sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 01/09/2011
Happy new year.
Sometimes that tiding carries with it a hollow ring, or at least the echo of hollowness, does it not?
Suicides... Deaths of friends and loved ones... Injuries and illness… Troubling relationships… Long standing struggles with yet to be determined outcomes... Existential crises... Even good things that cause mourning…
The promise of the gospel, the promise of Jesus, Immanuel, God with us, the promise of the good news of the Kingdom of God, of course, is that God enters into even those things to bring life to us, here and now. The promise, of course, is also that those things are passing away, that they will not be our companions forever. The promise is that Jesus, in entering them and taking them on his shoulders, has been given authority over all things and is in the process of setting everything right.
Here we are. And here they are. The losses are real. And they are felt deeply and have real emotional and spiritual and mental and even physical effects. What are we to do in the midst of them?
[Summertime experience with Joel Seymour, Lancaster Vineyard…Jesus has something for us in that, but I’m not sure when…now is the time.]
Today we are going to talk about lamenting. The word lament means to grieve or let out a complaint. Lamenting is a way of engaging ourselves with God that has a long and important history in the scriptures. (The first lament recorded is “The lament of the Bow” that David wrote when King Saul and his son Jonathon were killed: “A gazelle lies slain on your heights, Israel. How the mighty have fallen…”) There are more psalms of lament than psalms of praise. There’s a whole book in the bible called Lamentations. Even Jesus laments.
Part of the challenge for us, though, is that our culture doesn’t do lamenting particularly well. Our culture respects people who grin and bear it. Our culture believes in the attractional power of positive thinking. Negative energy is something to be controlled and channeled into productive work. We want people to have a celebration of our lives when we die. This isn’t all bad, not by any measure, but it can come at a cost. And one of the costs is that we don’t come by healthy experiences of lamenting very naturally. [Compare a middle eastern funeral procession with a western one.]
Dr. Terry Wardle’s story of learning to shoot a bow with his Dad. Two rules.
1. Never “dry fire” a bow. Dry firing is shooting without an arrow on the string. Without an arrow, all the energy created from drawing and firing the bow stays in its limbs and weakens the bow, causing micro fractures, eventually causing it to snap. However, when an arrow is on the string, the energy leaves the bow and sends the arrow on its way. The limbs release all the power into the arrow and the limbs return to a state of rest without the slightest damage.
[Kinect Sports Volleyball…]
We’re dry firing all the time, aren’t we? Tough stuff happens, it’s present in our world, our lives, and it takes its toll. We’re like bows with all sorts of energy stored up in them. But we have nothing to transfer that energy to. We get cracks. We feel like we might snap the next time pressure is applied to us. We feel like bows that have been dry fired.
Or maybe we’re loading up arrows and firing them, but we’re shooting at the wrong targets. We’re lashing out, aimlessly, at whatever happens to be on the other end of our sights. At ourselves. Or others. All it does is wound. Nothing life-giving comes from it.
This is where lamenting comes in. A lament is like an arrow we affix to our strings and fire at God. The lament can transfer the energy of this broken world off our bows and let it fly straight and true to the target that has been given us to absorb it, allowing our limbs to return to a state of rest.
What does lamenting look like?
Consider Jesus in the garden on the Mount of Olives.
Step 1: Steal away with God in a safe place.
39Jesus went out as usual (came out and proceeded as was his custom) to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him…He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, 42“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” 43An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. 44And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.
Notice how Jesus has a habit of pushing the pause button in life. He’s got a time and a space to do it. And during one of these pauses, he withdraws even further. The rush of life will get in the way of lamenting, so we’ve got to push the pause button to do it. This perhaps is why it’s difficult for us moderns, what with all our hustle and bustle. But it’s not impossible. And it is way better than the halt that comes to life after dry-firing too often.
And notice how Jesus is in a safe place, a place he feels good. Lamenting happens best when we can find a place we feel safe, secure, at home. Kind of like in our mother’s arms, right? Maybe a place in nature, or in our homes. But also private, secluded, protected so we won’t be interrupted (Jesus disciples nearby). Maybe it happens in a less idyllic real-world place, but we enter some equally real place with God in prayer, through our praying imaginations (even though we may be in a bathroom, for example, or in our car at the top of a parking garage.)
[My first lament after “A River Runs Through It”; to God, but Ronni there with me]
Step 2: Express yourself without censoring anything.
36Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
39Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
40Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. 41“Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
42He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”
43When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. 44So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.
