Month: February 2009

Spiritual Direction for Lent

I’d be interested in hearing what guides you through Lent.  I’ve found the resources (below) to be particularly helpful.  

Henri Nouwen, Show Me the Way.  The late and great priest/psychologist Henri Nouwen walks you through Lent with short devotions and prayers.   

N.T. Wright, The Crown and the Fire.  The first half of this book can be used as an occasional Lenten reflection with essays on the way of the Cross.  

N.T. Wright, The Way of the Lord.  Using Christ’s own journey as a framework for pilgrimage, Wright invites us to become participants in Christ’s journey today.  

City Church SF Lent Devotional.  

A Journey into Wholeness Lenten Reflection Guide.  

Georges Rouault.  Miserere.  The wonderful work of the great 20th century religious artist captures the folly of humanity and the sufferings of Christ on our behalf.

Ashes, ashes, we all fall…

And so, Ash Wednesday is upon us again.  Tonight, I was grateful to be able to participate in the imposition of ashes, reminding people that they are dust, and to dust they shall return.  Death is inevitable.  We have the power to create medical miracles, send men to the moon, and create weapons that can destroy the world.  But with all of our ingenuity, we cannot overcome one thing – death.  We’re powerless in this regard, and for self-respecting, entitled, and gotta-have-it-all Americans, acceptance of our powerlessness is not a very fun message.  Ash Wednesday, in other words, begins a most counter-cultural season of the year.

And the trajectory of the season gets no better.  In it, we ponder our powerlessness.  While some attempt to find the secret key to agelessness, or the magic pill for happiness, we proclaim a reality that is haunting – we’re a messy bunch, prone to wander and fall, more needy than we’re willing to admit, and apt to pose (in creative and elaborate ways) as people more capable and impenetrable than we really are.  Ashes, ashes, we all fall.  And struggle.  And wonder.  God are you really there?  Will we really be able to make it through the darkness?

Now, while that sounds like a downer, the reality of Ash Wednesday is that sign that is made on the forehead, though a gruesome reminder of Christ’s awful death, is (paradoxically) our greatest hope.  Because he died, we live.  It’s that simple.  And while we hit dead ends and experience futility on this side of paradise, the promise is of a new and better world where there are no more tears and there is no more pain.  

Now, to be honest, you won’t hear a lot of Christians talking this way.  I’m grateful for my pastor and church, and the reality offered in hope of an authentic walk with Jesus.  But, lots of pop Christian stars will counter the message of Ash Wednesday and Lent with an Americanized Gospel of entitled blessings and soon-to-come riches.  It’s a message that sells.  But it’s dishonest, to be frank.  And it stands in stark contrast to the way of Jesus – the way of the Cross.  That’s our pattern.  That’s our invitation.  That’s our far better Hope.  

 

G. Rouault: Crucifixion

G. Rouault: Crucifixion

So, enter the Lenten journey with the reality of the Fall – ashes, ashes, we all fall.  We’ll struggle and suffer, and sometimes we’ll question if God is really there.  That’s honest faith.  It wrestles and contends with a God big enough to take it.  Enter it with the expectation that you’ll struggle, as well…and that God may heighten the tension, and even increase the darkness.  That’s the God-honest truth of Christ-patterned life.  Yes…it frustrates me, at times, too.  But, take heart.  Because an embrace of this reality means that you’re on to something…on to the great mystery, the hidden pearl of great price, the treasure…an Easter light that breaks through the cold, dark night with a better Hope than pop preachers or Gospel salesman can offer.  It’s the hope of Jesus – that out of the ashes comes new life, new Hope.  

 

It’s a wild ride, this Lenten journey.  Let’s take it together.

Grace and peace.

