Joy comes in the mo(u)rning

Matthew 5

Mourning is exhausting. The emotional toll it takes seems to be much greater than any physical task. Perhaps it is because physical work has an end in sight and a finished product. But mourning? It feels like wave after wave of grief without end.

Mourning is a time when we need to draw in to the Lord. Whatever its source, mourning and lament have a role to play in healing and restoration, even when it feels impossible.

But God promises comfort. If mourning is death by a thousand small cuts, healing is restoration to life by two thousand small moments. It may be a child’s laugh, a pause by a river, the smell of summer grass or winter’s fresh bread. We need to be mindful of the moments in our mourning so we recognize the hand of God in the middle.

Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning (Psalm 30:5).

Blessed are they who mourn

Matthew 5:5

Mourning is more than sadness. It is the gut-wrenching wail of devastation and loss. It is the same Greek word used is Revelation 18 when Babylon falls and the people realize there is nothing left of the great city. Mourning is the attitude of the prodigal, the repentance of Job, and the cry of David at his lowest moment in life (Luke 15, Job 42, Psalm 51).

Mourning is a present and active response to sin, and not just our individual sins, but over the ramifications of human sin on those who live in this world without hope. Mourning laments over the divisions in the Church, the oppressive treatment by one person or group over another, and the chaos that comes from human nature run amok.

Jesus offers consolation to mourners, telling them that they will be comforted. Mourning is not done in vain when it causes us to turn to the One who is the Comforter.

Mutually encouraged

Romans 1:11-12

When I started this blog I planned to use it as a place start thinking out loud about a book I want to write. My concept was a book for church people on the need for grace toward parents of prodigals. Too often I have experienced judgement from my brothers and sisters in Christ because of the decisions my teenage and adult children made. In talking to other parents, I learned my experience was not unique. I used the father of the Prodigal Son as an exemplar and started reading broadly about the concept of grace throughout the New Testament.

As I read, I felt that I needed more comprehensive and deep study, so I turned to one book at a time, initially alternating Old Testament and New Testament. One thing my doctoral work taught me was how to research and how to articulate what I learned. I worked my way through Ecclesiastes, James, Habakkuk, Galatians, Jonah, Nahum, and Ephesians.

Partway through Nahum COVID-19 hit, and 2020 turned into a year of one catastrophe after another. As days of quarantine turned to weeks, I turned to the passages of scripture that offered hope and comfort. In late May, the death of George Floyd sparked protests (mostly peaceful) and riots (always violent.) Outcry over racism dominated the news, even as the COVID pandemic spread. I started Psalm 119, and then used Hope Church Las Vegas’s prayer week as an interlude to consider some of the names of God. I attended a prayer rally on Juneteenth in Atlanta, and was both encouraged and saddened. I turned to Lamentations in response.

Throughout the summer, the dual crises of physical and spiritual warfare divided the American church, often down political party lines. AS I returned to complete Psalm 119, I found my thoughts returning to the book I had planned to write, and I realized, while parents of prodigals do need to be treated with grace instead of judgment, there is a larger issue of grace that the Church and my Christian friends need to reconsider. Social media, particularly Facebook, has become a battleground, not between the saved and the lost, but between brothers and sisters in Christ. How can this be?

So, now, I return to a theme for now instead of a book. Lament over the Church in the US is a place to begin thinking about the need for grace over judgment. Lament over racism, lament over partiality, lament over the tongue as a fire, lament over unholy pursuits– there are so many places to begin. And the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that we will never be able to truly offer grace until we have first suffered through the depths of lament. How else can we bear one another’s burdens unless we come alongside in their struggle and sorrow?

In Romans, Paul wrote that he longed to see the people of the Roman church, not so he could bestow grace on them or drop some wisdom. He wanted to see them so that together they could benefit from mutual encouragement by each other’s faith. Believers have been largely relegated to remote church attendance for five months. We long to be together again, but we cannot hope for “normal.” We should not want to return to the old ways. We should, however, long to be mutually encouraged by our faith. And that requires grace upon grace.

I don’t pretend to know where this blog will go from here. I hope to be listening to the Spirit’s leading as I consider the role of lament and the responsibility of grace. It is the beginning of learning to love the way Jesus did.

PE

Psalm 119:129-136

Psalm 119:136

I love the map app on my phone. I like knowing immediately how to get from point A to B and about how long it will take me to get there. But sometimes I think we need to look at old school paper maps. I’m not quite old enough to remember glove compartments full of gloves, but I do remember glove compartments stuffed with maps. One map for the state, one for cities, one for towns. Maybe one for the whole US. When we used maps for directions, we might see something of interest along the way, so we could meander off the quickest way and see the sights.

