The American church in general is not good at lament. Now, I’m not pointing any fingers. I’m not good at lament.
Somehow it feels more spiritual to be celebrating than to be lamenting. And if we if we lose the ability to lament, we lose a lot. We lose awareness just of what is happening. We lose memory of what has happened. And when we lose that, we lose identity, who we really are and what we’re capable of both good and bad.
So, if we don’t lament, we end up floating around in the amniotic fluid of our own self-insulated assumptions and perspectives, isolating ourselves from the rest of the world, assuming that shalom, a wholeness, is a private thing.
We can hear the muffled cries around us, but we ignore them. We don’t let them disturb us. Perhaps many of us move into this defensive posture for a number of reasons, but perhaps because we don’t understand what lament really is. So, before we talk about what lament is, let’s talk about it what it isn’t.
Number One: Lament is not despairing.
Despairing is giving up or choosing hopelessness. In reality, lament is a relative of joy. Think about what Jesus said in Matthew 5:4, “Blessed are those who mourn.” Happy, fortunate are those who mourn. In Psalm 2:11 the psalmist said, “Rejoice with trembling.” In 2 Corinthians 6:10, Paul described himself as sorrowful yet always rejoicing.
So, whatever it means to lament, it does not mean to shut the door on joy. If we live a life void of lament, our joy might just be delusion or superficial, rather than the real thing.
Number Two: Lament is not rejecting.
It’s not rejecting God in cynicism. It’s not rejecting people in bitterness. For example, you have psalms like Psalm 88 which start in darkness and end in darkness. There is no statement of hope in all of Psalm 88, and you think, “God why would you include that psalm in the Bible?” Because somehow when we cry out to God lamenting even in agony, that is an act of faith. That is in and of itself an act of faith. Whether there’s a silver lining or a bow on it, it is an act of faith. So, if we or our brothers and sisters were made for Paradise yet we’re currently suffering, how can we not lament?
Number Three: Lament is not whining.
I’ve talked to so many Christians who are burdened or doubting or struggling or questioning, and they kind of dump all that out on me. I really love that. It is a gift of God when you get to walk alongside a brother or sister and bear just a little of their burden with them – that is a high calling. And you all are really good at it. You’re good at bearing one another’s burdens. But there have been many times where somebody gushes out all this hurt, doubt, fear, and after listening and praying and weeping, I’ve asked, “Have you ever said that to God?” And many times, people will look at me like, “Is that legal? Can we do that? Is that okay? Is that biblical? It doesn’t feel very spiritual.”
God would not have written more psalms on lament than any other kinds of psalms if he did not want us to do it. Right? Can we agree on that? That is that is something he is inviting, rather commanding his people to do. It’s not whining.
Number Four: Lament is not guilting.
This is a really important one, especially in light of what we’re going to be talking about today. There is good guilt and there’s bad guilt. Good guilt is when the Spirit of God exposes something in my heart. Life convicts me of that and calls me to repent. I turn from that, turn to him, confess my sin and ask for forgiveness, and he washes me clean and the blood of Jesus. If you stop doing that, you’re spiritually dead with a seared conscience, or you’re so narcissistic that you can’t even see yourself clearly. That’s a good guilt, and it actually is a gift when the Spirit of God convicts us, and we respond and repent.
But there’s also there’s a bad kind of guilt and that vague sense like of constantly living under a cloud of failure, kind of a spiritual doormat mentality is a bad kind of guilt. “Oh yeah, that’s me again. I can’t do anything right.” And it’s actually many times inverted pride, and the problem is this kind of vague sense of wrongdoing, but no real awareness or responsiveness can easily be used as a tool of manipulation. Master manipulators love to use guilt to get people to do things that they would normally not want to do. That’s why it’s vital that we be able to identify the difference between good and bad guilt, especially when we start talking about something like racism.
For people who have been around a long time, there can be a sense like,
“Here we go again. Truckloads of white guilt are going to be dumped all over me, and I don’t know what to do with it. I thought I repented years ago. I thought I’ve cast away all prejudice in my heart as much as I could see or was aware of. But now the elders announced they’re doing a series on racism, and we’re just going to be pummeled with white guilt.”
Well, let me tell you something that is not going to happen. First of all, motivating people by bad guilt doesn’t change anything. It actually typically leads to more division, more bitterness, more resentment on every side. So, can we be clear that’s not what we’re talking about? This burden came over me over 30 years ago. I was working with teenagers in Chicago and just saw so much wreckage from racism. I longed to see reconciliation.
We had beautiful times there and then here 20 something years ago. Beautiful times of repentance and watching Christian denomination after denomination acknowledge and repent of horrible participation and justification of things like slavery and racism. You see in every generation a new wave of calls for repentance, and it can be good and bad. Are we clear about that? When God convicts me of prejudice or participating in structures that perpetuate prejudice and racism, then I need to repent. But that’s good guilt.
