in praise of mourning

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

Matthew 5:4; NRSVue

“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.

“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.

Luke 6:21b, 25b; NRSVue

We all have to be careful, and I’m thinking especially of myself, because we can easily try to contradict something which actually in its place is quite true. Even while we too may be making a valid point. We may well be talking past each other, myself addressing something which really has nothing to do with what I think I might be correcting.

So there’s indeed need for people who are depressed, down, in despair, easily emotional, given to weeping to get professional help from a counselor, maybe a psychologist or psychiatrist, and perhaps to get medical help as well. There’s no shame in that. It can be not only the right thing to do, but absolutely necessary. Let there be no doubt about that.

I have gone down that course before, and it did help. But the meds had their side effects, and I thought I would rather be in my old normal state of kind of feeling down much of the time, and sometimes pretty depressed, though never to the point that I couldn’t carry on every day with everything, though that could make challenging times seem harder. I have never been diagnosed as being depressed.

At the same time, I’m wondering if we’re of a disposition nowadays to think that if we’re down, then we’re out. Do we have to feel good much of the time, maybe all the time, that serotonin kicking in? Yes, again you and I down the road might need special help. We must never ever give into despair. If we’re even heading that direction, then we need special help.

At the same time to lament over the world at large, and over our own world with the troubles people face, the intractable difficulties we ourselves face, along with the brokenness all around us in evil, danger and death, that is very much a Biblical response to life. There is nothing wrong with not feeling good at times, and in mourning. Yes, there’s “a time to weep and a time to laugh” (Ecclesiastes 3:4). Yes, we do need some good belly laughs.

But by and large I think and feel that it’s not only okay, but good to be down given the brokenness of this world, of our present existence. As we see in the passages, Jesus said such is blessed by God. When we’re down we’re more prone to look up in prayers to God. We can tend to become more dependent on God, and less on ourselves, less even on circumstances. It can be a part of a needed humbling.

May the Lord give us all the wisdom we need. May we see sorrow, lament, and weeping as a gift from God. God’s comfort and peace even sense of joy helping us in all of this. In and through Jesus.

hardness of heart is not beyond us

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.

James 4:7-10; NRSVue

It’s easy to think that our hearts are always alright before God. Maybe not altogether because of “small” deviations during a day, but generally speaking, okay, because of God’s grace given to us in Jesus. And while we’ve been given a new heart in Jesus, that never automatically means that we’re in the clear and no longer have to consider what’s in our heart.

We can get carried away into something which is not helpful, we can set our hearts on many things other than on what we’re directed to in scripture, such as God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, things above, on the Lord himself. And shockingly enough, hardness of heart is not only all too common, but surely by and large endemic in us. I’m not saying an entirely hard heart, though that might happen along the way. But a hardness in the heart, so that it’s not altogether soft before God.

Interestingly those who have experienced hardness of heart to a most significant extent, can well end up among those who have the softest most sensitive heart (Psalm 51). We might try to paint on a nice smile, do the right things, and yet our heart betrays us, not only giving us away, but affecting all we do. What we need is not just a change of conduct, but a change of heart.

James tells us that we’re responsible for this; God isn’t just going to do it for us. Of course, it’s only through God and God’s grace given to us in Christ that we can do this. And it’s not a snap of the finger, one time act, either. It surely is a process of repentance and doing like what James tells us in the above scripture. To lament, grieve, yes, even purify our hearts, getting rid of that which is wrong, whatever it might be, and seeking to put on love. The Spirit is present to help us in this, but this must become a part of who we are, that we’re a person given to having a heart as God intended it to be. In and through Jesus.

sometimes you can only endure (and that’s it)

You have heard of the endurance of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.

James 5:11b; NRSVue

If you read the book of Job, you’re not going to find a patient Job. Job was arguably and I think accurately impatient with both God and Job’s friends. And one possible reading of Job is that he holds out to the very end, not necessarily impressed with God’s answer (Pete Enns on Job). There is more than one way to read Job, and in Jewish tradition, that is normal. And we might even say there’s an openness to it in the Christian tradition through Lectio Divina and perhaps in other ways.

