Saturday, October 2, 2010

J'accuse: Lament as Accusation and Affirmation

RCL Proper 27C
3 October 2010

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Focus texts:  Lamentations 1.1-6 and Psalm 137

+ May only God’s truth be spoken.  May only God’s truth be heard.

            We celebrated Easter on the 6th of April in 1980, the spring of my second year in theological college.  Lent and Holy Week were intense periods of study, reflection and liturgical activity at Nashotah House and we were all looking forward to a toning down of the level of busyness.

            Although it was the beginning of April, winter had not yet loosed its grip on southern Wisconsin.  As Mrs Cannon, the wife of a first-year seminarian, brought her groceries home early in Easter Week, she decided to leave the baby in the car while she opened the garage door.  She put the car into ‘park’, but as she shut the door of the car, the vibration caused the transmission to shift from ‘park’ into ‘reverse’.  This design flaw had been recognized by engineers at the Ford Motor Company, but executives had determined that the cost of a recall would exceed the cost of likely personal injury litigation.  The car rolled down the driveway, across the street and into the pond their home faced.  Michael, the baby, drowned in his car seat despite the efforts of several neighbours to free him from the car while his mother, who could not swim, was restrained by her neighbours.

            Easter Week turned quickly from a respite from the intensity of the previous month for the six students who served as the sacristans, the liturgical staff of the Seminary’s chapel, who were recalled from our traditional liturgical ‘vacation’ and found ourselves in the midst of planning the liturgical structure within which the community could grieve.  At the first evening prayer following the news of Michael’s death, I remember being required to read the portion of 1 John that the Episcopal Church’s liturgical rites suggested for the funeral of a child:

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.  The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.  Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.  What we do know is this:  when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. (1 John 3.1-2)

I remember thinking as I read, “This doesn’t work right now.”

            Two days later we held Michael’s funeral.  The tiny coffin was brought into the Seminary’s chapel and a solemn requiem eucharist was celebrated.  We carried the coffin to the Seminary’s cemetery where Michael, as the child of a Nashotah House student, was entitled to be buried without charge.  We placed the coffin on the device that would lower it into the grave, but Michael’s coffin was too light to activate the mechanism.  For what seemed an hour, the mortuary staff manually operated the machinery to lower the coffin --- Clank!  Clank!   Clank!  Clank!  Clank!  I can still hear the sound clearly in my memory.

            Then the solemn words of commendation and the invitation to put dirt into Michael’s grave.  Because the ground had not yet entirely thawed from its winter sleep, there were numerous clods of earth in the heaped soil next to the grave.  The Cannons were first, as was only right and proper.  Mr Cannon took some soil and gently sprinkled over his son’s coffin.  Mrs Cannon came forward.  She took one of the clods of dirt and threw it at the coffin with all the force her body could muster.  The sound of the clod hitting the coffin echoed through the gathered community and the dent the clod had caused was visible to us all as we filed by to add our handful of soil to the grave.

Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!

            In Lamentations and Psalm 137 we hear the raw voices of those who have been torn from their homes, who have witnessed the destruction of the land promised to them by the God who brought them out of Egypt and who have seen the horror of war, a horror magnified by the brutality of warfare in the ancient world where cruelty was an expected means of ensuring the subjugation of one’s enemies.  Both writers refuse to turn their faces away from this reality and they are not afraid to confront God with the fundamental question:  Is what has happened to us a just response to our perceived failure to be faithful to the covenant?[1]

            One of the curious dimensions of both Lamentations and Psalm 137 is that God never speaks. 

Missing from the poetic voices in Lamentations is the voice of God.  The missing voice looms over the book.  The speakers refer to God, call for help, ask God to look,  accuse God of hiding from them, of attacking and forgetting them --- but God never responds. . . . Why is God silent?  No simple answer emerges.

Unlike other psalms of lament, Psalm 137 does not move from lament into affirmation of faith.  God does not respond to the complaint of the psalmist nor does God offer the promise of a future redemption that will make the present moment seem like a passing cloud in comparison with the joy to come.

            True lament, the true wailing that cannot be comforted, the throwing of a clod of dirt at the coffin that contains the remains of one’s hope, one’s joy, is first and foremost an accusation that the God of the covenant has not been faithful.  Lament is the courageous recognition that God is not only mysterious but seems often to forget the promises made to us through Abraham, renewed through the covenant at Sinai and sealed in the death and resurrection of Christ.  Lament is the willingness

  • to avoid moving too quickly to forgive God because we are creatures and God the creator,
  • to excuse God because God’s purposes are mysterious and beyond human knowing,
  • to explain why the innocent are brought low and the guilty are raised up,
  • to find reasons to swallow our righteous anger and indignation at a God who seems to hide behind notions of sovereignty and otherness while requiring us to stumble in the darkness of a world that at times has gone mad.

