LentArt: In Despair

Perhaps it is a feature of my personality and my struggle with depression, but for a long time I have believed and said to anyone willing to listen (including those who have been long term readers of this blog) that Christianity has done its adherents a disservice in ignoring that deep well of spirituality within Judaism described as “lament”. The upbeat rhythms of Christian worship, not just the modern product but going back to Moody and Sankey and before, has overwhelmingly sold the idea of “victorious Christian living” and to advocate anything else has often been decried as betraying a lack of faith (there are exceptions such as the Rend Collective’s “Weep with me” from a couple of years ago, but they are few and far between). Yet that is to ignore much of the Psalms and indeed the entire book of “Lamentations…” But recently an interview and article by N.T Wright has been widely shared and lauded on social media saying much the same as I (and other much more important but less popular theologians) have been saying for years… so if Tom Wright says it, it must be true! 

The lectionary reading that prompted today’s #LentArt post is taken from that aforementioned book of “Lamentations.” As I said, it is largely ignored in Christian circles except for a couple of verses earlier in chapter 3 that are unusually upbeat in this 5 chapter litany of doom, misery and despair.
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.” 
The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; 
it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. 
Lamentations 3:22-26 (NIV) 

I and many others frequently use these words at the beginning of funeral services and they were the inspiration for Thomas Chisholm’s “Great is thy faithfulness.” But I doubt than many, if any Christian hymns have been inspired by the verses later in chapter 3 that are today’s Lectionary reading 
I called on your name, Lord, from the depths of the pit. 
You heard my plea: “Do not close your ears to my cry for relief.” 
You came near when I called you, and you said, “Do not fear.” 
You, Lord, took up my case; you redeemed my life. 
Lord, you have seen the wrong done to me. Uphold my cause! 
You have seen the depth of their vengeance, all their plots against me. 
Lord, you have heard their insults, all their plots against me— 
what my enemies whisper and mutter against me all day long. 
Look at them! Sitting or standing, they mock me in their songs. 
Pay them back what they deserve, Lord, for what their hands have done. 
Put a veil over their hearts, and may your curse be on them! 
Pursue them in anger and destroy them from under the heavens of the Lord. 
Lamentations 3:55-66 (NIV) 

This part of Lamentations is slightly different from the rest of the book insofar as it is a personal lament, whilst the book as a whole is seen as a lament on behalf of the nation in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem following the Babylonian invasion (we can get into a discussion of who wrote Lamentations and when at another point when I actually care!). But at this point in the book the lament gets personal. And in any national or even international crisis, such as the one we are living through, our personal feelings, experiences and perspectives can, at times overwhelm any feeling of solidarity with others. That’s what produces the “survival of the fittest” mindset that leads to inappropriate hoarding (or the more evocative “hamstering” as I am told they call it in German and Dutch). It can also lead us to fixating on smaller personal hurts in the midst of much larger issues, and indeed seeing global issues through the lens of disruption to a relatively privileged western lifestyle. Whilst I obsess about bandwidth for Zoom meetings, and the effect of repeated handwashing on my pampered skin, there are those in refugee camps in Bangladesh and elsewhere anticipating cataclysmic deathtolls, because there is no prospect of finding sufficient water for handwashing and social distancing is an impossible luxury. 

The painting I posted today, Matt Talbert’s “Distress” could easily be me, although actually, I am in fairly good fettle at present. But it does look like it is someone from my socio-economic/cultural background. And whilst the current crisis is affecting Europe and the USA disproportionately at present, for a variety of reasons, in the long term it may be the global poor who are most radically affected. Indeed the only protection they may have is the lack of global mobility within many developing nations. 

