lament

Lamenting the Very Good

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By Linda Rex

June 7, 2020, HOLY TRINITY—Lately it seems as though this has been a long, drawn-out season of lament. There have been repeated reasons to feel and express sorrow, to regret, to mourn over the loss of lives to mass shootings, natural disasters, and the most recent pandemic.

The exact figures of the lives lost just to COVID-19 are unknown, but according to the World Health Organization website on May 28th, there were 357,736 deaths reported worldwide. Where were these 357,736 people last year at this time? What were their lives like? How many lives did each one touch? What about their families and friends, work colleagues, and teachers? If we do not make the effort to lament, to grieve the loss of each of these people, then we lose our ability to value the worth of each human being we meet.

Our cellphones and other devices make it possible now to interact with a large number of people immediately, creating a response by what we post on social media or on websites. We can affect thousands and even millions of people simply by what we say or do, what pictures we take, and what movies we create. In the midst of this freedom of expression, we find ourselves exposed not just to the best of humanity, but also to the dredges.

Most recently a wave of protest erupted over a film posted which showed the unlawful use of power and authority by police against someone of color. The violent response of many to this event echoes the reality that here in the U.S. we still have not learned the true value of a human being. The fact that we still create artificial divisions between us using race, ethnicity, gender, income, intelligence—the list goes on—shows we still do not know our story and our identity as humans.

It is important that we lament our failure to love our fellowman. We fail so often to love our fellowman simply by refusing to give him or her the status of fellowman. By refusing to treat every other human being as an equal, we actually diminish our own dignity as human beings. We make ourselves less than what we were created to be—image-bearers of God himself, the One who did not think it beneath himself to come to earth and take on our human flesh, becoming what we are to bring us into union and communion with himself.

The COVID-19 crisis has exposed even more of our inhumanity, simply by putting leaders and caregivers in the position of having to decide who gets treatment and who does not, who is protected and who is not. It seems that, in reality, the decision being made is, who is expendable? Is it true that someone who has lived a long good life does not have the same value as someone who is just starting out? How is it than we can place a value on a human being based simply on their age or productivity?

Do you see the issues here? We are forced into a corner where we must make these impossible decisions, but at some point we have got to admit that we have made someone less than human in the process of trying to decide who lives and who dies. As human beings, we really have no excuse, for God has been trying to tell us for millennia that we are made by God’s love, to love him and one another. We must pause and lament our failure to love God and one another—we have failed to be the image-bearers of the Triune God we were meant to be.

In my book, Making Room, I talk about how we as human beings find our identity in the God who is Father, Son, and Spirit. This God was revealed by Jesus Christ to be three Persons in one Being—each unique yet equal to the others while united in unbreakable communion. This communion in which they exist, this perichoretic love, is the overflowing abundant source of our existence as human beings. We are made to be image-bearers of this God.

This is the same God who, after creating the cosmos, the earth and everything in it, pronounced it all very good. Even though he knew that we had the capacity to turn away from his love and attempt to live apart from his abiding presence, he still pronounced us very good. He still sought conversation and fellowship with Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. And even when they chose the knowledge of good and evil over real life in intimate relation with him, he covered it all with his love and grace as he covered them with animal skins.

In coming into our human flesh, the Word of God did not isolate himself from those who were less than him or who were powerless, but rather joined himself to them and gave them his presence and power. In Christ we have God restoring us to the very good which was ours in the very beginning. This above all things should teach us that to offer ourselves to those whom society deems less than or weaker than, giving them our strength, resources, and support, is to more accurately bear the image of the God who made us.

God is teaching me that one of the biggest obstacles that stands in the way of our offering ourselves to one another in this way is fear. Fear occurs when we do not know one another well—when we make assumptions based on past experience, hearsay, gossip, or someone else’s opinion and do not make the effort to get to know the person ourselves on a one-to-one basis. Our Scriptures say it is perfect love which casts out fear—that he who fears is not made perfect in love.