When it gets right down to it, there may be days and times that one has to endure, trudge and even grind their way through. You endure in the sense that you keep doing what you have to do, trying to always be loving and right in what you do. And just keep doing that. Or maybe like in the case of Job, the pain is so excruciating and the loss so hurtful, that you can only cry out in painful lament, while not letting go of faith, enduring as far as faith is concerned.

Job was declared right in the end, and his orthodox correct friends wrong, which is interesting (note link to Enns above). God is revealed in Christ, unbroken by the way in that God is fully present in Christ, and not somehow absent at the cross as if the Trinity could be divided. God takes on God’s Self all of our wrong, every bit of it, and turns that into forgiveness through death and the new life which follows. God endured in Christ too, out of love. And in that love, we too are often called to simply endure. Endure, endure and endure again. Especially during most difficult seasons, but day after day as well. In and through Jesus.

singing in church

O come, let us sing to the Lord;
let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!
For the Lord is a great God,
and a great King above all gods.
In his hand are the depths of the earth;
the heights of the mountains are his also.
The sea is his, for he made it,
and the dry land, which his hands have formed.

O come, let us worship and bow down,
let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!
For he is our God,
and we are the people of his pasture,
and the sheep of his hand.

Psalm 95:1-7a

One thing among others which should characterize any gathering of God’s people as church is simply singing together. Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, as Paul put it (Ephesians 5:19). To sing is mentioned over and over again in the Bible, note especially the psalms and the last book, Revelation.

There are various types of songs and hymns. Songs of worship, praise, along with lament. Songs of testimony to God’s faithfulness. Special songs for such seasons as Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent and Easter. And down to earth songs, expressing ourselves honestly and fully before God.

Ongoing singing takes commitment along with effort. I am not really a singing person myself, though if you get me into a congregation that is singing, then I’ll join in. And I’m not thinking of the big- what comes across to me oftentimes as productions of bands revving it up, hopefully not too loud, with large screens, and people moving and swaying to the rhythm, hands uplifted, tears in some eyes, and some singing. That’s okay, probably with real good. But instead, I’m thinking about simple singing together, yes, even from hymnbooks, with or without instrumentation preferably both. 

This is something I really haven’t given sufficient attention to over the years, and have not practiced much at all, certainly not enough. But part of what is given to us for our good, both individually in our lives, and corporately together. In and through Jesus.

 

lament is good

Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.

James 4:8b-10

Lament is found all over Scripture, and prominent in some places, an entire book named Lamentations. We think of the Psalms as songs of praise, but lament is found over and over again in them.

We naturally would like to avoid it, wanting instead to feel good, relax and enjoy, smile inside and out, and lift up our voices and hearts in praise to God. And that’s all good in its place. But we live in a world in which this a luxury for many. Yes, the humble poor can find their joy in God, but it doesn’t lessen the reality they face and live in day after day. We need to weep with those who weep, to pray and help in some substantial way.

And then there’s our own circumstances and lives. We can’t undo the past, and we can’t get rid of present obligations and concerns. All of this can weigh so heavily on us. Often a proper response is lament. To call out to God in our weariness and suffering. Certainly to repent of our sins. Remembering the promise of Jesus:

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

Matthew 5:4

rejoicing all the time?

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!

Philippians 4:4

Lament is a missing word in our vocabulary. I remember once leading a short devotional time on Psalm 88, and asking everyone if they thought it might apply to us today. They didn’t think so. I think it does.  So what’s up when Paul tells us more than once in this letter, and others elsewhere in Scripture to rejoice in God, to rejoice in the Lord, no matter what?

It is helpful that Paul gives it as something we’re to do. It’s not something he’s saying we’re caught up into, though that certainly may occur. It is part of the attitude we’re to adopt as Christ followers. Instead of groveling, being down in the mouth over difficulties, we choose to do something. Notice I didn’t say feel different. There’s nothing we can do directly to change our feelings, though what we do can indirectly result in our feelings being changed, given some time. We simply do something. We rejoice, and we rejoice in God.

