These are melancholic and uncertain times, and if you are prone to melancholy, like me you may have had occasion to wonder at its purpose or role in your life. It can have a debilitating effect, sapping our energy and our joy. At the same time, when it does enter our lives as a “thorn in the flesh”, to use the words of apostle Paul (II Cor. 12: 7), can we trust that God’s wisdom and strength will be made manifest in the midst of the bewilderment and weakness that we experience? God answered Paul’s prayers for release from whatever malady he was experiencing: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (v. 9)
Certainly, melancholy can turn us in on ourselves in unhealthy ways, but I have come to believe that God can use it as the quiet place from which He speaks and shows us His compassion and heart-break over the brokenness of the world; where we begin to sense the Father’s longing for the return and reconciliation of his prodigal creation. To echo Malcolm Guite’s thoughts in his recent blog (“Jesus Weeps over Jerusalem”), sometimes we see best when we see through our tears. How do we deal with what we are currently experiencing where sorrow, isolation and uncertainty seem to be everywhere? Is there a place for lament?
It likely would not surprise anyone who knows me that I tend to be moved by images that speak of death. Memento Mori, “remember that you will die” was a recommended practice for Christian believers in the past, some of whom it is said kept actual skulls for the purpose of contemplation. There are no skulls on my desk, but I do find poetry to be a rich source of images depicting death. I recently underlined a portion in a poem by R.S. Thomas (“Genealogy”) where he described the Welsh king, Maelgwn the Tall, hiding in a church to escape the Yellow Plague of the mid-sixth century. In the poem, Maelgwn stoops to look out the key-hole:
“I was the king At the church key-hole, who saw death Loping towards me ...”
John Donne, whose essays you might appreciate more than his poetry (“Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions”), while on his sick bed, wrote that Death stands at an old man’s door and speaks his name; but stands at a young man’s back and is silent.
Jeremiah, the prophet, wrote Lamentations as poetry, and much of his propheticbook, is also in poetic form. He speaks to the inhabitants of Jerusalem as they prepare to go into exile, and in chapter 9 tells the women to “teach one another a lament” (v. 20b):
“Death has climbed in through our windows and has entered our fortresses; it has cut off our children from the streets and the young men from the public squares” (v. 22)
I have been struck by the image in this passage and its resonance with today’s C-19 pandemic. Just when we thought we were secure, invincible in our middle-class good
fortune and our social safety-net, ... “death has climbed in through our windows”. During my walks around the neighborhood, there is no shouting or laughter from children on school playgrounds, ... “it has cut off our children from the streets.” Downtown Calgary, Stephen Avenue, and the plus 15’s echo an alarming emptiness.
One does not always find hope in the immediate context of a lament, but Jeremiah does follow this lament with counsel and encouragement from the Lord:
“This is what the Lord declares: ‘Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast of this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,’ declares the Lord.” (vv. 23,24)
Against the lament brought on by sudden insecurity and loss, where that which had previously been relied upon, wisdom, strength and riches, now proves unreliable, the prophet points to the God who desires an intimate relationship with his people, a God whose very character delights in kindness, justice and righteousness.
We do not know what lies ahead over the next few months, and I somehow doubt that we will come to fully understand (or partially understand?) the purpose behind this sudden and shattering disruption to our lives and to our sense of well-being. In Psalm 42, the psalmist twice asks himself the question: “Why are you downcast, O my soul?” That question arises in me repeatedly during the day and the night. The psalmist says to God at one point in his psalm:
“Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.” (v. 7)
In like manner and in keeping with the psalmist’s metaphor of waves and breakers, I would have to say that lately this leaky old vessel has been feeling a bit battered about; loaded down with sorrow and taking on water. At night, often I feel overwhelmed. Or at times during the day, anxiety comes sweeping in. It is at these times that joy seems far away, but hope remains. At least that is the way it is supposed to operate. Hebrews 6:19-20 says that God has attached me to hope as an anchor, and I can take courage until the waves die down (although I may need to keep bailing). Using tabernacle imagery, the passage states that this anchor of our true hope “enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where Jesus, who went before us, has entered on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.” (v. 19)
During these days when the C-19 pandemic seems to dominate our thoughts, overshadowing (if we let it) the message of Easter, we especially need to stay attached to that anchor. Imagine the thoughts and lament of those first disciples as they watched
Christ being cut off from them; the brooding silence and emptiness as they turned away from the cross, the closed tomb, and even each other. They did not know it at the time, it was beyond their wildest imagination, but resurrection followed and Christ would be standing in their midst. We don’t know how long this period of “isolation” will last, but we can rest in the promise that Christ has gone before us, by his wounds we have been healed, and he has entered the Holy of Holies on our behalf.
“Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, ... . Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we might spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together (by “FaceTime”, “Zoom” or whatever), as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another ... .” (Heb. 10: 19-25)
I miss the warm and familiar comfort of our times physically together at Varsity Bible Church, but that does not mean that we are now alone or isolated. In Christ we are one, so let us use these times to encourage and strengthen one another. In the midst of our sorrow, isolation and uncertainty, we will find a quiet place where we begin to sense the heart-beat of our Heavenly Father for we are within his embrace. Going back to Paul’ssecond letter to the Corinthians, he shared his struggles with hardship and despair:
“We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers.” (II Cor. 1:8b-11a)
These are difficult and uncertain days. Some may be experiencing to varying degrees the kind of despair that Paul wrote about. Certainly we know through the connections our church has with the wider world community, that there are many for whom the “sentence of death” is very much a clear and present reality. Use these times of lament to draw near to the heart of God. See through your tears, clearer than ever before, the love that God has demonstrated towards his broken world, both the cross and the empty tomb, and in turn share that love in praying, practical and self-giving ways. May our prayers conclude with praise:
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.” (II Cor. 1:3-5)