Tuesday, October 02, 2007

A Lament for the City

A Lament for the City

The Lament is an exquisite literary form that expresses something deep in human experience. There are times when it seems appropriate for a lamentation: such as when we saw the Twin Towers fall in New York. Thousands died. Heroic first responders gave their lives for those that were doomed as well as those who could be saved. The image of those towers gleaming against the clear blue sky and airplanes hurtling toward them will be forever fixed in our collective memory. And so we lament our loss.

So too those who live in Baghdad; they too grieve a grief too deep for words. The city is in ruins. The Great Museum is all but bereft of her treasures. Explosions kill innocents in the marketplace and worse still in the holy shrines. Terrible mistakes are made by the occupation force. A foreign army is misunderstood and resented and its commander in chief seems out of his depth in managing its deployment. And we, desperate to support our young people are so divided over whether we know what we’re doing there. And on and on it goes without an end in sight.

We will remember Pearl Harbor forever, and certainly our parents and grandparents will never forget. Those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are swept away with a blast that humankind had never seen before. London’s fearful nights and the dreadful incendiary attack against Dresden during World War II also elicit a profound lament from the human soul.

Jerusalem has seen it all too often, and the Walls of Jericho, that ancient city, have fallen at least 28 times if the archeologists are right about the way they read the Tell that is there.

And so the lamentations of human kind are all too pervasive in history. Can we find a way to sing the songs of our lamentation to God that can bring us hope or do we only find despair in our human experience?

Jesus tells us all we need is the faith of a mustard seed to make the mountains move. And Jesus goes one step further. He assures us that we already have enough faith to take us all the way to our deepest hopes. The greatest mountain to be moved is the rock that was moved away from the tomb in which Jesus lay.

Alleluia! The Lord is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Thus the Lamentation is written in the human heart and in the heart of God as something to remind us of something larger still. The Lamentation is only one verse in the Song of God. This week let us sing on toward the place where God’s hope and ours meet even when it begins with the sorrow of our common Lamentation.


Imagine if you will what it would be like to be taken “en masse” from our homes and placed in slave labor for an enemy under force of arms. Imagine if you will, our faith taken away from us, and our holy places left in a heap of ruins. Imagine generations and generations of our people thus kept for many, many years. That is exactly what did happen to the children of Israel and thus the book of Lamentations came into existence. The prophets were never trusted after that. They were often anti-war activists and were considered unpatriotic.

One after another, the prophets railed against the corruption of the Kings of Israel. Each king was a little worse that their predecessor, according to the record of the kings and the theological proclamation of the prophets. And to be faithful to God meant to tell the truth, even if it was at the cost of personal freedom and safety. Jeremiah and a host of prophets were thus quite shabbily treated by their own people. It is remarkable that their writings have reached us.

It was in the crucible of this kind of conflict that the Lament was developed as a literary art form. To be able to be so utterly honest with God in our spirituality, ultimately also assists in the discovery of the grace of hope.

The alternate Psalm for the day, Psalm 137 is another articulate lament, but in this case it culminates in a dreadful imprecation on the enemy.

Happy shall he be who takes your little ones, *
and dashes them against the rock!

Understandable to be sure; it was entirely likely that Israel’s precious little ones were likewise treated. And so the ethic of an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was thus proclaimed. But as history’s tiresome repetition shows, such an ethic leads only to a world where everyone is blind and all are toothless, as Gandhi so succinctly pointed out in the wisdom and humor of his understanding of the human heart.

St. Paul urges his people on in his letter to Timothy, with comforting and inspiring words. He is, interestingly enough, quite affirming of the feminine spirituality of Lois and Eunice, which belies his own admiration for those of faith whoever they are. In his better moments, Paul does see that we are one in Christ whether we are slave or free, Jew or Greek, male or female. Even more astutely Paul encourages us not to succumb to cowardice, but through faith and the laying-on-of-hands to receive a “spirit of power, love and self-discipline.” The abolition of death then ultimately gives us heart…courage if you will to profess the faith and to engage the “powers and principalities” with the sprit we have in Christ.

“We are more than conquerors, through him who first loves us”. All these echoing phrases come to us in a song of God, whatever fear of terror we face. These are good days for us to remember the courage of Christ and his early followers. We live in an age of fear and terror that will require tremendous courage.

Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel that it will take but the tiniest seed of faith to move mountains; he goes on to say that we have that faith already, if we read the Greek phraseology correctly. Faith is a gift. It is absolutely free and with it we have conquered death and sin itself. What a gift! As we look to Jesus and ask for more faith, he looks back at us and tells us it is already there, sewn in our hearts by the free gift of his life.


In the year before the current “Intifada” in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, I took a group of young people to the Holy Land. We visited a refugee camp outside Bethlehem that has been much in the news in the years since our pilgrimage. Our Palestinian hosts lamented the conditions they lived with on a daily basis. We saw it with our own eyes. Twenty eight families living with one bathroom, for instance: it made us heartsick. Yet for sixty years the people have been living thus. Our hosts asked “why should we be called on to pay the price for the holocaust?” Our Israeli hosts, on the other hand, spoke of the violence they lived with on a daily basis. Innocent people died in the marketplaces where people did their daily rounds. And in the exchange of insult and misunderstanding, accusation, and recrimination, thousands upon thousands die. The heart of God must break that people of faith must live so, and treat each other so.

