Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The 22nd of August, 2021
Lamentations 3:1-6, 19-26, 31-33
On Thursday Melbourne had been in lockdown for two hundred days. Luckily for us those two hundred days did not all happen in the one lockdown, or I am not sure we could have coped, but it was still a difficult milestone. It did not help that 57 new cases were announced on the same day, even though most of the people infected had already been in isolation. This year, thank God, we are not seeing the hundreds of deaths from covid19 that we saw last year. Most of the deaths in 2020 were of people living in residential aged care, and in 2021 most aged care residents seem to have been vaccinated. Every day, as we get Victoria’s numbers, I look at the 0 deaths in gratitude and relief. But in some ways this sixth lockdown is harder than the second. Last year there were no vaccines; lockdowns were the only way of controlling covid19 that we had. When announcements about vaccinations were made at the beginning of this year the projection was that 70% of us would be fully vaccinated by now. The reality is that about a quarter of us are fully vaccinated. So Lockdown Six is causing huge frustration simply because we did not expect to still need lockdowns in the second half of 2021.
In addition to the anxiety and frustration caused by living in a strict lockdown, we are also aware of the much worse things that are happening in Afghanistan. I have no words for what is happening there, except to remind you that there are more than 4000 Afghan refugees who fled the Taliban already living in Australia on temporary protection visas. Because they arrived on our shores by boat the government has said it will never offer them permanent protection, and some of them are still in detention after eight years. We can do little for the people in Afghanistan; we could do a lot for the Afghan people who have already sought our protection.
Things are bleak. Most of this bleakness is not our fault. When we have done the wrong thing, and things have gone wrong as a result, the liturgy offers us prayers of confession as a way of responding to them. When we have not done the wrong thing, and yet things have gone dreadfully wrong around us, the Bible offers us prayers of lament as an alternative to prayers of confession, prayers calling out to God in situations of distress, of sickness, or rejection. Laments are the most common form of psalm, they make up forty per cent of the psalter, and in the book of Lamentations a poet responds to the fall of Jerusalem and the Babylonian Exile with lament. Sometimes the authors of these biblical laments focus on the actions of human beings, but sometimes they dare to lament the actions of God.
We are used to confessing to God the times when we fail and fall short. Laments can tell God of the times that God has failed and fallen short.
Israel’s relationship with God in the Hebrew Scriptures is based on their formative experience of God in the Exodus, when God delivered Israel from Egypt after hearing their cries of distress. This formed the basic pattern of Judaism, one that we inherited as Christians, the ‘saving reversal’ from a situation of despair to one of rescue. One of my saints, J. R. R. Tolkien, the author of The Lord of the Rings, described this as the eucatastrope, the sudden turn from tragedy to joy. Because this is the underlying pattern of our faith we know that just as it is human nature to cry out to God in distress, it is equally God’s nature to listen to our cries. This means that when the the people of Israel lament, they lament in hope, expecting that God will hear them and help them. Most biblical laments end in praise of the God who listens and acts, because ‘the proper setting of praise is as lament resolved’.
That Holy Scripture contains these laments reassures us that we can be completely honest with God about the difficult and tragic parts of life. We need never pretend to God or ourselves that life is perfect, that injustice is acceptable, or that things only go wrong for us through our own fault. When things go wrong we do not need to believe that ‘God has a plan’ or that our suffering is a growth experience. When we suffer we can cry out to God in our agony, even attack God, blame God. Biblical laments tell us that we do not need to be nice to God.
Our first reading today came from the middle of the book of Lamentations, a collection of five mourning poems written in response to the destruction of the city of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 BC. These are poems written in response to a real, historical, tragedy and they make no attempt to hide the horrors of what has occurred. The poet knows that the people on whose behalf he is writing will not find comfort in a pretense that things are anything other than tragic. The book begins and ends in tragedy: the final verses of the entire book are ‘Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old—unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure’. (Lamentations 5:21-2) The whole book is the pouring out of the poet’s heart to God in lament and anger, ending with the fear or accusation that God has rejected God’s people.
Yet in the very centre of the book, in the middle of chapter three, there is just the smallest sign of hope. Chapter three begins with the poet talking about what God has done to him: ‘He has made my flesh and my skin waste away, and broken my bones; he has besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation; he has made me sit in darkness like the dead of long ago.’ The poet says that this is God’s doing; it is God who has become ‘like an enemy’. (Lamentations 2:5) But then, suddenly, in a remarkable turn, the poet starts reflecting on God’s steadfast love that never ceases. Because he trusts God’s mercy the poet can welcome each new day as God’s good gift even while living in the shattered ruins of the city of God. The poet expresses his faith in God’s blessing, affirming that God is good to those who wait and does not willingly afflict anyone. Although God causes grief, he also will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love, the poet tells us. And then, after this brief excursion into hope, the poet returns to his grief. After moving from lament to praise the poet returns to lament. Hope has been declared only to be contradicted. This movement from lament to praise to lament continues the tension between God’s mercy and the poet’s present reality. It reminds us that lament is honest, but it is not simple. Lament allows multiple responses to suffering, both outrage and anger at what God has done, and faith in God’s continuing mercy, and it does not demand the reaching the latter means that the former is over.
We see this same mixture of sorrow and hope in Psalm 130. The psalmist is crying out to God from the depths, from an experience of utter suffering, pleading with God to pay attention and hear. The psalmist tells us: ‘My soul waits for the Lord; I hope in his word. My soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the dawn.’ The day has obviously not yet dawned; the psalmist is still in the depths of night. And yet the psalmist can still proclaim: ‘O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord is steadfast love and power to redeem’.
Lamentations and the psalms of lament remind us that we do not always have to approach God with praise. Of course amid Lockdown Six we can be grateful that there are so few deaths, that we live in a country with an excellent public health system, that we are able to wait out the lockdown safely in our homes. But just as Lamentations told people who had experienced the destruction of their world that complaining to God was a faithful response, so too can we, who are living through a global pandemic that has changed our lives in ways that would have been unimaginable two years ago, complain to God. The book of Lamentations offered the survivors of their catastrophe an expression of the horror and grief they felt. It can offer us, 2500 years later, a way of expressing our horror and grief during our own catastrophe.
God never appears in Lamentations. There is no oracle or prophet who speaks God’s words. We are going to sing the hymn ‘Comfort, comfort’ at the end of this Reflection, and the words of that hymn come from the ‘Book of Comfort’ in the prophecies of Isaiah, where the prophet speaks for God and says: ‘Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God’. (Isaiah 40:1) There is no equivalent in Lamentations. God is presented in Lamentations as the perpetrator of the poet’s suffering, but unlike human perpetrators who try to silence their victims it is God who remains silent, allowing the poet to hurl his questions and lament without challenge or suppression. In itself this silence is an act of God’s mercy. That this book is in the Bible, ending as it does with complaint and isolation from God, tells all of us that there is no grief and no anger that we cannot pour out to God. We can rage at God, and God will receive our rage.
The book of Lamentations and the psalms recognise that there are unanswered prayers, there are unresolved situations, there are times when we cannot see God’s mercy. We may have ultimate faith that God is love, that God responds to our suffering with compassion, but in those times when we cannot feel God’s love, the heritage of our faith tells us that kicking and screaming and blaming God for God’s absence is also a faithful response.
If your response to this sixth lockdown is anger and despair then share all that outrage with God – because our faith assures us that God will reject neither it nor you. Amen.
 Walter Brueggemann, ‘The Costly Loss of Lament’ in David J.A. Clines ed., The Poetical Books (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), p. 85.