“We believe ourselves kings”

My former colleague and Professor of New Testament at RTS Orlando, Reggie Kidd, introduced me to the work of Georges Rouault when I was his student in the mid-90’s.  Rouault may be the finest religious artist of the 20th century, portraying the sufferings of Christ for people like you and me – posers and pretenders who “believe ourselves kings” (see the image below).  Rouault’s context was war-torn Europe in the early 20th century, but his images transcend place and time, connecting us back to reality when our tendency is to sanitize the pain of the world.  Lent, of course, brings us back to this reality, inviting Christians to consider what Jung called the “shadow self,” our darker nature.  Another one of Rouault’s images is that of a masked circus clown as he asks, “Do we not all wear masks?”  Lent invites us to look behind the mask, and to consider our humanity – the ways in which we hide, the insecurities we fail to voice, the secrets that don’t get told.  Rouault’s images of the suffering Christ, however, remind us that God knows our human plight, and enters into it unreservedly in order to redeem it.  Somehow through the darkness of Lent, we see Easter approaching from the distance like a Father to a prodigal.  Its light reminds us that our secrets need not be hid forever.  Its hope is that though we go about clowning around with our masks, believing ourselves to be kings, it’s safe to come out and show our true selves, because Jesus has walked the way before us.  The journey of Lent, therefore, is a journey toward honesty, toward a recognition of the silly games we play and the tiny kingdoms we build.  If for no other reason, glancing again at Rouault’s works remind me of the futility of playing god, and invite me to take myself a little less seriously…relaxing into the limitless grace and boundless Kingdom of Jesus. 

G. Rouault: We believe ourselves kings

G. Rouault: We believe ourselves kings

Lent: A Time to Move Toward Insecurity and Inadequacy

As Ash Wednesday quickly approaches, I’m reminded of the unique opportunity we have each year to spend a season reflecting more intentionally on our sin.  Now, for some that sounds like a downer.  But my sense is that it is an opportunity to look a bit more carefully at our own hearts.  The English pastor John Flavel said many years ago, “There be those that have almost finished the course of a long life who never yet spent one solemn entire hour in discourse with their own souls.”  How much more must that be the case for us today, with the infinite number of distractions we have before us?

This past weekend, I spoke at a retreat for City Church SF on Luke 15, and we explored the intricacies of the human heart with its propensity to wander.  In preparation for the talks, I could not help but see my own wanderings all over the place.  I was struck by the paradox that I work so hard, yet remain so passive still in my relationships.  My laptop is almost continually opened.  I’m “tuned in” to what’s happening around the world.  I’m continually reading, writing, and thinking upon these things, particularly in my role as a teacher and pastor.  And yet, I can be so “tuned out” to the needs of my wife and kids.  Now, it’s not like I’m surfing the net looking at pornography, or running to some dangerous vice to avoid reality.  But, my sin is no less destructive relationally.  So, I’m beginning to explore what it might mean to commit myself to more intentional relationship and less distraction.  Lent is an opportune time for that.

When I was growing up, people in the church gave up things like chocolate and sweets for Lent.  I’m certain God smiles on whatever we commit our hearts to, as simple as the sacrifice might be.  But I suspect that giving ourselves the opportunity to be a bit more intentional about looking at our hearts and what keeps them from intimacy with God might open up new vistas of repentance.  Even now, as I sit here, I recognize it’s time to put my laptop down, and check in with Sara.  Frankly, it’s safer to keep it open, because in this world I have some control over things.  After 15 years, she remains a mystery to me, and I often feel insecure and inadequate.  Lent is an opportunity to move into places of insecurity and inadequacy, trusting that God promises to show in the dark and difficult places.  God, grant me the grace and courage to move more faithfully into those places where I don’t have all the answers, and to leave behind those things that bring me momentary satisfaction, at least for this brief season of Lent.  In so doing, I suspect you and I become a bit more like Christ.  

Grace and peace to you.

Labyrinth – Wedding the Mystical and the Missional

 

Grace Cathedral Labyrinth, SF

Grace Cathedral Labyrinth, SF

I did something I’ve been wanting to do for years last Wednesday.  I walked the Grace Cathedral Labyrinth.