Notice how open Jesus is with how troubled he is. My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death…My Father, if it’s possible, may this cup be taken from me (which he repeats 3 times – there’s no holding back going on here.)…even his address to his disciples: “Couldn’t you keep watch with me for one hour?” This is a man who has abandoned politeness for the sake of lamenting honestly before God.
Expressing the full extent of the pain (at least, as much as you can identify) is the real payload on the arrow, it’s the arrowhead of the lament. It doesn’t have to be cleaned up. Its better, sometimes, if it’s not. Here’s what I lost. Here’s why it sucks. This is what doesn’t feel fair. This is the future I had imagined, and now it’s gone. This is the past I wished I had, and I never got to have it. This is the present reality I’d been looking forward to, and what I meet now that I’ve arrived just doesn’t measure up, and this is how that makes me feel.
Sure, we feel like we shouldn’t blame people. Sure, we feel like we need to take responsibilities for our own stuff. Sure, we feel like we need to let God know we don’t think the world revolves around us. But still. The Lament has no power if it is not honest. And sometimes, the honest truth is that we feel others are to blame, or that we have been wronged on balance, or that we have gotten the short end of God’s attentions. The power of the lament is to deliver all of that to him, knowing that he can handle it. Sometimes, in flight, the wind removes the things that are false from that arrow, and God returns it to us, ready to be shot clean and afresh.
Step 3: Listen for God’s response.
43An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him.
The cause for the lament was not undone. Jesus would still have to go to suffer. Yes, God will address the sources of our lament. He is not deaf to our concerns. But the point of the lament is not to get God to fix everything we’re upset about it. He may. He may not. He may later. He may already have and we don’t know it yet.
What God did do was send a messenger with strength for Jesus. This is the point of the Lament. Strength from the heavens for the path we are given to walk here on earth. Maybe it comes in a word of truth from the Spirit about the area of loss you are lamenting. Maybe it comes from something a friend says to you. Maybe it comes from a passage of scripture you are directed towards that strengthens you. Maybe it comes from a sense of God’s embrace and presence in the midst of your loss.
[My experience recently…]
The net effect of lamenting is really quite profound.
For Jesus, it meant he was able to be in control on the path he was on instead of being controlled by it.
Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour is near, and the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners. Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!”
Throughout the rest of the story, you get the sense that the only one who is fully in charge of himself is Jesus, even though these incredibly powerful forces are at work around him (the mob, the political and religious leaders, evil itself). In lamenting, he gave all of their power over him to God, and he was set free to be who God made him to be in those moments.
It’s interesting if you read the Psalms of lament as well. So many that contain laments end with a note of praise, of hope. There is something that happens in lamenting that opens the door afresh in our hearts for hope. There is a way we encounter God in lament that gives us new reason to praise, even though nothing has actually happened with regard to the loss we are lamenting.
1. For those for whom there’s no really raw losses to lament at the moment: Take the next week to lament 1 thing a day, just to get the hang of it for when you really need it. Maybe start with a run-of-the-mill disappointment. Not getting a promotion. Some personal deficiency that’s always bothered you a little (not being able to sing, being bad at sports, being terrible at math). Try a different place each day until you find a place that works well (someplace in your house, someplace outside, in your car, etc.). Try a different method until you find a method that works well (writing, speaking out loud, praying in your head, calling your own voicemail and imagining your leaving a message for God). Aim for a 60 second lament, but go as long as you feel like it. Be as honest as you can. If you feel like it’s fruitful, try something more significant. Like a relationship that isn’t in good shape. Or a long term personal struggle. Don’t worry about who is to blame or whether or not you think it will ever be fixed. Just lament it as the loss that it currently is.
2. If you’ve got a raw loss (a death, a fresh relationship fracture, a major life disappointment, a new normal ahead that you’re not excited about), get a friend or spouse who can help guard some time and space for you to do a more extended lament with the Lord. Maybe start with Psalm 13, out loud, to get yourself warmed up. And then just go for it. Write it down. Say it out loud. Say it matter of factly. Cry. Or don’t cry. Be angry. Or rational and calm. Doesn’t matter – just be yourself. Then imagine Jesus is next to you, doing his own lamenting alongside of you. Imagine you are both in the garden at the mount of Olives, lamenting together. When you’re done, read Psalm 22 out loud, remembering that that was how Jesus finished his lament on the cross.
3. If your lament is mainly about you and God, spend some time meditating on Lamentations 3:1-33. Try rewriting it in a way that would be true for your experience. Once you have, read it out loud to him.
4. Give your kids space to lament. What they learn to do with you will help them lament to the Lord later.