If God, in and through Christ and by the Spirit, can love each and every person on this earth enough to join us in our humanity, live the life we were meant to live, to die our death and rise again, and then come in the person of the Spirit to enable us to participate in the heavenly Triune fellowship, then I would say God has given us everything we need to begin to live in loving relationship with one another. The apostle Paul calls to us, “Strive for full restoration…be of one mind, live in peace.” We do this as the God of love and peace is in us and with us by the Spirit.

Let us lament our failures to love our brothers and sisters. Let’s turn away from ourselves and our stubborn willful independence and turn towards the One who offers us his grace and love, Jesus Christ. Receive from him the gift of life in union and communion with the God who made and sustains all things.

It is in this life with our Triune God, with Jesus as our Mediator between God and man, that we find the capacity and power to love and understand those whom we normally reject and fear. It is Christ in us by the Spirit who binds us together in oneness, enabling us to be likeminded and to live in peace with one another.

It is Jesus living his life in us who works to restore the image of God in each of us, bringing us to completeness, enabling us as human beings to properly reflect the image of the God who is three Persons in one Being. It is in the name of this Triune God—Father, Son, and Spirit—we are baptized, and it is at his table we take communion, gratefully receiving all he has done for us in Jesus. We live our lives from then on, showing those around us what it looks like to live in loving fellowship with God and our fellowman as image-bearers of the Trinity.

Abba, thank you for loving us in spite of our inability and unwillingness to live in loving relationship with one another. We are so dependent upon your grace and forgiveness for our prejudices, our hatred, our fear, our murder and abuse of those who you have given us as brothers and sisters. Lord, if you do not lift us up, renew and restore us, we have no hope—we trust in the finished work of Christ. Let your kingdom come, your will, Abba, be done here on earth, in every city, state, and nation, as it is in heaven, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.

“Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you.” 2 Corinthians 13:11 NIV

“God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. … By the seventh day God completed His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done.” Genesis 1:31a; 2:2 NASB

“And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’” Matthew 28:18–20 NASB

Keeping Vigil in Illness and Death

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By Linda Rex

April 11, 2020, HOLY SATURDAY, HOLY WEEK—Looking at the graphic on the cdc.org website each day, I am moved by the way the numbers have climbed in the past couple days of those infected with COVID-19. The number of fatalities have increased as well, and it pains me to accept the reality this isn’t going to get much better for some time. It is challenging to keep these numbers in perspective, remembering that substantial numbers of people also died during the same time due to other more mundane causes such as cancer, car accidents, drug overdose, suicide, and sadly, abortion.

In many ways, our observation of what is happening with this pandemic is like the picture described by the gospel writers as Jesus hung on the cross, breathed his last agonized breath, died, and was placed in a tomb. Gathered within eyesight of the cross were several of his followers, whose lives were being totally disrupted by the loss of their rabbi and friend. His disciples handled his crucifixion in different ways—some were not even present in his last moments. One had been his betrayer. But there were those who stayed and kept vigil with him.

Think of Mary standing there, who so many years before had uttered the simple words, “Let it be to me as you wish” and her life became a living sacrifice in service of the soon to be birthed Savior. She raised this child to manhood, relinquished him to his heavenly Father’s service, and traveled with him at times, supporting him in his ministry.

She stood there at the cross, watching the unthinkable happen to her son, maybe even in that moment finally recalling the prophetic words of Simeon, “a sword will pierce even your own soul.” Bound to Jesus with cords of love, she was comforted by his final wish, that John would care for her in her final days. This simple concern for her wellbeing while he was dying on the cross demonstrated a deep love and concern for Mary. How could she help but lament the loss of such a son?

The women not only watched Jesus as he breathed his final breath, but then followed Joseph of Arimethea and Nicodemus to the tomb. There the women sat across from the tomb as the men prepared Jesus’ body for burial. There was an urgent need to get it done before the sabbath began at sundown. When the men were finished, they pushed a stone across the front of the tomb. There Jesus laid, hidden from view, observed from a distance by the brokenhearted women who were his followers.

