A Lamentable People
| Psalms 137
|Sun, October 4, 1998
Rev. Ed Searcy
|You'll agree that it is not the most appealing of titles for a book: "Lamentations". You can just imagine the editors at the publishing house urging a more 'upbeat' title ... something that will sell. Who is going to want to buy some funereal black covered book with the gloomy title: "Lamentations". It's no wonder that we learned to say: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want" instead of:
"How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! ...
She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks ...
The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals;
all her gates are desolate, her priests groan;
her young girls grieve, and her lot is bitter."
No one likes to sing dirges like this. We much prefer the 'upbeat' and the joyful. Life is dark and sad enough as it is without making it worse by reciting from 'Lamentations'. That is why our hymn book is full of hymns of praise and thanksgiving. It is why so many turn away from the old tradition of funerals. No more draping the casket in black. For that matter, no more casket ... period. And no more wearing black for a period of mourning. Few, if any, call it a 'funeral' anymore. It is instead a 'memorial service' or, in contemporary parlance, a 'celebration of life'. When planning the service the preacher is often asked to 'keep it upbeat please pastor'. By which the bereaved family intends: 'We don't want any funeral elegies, no dirges ... no lamentation, please'. Which means, I suppose, that after such a 'celebration of life' one could not say of the departed: 'I have such fond memories of your late lamented father' for there would have been no lament sung, no lamentations allowed. We are enmeshed in a culture which finds the expression of lament to be regrettable ... lamentable.
Yet the human need to lament ... our natural urge to express pain and sorrow with passion ... cannot be so easily erased. You leave the church after the carefully 'upbeat' 'celebration of life' with everything carefully in its place. Grief and loss seems under control. Until you turn on the car radio and hear the country singer with the wailing guitar and the plaintive lyrics. Or you stop at a pub and linger as a mournful singer plumbs the depths of the blues. Even an officially optimistic culture cannot eradicate 'hurting' songs. If institutions like church and state will not teach the children songs of lamentation then they will learn them on the street in the rhythms of rap. It is, of course, from the places of great pain and loss that songs of lament always arise. The blues grow out of the experience of slaves and former slaves who move from the despair of the Mississippi Delta to the hopelessness of ghettoes in Chicago. Country music tells the pain of coal miners and tenement farmers. Rap gives voice to the angry lament of youth trapped in an urban nightmare.
A nightmare. The Book of Lamentations arises out of a nightmare. Jerusalem has been destroyed. The Babylonian army has broken through the walls and routed the army of Judah. The smell of death is everywhere. Buildings have been torched. Innocent women and children have been murdered. The best and brightest have given their lives in Jerusalem's defence. For what? It is all gone. It is all over. And the Temple ... the Temple is in ruins. The holy of holies ... the sacred and glorious home of Israel's God on earth ... has been reduced to a heap of smouldering rubble. With the destruction of Jerusalem Israel has seen the end of all that it holds precious and dear: the end of its worship life ... the end of its legal system with its protections for the widow, the orphan and the refugee ... the end of a culture. An entire people on the verge of extinction. It is the kind of story that evokes strong emotions when you watch it on CNN ... until the announcer turns to an 'upbeat' story so that we can move on to other things. But there, in the ruins of Jerusalem, the people find the blues welling up within them ... and they begin to sing a 'hurting song' ... a lament:
"How lonely sits the city, that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations!
She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks;
among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her"
It is like the song that Jerusalem's lost children compose far away in Babylon ... like the lament which becomes the 137th Psalm:
"By the rivers of babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.
There on the willows we hung up our harps when our captors asked for us songs"
These lamentations, these songs of grief, are ours. They are available to us when we find the pain welling up from within. It is not necessary to leave this community in order to sing the blues ... or to offer God a 'hurtin' song'. Did you notice? The version of Psalm 137 which we just sang together is from, of all places, Latvia. The words were set to a traditional Latvian melody in 1964 by Ewald Bash. Recall the history of the Latvian church in this century ... a story of destruction and attempted extinction. Stalin was only the beginning of a concerted, consistent, determined attempt by the Soviets to destroy the Latvian Church. It is no surprise that the same Latvian Church sings the ancient psalms of lament. How trite our versions of the same song sound ... they come in the joyful Caribbean sounds of the top forties: 'By the rivers of Babylon where we sat down ...' The frothy music gives it away ... we even turn a lament into the sweet syrup of pop culture.
