The scripture text
for our reflection this morning comes from the third chapter of
Lamentations. You will find it on page 669 in your pew Bibles, and
I do invite you to follow along. I'm going to read from a
different translation, however. It never hurts to compare and
contrast, I think it adds to our understanding of scripture when we read
This morning I've
chosen the Contemporary English Version to read because I find it
especially provocative in the language that is used by these translators
of this very challenging passage:
I have suffered much
because God was
angry. 2He chased me
into a dark place,
where no light could
enter. 3I am the
only one he punishes
over and over again,
4God caused my skin
and flesh to waste
away, and he crushed
my bones. 5He
surrounded me with
trouble; 6he forced
me to sit in the
dark like someone
7God built a fence
around me that I
cannot climb over,
and he chained me
down. 8Even when I
shouted and prayed
for help, he refused
to listen. 9God put
big rocks in my way
and made me follow a
10God was like a
bear or a lion
waiting in ambush
for me; 11he dragged
me from the road,
then tore me to
took careful aim and
shot his arrows
my heart. 14I am a
joke to everyone--
no one ever stops
making fun of me.
15God has turned my
16He made me eat
gravel and rubbed me
in the dirt. 17I
cannot find peace or
18I tell myself, "I
am finished! I can't
count on the LORD to
do anything for me."
19Just thinking of
my troubles and my
makes me miserable.
20That's all I ever
think about, and I
21Then I remember
something that fills
me with hope.
fails! If he had not
been merciful, we
would have been
23The LORD can
always be trusted to
show mercy each
morning. 24Deep in
my heart I say, "The
LORD is all I need;
I can depend on
Now, you're used to
hearing me expound on the Scriptures to provide some enlightenment to
the text. But this morning I'm not going to do that just yet (I
will get there). But this morning we want to take this scripture
and just let it sink in. To spend a little bit of time in
meditation and silence as we all struggle to find the meaning, and
answers to difficult questions in life.
Our New Celebration
Singers will lead us in song, after which we'll have a period of
silence, and then they'll bring us out of that silence.
So, be honest -- is
anyone thinking "Is God like that?". Is that passage really in the
Bible? The first time I read this text, I thought "Wow, this is
some serious pain and grief". I could make light about it,
identifying with the Bruins or something [the Ducks beat the Bruins the
day prior to this sermon], but it's not that kind of text.
April did a wonderful
job for us last Sunday, introducing us to
the book of Lamentations. I'll not repeat that, except to note
for the sake of those who weren't here last week that the book of
Lamentations is a poem, or actually 5 poems, one for each chapter.
And the first 4 poems are acrostic poems. Know what an acrostic
poem is? It's a poem in which the first line begins with a letter
of the alphabet, in alphabetical order.
The first two poems
have 22 verses, because there are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet.
And the 4th chapter does too. Chapter 3 has 66 verses. Why?
It repeats each letter 3 times. So the first 3 verses all begin
with 'alpha'. Kind of like "A" is for Arizona Wildcats, "B" is for
Bruins of UCLA, "C" is the California Bears, "D" is for the Ducks that
will rule them all J.
Now that's poetry! It can bring tears to your eyes
It's pretty hard to
reproduce that kind of poetry in a translation like this. What
isn't hard to see in the translation is the depth of the pain and the
suffering. Pure grief, as April put it for us last Sunday.
And in the case of Lamentations, it is the overwhelming sorrow of the
survivors after the unthinkable and total devastation of Jerusalem (when
the Babylonians destroyed that city and took the people into exile).
Now, human nature
being what it is, we find it difficult to identify with collective pain,
the pain of an entire nation. The plight of 46 million uninsured
people in our country may not move us, but when we have a friend who
needs help, someone who is struggling to pay their medical bills, then
we don't hesitate to help -- to hold fundraisers, to write letters, to
do whatever it takes. When we hear that story of the young woman
who was denied a liver transplant because her insurance company
considered it to be experimental, and then reversed themselves only
because of the public outcry. But it was too late. She died
within hours of the reversal. Then we are outraged, and moved to
We know war is a
terrible tragedy, but it is not until we know the individuals killed or
maimed and we see the anguish of those families struggling with that
pain that we can feel it, at a very personal level.
When I was at Yad
Vashem last year in Jerusalem, the Holocaust memorial, walking through
the exhibits was an incredibly somber and powerful experience. But
it was not until I entered into the Children's Memorial that the weight
of it all really hit me.
That memorial could
be contained in its entirety right here, in this sanctuary. A
building all to itself. You go in, and it's very dark and filled
with mirrors. The only light is from candles. You can't tell
if there's 10 or 100 or 1,000, as they're reflecting off of the mirrors.
And you walk through in complete silence as you hear the names of over
1,000,000 children being read in an un-ending loop. I have no idea
it takes, but know this: it takes a long time.
You hear each of
those names one at a time, and in the dark glass, you see faces that
look remarkably like your own.
And boy, does it move
you. It's hard. It's hard to make that walk.
So the poet of
Lamentations describes the suffering of the nation not by the numbers
afflicted, not by all the buildings destroyed, not by all that mass
suffering, but by the suffering of a single individual. The
daughter of Zion in the first two chapters, and here in chapter three,
the strong man. Perhaps a soldier whose strength only becomes
cause for ridicule as one who is now helpless.
The last three verses
of the text will sound familiar to you because it's an inspiration for a
hymn, you will find it on the insert for our "New Love, New Mercy"
stewardship campaign: "But this I call to mind, and therefore I
have hope that 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 have hope".
Great is God's
faithfulness. And so it provides a powerful witness in the midst
of enormous pain and suffering, that there is always hope. Even
when all the evidence may be to the contrary, there still remains hope
because of God's faithfulness.