For the past several years, I’ve been using spiritual practices such as the labyrinth, the Stations of the Cross, and more as a part of a Psychology in Relation to Theology course.  Several resources have been helpful, including the wonderful resources of Grace Cathedral, SF.  The Dean of the Cathedral, Alan Jones, is an author that I have admired.  His Soul-Making: The Desert Way of Spirituality is a worthwhile read.  But the beautiful labyrinth of Grace Cathedral is what drew me.  Last Wednesday’s visit did not disappoint.

 

Labyrinths are a bit mysterious to those who have not become acquainted with them.  Is it a maze?  Is it a product of New Age or liberal spirituality?  What good is it?  Labyrinths have a non-Christian origin, but were employed by the church of the Middle Ages as invitation to more frequent and personal engagement with God.  Before the dawn of modern-day psychology, labyrinths became places to find focus and centeredness in God, a means to both releasing the burdens of sin and struggle one carried, and finding renewal.  In other words, labyrinths were therapeutic – a means to intimacy with God, but also a means to emotional and spiritual rest and renewal.

Let’s take a closer look.  As one enters the labyrinth, she finds herself coming with the burdens of her day, her week…perhaps her life.  She enters on a path that is winding, much like life’s path.  The labyrinth way takes you closer to the center, but will then lead you to a long, seemingly endless path on the outskirts of it.  Again, it’s a lot like our life and spirituality…it’s up and down.  I prefer to fill my pockets with little stones when I do outdoor labyrinths (as you’ll see, this doesn’t work in indoor labyrinths), and as I move through I’ll place the stone as a symbol of releasing a certain burden.  Here’s a simple example.  I’m angry with my wife.  She was grumpy and un-affectionate that morning, and I’m holding a grudge.  I lay down a stone, symbolizing the release of that anger.  “Lord, forgive me for holding this anger in.  Take it.”  

This is the ancient way of purgation.  St. John of the Cross, the 16th century Spanish mystic, noted that God leads people into the dark night of the soul in order to purge them of “unnatural affection and attachment” in order to once-and-for-all attain “unrestricted freedom of spirit.” Purgation is a purging of our obsessive habits, thoughts, motives, addictions.  I bring many stones along, because I find that the deeper I go proceed inward, the deeper the rabbit hole of sin goes.  On this last particular pilgrimage through the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral, I sensed a deep insecurity welling up within.  Am I a fraud?  Do I have anything to offer?  I prayed, “Lord, I carry this insecurity around, and then I live to solicit the approval of others.  I’m done.  Here it is.”  If I had a stone last Wednesday, I would have laid one down.

After the long and winding road of the inward, ‘mystical’ journey, you arrive at the center, perhaps seeing it (as I do) as the foot of the Cross.  Dependent, needy, tired, and spent, I breathe in the Spirit, and breathe out the pressures I’ve absorbed, the self-reliance, the self-promotion, the Kingdom of Me, as my Pastor Fred Harrell said in his sermon last week.  Goodbye old Chuck.  Good riddance, old man.  Enter new man, new humanity, new creation, new life.  Breathing in and out, I find myself centered in Christ, and quieted in the moment.  It is often the most peaceful moment of my week.

I’ve engaged the mystical way, the way of purgation, of repentance, of receiving (with open hands) God’s grace in Jesus.  But, if left here, the journey is only mystical, and ultimately for me.  The way out of the labyrinth, however, is the way of mission.  Here is where I re-trace my steps in.  This time, I pick up the stones and chuck them into the nearby woods (if I’m outside).  I’m now re-entering the world, refreshed and renewed.  Goodbye burdens.  Goodbye to those encumbrances which have weighed me down, kept me from deeper relationship with God and others, prevented me from loving my neighbor wholeheartedly.  Released from my heart’s false allegiances, I can see others better.  I see the lonely man on the street.  I see the insecurities of the poser.  I see my wife’s needs.  My own needs have less power now.  I can see others, and thus live missionally, because I’ve first lived mystically.  I can leave the labyrinth with confidence and freedom that I did not have when I entered it.  Surrender.  Release.  Trust.  Freedom.  Life is different as I exit the ancient maze.