Some do this loud and often, others like me don’t. Or depending on what we’re doing, we rejoice in the Lord under our breath. This is an important starting point for us, if we’re to live in the life God has for us in Christ. And it doesn’t mean we don’t sorrow or lament. Quite the contrary. If you return to the Psalms, unlike the Psalm mentioned above, you’ll notice that the psalms of lament and complaint are mixed with praise to God. As Paul wrote elsewhere, “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10a).

Something I’m working on, that helps lift my spirits when I’m weighed down with trouble. In and through Jesus.

the dangers and possibilities of each new day

Listen to my words, Lord,
consider my lament.
Hear my cry for help,
my King and my God,
for to you I pray.

In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice;
in the morning I lay my requests before you
and wait expectantly.

Psalm 5:1-3

Listen, God! Please, pay attention!
Can you make sense of these ramblings,
my groans and cries?
King-God, I need your help.
Every morning
you’ll hear me at it again.
Every morning
I lay out the pieces of my life
on your altar
and watch for fire to descend.

Psalm 5:1-3; MSG

We as humans are very experiential creatures. And the psalms are lock stocked with the language and sentiment of experience. We often go from lows to highs and then back to lows. Some of us experience this quite pronounced, others of us not that much variation, and probably most of the rest of us somewhere in between.

Psalm 5 is a good passage to remind us how to start each day. I think both the evening before we go to sleep, and the morning when we arise are important in how we do this. To read Scripture, maybe a liturgical prayer book for night (Compline) is good. To arise and be in Scripture and prayer, morning prayer and reading is good. We can’t take for granted that a good day at least in how it worked out will carry over into the next day.

It’s not about us having a good time, and that’s it. Instead it’s about living in God’s grace and all that means in terms of forgiveness of sins and new life, and having the vision to see what God might have us do, or be pleased to help us do in the new day. And even if it’s just filled with the routines of what we have to do, to do that in the breath and love of God.

At any rate, for some of us this is a matter almost of survival, at least of experiencing and living out this salvation from God well. Growing in that. So we have to take this seriously. Every day is God’s and for us that’s a good and ultimately happy prospect. We bring ourselves to God each new day, and look to God for his answer and help to us. In and through Jesus.

avoid angry people, or becoming an angry person

Don’t hang out with angry people;
don’t keep company with hotheads.
Bad temper is contagious—
don’t get infected.

Proverbs 22:24-25; MSG

We live in an angry time. Actually it has been building up for years, and now is in danger of even violent release in too many places, some of that violence seeping out already. And it’s not like there’s nothing to be angry about. If we’re not angry about some things, then we need to get a checkup to see whether or not we’re human, and I mean human in a good way, in the way God intended us to be. But at the same time, since we still do struggle with sin, having not arrived yet into full likeness to Christ, we need to keep a strict check on our anger. We’re to be slow to become angry remembering as James tells us, that our anger does not bring about the righteousness God desires.

We do well to avoid angry people, not hanging around them. We also need to stop being angry people ourselves, or becoming that way. There are outlets in our culture in which people are basically angry, strident in their anger. It’s what seems to characterize them. It’s an anger couched in arrogance. When we humans do this, we’re moving well beyond what we can actually do well and legitimately as humans. We better leave what only the God who is love can do well, and humbly let our anger move us in profitable directions such as lament and good works of love, as well as prayer.

I can get angry easily over some things, like one particular machine at work. I need to turn that anger into an attitude of seeking the good that can come from the problem, particularly in my own formation as a Jesus follower in becoming like him. The last thing we need to do is become known for our anger. If we don’t want to hang out with angry people, but hopefully influence them in love, then we don’t want people to want to avoid us for the same reason.

Anger puts us in dangerous territory. We’re not to let the day end remaining angry because we give the devil a foothold in our lives. No, anger is too hot for us to handle. We need to grasp it, and let it go. Finding what God would have us do instead. Together with others likeminded in and through Jesus.

the need for repentance and lament

O Israel, come back! Return to your God!
You’re down but you’re not out.
Prepare your confession
and come back to God.
Pray to him, “Take away our sin,
accept our confession.
Receive as restitution
our repentant prayers.
Assyria won’t save us;
horses won’t get us where we want to go.
We’ll never again say ‘our god’
to something we’ve made or made up.
You’re our last hope. Is it not true
that in you the orphan finds mercy?”

