Learning to Lament
by Linda Rex
Yesterday I began my section of the service by reading portions of some news stories about mass murders both here in American and in the world outside our borders. These stories effectively illustrate the brokenness of our humanity—the natural inclination of the human heart towards evil. One of the hardest things for us to admit as human beings is our proclivity toward harming ourselves and others.
It is easy to read these stories and say to ourselves, “I would never do anything like that! Not ever!” And yet, we find ourselves yelling at our children, crucifying their self-esteem, because they leave the milk out all night, or drop our favorite dishes and break them.
Listening to these stories may awaken a lot of feelings inside of us—feelings we often do our best to ignore, bury or dismiss by the flurry of a busy life. These feelings of devastation or grief at such great loss, or raging anger at such injustice can overwhelm us so much we find refuge in our addictions, or bury ourselves in endlessly new forms of entertainment. Or we may lash out in a violent rage, thereby perpetuating injustice and evil rather than ending it. Facing the reality of our broken humanity, and our own proclivity to harm others and to be unjust is hard work and requires a lot of fortitude.
I believe it would be a good thing if we each could learn and practice what is essentially a spiritual discipline. We need to learn to lament—to learn how to listen to the cry of our heart against evil, pain, and destruction, to allow it to speak to us about who God is and who we are in the midst of our brokenness, and to motivate us to participate in God’s work in the world to right such wrongs. Learning to lament can teach us how to encounter God and his Light in the midst of the very darkness which seeks to destroy us.
When we are made aware of or experience a devastating loss, a horrendous injustice, or a crushing inhumanity, we need to pause and pay attention to what is happening in our hearts. We need to lament. We need to stay in this place long enough to ask God—”How do you feel about this? Holy Spirit, enable me to see, to hear and to know your heart about this right now.”
The reason we lament is to come to a realization of what is going in our own hearts and how it mirrors what is going on in the heart of God. What you feel about these losses, injustices, and inhumane events—your pain, your sorrow, your anger, your desire to avenge the wrongs—this is a reflection of God’s heart.
And yet, how God deals with these things and has dealt with them is different than how we as humans believe things should be handled. And so we do not recognize God is at work in these situations. He is at work—he does not ignore any of this. But how do we know this is true?
First, I believe we have an answer in the prophetic word of Isaiah where he spoke about the Suffering Servant who was to come and who did come in the person of Jesus Christ. Look at what he wrote:
“He has no stately form or majesty that we should look upon Him, nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him. He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and like one from whom men hide their face he was despised, and we did not esteem Him. Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried; yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.” (Isa 53:2b-4 NASB)
We hear Isaiah telling us about the Anointed One, who was just like you and me, but was despised by the people around him. Often people say that God is the one who inflicted pain and suffering on his Son, but in reality it was we as human beings, who tortured and crucified Jesus Christ unjustly. Going on:
“But He was pierced through for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him. He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth; like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, so He did not open His mouth. By oppression and judgment He was taken away; and as for His generation, who considered that He was cut off out of the land of the living for the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due?” (Is 53:5–8 NASB).
The Creator and Sustainer of all life and every human being took on our humanity and allowed us to pour out on him all our prejudice, anger, hate, fear, rebellion, and all those inner drives which divide us. Jesus walked as a lamb to the slaughter, silent, with no refusal to anything done to him. He took on himself God’s passion against sin by receiving from us all our hate, anger, fear, prejudice and rebellion and becoming sin for us, in our place.
God’s heart about all these things we are talking about is compassion—he enters into our brokenness and sin and suffering and shares it. He became the Word in human flesh (sarx), the broken part of us, and became sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God in him, righteousness meaning we are brought into right relationship with God and one another.
The meeting place between every human being on earth is Christ, the One who is fully God and fully man, who tore down every wall between us in his incarnational life, suffering, death, resurrection and ascension. God has forged a oneness between all of us in his Son which is unbreakable—yet we experience none of it as long as we deny this reality.
God has already entered into our darkness, fully received our rage against him in his rejection, crucifixion and death, and has already translated us, taken us out of that darkness into his marvelous light, into his kingdom of light. God has already paved the way to our healing and wholeness as human beings by pouring out his passion against all that mars our true humanity, all our divisions, all those things which separate us by taking it upon himself in his Son.
One of the basic lies of the evil one since the beginning has been, you are separated from God and each other. And unfortunately, we believe him. God is one—a unity, a whole, in which each are equal yet diverse. God is love—dwells in perichoretic relationship of mutual indwelling. This is the God in whose image we were created. We were created to live in this way—to love God and to love our neighbor—this is who we are.
God knew beforehand in our humanity alone, we could and never would live together in this way, even though it was what we were created for. Abba planned from before time to send his Son to enter our humanity, knowing his Son would take upon himself the worst of all we are as humans, but in doing so his Son would by the love and grace of all he is, perfect and transform our humanity.