Now, a couple of confessions.  Not every time is transformational.  Sometimes, I am so self-consumed that I cannot get out of “me.”  This often happens when I’ve neglected this spiritual discipline for a while.  It’s hard to rest.  Often, I’ll give myself permission to make a bit of progress…to at least see what the problem is, and confess it.  But my resistant heart won’t even let me enter the labyrinth, because, in that moment, I hate it.  I despise it.  It seems to be an obstacle to my greatest desire of the time – to build my own kingdom.

Another confession.  I’m a spiritual ant.  Don’t let this blog entry fool you.  My heart is as resistant to transformation as anyone’s.  I’ll lash out at my wife in anger the night after my labyrinth walk, and she’ll likely say, “Some good that did.”  You see, wrapped up in all of this is the sin of trying to convince her, myself, and you that I’ve got some spiritual mojo that you don’t have.  The sooner you know I’m a phony, the sooner you’ll give yourself permission to be one too.  And, perhaps then we’ll actually have the kind of honesty it takes to meet God along the labyrinth way.   

Finally, given the fact that the Gospel is for phonies and me-addicts and spiritual ants, you and I need this discipline.  We need the embodied pilgrimage journey that the labyrinth offers.  We need the honesty it invites.  We need to feel our pockets full of stones which represent layer upon layer upon layer of sinful self-protection, avoidance, anger, envy, rage, secret lusts, and more.  I find that it’s been good to take what I’ve learned from my self-exploration in the labyrinth, and go to lunch with a friend for the sake of confession.  It’s just a way of living this stuff out more concretely, and allowing someone else into your brokenness.  And it’s also a way of living into the missional narrative of the Gospel…the self-giving way which is embodied in the broken, self-emptying Messiah – Jesus.  

So, find yourself a local labyrinth.  Or walk a virtual labyrinth in order to get your internal bearings:  http://www.labyrinth.org.uk/onlinelabyrinthpage1.html.  

I’ll leave you with a funny story.  A client of mine who was paying $110 a session with me once took me up on my suggestion to do the labyrinth thing.  She was hesitant, so she read a bit, and talked to a spiritual director at San Pedro Retreat Center in Winter Springs, FL.  Then, she did it.  And she continued.  Her experiences of release and freedom in Christ were so significant that she gleefully exclaimed, “Why was I paying you $110 a session when I could have been doing this for free.”  Of course, I had to walk the labyrinth later that week to get over my bruised ego.  But…oh…to enjoy deeper intimacy in some of these rich ancient ways, and to live more freely!  Jesus showed up last week at Grace Cathedral, and we walked the pilgrimage together.  And like the Emmaus Road walk, I found myself satisfied after eating and drinking in His grace.  I think you will find yourself satisfied too…

Grace and peace. 

A New Exodus Model of Soul Care – Introduction

A New Exodus Model of ChangeOver the next weeks, I will be blogging the first chapters of a book I’m writing on a ‘New Exodus Model of Soul Care’.  That language will make more sense over time.  The Introduction (below) explains a bit of the context.  I’m excited to do this in blog form before seeing it in print.  I’m excited for several reasons.  First, this material has been helpful to students over the past years as I’ve taught at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando.  I’ve been blessed by the give and take of the classroom experience, as I was not as confident in the early development of the model as I am now.  Students have provided helpful critique along the way, and colleagues have offered biblical-theological insight.  I’m grateful to all of them.  And I’m excited to share the fruit of those interactions.  

Second, I’m now in San Francisco, working with City Church and the newly developing San Francisco Theological Center, and excited to share these ideas in a new context.  This model is one attempt (notice it’s “A” model, not “The” model) at appropriating a narrative and missional biblical hermeneutic to soul care and counseling.  That’s (admittedly) an ambitious agenda, but I’m working in the context of a team here at City Church that is both theologically and pastorally astute.  In other words, I think putting these ideas out there in the context of this particular community can only help clarify and connect certain things.  A printed book feels like a finished product, but this blog represents something unfinished, and very much open to discussion.  

