New Mercies Part 3: There is Hope

Hope

Hope (Photo credit: bitzcelt)

 

New Mercies:

 

A Lenten Study of Lamentations

 

Session III – March 30, 2011

 

There is Hope

 


 

“Yet I call this to mind and therefore I have hope:

 

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions (mercies)  never fail.

 

They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

 

I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.’

 

The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, the one who seeks him;

 

It is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord”

 

— Lamentations 3:21-26

 

A new character emerges in Chapter Three – “The One” or “The Man.”

 

  • Verse 1 – “I am the One (or in some translations as “the Man”) who has seen affliction…”

 

  • Hebrew word for this One or this Man is geber or gabar.  It is a strong word, a masculine word, meaning defender of the weak, women and children. It has Military connotations.
  • Word occurs again in Verses 27, 37 & 35
  • As if he rushes onto the scene to say “I’m fresh from the battle  – “I’ve seen it”
  • “To see” in Hebrew means the same thing as “to experience”

 

  • Verse 2-9

 

  • The geber begins to rant
  • Uses language of entanglement “He has walled me in….” “He has barred my way with blocks of stone…”

 

  • Verse 10-20

 

  • Rant continues
  • Here’s what God has done to me…
  • Geber says, “I’ve been to the scene of destruction and God is not there”
  • Seems to be blaming God – “…my splendor is gone and all that I hoped from the Lord.”

 

  • Verse 21-29

 

  • A change happens
  • I still have hope
  • “The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him…”

 

What is going on here?  Is this a God who goes around making people’s lives miserable or is this a God of hope?  Which is it?

 

Some Questions to Consider:

 

  • What does this chapter say to you/us?
  • Which God do you see here – A God of horror or a God of hope?
  • How do you (or can you) relate to hope and horror standing side by side?
  • Can you have both doubt and hope?
  • Do you know a geber?  Have you ever been like the geber rushing onto the scene, having seen (or experienced) and then ranting (protesting/resisting/lamenting) for yourself or another?
  • Have you ever felt bereft or deprived of peace? How easy was it for you to wait quietly for God when you are in that place?

 

In our discussion we were struck by some of the language.  Verse 15, “He has filled me with bitter herbs and sated me with gall” reminded some of what Christ was given on the cross during his crucifixion.  Others were struck by the picture painted in the next verse “He has broken my teeth with gravel; he has trampled me in the dust.”  Being forced to eat gravel or having your face pushed into the dirt is certainly not pleasant.  Several of us had the experience of eating a sandwich at the beach that might have gotten some sand in it.  We shivered at the thought.  When I was in training as a VISTA volunteer in the 1980’s I remember one of the trainers sharing some of her Peace Corps stories.  She had been in Africa, I no longer remember what country, and her village always received bags of rice with stones in it.  Despite their best efforts to pick out all the gravel occasionally some would make it into the food.  It was the cause of much of the dental problems of the village and she had to have a tooth or two repaired when she returned to the United States.

 

Kathleen O’Connor in her book Lamentations and the Tears of the World calls this third chapter the theological heart of Lamentations.  When we meet the gebar we are meeting someone with something called an “entangled theology.” Hope and horror stand side by side. Hope and honesty stand side by side. Hope and contradiction stand side by side.

 

We can read it this way:

 

  • God has pierced my heart (verse 13) – God has great love (verse 22)
  • God has filled me with bitter herbs (verse 15) – God’s compassions (mercies) never fail (verse 22)
  • God has broken my teeth (verse 16) – God is good (verse 25).

 

There is ranting and fist shaking and the geber says “it is good to wait quietly…”

 

Can you relate to this?  I can.  I know what this feels like because I’ve lain awake at night crying silent tears, thinking that I’m not a very good Christian, not a very “hope-full” Christian because I’m also feeling humiliation, terror, and deprivation. I have felt “hope-less” because my hope doesn’t measure up. In Lamentations the gebar steps forward and says “I think there might be a God and this God might be good despite all this devastation.”

 

It seems in the modern world we are taught to see hope as the absence of these other emotions – “bitterness and hardship” (verse 5), “bereft” or “deprived of peace” (verse 17), grief, terror, weeping, ranting and fist shaking.  It’s either you have hope or you don’t, You have either have hope or  you have all these other things.  However, in the entangled theology of the gabar hope sits alongside humiliation, bitterness, and deprivation. How do we get to that hope? Is it like being optimistic that things will get better?