All that Christ forged into our humanity in his life on earth, his suffering, his crucifixion, death and resurrection, and ascension, is ours today and is being worked out in this world by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is at work right now bringing this perfected humanity and the kingdom life of God into real expression in the world. We see the Spirit most active in the universal body of Christ where there is true perichoretic love—we know Christ’s disciples by their love for one another.
You and I participate in the Spirit’s transforming work in the world as we respond in faith to his work in our hearts and lives. If you know what God’s heart is about all these things which are happening today—that God’s heart is full of compassion and concern and a desire to bring people together, and to help heal relationships—then you know how to participate in what God is doing in the world today by his Spirit to make things better.
God doesn’t do everything alone—he includes us in what he’s doing.
The reason things aren’t getting better but are getting worse may be because we are quenching the Spirit of God, we are closing our hearts to God’s power and will being activated in our circumstances. Sometimes we don’t listen to and obey the promptings of the Spirit to pray, or to say a kind word, or to help those in need, or to encourage those who are suffering. Sometimes we refuse to listen to the prompting of the Spirit who is asking us to forgive a wrong, to go make things right with someone we are estranged from. Sometimes we refuse to hear God’s call on our heart to intervene in a difficult situation and to act as a mediator.
And sometimes we refuse to set aside our own prejudices and expectations, and our own animosity against someone of a different culture, race, ethnic group, or belief system. We hold onto our grudges, our resentments, our anger, our sense of injustice instead of obeying God’s command to forgive. We feel we are owed something better.
But I ask you: What could anyone possibly owe us which would even come close to what we owe Abba after all we did to his Son when Jesus came to offer us life and we killed him? Nothing. Nothing at all.
Thankfully, though, God does not leave us in our pain, our brokenness, anger, resentment and sorrow. No, he meets us there. Our failure to live in love with God and each other is the very place God entered into in Christ. He meets us in our failure to live in love and says to you and to me: I am yours and you are mine.
It is God’s nature in our humanity by the Spirit which brings us together and joins us at our core humanity. Abba has declared his Word to us: “My adopted children, the whole human race, are diverse, yet equal, and are to live united, as a whole, as one body. They are never separated from me or each other.” Abba has sent his Son, the living Word, into our humanity to join us with himself and one another—this is our union with God and man. We are always united with God and man through Jesus Christ.
Abba has poured out his Spirit on all flesh so we might live together in holy communion both now and forever. The Spirit works out into all our relationships with God and one another this true reality of our union with God in Christ. This is the true reality of who you are and who I am. You are an adopted child of Abba, the Father, and he has bound you to himself in his Son, Jesus Christ, and to one another. The person next to you is also an adopted child. And the person you just can’t stand is also an adopted child, whether you like it or not, and whether they know it or not.
The Spirit’s work is to bring each person to an understanding and awareness of this reality of who they really are. You and I participate in that work as we respond to the Spirit’s inspiration to bring healing, renewal, restoration, forgiveness, understanding, and reconciliation. God has given us the ministry of reconciliation, for he has reconciled all things to himself in Christ Jesus. And by the Spirit we participate in that ministry in the world.
Let us through lamenting face the truth of our brokenness and the horror of our depravity. May we see Jesus meets us there in that place with his mercy and grace. May we understand Jesus has bound us together with God in himself so we are never to be separated ever again—we live in union with God and one another forever. And may we indeed find by the Spirit who dwells in us, we are reconciled to God and one another, so we have the heart of Abba and Jesus to make amends, to create community, to restore relationships with God and each other, and so we are able to experience true spiritual communion with God and one another.
The power of lament is the power of the gospel. The power of lament is the power of the Spirit to call us back to the truth of who we are in Christ, and the reality of our reconciliation to God and one another in the finished work of Christ. Let us respond to God’s call upon our hearts to be reconciled. As we live in this reality of who we really are, as God’s adopted children, in our diversity, our equality and our unity in Christ, we will find our world being transformed, healed and renewed.
Thank you, Abba, for your heart of love and grace which you share with us through your Son and by your Spirit. May your heart of love and grace which you place within us find full expression in every area of our lives, and in the world in which we live. Through Jesus and by your Spirit, we pray and we work to participate fully in all you are doing to bring healing, renewal, reconciliation and transformation to this world. Amen.
Losing My Identity, or Finding It
by Linda Rex
This afternoon I was wandering about in a car lot in the blazing hot sun trying to find a particular automobile. I had spent hours researching this project and I was determined to find what I believed would be the solution to my transportation issues. I was growing hotter and sweatier and no closer to my goal, and was beginning to think the whole thing was a bad idea, when a young man in a golf cart stopped me and asked if he could help.
