lamentations is that we can reconnect with each other.
When we allow ourselves to fully feel the pain of grief – often – one of the lies that compounds our grief, is the lie that whispers to us in dark places, “You are alone.” The poet writes in Lamentations Chapter 1, “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look & see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow.”
But one of the gifts of lament is that often, we cannot do it alone. “We literally need each other to survive.” When we allow our grief to shatter our illusions of how independent, how isolated we are, we wake up and we find each other. We find the friends who will walk through the fires with us. And friends forged in the fires are sacred friends. When we reach out to connect during our grief, we can discover a perspective larger than our own. If we are lucky we can even find others, who have suffered in similar arenas, who know some of the depth of our pain, and their words of hope are like balm for our wounds.
The author of the book of Ecclesiastes shares this wisdom, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). God’s mercies are new every morning & also there is nothing new under the sun. There is nothing new about the evil in our world, about suffering, about the pain of loss – this is a part of the human experience & God has been here before. You are not alone! When you can hold your grief alongside the grief of others, alongside the expansive & ancient love of God, there is some respite, that you can help you make it through.
The third, and perhaps most poignant gift of lament is that our grief can galvanize us to create something beautiful, something meaningful forged in the depths of our pain. The poet of the book of Lamentations embodies the suffering of Israel in the form of a poem. In our English translations we cannot see the full beauty of these poems because they are written in acrostic format. Each line begins with a corresponding letter of the Hebrew alphabet, moving us from “A to Z” so to speak. This is a beautiful image because it’s as if the poet is setting limits, forming some sort of order in the midst of chaotic grief. The poet freely expresses while also channeling grief. Acrostics in the biblical tradition symbolize a sense of completion, a sense that a topic has been exhausted. Now, there are certain types of grief that we carry with us always, & terms like the word “closure” will never feel quite right around certain losses. But there are also a million ways that we make meaning & even beauty out of our pain. We go on road trips, we paint, we organize, we mobilize to help others who are suffering, we sing, we pray, we write poetry. Maybe if you avoid the pain of your season of grief, you also miss out on the opportunity to create something beautiful.
And so beloved, I ask of us – are we a place where it is safe to bring the full force of our lament? Do we practice a kind of “gritty hope,” a hope that can fully see and allow space for suffering, while still proclaim that God’s mercies are new every morning? Shallow remedies can minimize the depth of lament. Will we be a place that honors complexity and mystery in grief?
Lastly, Can we hear lament from folks who are different from us? The suffering of refugees, of poor folks, of people of color? Can we hear the suffering of the transgender teen who is living in fear? Can we hear the lament of our beloved friends & colleagues of other faiths & traditions? Can we let these laments reorient us? Can we “sift” and “shift” to create a place for the grieving ones in our midst? Will we actively work to decrease the suffering of these dear ones? So that no matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.
And so beloved let us go out with courage to speak our own lament & courage to listen to the laments others, particularly the grief of communities & individuals who are different from us. May we seek the kind of hope that sees clearly, avoiding temptation to suppress truth or depth of feeling. And may we practice the kind of lament that trusts that there is something bigger, that the depth of pain is important and also that it is not the only reality that guides us. Above all may we have courage during the dark night of the soul, to proclaim with hope that “God’s mercies are new every morning!” Amen.
Jan Richardson writes this beautiful poem entitled: “The Healing That Comes:”
I know how long
you have been waiting
for your story to take
a different turn,
you have gone in search
of what will mend you
and make you whole.
I bear no remedy,
for the easing
of your pain.
But I know
that lives in a story
that has been
the healing that comes
to hide ourselves away
with fingers clutched
around the fragments
we think are
See how they fit together,
we have been carrying:
how piece to piece
they make a way
we could not