Finally, I’m excited because San Francisco is both a beautiful and broken city, with men and women desperately searching for a way out of Egypt but hitting dead end after dead end.  I do believe that this New Exodus model can be an invitation, of sorts, to a local therapeutic community as well as a struggling people to see if their experience of life fits the biblical story.  In other words, I invite both struggling Christians and skeptics of Christianity to try it on for size.  See if this narrative connects to yours.  Don’t receive it as ‘the way,’ but as a proposal.  And tell me if you’re seeing big gaps or experiencing incongruence.  Does it help make sense of life?  Or (God forbid!), is it making things worse?    

I’ll welcome the interactions that this material produces.  Thanks, in advance.  Now, let’s begin the journey.        

 

Introduction

For the past six years, I’ve taught a class called Psychology in Relation to Theology.  When I first started teaching, I’d offer student glances into the psychology of Scripture.  We’d look at Solomon’s addictive journey through Ecclesiastes, Jeremiah’s acrostic pattern of grief in Lamentations, or John’s “apocalyptic therapy” which consoled fearful late-first century Christians with the larger Story God was writing, and the bigger battles He was engaged in.  However, the brief excursions in different parts of Scripture felt like sketches in a Saturday Night Live episode.  There was a common Actor, but a lack of a larger narrative.  Something needed to change.

My dissatisfaction with the course only intensified year after year.  Students provided great feedback and enjoyed our week-to-week excursions.  However, as counseling students entered the campus clinic to do their internships, I’d often hear a common refrain – “I am still not sure how to bring Scripture into the counseling room.”  Clearly, something more was needed.

But my restlessness extended beyond the classroom.  Both as a pastor and as a seminary professor, I’ve had the opportunity to chat with pastors, speak at churches, lead retreats, and teach on a variety of subjects.  On almost every occasion, I’ve been asked, “What is your model of counseling and soul care?”  They’d reference the major models or big name authors.  Many pastors mentioned their familiarity with Biblical Counseling, Larry Crabb, Neil Anderson, John Eldredge, or Cloud and Townsend.  But I’d often hear dissatisfaction in comments like, “That approach is too moralistic,” or “He’s too secular in his approach,” or “They don’t take Scripture seriously enough.”  Inevitably, they’d ask the dreaded question:  “What model do you teach?”  Their questions led me to dig deeper, asking hard questions of each model.  What I offer in the following posts is one humble attempt at an answer.

A New Exodus Model of Soul Care is an invitation into God’s grand story of redemption as it is told (and re-told) through the lens of the Exodus narrative.  As you read, you’ll notice a range of influences.  You’ll see my appreciation for the newer and more progressive Biblical counselors, my inclination toward a relational model of counseling, and my passion for the mystics.  You’ll notice that I’ve been influenced by narrative theology and missional hermeneutics.  You’ll see nuances of Crabb and Allender, Shults and Sandage (big props for their paradigm-shifting book ‘Transforming Spirituality’, Henri Nouwen, and Tom Wright (who hasn’t been influenced by the Bishop)? And you’ll wonder how these divergent strains can come together.  Sometimes, I wonder myself.  My rock bottom hope is not that I get it right, but that I tell a story that is large enough for you to find yourself in, and perhaps compelling enough to invite change. With Sam, Frodo’s devoted companion in The Lord of the Rings, perhaps you’ll say, “I wonder what sort of tale we’ve fallen into?”

Next Post – Chapter 1

From Kleenex Theology to Messy Spirituality: The Biblical Invitation to Honest Lament

I don’t do suffering well. In fact, I despise suffering. My daughter’s tears bring out the worst in me. My first thought is “How do I fix this?” It’s easily translated in to pastoral care or clinical counseling. “What should I say? How can I help?” I’ve been habituated to respond to suffering with answers.