But to live under a low-grade sense of, “It’s all my fault and I am now in racial purgatory forever” is not helpful. Do you see the difference? That is really important. So, as God is calling us in this series – last week to listen, this week to learn to lament – we need to understand the biblical idea of lament is in its most basic form sorrow. I love the way Michael Card defines it as sacred sorrow.
Repentance can be and often is a part of lamenting. But if the Spirit of God does not convict me of specific sin, I can still lament whether or not I repent. There are times where God is calling me to repent of something, and there are other times I am simply weeping with those who weep. And we have to know the difference.
Think of lament as a big umbrella that includes things like weeping with those who weep, and at times repenting of specific sins. But we are not talking about just living with a, or constantly reliving a perpetual sense of guiltiness. That is not helpful. You’ll see in your notes a little place for “what about corporate responsibility.” But that is pages and pages and pages that I’m going to have to talk about some other time because I know that’s a big part of answering that question. The Bible’s view of corporate responsibility is quite nuanced. The Scripture very careful, you don’t hold someone responsible for someone else’s sin. It is very clear in the Scripture, but at the same time there is a collective sense and knowing when to see which biblically is really, really vital. We’ll have to do that another time.
So, let’s jump in to Psalm 80 so that we can learn to lament well. Psalm 80 is a testimony of Asaph. The setting of this psalm is most likely when the Assyrians crushed the northern kingdom of Israel and were threatening the southern kingdom near the end of the 8th century. The Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, the Septuagint has as the title of this psalm “Concerning the Assyrian,” and it seems to be referring to this period of time. There are four expressions of communal lament in this psalm, and each one includes a plea for restoration. Make us right, make things right.
You’ll see it in verse 3, “Restore us O God.” Verse 7, “Restore us O God of hosts.” Verse 14 translates the word same Hebrew word “turn again” is that word restore, “O God of hosts,” and then verse 19, “Restore us, O Lord God of hosts.” Let’s walk through these four expressions of communal lament.
First, we tell God what we need. When we lament, one of the things we typically do is we cry out for help. Look at verse 1. “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, You who lead Joseph like a flock. You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth.” Enthroned, that is you are sovereign over the mercy seat. The cherubim are those angelic beings whose wings extended over the ark of the covenant, which is the footstool of God’s throne. “Shine forth.”
Verse 2, “Before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh, stir up your might and come to save us!” That word before is the idea of in front of. Remember when Israel was leaving Egypt, and the cloud of God’s presence led Israel forth? That’s the image there. Lead these northern tribes forth, Ephraim, Benjamin, Manasseh. Stir up your might and come to save us. Please stir up your might and come to save us.
I’m just picturing Brian Shaw on a couch. You know Brian Shaw? One of the strongest men in the world. And I could lift that if there was nothing in those. So, you picture Brian’s home with his wife and kids and sitting on the couch reading a magazine. Somebody breaks through the door stealing their stuff. Brian is still reading his magazine, and his wife is like, “Brian, stir up your might and come and save us! You are not void of strength. You could do something about this.” And that’s the picture. It’s “God, you have so much might, and it feels like you’re sitting on the couch. Come and save us!” Do you see in verses 1-2 this flurry of imperatives, cries for action? “Give ear. Shine forth. Stir up. Save us. Restore us, O God. Let your face shine that we may be saved.”
Let your face shine. Any Jewish reader mind would go all the way back to Aaron’s blessing in Number 6:25, “That we may be saved.” If you smile on us, nothing else matters. Your favor melts the frost of our suffering. Please shine on us.
Number 2, what we have become. The psalmist tells God in verses 4-7, what we have become, verse 4, “O Yahweh. Lord, God of armies, God of armies, God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers? You have fed them with the bread of tears and given them tears to drink in full measure.” In other words, we’ve been eating our tears for breakfast and lunch.
We’ve been drinking our tears for drink. Verse 6, “You make us an object of contention for our neighbors, and our enemies laugh among themselves.” Now this imagery is so powerful. “You make us an object of contention.” The idea, do you hear the fact, when we suffer, it is dehumanizing. We feel like we are no longer a person. We are being treated as an object of contention. We have ceased to be living as your people, and we have become objects.
So interesting in light of this, think back to 1968 when the sanitation workers marched in Memphis. Two of them had recently been killed, and they were pleading for more safe and equitable working conditions. And the slogans they held up said “I am a man.” Now it seems that one would not have to say that, right? But when we are treated in dehumanizing ways, we have to speak what should be understood, and we have a long history in our country of dehumanizing some people. All the way back, well it was before this, but think of 1787 when we formally said that a slave is worth three fifths of a person in the Three Fifths Compromise of 1787, treating people like farm machinery, banishing them from neighborhoods, and you could just hear the cry, “I am a human. I am a person made in the image of God.”