Maps had to be refolded carefully or they wouldn’t fit back in the glove compartment. When we opened them, we observed the directions of each fold, and we usually didn’t open the map any farther than necessary. We were purposeful in how we unfolded and refolded the maps.

Psalm 119:130 says that the unfolding of God’s word gives light and imparts understanding. As with paper maps, we should be purposeful and observant as we unfold the directions for living according to His precepts. It is when we take time to carefully consider the Word that we see how each part is connected and we may learn something completely unexpected as we follow the path outlined for us.

There are too many people who call themselves Christians who depend only on the mobile map app. They show up on Sundays to refuel, and then take off for what they think is the most efficient direction to living a good life. They miss the beauty of the side roads and the lessons in appreciating the waiting when they don’t really unfold the word in a purposeful way. They are then easily distracted by things that look good, but may not be best. Busy lives, like busy highways, may make us feel like we’re making progress, but where are we going in all the hurry?

The last verse of this section of Psalm 119 is a lament for those who choose the quick and convenient over the careful unfolding of learning to walk with the Lord. This lament is important; we must not judge or criticize those who skim through their faith, but we should sorrow for what they are missing. Additionally, we must be bold in how we speak to those who call themselves believers yet walk in the same fear as the non-believers do. Our lament comes from a place of loving each other, and our words and actions must reflect that love.

It’s not enough to want to go “back to normal.” In fact, “normal” was the problem. We might have been busy FOR the Gospel, but were we truly abiding IN the Word? There was nothing wrong with choirs and orchestras and social events and hugs and sports and children’s programming, but I suspect too many Christians looked at those things and checked the boxes of thing-good-Christians-do and stopped short of digging deep into their relationship with the Lord. A worldwide pandemic stopped everything for a time. And there is a time for every purpose under heaven (Ecclesiastes 3). God was not surprised by COVID-19. He didn’t cause it, but He allowed it to cross borders, I believe as a wake-up call. For five months, now, “normal life” has been interrupted and subdued. Believers had different approaches to the pause. Some worried about the economic effect. Others worried about how their children would be educated. Some blamed the media for conspiring to keep people in a state of fear. Others called the virus a hoax until it touched someone they knew. Church leaders made hard decisions about how to handle church services, and even five-months later, there are massive division about the “right” way to reopen. One large church in Georgia essentially closed its doors for the remainder of the year. Another large church in California sent a letter to the governor respectfully declining to acquiesce to his demands to shut the doors. Most churches are finding some middle ground. But even the middle ground is temporary.

All of this is temporary. We need to look beyond going back to the familiar routines and discern WHY the Lord allowed us to suffer. We must plead for God’s grace as we learn again to long for His word. Instead of looking back to what was, we must turn our faces to the future, the the face of God so that we reflect His visage as we learn His statutes. And we must encourage and challenge our brothers and sisters to do the same.

Unfold the Word. Let His light reflect from you to a world that is desperate for hope.

The Lord still reigns

Lamentations 4 and 5

Lamentations 4 and 5 with Proverbs 3.

You, O Lord, reign forever; Your throne endures for all generations. (Lamentations 5:17)

My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments. (Proverbs 3:1)

So, when things go bad, we just need to learn the lesson God intended, repent of our individual sins, and then be rescued from the trial. Right?

Not so fast.

The writer of Lamentations (again, presumably Jeremiah) found hope by recalling to mind the steadfast love of the Lord in chapter 3. And then came chapters 4 and 5.

Repentance and forgiveness made Jeremiah right with the Lord, but the nation was still under judgment and as a resident of Jerusalem Jeremiah was not spared. Th calamities of chapters 4 and 5 are WORSE than the first two chapters. I’ll spare the details, but imagine the worst of human behavior and magnify it exponentially (or read the chapters for yourself).

Jesus told his disciples (including us) that hard times (tribulation) are part of living in this world. Even though we are OF another kingdom, that is, the eternal kingdom of God, we are subject to the rulers and natural laws of earth.

Natural law (sickness, weather, gravity) does not disappear when we choose to follow Jesus. Human nature (selfish to the core) is the thing we all fight against in ourselves and see in others during times of chaos (pandemic hoarding comes to mind).