Now, from the
perspective of the poet, the devastation is so great, the only
explanation he can find is that it must be God's doing. And so in
the midst of his deepest despair, the strong man cries out 'God, how can
you be so cruel?' And it's an accusation for sure, but more than
anything else, it is the expression of pure grief.
Like the six year-old
who does not yet understand the frailties of life and blames Mom or Dad
for the death of a pet put to sleep that has been injured or is ill:
"You killed Muffin!". The wise parent instinctively knows what is
needed is not to defend your actions, but to comfort your child.
So the strong man
shakes his fist at God like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof and when all of
his rage has been poured out there for all to see, the one accused is
still there. Like the father of the Prodigal Son, waiting with
And having gotten it
all off of his chest, unloading all of his theological garbage and
accusations blaming God for his suffering, then, and only then,
precisely then, the strong man and poet alike realizes that what
he has charged is not God's character after all. That it is simply
not God's nature to abandon anyone, and certainly not God's people.
And so there remains amidst all the ruins of the city and the
devastation of the survivors the one thing that keeps them going:
Among all the
criticism of the Nobel Committee for the selection of President Obama
for the Peace Prize, it has been suggested that the one thing he has
done in such a young administration without any evidence to warrant this
prize, the one thing he has done if not for people in this country then
for people in many parts around the world has been to give them hope.
That there is a different way of being in this world. One should
never sell short the importance of hope.
Now, I'd like to tell
you that this is where the book of Lamentations ends, you know, we
always want to end on an up note, the positive, on hope. But, I
have to be honest, chapters 4 and 5 pick up the lamentation again, the
grief and the sorrow. And so these verses of hope rise above the
text in a sea of sorrow like a small island in a vast ocean. They
remind us that life is a mixture of pain and joy. Of grief and
hope. And not every ending is a happy one.
A week before
Christmas last year, as many of you know, our daughter Paulina when
through some pretty intense back surgery and her parents through some
very intense anxiety. I think most parents can identify with that.
She was released on the morning of Christmas Eve, and being the stubborn
daughter of her father (I don't know where that comes from
she insisted on coming to the late Christmas Eve service. And so a
little before 11:00 p.m., I walked her down that aisle, Paulina with her
walker, walking very carefully, father next to her watching very
closely. She could not sit, and so I laid her down right there in
that front pew very gingerly.
Sitting right behind
her, I saw University of Oregon President Dave Frohnmayer and his wife.
Now, I have always been a great admirer of President Frohnmayer. I
think he's done a great job. I know there's been some criticism,
but now a much deserved retirement, continues to teach in the Law
School. He gave one of the best speeches on the issue of religious
freedom I've ever heard at the Interfaith Breakfast a couple years ago.
So I've always admired him.
But it was the way he
and his wife dealt with the tragedy of their family (that I think most
of you know about) -- a rare genetic disorder that took the life of
their first daughter. Then their second daughter. And how
they have changed that pain and used it as a catalyst for hope, to
create a program to find a cure for the disease.
As I carefully lay my
daughter on the pew, all I could think about was their third daughter,
who carries those same genes. I don't know what was in their minds
(probably something entirely different) but I know that night I had a
lump in my throat as I gave praise to God for the birth of a child, and
tears on my cheeks as I sang and shared the life of Christ with my prone
but very vibrant daughter.
Life can be so
wonderful, and so unbearable. Were it not for the former, who
could survive the latter? Were it not for the joy, how would we
get through the pain?
Lamentations may fall back into the bottomless pit of despair, must we?
Can we, instead of being defined by our pain, transform it into
something good and life-affirming? Can we not build on that hope,
and count on the love? Draw on that faithfulness promised by God
to give birth through our pain to something far greater?
In his book, "The
Authority of Those Who Have Suffered", Richard Rohr says that the litmus
test to determine who has a healthy or unhealthy religion is this:
"What do they do with their pain? And even their daily little
disappointments? Do they transform it, or do they transmit it?"
You see, if your
faith does not help you transform your pain, says Rohr, it is junk
religion. And we all know people who transmit their pain.
They're not fun people to be around. You know, life is miserable,
so the way they make it better is by making you miserable too
We can share the misery, multiply the misery
"Whoever teaches you
how to transform your own suffering into compassion", writes Rohr, "is a
true spiritual authority. Whoever teaches you to project your
doubts and fears onto Jews, Muslims, your family, heretics, gays,
sinners, foreigners, and the list could go on and on, or even to turn it
against yourself, shame and guilt has no spiritual authority.
People who are practiced at transforming actual life pain", says Rohr,
"like Jesus on the cross, are the only spiritual authority worth
following. They know. The rest of us just talk".
So what enables us to
move from transmitting pain to transforming it?
Some do it through
therapy. Some use art. Some work it out through physical
exercise. Others in support groups. Some through prayer.
And some in voluntary service.
Whatever you use,
however you do it, you have to do it yourself. As the old gospel
hymn says, you have to walk through that lonesome valley, nobody else
can do it for you. You have to do it yourself.
And here's the thing:
that which enables you to do that, to walk through the valley of the
shadow of death as the Psalmist puts it, to give you the strength to
survive, to stand up to the abuse and say that you will no longer be the
victim. To persist when all odds are against you. To never
give up because there is always hope.
That source of hope,
that power of life, is the source and the power of the resurrection.
It is the source and the power of transforming pain. It is the
source and the power for changing lives. It is the source and the
power for transforming our faith. It is the source and the power
for changing the world.
It is the source and
the power that we have from God. It is that source and that power
that we claim as the people of God. It is the source and the power
that builds us and gives us hope.
Great is God's
faithfulness. Claim it, that source, that power, to be your own.