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Communal lament (April 25, 2021)

Uniform Lesson for April 25, 2021
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Lamentations 5

Last week’s theme of disgrace now bleeds into a full-throated lament of utter devastation: “women are raped in Zion, virgins in the town of Judah.” It is not surprising that the most familiar verses of Lamentations are not these, but rather the most hopeful stanzas in the entire book: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (3:22-23). We Reformed Christians are adept at praise, and will break into the chorus of “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” at the slightest provocation. But we are not as practiced in the chords of lamentation, nor are we as familiar with prophetic words of protest directed toward God. How might the words of a communal lament lead God’s people toward restoration, yesterday and today?

A traumatic tune

The book of Lamentations is often paired with the book of Jeremiah. Both books create a space for weeping. Lamentations looks back on the devastation of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and cries out in a series of acrostic (alphabetical) songs (there are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet). This seemingly artificial way of organizing Israel’s grief is a familiar pattern in Psalms, and may be a way of channeling and placing limits on otherwise unbounded sorrow.

Many victims of trauma testify that they find little room for their voices in mainline worship. There is a rawness and a pathos in these verses that makes the comfortable uncomfortable, and the nontraumatized anxious. But when a person or a community or a nation has been ravaged and destroyed, and that destruction continues without any recognition by others, a cry goes up and out from the traumatized, pleading for an audience with God.

Our primary picture of the prophets is that of a solitary figure confronting another human being with an accusation of injustice or an outcry against idolatry. But there is another tradition in the prophetic literature where the prophet gives voice to the people’s outcry, standing in the breach with God. Abraham did this on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Moses interceded repeatedly for God’s people while they were in the wilderness. Jeremiah cries out in a voice that sometimes makes audible the very weeping of God: “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!” (Jeremiah 9:1). There is indeed something worse than suffering: suffering in silence, alone and unheard. The prophetic voice in Lamentations refuses to remain silent as God’s people are raped and pillaged and cast into a pit from which there appears no escape. “The joy of our hearts has ceased; our dancing has been turned into mourning.”

Lamentations 5:1-16 — Remember

The first step toward restoration for the traumatized is for their suffering to be remembered: “Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us.” A family or community that buries its suffering and will not allow its victims to speak is one that cannot be healed, as it covers over its pain with cosmetic bandages and trivial worship. As the Jews look back on the 20th century and repeat their post-Holocaust cry of “Never forget,” so the prophet in Lamentations 5 lifts up her voice and calls on God and God’s people to remember Israel’s suffering centuries ago. Every day in our world there are people whose “inheritances have been turned over to strangers,” and whose homes have been given to “aliens.” Every hour someone becomes an orphan or a widow, and is forced to pay exorbitant prices for water to drink and wood to burn. While the prophet acknowledges that some of this suffering is grounded in God’s people’s sinfulness, she also makes clear that their suffering has continued past the point of recompense: “Our ancestors sinned; they are no more, and we bear their iniquities.” Such trauma cannot be silenced. It must be heard and remembered.

Lamentations 5:17-22 — Restore

Lamentations 5 builds to the point of the central protest: “Why have you forgotten us completely? Why have you forsaken us these many days?” And then, in the space between this verse and the next, the tone shifts, and a second imperative cries out to God: “Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old.” Then, as if such restoration is beyond what the traumatized can imagine, there comes a final, dissonant chord: “unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure.”

For discussion: In a world full of trauma, why are our prayers so “pretty” and our worship so “uplifting”?

RICHARD BOYCE is the dean of the Charlotte campus of Union Presbyterian Seminary, and associate professor of preaching and pastoral leadership. He is a minister member of the Presbytery of Western North Carolina.

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