I was grateful to be allowed to explain my dilemma and to take a seat in the shade of the cart’s canopy. My simple request was one he was immediately able to offer me an acceptable answer to. And in the end, the result of his helpful assistance was I ended up in the showroom filling out documents which would ultimately lead to me being the happy new owner of another pre-owned car.
As I was filling out this form and that form, and handing over my license and credit card, and giving my personal information, I grew more and more nervous. I don’t like having to give a perfect stranger this type of information. How do I know whether they will use it only for the purpose for which it is intended? With all the stories I’ve heard about identity theft, I get the willies about freely disbursing my personal information.
My only hope is in the mercy of a loving God. Dear Lord, I thought, please make them blind to what they see, deaf to what they hear and forgetful to what they’ve had access to. It’s kind of chilling for me to be putting myself at someone’s mercy in this way. My only hope is a gracious God looking out for me.
Later I got to thinking about this whole situation and about my discomfort with it. So much is bound up in our identity nowadays. We can’t get a job without certain documents, and we can’t make purchases or have a bank account without specific documentation.
Our identity seems to be boiled down to a social security number, a birth certificate, a passport or a driver’s license. Our place in the world, and our ability to function in this culture, is based on a few facts, numbers and letters. All it takes it is someone to “borrow” that information and we’re sunk.
This put me in mind of what is written in Genesis about our beginnings as human beings. We were made in the image of the God who is Father, Son and Spirit. This God said we are made to live in loving relationship with him and one another, and as men and women, to be like him. And he declared this creation to be “very good”.
Isn’t it interesting what the serpent said to the man and the woman—that if they ate of the tree which was forbidden, their eyes would be opened and they would be like God? I am grateful to the person who reminded me of what God had done in the first place—human beings already were like God—they were made in God’s image. So they did not need to eat anything to become what they already were!
It seems we as human beings have spent millennia trying to become what God has already declared we are. And God came in human flesh to finish what he began by making humanity in his image. In fact, in Hebrews it says Jesus Christ was the exact replica of his Father. In Jesus, our humanity takes on its most perfect form, and he, by the Spirit, is working this out in each of us, making us into the humanity we were meant to be—made in the image of God.
Our identity—something we are usually so busy trying to create and protect—is not really bound up in all the things we think it is bound up in. Yes, we need ways to function in this culture so we can buy, sell, interact and do all the things we do as humans. But even so, our real identity is not something external to us, or something which can be placed upon us. Our identity is not determined by other people, or by our feelings and desires, or by our parents. Our identity is so much more fundamental than that.
Being made in the image of the God who called himself “I Am” means we as human beings are all who God declares we are. The evil one constantly tries to tell us, as he did Adam and Eve, we are not, and we believe him. Just take a minute to think about all the times you, and I, have believed the lying tapes which run in our heads and say, “I am not smart; I am not pretty; I am not loveable; I am going to amount to anything; I am not good.”
These lying tapes even tell us what we are: “I am a jerk; I am worthless; I am a failure.” It seems the evil one always knows exactly what to tell us about who we are so we will be stopped from being those things which truly reflect the divine glory which is ours. He doesn’t want us to shine with the image of God, and so he does everything he can to divert our attention from the truth that we already are God’s image bearers, and in Christ we can live like we are by the Spirit.
The evil one seeks to steal, besmirch and destroy our identity every chance he gets. He even uses human beings to take from us what is rightfully ours, so we lose faith in ourselves, our world, and even our God. How devastating to lose our identity! And yet most of us don’t realize we haven’t lost the identity God gave us when he created us, and which he redeemed through his Son Jesus.
God knows who we really are. And he constantly speaks to us through his Spirit and his Word, reminding us of the reality we are his adopted children, made in his image to reflect his nature and to share in his love and life. This is the truth, and all the evil one’s efforts to steal this from us are fruitless. Because in Jesus, God has bound us to himself with cords of love, and has reaffirmed in his Son we reflect the exact image of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Our true identity is secure in Jesus Christ. And that, we can count on.
Thank you, Father, for determining from the beginning we would reflect your image and likeness. Thank you for sending your Son to become human as we are human so our broken humanity might be redeemed and restored to reflect your glory. Thank you we share in your identity even now. And even though someone may steal from us the items which we use to identify ourselves in this world, we are still secure in our true identity as your image bearers. Comfort us with your tender, protective care—watch over your children and keep us and those things which are ours, safe. Defend us. Our trust is in you, through your Son Jesus. Amen.
“God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” Genesis 1:27 NASB
But What About Positive Expectations?
Wednesday night at our Hermitage small group we were discussing “Killing Expectations”. Judy, who leads discipleship class at in our church, brought up an excellent question. As a former school teacher, she was familiar with the use of positive expectations in helping children to achieve their personal best in school. So, what about positive expectations—aren’t they a good thing?