Lament is a healthy response to suffering and death. Dismay and concern are common feelings which rise out of one’s heart and mind—we lament the loss of all that is good, meaningful, treasured. We grieve the loss of what we cherish, the ending of those moments of connection, the changes in our everyday occurrences which are now forever altered. As we lament, we consider the ramifications of what just occurred or is occurring—our lives will be forever altered because of this moment, this unbearable change.

Some of us never allow ourselves to slow down long enough to even contemplate our losses, much less grieve them. To lament means taking the time to sit by the tomb and observe what is taking place, the reality of death and dying. It means allowing ourselves to feel our feelings and to accept that if or when that person dies, our world will never be the same ever again.

At first glance, death and dying are horrible bedfellows. Our natural response to death is to either fear it, resist it, or deny it. Or, possibly for some people, death can become so common in certain situations that we begin overlook it, becoming desensitized to the pain and suffering which go with it. Either way, we need to face death head on, keeping vigil with God at the tomb as what only he can do is accomplished—we need to rest in the tomb with Jesus, allowing him to be who he is as our Lord and Savior, in his death.

Going back to our story—the women watched the tomb, but could not open it. They were going to need help to get the stone moved so they could tend to Jesus’ body and use the ointments and spices would prepare. On the next day, the sabbath and holy day, the Jewish leaders went to Pilate and asked that the tomb be sealed shut and a guard be set over it. These leaders were so afraid that Jesus’ promise to rise from the grave would happen they had to find a way to prove it did not happen. The tomb was sealed shut and the guards posted.

But the vigil of the guards was much different than the vigil of the women. The women watched in sorrow, taking note of where Jesus was buried, hoping to tend to his body after the sabbath in addition to what Joseph and Nicodemus had already done. In time they went home to put together spices and ointments to bring back later.

Meanwhile, Roman soldiers were put in place by the Jewish leaders. The guards kept watch, protecting the tomb from tampering. They were indifferent to who was in the tomb and what might be going on inside the tomb. All they cared about was watching for anyone outside the tomb violating the seal.

In the same way today, our vigil in the midst of the pandemic can be focused on all of the externals, on all the possible violations of the rules, or on all of the bad outcomes that might occur due to COVID-19 and all the other scary stuff happening in the world right now. Or our focus can be on the One who is in the tomb and the hope which in ours in the midst of all this because he, for a time, laid in the grave just as each of us will one day.

Keeping vigil with Jesus as he hung on the cross and laid in the grave is a sobering reminder that there are parts of our broken humanity which needed to be crucified and to die—we all have places where we deny our personhood as image-bearers of our God. Our focus must be, not on all our failures to love, the tragedies of this world, and the suffering of our humanity, but on the One who lived our life and died our death. He is the one who carried our humanity into the grave and reformed it, as a caterpillar in a cocoon is metamorphosized into a beautiful butterfly.

Jesus had become a curse for us, had become sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him. What was happening in the tomb that Saturday involved each and every human being on earth—death itself was being invaded by Jesus and robbed of its power. No longer need death cause fear, dread and sorrow—we now can have hope. The morning would bring proof that there is nothing in this world that can separate us from God’s love—not even death on a cross. There is life beyond the grave. By faith, death becomes merely a door into an eternity in the presence of our loving God, with whom we will dwell in glory forever.

Thank you, Abba, for rescuing us from the jaws of death. Thank you, Jesus, for penetrating the gates of hell itself for our sake, so we could be once and for all free from the fear of death. Thank you, Holy Spirit, for all the ways you comfort us, heal us, and make real in us the finished work of Christ. Grant us the grace in the midst of illness, suffering, and dying, to trust in your healing power and presence, find comfort and peace in your love, and keep our eyes on Jesus our Lord and Savior. Amen.

“This I recall to my mind, | Therefore I have hope. | The LORD’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, | For His compassions never fail. | They are new every morning; | Great is Your faithfulness. | ‘The LORD is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘Therefore I have hope in Him.’” Lamentations 3:21–24 NASB

See also Matthew 27:57–66, John 19:38–42, and 1 Peter 4:1–8.

Learning to Lament

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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.