This is the cry coming out from the psalmist. I’m not an object. Verse 7, “Restore us O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved!”
Thirdly, not only what we need, what we have become, but what you made us to be. The psalmist in verses 8-16 with vivid imagery of the vineyard reminds God who the communal lamenters really are. Look at verse 8.
“You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land. The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches. It sent out its branches to the sea and its shoots to the river.”
Think Mediterranean Sea, Euphrates River, small start, huge extension. Verse 12, “Why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit? The boar from the forest ravages it, and all that move in the field feed on it.” You have left us to be plunder. Verse 14. There’s that Hebrew word, restore, “Turn again, O God of hosts!” uses God’s battle name, God of hosts. “Look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine, the stock that your right hand planted, and for the son whom you made strong for yourself. They have burned it [the vine] with fire; they have cut it down; but may they perish at the rebuke of your face!” The same face of grace can be a face of judgment when we violate his people.
Verse 15 second half, “The son whom you have made strong for yourself.” The lamenter here is crying out on behalf of the Davidic covenant, the covenant of David. You made us your children. You are our Father. You made us strong for you. Come, show your strength. Number 4, what you alone can give. Verse 17, what you alone can give. “But let your hand be on the man of your right hand, the son of man whom you have made strong for yourself!” Who is this referring to? Every kid in Sunday school knows the answer. Jesus! This is what’s called a Messianic (well all psalms are Messianic) but very specific reference to the Messiah, the Anointed One. Jesus who is the True Vine, the Son who will make all things right. “Then,” verse 18,
“We shall not turn back from you; give us life,” [you who are life] “give us life, and we will call upon your name. Restore us, O Yahweh,” [that’s God’s formal name, proper name] God of hosts. Let your face shine, that we may be saved.” Your smile is our salvation. The root of Yahweh is I am. I am; therefore, you are. Because we are made in His image. Therefore, our existence and our value and everything flows from him.
A number of years ago our family was in Washington D.C. We were touring the museums and the sites, and we went to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and as we were walking around the museum by bins of shoes, big pictures of trains full of Jewish people, and we came to this model of a gas chamber, and I’ll never forget. We were standing there looking at this gas chamber, and they have descriptions of what this was and what happened in here.
And I’m standing next to Sawaya, our friend from Kenya who is part of our family, living with us and at this trip, and he looks at me with tears in his eyes, and he says, “Did this really happen?” Yeah, this really happened, and we can never forget. We must never forget that this really happened.”
He illustrated with the tears in his eyes and the cries of his heart, there is only one immediate response that is legitimate when you come face to face with that kind of horror. And the first response is lament. And we must never forget and for the same reasons I am grateful that on April 26, just a couple of months ago, 2018 the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in Montgomery, Alabama. This memorial documents and exposes over 4000 lynchings that occurred between 1877 and 1950. These were, you could call them racial terror lynching’s that were intended not merely to punish a person, which they did, but to send terror through a community. And these prompted the migration, one of the biggest migrations in all of history, millions of people to flee for fear. Watch this video. It summarizes why this lynching memorial was built.
(See video linked above.)
Maya Angelou said,
“History despite its wrenching pain cannot unlived but if faced with courage need not be lived again.” Let me say that again “History despite its wrenching pain cannot be unlived but if faced with courage need not be lived again.”
If we are going to move forward together, we need to learn how to lament together. Otherwise history does show us it does repeat itself. In order to help us learn how to do that. I’d like to use Benjamin Watson as an example. Benjamin Watson grew up not far from here in Rock Hill South Carolina and he is married to Kirsten. They have five kids, currently playing again for the Saints. By the way a little piece of trivia, has played for the Patriots when they won a Super Bowl. So, he’s a good guy. But a couple of years ago when the Ferguson decision was coming out, he was about to play on a Monday night game, Monday night football, and he was just so overwhelmed by the conflict and the pain and the confusion and the news and the division, the racial tension that he just started writing out his thoughts. And he didn’t strictly speaking write out a lament, but everything he wrote are the ingredients of lament. I want to read a bunch of those because he ended up posting this on Facebook, and it went viral. Some of you may remember that because it stands as a huge contrast to both the media response and more of a secular response. And listen. I hope as you as you hear him wrestle through this you can see how we as the people of God, no matter what race, can feel what he’s describing, can identify, can lament together.
He says this,
“I’m angry because the stories of injustice that have been passed down for generations seem to be continuing before our very eyes.