Part of Jerusalem’s sin was corrupt teaching (Lamentations 2:14) and bad governments (Lamentations 4:12). Certainly we have plenty of both in 2020. But collective wrong-doing is not an excuse for lazy faith. In fact, individuals must be more diligent than ever in proclaiming the love and mercy of God. Jeremiah never swayed from his commitment to proclaiming the truth, even as he suffered with the nation.

Lamentations. The Lord is Eternal

Do not be discouraged when the storm continues to rage even when you know you are right in your personal relationships with God and others. Chaos is the default for this world, but the Lord reigns forever. As bad as things may be (or get), and as long as hard times last, they will NOT outlast God, who is ETERNAL.

This I call to mind

Lamentations 3

When times are hard, even the faithful suffer. As long as we are in this world, whatever disasters strike, from pandemics to wars to natural catastrophes, we can expect to endure along with all of humanity. The prophet in Lamentations (presumably Jeremiah) described his own suffering with the people under the Lord’s judgement. He broke down his suffering into four realms:
1. Suffering is physical (v.4)
2. Suffering is psychological (v.7)
3. Suffering is emotional (v.15)
4. Suffering is spiritual (v. 18)

Physical suffering

Jeremiah wrote about his physical suffering first, describing the effects of hunger, disease, and broken bones on his body. For us, pain is the easiest form of suffering to understand because we all experience it. We may not remember the pain of being born or the scrapes, bumps, and bruises that come with childhood, but we do remember our most recent experience with pain, whether it be an occasional headache or a chronic condition. For those who survived the Babylonian attacks on Jerusalem, physical pain began with hunger and for most, continued in slavery. Enduring physical pain is exhausting and demoralizing. Today, physical pain may be reduced by medication, but its debilitating effects may still cause us to question God’s purpose for our lives.

Psychological suffering

Isolation causes psychological suffering. The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic served as a reminder to every person on the planet that we are created for community. A video chat cannot replace companionship. Loneliness has long term physical repercussions, including sleep changes, altered metabolism, and even neurocognitive effects (Ellis, 2020). Jeremiah described his isolation as impenetrable walls and heavy chains with no way of escape.

Emotional suffering

Emotions affect the way we perceive the world. It’s how we are wired as humans. We feel deeply. Emotions allow us to connect to each other with empathy and love and authenticity. But our emotions can also make us feel things that aren’t real. When times are hard, we tend to follow our emotions and feelings rather than reason and logic. The prophet here felt his suffering was God laying in wait to pounce on him like a bear or a lion does its prey. He felt torn to pieces, taunted by others and cowering in ashes. The recent protests in the US revealed the emotions of many of my Black brothers and sisters who feel much as Jeremiah did: they feel tormented, ridiculed, unheard, and without value. The suffering is real and is runs deep.

Spiritual suffering

The worst possible kind of suffering is suspecting that God has abandoned us. Jesus himself dreaded being separated from the Father, even asking whether there was another way to make atonement for our sins in order that we might be reconciled to God (Matthew 26:36-46). Jeremiah’s soul was bereft of peace to the point where he had forgotten what happiness felt like. This deep spiritual suffering leaves us hopeless and, if not resolved, can have dire consequences. Spiritual suffering is hell.

God makes a way where there is no way

After 20 verses painting a picture of his suffering, the prophet comes to his purpose in writing: BUT THIS I CALL TO MIND (v.21). Those are powerful words.

BUT THIS. There is an end to suffering. There is more than the current crisis. There is something greater at work.

I CALL. It is not a new revelation. We can access the greater lesson. We can call on the Lord; he has redeemed us and called us by name (Isaiah 43).

TO MIND. Suffering is real, make no mistake. But what Jeremiah wrote is a reminder to all of us that we do not have to focus on our suffering. God has given us minds that we can train to endure the physical, psychological, and emotional strains on our lives, especially in bad times.

What exactly did Jeremiah call to mind?

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases (Lamentations 3, v.22). Never. Even in the chaos of devastation, the Lord is good to the souls who seek him (v.25). His mercies are new EVERY day (v. 22). Hope comes when we recognize that every solace we may need is available to us (v. 24). His compassion and steadfast love means He will not cast us off forever; He is with us (v. 31-33).

In the meantime, our response is to examine our own ways and thoughts to root out anything that separates us from the Father (Lamentations 3:40-42; Psalm 139: 23-24), lifting up hearts and hands in repentance and lament. The Lord will come near when we call on His name (Lamentations 3:57) and let us see that He is with us and for us, even in the middle of the mess.