What I gathered from the ensuing discussion was that we need to clarify the difference between expectations of performance based on subjective standards with the more objective standards of being which have their basis in the Being of God. Expectations of being involve our character, personality, temperament, and aptitudes—in other words, our capacity as human beings—something that is unique to each person.
These expectations of being have their basis in God, and like the nature of God’s Being, they reflect the Persons who exist in loving communion, in unity, diversity and equality. Jesus Christ, who is the perfect reflection of the Father, is the supreme standard from which all humans draw their being. And Jesus performed perfectly all that is expected of each of us during his life here on earth, and died and rose in our place. He took up into himself our humanity with all its missing of the mark and failure to meet expectations, and he stands in our place.
God calls us to put on Christ—to put on his perfected humanity—so that we can and will become all that God intended each of us to be as humans. God’s expectations, whatever they are, are fulfilled in Christ, and now he calls us to participate in Christ’s perfected humanity, to grow up into Christlikeness.
The thing is, we tend to read the scriptures, with its lists of commandments, from the viewpoint of expectations that God has for us. We read the scriptures backwards, putting performance first, and then grace and love. But God always puts grace and love first.
For example, we say we have to keep the Ten Commandments or we are worthy of death and God will punish us. Then we say, if we repent and confess our breaking of these commandments, then God will forgive us and we will be saved. This puts grace after law instead of prior to it.
We can forget that before God ever gave any commandments, he made a covenant agreement—something which was not based on performance, but on the love, grace and character of God. God rescued his people from slavery, not because they were good, obedient people, but because he loved them, had made a commitment to them, and they needed saving. He was the one who over the centuries, not only guaranteed the keeping of the covenant, but also renewed it over and over whenever it was broken.
Jesus in his life, ministry and teaching, put grace first. For example, in Mark 2, we read the story of a man who was paralyzed, whose friends brought him to Jesus to be healed. What’s interesting is that Jesus saw the faith of his friends, not the paralyzed man’s faith. And the first thing he said to him was not “Repent and believe”, nor was it “Be healed!” No, it was “Son, your sins are forgiven.” The first thing Jesus addressed in this situation was forgiveness—something only God could give, and he gave it without any expectations in advance.
Later, after dealing with the unbelieving scribes, Jesus gave the man a command—to pick up his bed and walk, to act upon the forgiveness he had given him. Obedience to Jesus followed receiving forgiveness for sins the man hadn’t even confessed. Grace before law. How counterintuitive is that?
That beautiful phrase Jesus spoke on the cross, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing,” shows us again that God’s heart of grace precedes any command God may give us. W. Paul Young in “The Shack”, points out that it isn’t God’s nature to put expectations on us, so much as it is to wait with expectancy to see what we will do and how we will do it. God already knows the extent of our inability to reflect his perfection. And it does not keep him from loving us and encountering us in grace. His focus is on his relationship with us, not on our performance.
Whatever lists of things we find in the Bible that tell us what we should do and how we should live are not prescriptive—as in a doctor’s order for medicine. But rather they are descriptive. They describe what it looks like when we live in union and communion with the Father, Son and Spirit and are fully sharing in their Triune love and life. Not doing these things means we are not living in agreement with who we are as God’s beloved children, and so we will experience painful consequences as a result. And God doesn’t want that for us.
So, going back to the question of positive expectations. We need to keep in mind what we are talking about isn’t necessarily expectations of being, but mostly probably expectations of doing. We are expecting a person to perform in a certain way or to achieve a certain standard. These standards may be established by institutions, society, businesses, or even by people. Often these standards do not take into account the reality that people are unique and don’t all perform or achieve in the same way or to the same level.
Benchmarks, such as those used by schools to monitor their students’ scholastic performance, are useful tools. They encourage achievement and improvement, and help prevent failures in learning or service. They can be quite subjective, depending on how they are defined and assessed. They most likely do not take into account differences in being or circumstance, or relational factors such as grace and love.
We would like people to achieve their personal best and be effective contributors to the overall goals of the group. But unless we remember that we are all persons, with limitations and brokenness that inhibit our perfect performance in every situation, we will hold others to expectations that may be destructive rather than life-giving. The key, I believe is relationship—grace and love first. Then expectations or rules. In that order.
Thank you, Father, that you were the first One to move in our relationship with you. You forgave us long before we even realized we needed forgiveness. Thank you that you did not wait for us to say or do the right thing first, but you went ahead and offered us grace anyway. Grant us the heart and will to offer forgiveness freely to others as you have offered it to us. And may we always live in a way that shows our gratitude through love and obedience. Through Jesus and by your Spirit, amen.
“And Jesus seeing their faith said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Mark 2:5