True lament, the lament that is willing to speak the unspeakable, is perhaps the only lament that truly heals because it is the only lament that speaks truly.  One commentator says the following about Psalm 137:

The psalm in its entirety, however, including its shocking conclusion, has much to teach us about prayer, about ourselves, and about God.  One thing it teaches us, for instance, is the lesson that in extreme situations, grief and anger are both inevitable and inseparable.  The worst possible response to monstrous evil is to feel nothing.  What must be felt --- by victims and on behalf of the victims --- are grief, rage, outrage.  In the absence of these feelings, evil becomes an acceptable commonplace.  In other words, to forget is to submit to evil, to wither and die; to remember is to resist, to be faithful, and to live again.[2]

            But if lament is an accusation, it is also an affirmation of faith.  When we read Lamentations in English, for example, we lose sight of the way in which the writer has structured his work.  In the midst of fragmentation and discontinuity, in the midst of raw emotions and grief, the writer uses an alphabetic acrostic for the first four poems.  In other words, as he struggles to give voice to his feelings, he begins each line with a word beginning with the appropriate letter of the Hebrew alphabet --- each poem twenty-two lines long, a line for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

The poet’s whole attempt to rend the chaos of his world into language, to contain his fragmented lyrics within the frame of the alphabetic acrostic, thus becomes an attempt to control and contain, and ultimately transform, the suffering and hurt that engulfed Jerusalem and its inhabitants.[3]

Lament must move from accusation to affirmation in order for those who grieve to reconstruct a future, different from what would have been, but a future in which life, the most sacred gift of God, will be affirmed.  To accuse God of not having acted is, in a curious way, to affirm that God can and does act in the arena of time and space.  In a peculiar way, lament moves from accusation to affirmation as an act of forgiveness, a recognition that God is still God even though God seems to have failed.

            My sisters and brothers, in so many ways we have all failed at one time or another to live courageously in our relationship with God.  We sometimes move too quickly into thanksgiving or into protestations of our own failures to be faithful or into convoluted explanations of why evil continues to hurt the children of God.  We are afraid to be honest with God and to lay before God the full depth and range of the emotions we feel when we witness the starvation and humiliation of millions of human beings.  We are afraid to acknowledge the feelings of anger, rage and outrage that arise in us as we view scenes of destruction and despair.  We are afraid to raise our communal fists to heaven and say, with one voice, “Where are you?  Why do you not act?  Do you not see how our sisters and brothers suffer?  Do you not care that your creation is being flayed alive and stripped of its skin?”

            But as lament moves from accusation to affirmation, as we forgive God and as we consider that we are not only victims but are sometimes victimizers, we begin to remember that we are called to be faithful to God’s purpose of life for all people.[4]  We can lay our deepest feelings before God so that “we begin a journey that transforms grief and anger into compassion; we affirm that life is lived and promised in the midst of death; and we anticipate and celebrate a resurrection power that frees us from captivity.”[5]

            But we should not move too quickly.

            How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?  We sing it with the full range of emotions God has given us

  • grief that gives way to hope
  • anger that gives way to justice
  • confusion that gives way to clarity
  • vengeance that gives way to compassion

That is path left to us by the writer of Lamentations who, even in the midst of confusion and sorrow, could say,

The thought of my affliction and my homelessness
            is wormwood and gall!
My soul continually thinks of it
            and is bowed down within me.
But this I call to mind,
            and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases,
            God’s mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
            great is your faithfulness.
“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul,
            “therefore I will hope in God.”

The Lord is good to those who wait for God,
            to the soul that seeks God.
It is good that one should wait quietly
            for the salvation of the LORD.

Giver of life, we wait with you to bear your hope to earth’s darkest places.  Where love is denied; let love break through.  Where justice is destroyed; let righteousness rule.  Where hope is crucified; let faith persist.  Where peace is no more; let passion live on.  Where truth is denied; let the struggle continue.  Amen.[6]

[1] The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. VI, 1021.

[2] The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IV, 1228.

[3] The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd ed., 1167-1168 Hebrew Bible.

[4] The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IV. 1229.

[5] The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IV. 1229.

[6] Janet Morley, Bread for Tomorrow, 97-98 altered.