Well, maybe you have guessed where this sermon is going. It is entitled: "A Lamentable People". 'Oh, I get it', you think to yourself, 'a lament-able people ... a people who are able to lament. More than that, a people who teach their children the ancient laments.' And if that was your guess ... you were right ... almost. It is difficult not to look at the present reality facing our church without seeing images of loss and grief. A few of us represented University Hill at a gathering of seven United Churches, stretching from First United to St. Andrew's-Wesley to West Point Grey, last Tuesday evening. For two hours we heard each other describing the challenges facing our congregations. They are the challenges of an institution that is tottering. Everywhere there is the oppression of buildings that leak and no longer serve but that must be maintained. They become a metaphor for the entire edifice of the institutional church. And looming over everything is the frightening prospect of bearing the cost of responsibility for our role in the Indian Residential Schools. Like the ancient Temple, the great liberal denomination that our parents and grandparents built seems in real danger of catastrophic collapse. Don't misunderstand ... our version of the Temple still stands. We still are privileged to find home in this glorious chapel ... and in a theological school which enjoys not a 99 year but a 999 year lease from the government of BC. We do not yet stand in the ruins. But we may yet ... and we may yet be paying attention to the Book of Lamentations on more than just one Sunday out of every three years.
This sermon was moving in rather straight forward fashion towards the reclamation of Lamentations as a song for our time. It makes good pastoral sense, after all, to cry ... to express grief ... to lament. But then I read the entire Book of Lamentations. Yes, I made the mistake of reading beyond the assigned text for the day. Do you know what I found? I found a lot of anger ... rage, in fact. And do you know who this anger is directed towards? God, that's who. In fact, this is the dominant emphasis of these songs of lament: God is the one who is to blame ... God is the one who has "destroyed without mercy" (Lam. 2:2). And God is the one who must be called to account:
"Look, O Lord, and consider! To whom have you done this?
Should women eat their offspring, the children they have borne
Should priest and prophet be killed in the sanctuary of the Lord? (Lam. 2:20)
This is more than just an elegy or a dirge. This is not just 'Nearer My God to Thee' or 'Breathe on me Breath of God' sung at a snail's pace. This is lamentation with a bite. This is grief that is full of rage. This is not the kind of psalm we like to sing ... least of all here. It's the taboo that we learned in Sunday School a long time ago: good children don't scream at God. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann tells of an occasion when a matronly group of Southern Presbyterian women were asked to "draw their anger" on a piece of paper. As the women cautiously began to pick up their crayons to draw their anger a tight-lipped voice snapped across the room: "I don't git angry". As Brueggemann notes, she was a good Presbyterian. Presbyterians don't get angry ... because they only sing the Psalms of praise and thanksgiving. They never learn the songs of lament. As for Methodists, says Brueggemann, they too don't get angry with God because they don't sing the psalms at all. And the Anglicans? Oh, they say all the psalms alright - including the laments - but they say them so quickly and pay them so little heed that no one knows what they are saying anyways. They, too, treat God with kid gloves. We have learned our lessons well. "We don't git angry" with God. But the tone in our voices ... and the pain in our lives ... gives us away. The anger is still there ... beneath the veneer of praise to God.
Why? Why is there so much pain? This is the question that haunts General Romeo D'Aillard of the Canadian Armed Forces. He is the general who led our peace keeping forces in Rwanda ... and who, years later, still cannot get the smell of death out of his nostrils ... who is still haunted by the nightmare every day. Last week he went on stress leave ... much to the disapproval of high ranking officers who assume that it is a sign of weakness to lament. In truth, lamentation is a sign of strength. Those who have the courage to risk lamenting the sorry state of their life ... of the church ... of this world ... open themselves to the possibility that songs of lament will be heard. The blues singer sings to others ... others who share the blues ... others who form community and offer healing to one another. The lamentable people of Jerusalem and the lonely people in Babylon ... sing their songs of sorrow and of anger to God. They sing to God because, if the truth be told, they still trust in God. The very fact that they bother to shake their fists at the heavens reminds them that they still believe that God will surely hear such pain and that God must answer such accusations. Perhaps you noticed ... noticed that in the very heart of the Book of Lamentations ... right in the midst of all the anger and pain comes a statement of faith which has spawned not one but two classic hymns:
"The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness." (Lam. 3:21-22)
Jeremiah had berated the people of Jerusalem for their trite hymns of faith in God. They had trusted that God would surely protect their beloved institutions ... and culture ... and way of life. They had, in fact, come to trust not in God but in the institutions which they had constructed ... and in the way of life which they had built. Now, in the ruins of that world they discover to their abiding amazement that faith is welling up within the community. Not faith in the permanence of the Temple. Not faith in the rightness of their nation ... or of their way of life. Now, when they are angered by the absence of God's grace, they discover a newfound trust in the tender mercies of God. Poet Julie Howard describes an experience of the same trust ... a discovery of the same God ... when she says of the Holy One:
"In the lapses in my breathing, in the space between my ways, in the crater carved by sadness, you are there.
"In the empty cave of grieving, in the desert of my dreams, in the tunnel of my sorrow, you are there, you are there."
(Voices United #278)
May your lament ... may our deep sadness ... may the world's righteous anger
be received and healed by the One who is there ... and who is here.