It reminds me of the William Dawson (1937) song, “Ain’a That Good News.” Suffering is part of living in this world, but there’s “a Savior in-a that kingdom” whose compassion will redeem us!

Ain’a that good news William Dawson, 1937. Tuskegee Institute Choir

Lamentations 2

Lamentations 2 and Proverbs 21, 25

” Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the heart. To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice” (Proverbs 21:2-3).

“The Lord has done what He purposed; He has carried out His word” ( Lamentations 2:17).

God made clear His expectations for his people through Moses (Leviticus and Deuteronomy). At the top of the list was keep the Name of the Lord holy by not worshipping idols. Other expectations were to ensure justice for everyone, from the lowest slave to the king. Everyone was to be held accountable to the Law. God was also clear about the end result of disobedience: utter destruction. Generations after Moses, after multiple rescues and second chances, God followed through by letting His holy wrath pour out like fire (Lamentations 2:4), laying waste to the city like an enemy (v. 5).

Jerusalem was prosperous and beautiful, a princess among nations, but she turned from the Lord and took satisfaction in her wealth and idols, listening to the words of false and deceptive teachers and kings. Finally, God did what He told them He would do if they persisted in sin (Lamentations 2:17; Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28; Jeremiah 51).

God is the true and just sanctifier (Leviticus 22:31-33) who sees the violence of the wicked among his people, and He will sweep them away (Proverbs 21:7). False teachers who did not call out sin for what it was led people away from the Lord. They still do. And the people of Jerusalem learned that trusting treacherous teachers is dangerous. The same is true today. The Church in the US has largely been lazy, calling people to God not because they need to repent over sin, but to join with social movements or prosperity doctrines that make people feel happy.

Jerusalem had to be utterly and corporately destroyed for God to get their attention. The US is crumbling by corruption from within, and as always, the devastation is corporate, not individual. Why is there evil in the world? Because people choose themselves over the Lord.

The Lord knows our hearts.

Lamentations 1

“For these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears; for a comforter is far from me” (Lamentations 1:16).

“By steadfast love and faithfulness iniquity is atoned for and by the fear of the Lord one turns away from evil” (Proverbs 16:6).

When cities are destroyed, all the people who live there pay the price. Jerusalem was devastated by Babylon; other places crumble by corruption from within. individuals desperate to hold onto power are ultimately confronted by the people they oppress. It doesn’t matter where in the world it happens; tyrants will be challenged. Sometimes the oppression is overt: police brutality, government control of production and distribution of goods, and persecutions are examples. Other times the quest for power is stealthy, couched in words of compassion or justice or protection. This approach is far more dangerous; people get swept up in a feel-good message and they don’t consider the source, the purpose, and the ultimate mission of the movements. In both overt and stealthy demands for acquiescence to some form of human power and dominance, the end result is tumult, chaos, and violent upheaval. It might be local (recent events in Seattle), national (protests that led to riots in major cities across the US in the Spring of 2020 or the Arab Spring of 2011), or international (any war in the history of the world). Wherever and whomever is involved, the damage to people and property is devastating.

The empty streets and ruined buildings that follow destruction wrench the heart and turn the stomach. Grief has a physical component that compounds the emotional, psychological, and spiritual. The author of Lamentations felt the full weight of grief as he surveyed the damage wrought by Babylon. His response is mirrored by our own when we witness violent devastation by one group of people upon another. It feels hopeless and we feel helpless.

Hopeless and helpless represent the natural state of humanity without Jesus. No amount of legislation can change the hearts of people. No motivational speech can instill love toward one another. Government cannot make people good. When the Church and believers trust the systems of humans for salvation, they turn those systems into idols. Government, legislation, law enforcement, and the like are tools of protection put in place by God. They cannot save anyone’s soul, nor are they truly and consistently just.Iniquity (sin) can only be atoned for by steadfast love and faithfulness, two things no human on this earth can achieve.

However.

God, in His love and mercy, made a way, interceding by offering His righteousness and salvation in Jesus (Isaiah 59:16; Romans 5:7-18). Even when it seems like the wicked are prevailing, the Lord hears our lament and our authentic repentance, both for our individual sins and for the sins of a nation (Lamentations 1).

The Church must lead the way to individual and national repentance. The Church must lead the lament for our times. And we who are believers must recognize that we may be part of the problem. In our own repentance and lament, we may see how God intends to do a work in us and through us, even when the days are dark.