It’s because I despise suffering and its nasty side-effects that I take a kind of twisted pride in how well my community, my church, and my nation deal with suffering. We seem to be so civil about it. A slight tear brings out the Kleenex, and suffering is wiped clean. (Suffering can be wiped clean, incidentally, in scented Kleenex or Kleenex with aloe.) We’re domesticated sufferers. Our churches acknowledge suffering only as something true faith can mitigate; we deny its reality, and in doing so evade the possibility that we might have to dive in to uncivilized grief, grief with tears that cannot be quenched.

And it is with a degree of arrogance that I watch the Nightly News, shaking my head at the very uncivilized displays of communal lament among the “ancient peoples” of the mideast. Poor souls…they look so miserable as they march through the streets, wailing with fists raised at their impotent deity. If only they would embrace my form of civil suffering…my Kleenex theology…then they might not subject themselves to awful displays of raw and uncontrolled emotion. Poor, uncivilized souls.

Of course, the secret truth is that I admire them. Don’t tell anyone, but it’s true. I long to lament in a way that releases me to surrender as Jacob was released at Peniel. I long to join the ancient cry that was rarely private: “How long, O Lord…” I long to abandon my sanitized Kleenex theology for a messy one, one that even allows saints already in heaven to lament before God (Revelation 6), one that acknowledges the paradox of God incarnate crying, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” In other words, I long secretly to know the ancient art of crying our prayers before a God who doesn’t offer fast food fixes, but who enters my pain in order to know me, and I Him. That sounds like biblical faith. And more and more, I’m convinced it is.

Honest Expression

“If I would have wanted my pain theologized away, I would have gone to Job’s friends.” So said a very wise, very wounded client of mine early in my clinical counseling internship. She was incapable of such wisdom, or so I thought. I was the wise one, the expert, the one in the cozy leather chair with a hand stroking my beard, looking the part of clinician. Her comment struck me dumb. She needed Jesus, one who would leave the comforts of heavenly bliss to engage suffering face to face. Instead, she got a theologian, a medical doctor of the soul, applying theories, making generalizations, testing cures. I had failed her. But she had the courage to speak.

In God’s ironic grace, my failure was the gateway to her renewed journey of Hope. She had spoken, and spoken honestly, not only to her counselor but to a minister, a spiritual leader, much like the ones responsible for beating hope out of her for so many years. The child of a pastor, she had known only spiritual platitudes and proper ways of interacting. She had known only a Gospel of principles for better living. Never challenged to use her voice, never encouraged to speak her doubts, never engaged by people willing to wade in her murky waters, she lived a lonely, isolated life. Referred by her pastor, her presenting problem was “depression.” Categorized, isolated, marginalized and referred to professionals for help, she had begun to believe the message her church was feeding her: “You’re too messy. When you get better, we’ll invite you back in to ministry.” In the months following, she learned to lament and not be ashamed of it. In offering her desires to God in tears, she found new hope released in her soul. She began to see the world in color. However, her journey required a path of validated suffering.

Job needed friends to engage the pain, not interpret the pain. Job needed friends who would join in the chorus of lament, not offer the secret prayer to a life of blessing. Job needed what Henri Nouwen calls “Wounded Healers” to enter the pain with him, but he had friends who were “Healed Wounders.” Blinded by their own comfort, security and sense of well-being, they arrogantly jabbed at Job, attempting to come up with a rational explanation for the mess at hand. Job lamented before God, not only because he had been subjected to terrible trouble, but because his friends had failed him. “A despairing man should have the devotion of his friends,” Job cried, “but they’re as undependable as intermittent streams.” In the end, Job is commended for his honesty. His theologically correct buddies are scolded for their insensitivity.

Ordered Messiness

I like how Barry Webb describes the Book of Lamentations: Ordered Messiness.