 

“Hope and optimism are different,” according to Hope on a Tightrope, a new book by American philosopher Cornel West.  “Optimism tends to be based on the notion that there’s enough evidence out there to believe things are gonna be better, much more rational, deeply secular, whereas hope looks at the evidence and says, ‘It doesn’t look good at all. Doesn’t look good at all. Gonna go beyond the evidence to create new possibilities based on visions that become contagious to allow people to engage in heroic actions always against the odds, no guarantee whatsoever.’ That’s hope. I’m a prisoner of hope, though. Gonna die a prisoner of hope.”  Our group discussion worked with this a bit and while I sided with West, several disagreed with me.  In their opinion hope, especially in the context that West uses it was a little too passive.  Some thought West’s type of hope doesn’t require that we do anything to better or change our situation and that didn’t seem to be what God required in light of Lamentations. A man in our group who serves as a hospice chaplain talked about families who “hope” for a miracle for the one who is dying.  They are not optimistic that great change will happen, but they remain “hopeful” until the end.  What do you think?  Where does the geber fit in that story?

 

Perhaps there is more than one definition of hope.  In Lamentations, in the words of the geber it is possible to have questions and doubts AND have hope. Is that still possible for us today?  A couple of weeks ago a friend and I joined a prayer vigil on the steps of the Capitol the day the Pennsylvania budget was introduced.  Our prayer was interrupted by what sounded like a shofar.  We turned and looked down the step to see several large vans painted with the words “The End of the World is Coming”. The shofar sounds were blaring from the loudspeakers mounted on top.  A short time later Wendi and I were approached by a man handing out tracts about the end of the world which predicted “The Rapture” to happen next month.  We spoke with him for a while asking about his predictions. He expected to be raptured up into heaven on the appointed date and felt sorry for the majority of us who would be left behind.  We explained why we were at the Capitol and asked if he wanted to join us in prayer for the poor.  He muttered that he knew why we were there and turned on his heel and left us.  I read the tracts.  I was urged to throw myself at God’s feet in prayer, beg for mercy and MAYBE, just MAYBE,  God might be merciful to me.  There was little hope in those pages.

 

This man was sure he knew the date of the end of the world.  He insisted that Noah knew, Jonah knew, and now he knew.  It was all so certain. No questions, no doubts, but no hope either, and certainly no waiting “quietly for the salvation of the Lord.”  I wondered aloud to Wendi, “What happens when it doesn’t happen?”  Some churches seem to make a God out of certainty and then what happens when that God gets crushed? What do I/we do now? This doesn’t have to be as radical as predicting the end of the world, but maybe it’s like “I’ll give you a meal, a place to sleep or shoes to wear if you come to chapel and accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior.”   Can I/we/the church give someone the answers if they haven’t yet formed the questions?

 

Are we always defined by our failures, our short-comings, or our sins? Do our sins determine who we are?  Can we move beyond feelings of unworthiness and shame?  Can we move beyond addictions, violence, or bad relationships?   We are reminded in verses 31-32 that we are not cast off by the Lord forever, “Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love.” The geber speaks of hope to the Woman, to us “…because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his mercies never fail…there may yet be hope.”  This is a word that can be spoken to anyone.  It is new every morning.  This is a word that a hospice chaplain shared with a family last week.

 

Much of Lamentations is messy, chaotic, entangled, and “doesn’t look good.”  This is a lot like life which is messy, chaotic, entangled and sometimes “doesn’t look good.”  What if healing begins when someone shows up, like the geber and says, “I am the one who has seen affliction?”  Each of us can remember how if feels when some says to us, “I see your pain. I’ve experienced pain.  I know you are hurting.”  Perhaps the journey to peace begins when we show up to be with another saying, “I have SEEN.  I have HEARD.”

 

In Lamentations, similar to Job, God is on trial.  There is much ranting, but unlike Job, God does not speak. There is no happy ending. This book never says “There is going to be a Jesus party at the end.”  In Chapter Three is the most hopeful moment. God’s mercies never fail.  They are new every morning.  God is good to those to those whose hope is in God. There are no explanations or answers.  There are only questions.  I think, on some level, humans want large theological answers.  We want the HERE IS GOD, because that is easier.  Waiting quietly for God’s salvation is harder.  Sitting with the questions, our own or those of others, is uncomfortable.

 

In our gathered group we talked about living in a “fix-it” society.  When we are confronted with pain and suffering our first response is, “How can I fix it?” There is a subtle pressure that to be a Christian is to have all the answers. Spiritual people are able quote just the right bible verse and then are able to fix what is wrong.  This requires a Fix-It God, too.  The group acknowledged that what we are confronted with in Lamentations is the questions – the HOW. Sometimes the FIX IT God doesn’t show up.  Sometimes God is not the God of the faraway “up there heavens” as portrayed in the song God is Watching Us. Instead God is down here buried in the ruble with the rest of us.  What if, sometimes God was more like the God that Joan Osborne sings about, “What if God was one of us…just a stranger on the bus?”  What if we remember this when our souls are downcast and therefore we can have hope? What if we have to be reminded of this by another? Can we accept the divine around us and that God is within us? What if together we find comfort, if together we find God?  Never underestimate the power of presence, the power of our presence with others.