“I will heal their waywardness.
I will love them lavishly. My anger is played out.
I will make a fresh start with Israel.
He’ll burst into bloom like a crocus in the spring.
He’ll put down deep oak tree roots,
he’ll become a forest of oaks!
He’ll become splendid—like a giant sequoia,
his fragrance like a grove of cedars!
Those who live near him will be blessed by him,
be blessed and prosper like golden grain.
Everyone will be talking about them,
spreading their fame as the vintage children of God.
Ephraim is finished with gods that are no-gods.
From now on I’m the one who answers and satisfies him.
I am like a luxuriant fruit tree.
Everything you need is to be found in me.”

If you want to live well,
make sure you understand all of this.
If you know what’s good for you,
you’ll learn this inside and out.
God’s paths get you where you want to go.
Right-living people walk them easily;
wrong-living people are always tripping and stumbling.

Hosea 14; MSG

Hosea, like all of the Old Testament prophets (called a “Minor Prophet”, the first of twelve of them only because of the relative shortness of the writing) is not a light lift. You see at the outset that God calls Israel, the northern kingdom to whom Hosea was writing, “a whorehouse” (1:2; MSG). To read or listen to it, one ends up in quite an interplay between God’s exposure of Israel’s sin and its ugliness, what that means to God, along with the pronouncement of God’s judgment on them. Back and forth with different imagery, but by and large in terms of Israel having been married to God, but departing from him for other lovers. It is not pretty or comfortable, and we do well to not rush to the end of the book, until we’ve at least taken in all that was said before.

The prophets really don’t mince words, and some of what they say is indeed frightening, and abhorrent at least to our ears. The prophets like Hosea call us back to God, away from our sin, and the idols we so easily embrace in our lives. John ends his first letter warning his dear children to keep themselves from idols (1 John 5:21).

What the prophets call God’s people to, each and everyone of us, is repentance and lament. God wants us to listen, to catch something of God’s longing for us, and to respond in openness to God’s call. We can’t break our own hearts, they are often so hard to begin with. We want broken hearts, but the only way toward that is an openness to repentance and lament. Repentance has the idea of stopping what we’re doing, where we’re going, turning around and facing God, and coming back just as we are, in all our failure and guilt. Lament is the idea of brokenness before God. It was accompanied in the Old Testament and beyond by one ripping their garment, and dressing up in sackcloth and ashes, with loud cries. That could all be show, just as Hosea says in this letter, but God wants us to come to take his words seriously. Not for someone else, but for ourselves. A word for us together, but one in which each of us shares in the sin.

This is a necessary call to us from Scripture, from the prophets. They are not condemning at all. You can see that when you note the end of Hosea’s prophecy quoted above. God is always longing and determined after judgment to fully restore. God in love wants humans for himself, and wants them also to live in that love with each other. Something for us today, just as in Hosea’s time. In and through Jesus.

hope in the midst of despair

I remember my affliction and my wandering,
the bitterness and the gall.
I well remember them,
and my soul is downcast within me.
Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.”

In the midst of chaos and rubble; humiliation, loss and darkness many of Israel were experiencing and had experienced- and one has to read this book to realize and more than shudder at the full impact, at what actually happened- well in the midst of all that, we have this great word of hope. Yes, actually kind of sandwiched in between despair.

We can be assured of God’s faithfulness in terms of goodness, no matter what. Even if we experience setbacks and loss and even if our sin was a factor in that, we can still have hope. Why? Because of God’s merciful love, because of God’s great faithfulness.

God wants to put us on track. But that doesn’t mean we might not have to walk through some difficult spaces. God is at work in all of that, somehow for good, if we’ll only trust him through it all.

Lamentations is indeed a book of lament. Needed lament, and we need to learn to lament. See the psalms and elsewhere, as well. Pouring out our hearts and minds to God, being silent. While also remembering God’s great faithfulness. God is for us, even when we and others have failed, and are living in the fallout of that. And God is faithful. We can be assured of that. In and through Jesus.