But this painting is one of a series Matt Talbert has painted that specifically portray emotions, and in many ways could have been used to illustrate yesterday’s reading from Psalm 31:9-16, one of the aforementioned laments, where the Psalmist explicitly says “I am in distress; my eyes grow weak with sorrow… my strength fails because of my affliction…” 

Today’s reading from Lamentations in some ways picks up where yesterday’s Psalm leaves off. The writer acknowledges that he was in a place of distress, “the depths of the pit.” But God has apparently heard his prayer, and the writer has also heard God saying “Do not fear” as many Christian commentators have been at pains to remind us in recent weeks. But now the writer wants God to sort out those who were to blame for his affliction: 

“ Uphold my cause!... Pay them back what they deserve, Lord, for what their hands have done.” 

Indeed they go so far as to say “may your curse be on them! Pursue them in anger and destroy them from under the heavens of the Lord.” 

Now, much though I advocate the incorporation of lament into Christian liturgy, I really can’t see Keith Getty or Matt Redman putting that to music… at least I really hope not. Because we live in the light of Christ and his teaching. In his commentary on the law, which might also apply to laments like these from the Jewish "Writings" he said 
“I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” 
Matthew 5: 44-45 (NIV) 

However, what this lament and those in the Psalms encourages us to do is be honest in our dialogue with God… If we are to love our enemies as Christ commands, we are going to need his help… and whilst he knows how we really feel, because there is no fooling him, it would do us a lot of psychological and spiritual good to express how we really feel to God rather than bottling it all up… Indeed in another online reflection for Corrymeela members that I listened to today Jenny Meegan reminded people of the words of former Corrymeela Leader and friend David Stevens, in encouraging people to read the more difficult laments in Psalms and elsewhere unedited because of the importance of remembering that God is big enough to deal with our rawest emotions. 

There is also a tendency to want to point the finger at someone for all that we are experiencing, be that by blaming those in charge including various political leaders, usually defined by our pre-determined prejudices, or by scapegoating others, be that foreigners who brought this “Chinese virus” to our shores, or even, as someone claimed this week on Radio Ulster, those who advocated liberalising abortion and equality laws regarding marriage bringing God’s judgement upon us. Scapegoating of any kind is always wrong, and in this latter case is the result of the worst kind of theology, that pays no attention to the words of Jesus I quoted above. But even when it comes to blaming those in charge, there is a time and a place for that, and I’m not sure we are in that time and place yet. I’m not convinced by the leadership of some in this province, the UK and especially not the USA. But me tapping out my disapproval on my keyboard isn’t going to make a jot of a difference at present, except insofar as I ask appropriate questions of those who are elected to represent me and trust in them to do their jobs. And pray for those in power, of course and I together with others across Ireland will be praying for our leaders and those in the front line of this crisis tomorrow afternoon between 3 and 4 pm following the call to prayer by the leaders of the 4 larger churches and the Irish Council of Churches and others. 

This lament also holds within it that desire for a saviour to come in on the back of a white horse (or donkey) and rescue us. That was there in the post-exilic hope for a Messiah that found expression in what we will remember in tomorrow’s Palm Sunday celebrations… They were expecting someone to arrive and make everything alright… including settling scores with their oppressors… 

But let’s remember that that is not quite what happened… There is actually more lamenting to come… 

PRAYER (from a song entitled “Lament” by Nicole Schleicher (1997) frequently sung by my friend Diane Holt) 

O Lord the God who saves me,
Day and night I cry to you.
My words fly out into the air
Seemingly unanswered.
Why are you so silent?
Why so little comfort
As I fall into the pit again
Deep into the pit again?

Darkness is my only friend.
When will all this suffering end.
Fear consumes me and I try
To stumble to the distant light.
Where are you Lord, in the sadness?
Where are you when I feel so alone?
I try to find you, where are you hiding?
I can’t make any sense of the pain I’m in.
My tears are my food all day and night
And I’m running out of strength to fight.
Father God please carry me on your shoulders.
Take me through the valley to the other side.

Where are you Lord, in the sadness?
Where are you when I feel so alone?
I try to find you, where are you hiding?
I can’t make any sense of the pain I’m in.
I have to trust you, there is no-one else 
But I struggle in my weaknesses. 
Father God please carry me on your shoulders.
Take me through this valley to the other side. 



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