The last century and now this new one is witness to far too many instances of genocide. What is occurring in Darfur now, as the world watches far too passively, is excruciatingly painful. And the tears of the people drench the ground as does too much innocent blood.

In our own experience, we have fought in Viet Nam and now twice in the Persian Gulf and very little is resolved or settled. This is not like the Second World War which seemed to call us together in a way that few other national emergencies have. Now we seem divided by political opportunists who use our conflicted experience to win elections. In an earlier time, folk singers, while not quite developing the literature of lament, did produce a host of anti-war songs.

What we have yet to do, is find a way to articulate an honest song to God about the times in which we live. We seem bereft of an honest spirituality. If we could form a lament in our hearts that we could sing with our lips, then perhaps we could find our way to God. If we were to do that we’d also find another song of hope that would lead us to peace with justice for many.

After 911 we did come together for a little while. Our national leaders gathered as one at the National Cathedral and spoke with one voice. It lasted all too briefly. We seem to have lost our way and our resolve has become diffuse. We are not a united nation. And now conservatives blame liberals; liberals blame conservatives and all the talk show hosts vent their spleens at American people who dare to disagree. What will it take to save the nation?


It must grieve the heart of God to see the human family behave so. In so many ways, and at so many times the very Name of God has been put to use to excuse our inhumanity to one another. Somehow a sense of righteous indignation seems to excuse terror and warfare, bigotry and violence.

It must grieve the heart of God to see the human family behave so. God sent the prophets to preach justice and peace. The very word peace, shalom and salaam, gave birth to the name of God’s own holy city Jerusalem. And there the holy city sits on Zion’s hill with Christians, Jews, and Muslim’s claiming her as their very own. Like little children playing “King of the Mountain” we push each other around and shame God’s love with our hatred.

Is it any wonder that the Lament has found its way into sacred literature? To be sure human beings do sing their songs of sorrow, but can you imagine God’s song when the blood of those same children spills into the sands and stones of Galilee. We call each other “enemy” like factious and feuding families. We refuse to speak to one another and posture our stiff necked hatred toward each other. The Lament we sing of our loss is only multiplied as God counts the losses even more exponentially for all the children of the human family are the flesh and blood of God.

Jesus came to give us the ministry of reconciliation. Jesus came to teach us to love our enemies. It is a difficult ministry. It may require the gift of a life. It required the gift of Jesus’ life to purchase the price of forgiveness. We are loath to pay the price, aren’t we? There are far too many willing to take our lives with glee for us to play into the hand of calumny and cruelty.

Perhaps if we were to sing sooner the song of God, we could find a way to Peace. If we could find a way to an honest articulation of Lamentation, then perhaps God could act. Perhaps God could direct our feet in the pathways of peace by showing us how to talk to one another. Better still perhaps God could help us by teaching us first to listen to one another.

Military action, political power, and diplomatic initiative are all part of a seamless piece when placed in the hands of God. Placing these matters in the hands of God is often the last thought of the expert in these disciplines. We ask God to be on our side and seldom honestly ask if we are on God’s side.

It is so easy to blame “the other” through our failure to see the humanity in the flesh and blood of our brothers and sisters. Some may wonder what color God is. Perhaps God is the color of America, or Britain. Others would say that God is the color of Arabia or Judaica. Some say that God is the color of Jesus, Moses or Muhammad. The laws of the universe that God created must find such parochialism too narrow. God is much, much bigger than any box we may seek to put God into.

God created the whole world according to the creation accounts in Genesis. Therefore it stands to reason that the color of God is far more diverse in hue than merely one particular color. As God sees the globe it has no national borders. As God created human beings there is only one flesh and blood, one heart for all, and one hope for all, and only one love to make everything possible.

When we were in the Holy Land an old Arabic woman asked us if we knew the color of God. We shrugged our shoulders. She said that the color of God is the color of water. It stands to reason when you think of it. More than 60% of the human body is water. And it is given life by electrical impulses to make the mind and heart work to the glory or the shame of the Creator.

Thus we come to this moment in time and still we need a savior. Moses taught us obedience through the law. The Prophet Muhammad taught us that God is the All Merciful. Jesus taught us that God is the All Loving.

We are a disobedient, unmerciful, and unloving lot because we refuse to listen to those God sent to us. May God have mercy on us ALL!

Perhaps there is time for us to sing the song of God’s own heart of sorrow as we mourn the terrible losses that we and God have suffered. If we sing that song with any skill we will learn to listen to the hope of God for a new tomorrow. Perhaps we will get a glimpse of the Dream of God to take the human hearts of stone and make it a heart of flesh and blood that beats with love for the whole human family.

We are servants of God as the Gospel points out. It is our duty to sing our song in such a way that serves God’s purposes on the earth. It is our duty. May it be said of us that “We have only done what we ought to have done”.

Thank God that the Lament is part of our sacred literature. May it teach us the way to God’s broken heart so the healing balm of God may help us sing on to other verses where the hope and love and forgiveness of God gives us all a way to Peace and Justice for all.

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