 

Sometimes there is nothing to do, nothing we can do.  All we can do is BE with another.  Nothing will really fix it.  Many years ago I was lamenting (yes lamenting) to my friend Steward about the AIDS virus that would eventually take his life and how we all needed to be working harder to find a cure.  He took me by shoulders and said, “But what I really need is for you to BE HERE with me NOW. If you focus on something else you will miss the time I AM here.  You cannot fix this.”  He wasn’t suggesting that I shouldn’t raise money for AIDS research, but rather than I wasn’t being fully present to him at that moment.  Never underestimate the power of presence.

 

This also calls to mind the Foods Not Bombs people who feed the homeless and hungry on Market Square.  It’s only sandwiches, but they are fully present to those who are hungry.  It doesn’t fix it, but does say, “I have seen.”  I think too of the police officer who was the first responder to Matthew Shepherd, the young gay college student in Wyoming who was beaten, tied to a fence and left for dead. When she arrived she knew that there was little she could do for Matthew, but she sat with him, spoke to him, and was present to him in his great pain. Later, when the Westboro Baptist Church planned to picket Matthew’s funeral, his friend Romaine Patterson organized people to wear white robes and large angel wings.  They surrounded the protesters and shielded Matthew’s family from them.  Neither act was able to “fix-it,” but both were powerful in their presence.  My friend Bob, a retired college psychology professor, now volunteers for the American Red Cross.  He has listened to voices of the 9-11 fire fighters and cleanup workers in New York.  He has listened to the pain of families who have lost everything to wild fires. Bob is not able to fix-it, but he is a man who has seen affliction. Never underestimate the power of presence.

 

My young friend Rachel is very passionate about her faith. She is a talented artist who recently had a show at a local venue. She has spent a lot of time there talking with people about her artwork and what inspires her.  The shop owner, who was a “preacher’s kid,” has fallen away from the church and is not sure if he believes.  This breaks Rachel’s heart.  She wants to bring him back to the church, back to God.  So she talks with him, she brings her guitar and sits in with his band.  Rachel wants to “fix-it.”  While is it hard for her to wait quietly for God to work in this situation, it just may be the power of her presence that God will use here.  There is something truly divine about being fully present to another. Never underestimate the power of that moment. Not just for what it does for another person, but also for how it transforms us.  It is about God being with us and showing us how to be human.

 

Next Week:  The Day After

 

 

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Published in: on April 7, 2011 at 12:51 pm  Comments (1)  
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  1. Thanks Pam. I remember studying the word “shivah” in my college ministry. This was a Jewish custom to sit in silence with those who are mourning. It is powerful just to be with someone. I am definitely taking that into consideration with many of the people I am meeting lately.
    I’d like to read Cornell West’s book. I agree with his thoughts on Hope. I think that’s part of the reason why Obama’s campaign was so strong–that simple visual of him and the word, “HOPE.” And just believing that something good will come.

    I met a guy in the Scholar last night who said he has lost “all hope,” that “everyone will let you down,” and that he just wants to “be left alone.” He lamented over humanity boldly. I carefully listened and then responded, “and yet you chose to come and be near people…” I asked him if he still had hope in God (he had informed me that he is Roman Catholic), and he does, and I asked him if he had hope in himself, and he does. I affirmed that I was glad he had not lost hope in those things. I agreed that we should not put our hope in humanity, because we will let each other down. I also responded that I have hope in a God who works through humanity, so I haven’t lost all hope in humanity.
    Later, he explained that he didn’t mean everything he said, but that he just speaks boldly sometimes for dramatic effect to see how people will react. We actually engaged in some meaningful conversation–he’s a politician, and has some interesting ideas on our state and our society, as do I as a teacher. I told him a couple times that I would pray for him, haha… He seemed so upset about society, and I wasn’t sure how real he was being. I also think that he just needed a “shivah” with someone, over whatever it was (or the many things) he was mourning.

    The tract guy story is interesting. I am thankful that God is moving me away from my quest of “figuring it all out.” Sometimes I wish I had the answer for education, or fixing our world, or loving people, however, I am only left to sit with it, ponder the questions and wait. My mom told me when I was little (probably frustrated from my endless questions) that “one day, when we all get to Heaven, God will sit us down in a circle, and we can ask any questions we want, and He will answer them all.” I look forward to asking him what the deal is with the dinosaurs.

    Blessings,
    Rachel


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