I’m frustrated, because pop culture, music and movies glorify these types of police citizen altercations and promote an invincible attitude that continues to get young men killed in real life, away from the safety of movie sets and music studios.
I’m fearful because in the back of my mind I know that although I’m a law abiding citizen I could still be looked upon as a threat to those who don’t know me. So, I will continue to have to go the extra mile to earn the benefit of the doubt.
I’m embarrassed because the looting, violent protests and law breaking only confirm, and in the minds of many validate the stereotypes and thus the inferior treatment.
I’m sad, because another young life was lost from his family, the racial divide has widened, a community is in shambles, accusations, insensitivity, hurt and hatred are boiling over, and we may never know the truth about what happened that day.
I’m sympathetic, because I wasn’t there so I don’t know exactly what happened. Maybe Darren Wilson acted within his rights and duty as an officer of the law and killed Michael Brown in self-defense like any of us would in the circumstance. Now he has to fear the backlash against himself or his loved ones when he was only doing his job. What a horrible thing to endure. OR maybe he provoked Michael and ignited the series of events that led him eventually to murdering the young man to prove a point.
I’m offended because the insulting comments I’ve seen that are not only insensitive but dismissive to the painful experiences of others.
I’m confused, because I don’t know why it’s so hard to obey a policeman. You will not win! I don’t know why some policemen abuse their power. Power is a responsibility, not a weapon to brandish and lord over the populace.
I’m introspective because sometimes I want to take ‘our’ side without looking at the facts in situations like these. Sometimes I feel like it’s us against them. Sometimes I’m just as prejudiced as people I point fingers at and that’s not right. How can I look at white skin and make assumptions but not want assumptions made about me? That’s not right.
I’m hopeful because I know that while we still have race issues in America, we enjoy a much different normal than those of our parents and grandparents. I see it in my personal relationships with teammates, friends and mentors. And it’s a beautiful thing.
I’m encouraged because ultimately the problem is not a SKIN problem, it is a SIN problem. SIN is the reason we rebel against authority. SIN is the reason we abuse our authority. SIN is the reason we are racist, prejudiced and lie to cover for our own. SIN is the reason we riot, loot and burn. But I’m encouraged because God has provided a solution for sin through his Son Jesus and with it a transformed heart and mind. One that’s capable of looking past the outward and seeing what’s truly important in every human being. The cure for Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and Eric Gardner tragedies is not education or exposure. It’s the Gospel.
So finally, I’m encouraged because the Gospel gives mankind hope.”
You see without the gospel we’re going to go one of two directions. We’re going to be unwilling to plunge into the reality of the darkness, the conflict, the tension, the past. We’re not going to want to face it. We’re just going to turn the music up louder and run the other way. Or we’re going to go down there and not be able to get back up. And that’s what many are doing in our society today as they turn from Jesus Christ and face racism. Apart from him they’ll talk candidly about the problem, but there’s no hope of the solution. The gospel allows us to talk candidly about the problem. We can look at the past and not forget it. We can look in the mirror and see our hearts honestly. We can face current events with horrible things and beautiful things happening and face them honestly and listen and lament.
So, bring it right up to today. The next time there is a tragedy in our community and a police officer a good police officer has to do what he does not want to do. Or maybe we don’t know what happened. And a black man is shot. What is our first response? Lament.
It’s not the only response. But if an image bearer is killed, and whether they deserved it or not, our first response is not lament, something is wrong with us. Are we clear on that? Our first response does not mean to indict or vindicate, to point fingers at the police. That can’t be our first response. We’ve got to learn to lament as our first response.
I see it in my own heart. I want to immediately know who did it? Whose fault? To me it doesn’t matter what color. Whose fault is it? They pay. Don’t misunderstand me. There is a place for justice. We have to have that in our society. What I’m talking about is as the brothers and sisters in Christ, what is our first response? And I’ll tell you, that is going to take the training of the Spirit of God. Because that is not natural.
We must learn to weep with those who weep. And that is not just in a moment of tragedy. That is also in long term social ills. We can’t even think clearly about how to solve a problem if we can’t lament with those who are caught up in it.
So, I think the only way we can respond to reading a psalm like Psalm 80 and even looking at where we are in our country and what we long for is to actually lament. Again, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying we stop there. I’m saying today that’s where we need to start. So, let’s take some time to do that now. And I know some of you, the Spirit of God has spoken directly to your heart.
That lament may include repentance for some of us, repentance for passivity, for hard heartedness, defensiveness, prejudice. For others it may not include any of that. It’s just sorrow. Lord, this situation makes me sad, and I need to tell you about it. That is vital. Don’t minimize that. We won’t stop there, but we need to start there.