Biblical lament, much to the relief of the “Healed Wounder,” is not ultimately chaotic. To the contrary, biblical lament has a beginning and an end. While the middle may be messy, while it may seem to go on and on without relief, lament, properly understood, rests finally in the Sovereign hand of God. Eugene Peterson echoes Webb when he describes the form of Lamentations as a series of 5 acrostics (much like Psalm 119), literary patterns that travel the alphabet slowly, in meticulous detail, from beginning to end. Lament begins at aleph and ends at tau, proceeding with careful detail and extraordinarily honest expression through each letter. 5 times in 5 distinct poems the writer revisits his pain, most often in communal expression, with a brief interlude for private weeping. The writer’s intent is clear…every detail of pain is important. Suffering cannot and should not be wasted on quick fix alphabet dances that deny proper expression. Acrostic was used as a memory device, as Peterson points out, emphasizing that every jot and tittle of suffering be remembered and experienced.

Suffering, as both Webb and Peterson note, is also historical. Pain’s roots are in concrete experiences, not abstractions. The Lamentation cry is rooted in a historical event, the terrible judgment of God through Babylonian exile in 587 BC. Christ’s lament, likewise, embraced Gesthemane’s reality and the inevitability of crucifixion. The martyr’s cry of “How long, O Lord” not only challenges contemporary, ‘pie-in-the-sky’ descriptions of heavenly bliss, but adds a final exclamation point on the biblical reality of suffering. Even those who have left the toils of earthly labor look down upon injustice and evil and cry out with ancient words of lament. And once again, their lament is not an abstraction, but a response to real-life, historical suffering. Lament requires reality, and reality invites tears.

Thus, the message of Lamentations is that the denial of lament is the denial of reality. Interestingly, neurosis is often defined as the denial of reality. Perhaps, providing a context for lament might be a way to alleviate the neurosis of a culture that feeds on un-reality, false reality, and virtual reality. Perhaps, too, this provides a challenge to the church that works hard to keep lament on the margins. The church might be just as guilty as contemporary culture of avoiding reality, choosing instead fanciful and imaginative “perspectives” and “attitudes” born out of a Kleenex theology. Sadly, the church that denies lament, referring the wounded to ‘clinical care’ only to be returned to the body healed, buries its head in the sand of false reality. That is not to diminish or question the important role of clinical counseling as a ministry among and for Christians. That is to say, however, that too often, the pastor’s counseling referral is due to his refusal to walk through the timely and messy acrostic of suffering from aleph to tau, and perhaps also to his fear that corporate lament in worship does not produce the kind of growth explosions that un-real methods do. However, the grave danger is this. In denying the opportunity for an embrace of lament, we miss a Christ-formed life of pain-sharing, compassion, incarnation and Gospel-healing. We miss the opportunity, in other words, to become more like Jesus.

Lament, the Most Hopeful of Things

“Do everything without complaining or arguing,” St. Paul once wrote. “Rejoice in the Lord always.” It’s amazing how we pluck verses like these out and use them as evidence that the day of lament is over and the day of rejoicing has come. St. Paul wrote these words in a letter to the Philippian church, the same letter in which he laments over his long and continuing earthly pilgrimage, the same letter in which he calls “suffering” a gift from God along with faith, the same letter that plainly identifies the reality of his culture as “crooked and depraved”, the same letter that invites the cruciformed Christian to follow the downward path of Christ to humility, suffering and even death, for the sake of knowing Christ. St. Paul, in other words, was not at all afraid of suffering. His hope came in the embrace of it.

Lament is ultimately hopeful. Seems paradoxical, doesn’t it? The person sitting before you is weeping and wailing about his pain, and it is supposed to produce hope? There, of course, is a fine line between complaining and lamenting, but too often we dismiss the baby with the bath water. Dan Allender says that one who laments often looks like a grumbler or complainer, but that biblical lament is nothing of the sort. Instead, lament contains in itself the possibility of extraordinary hope, restored desire, a changed heart. Lament is, at its core, a search for God. It is not a search for answers. It is not an invitation to fix an ailment. Rather, lament enters the agony with the recognition that it might not go away for days, months, even years. And yet, the lament carries with it the hope that God will eventually show. Dan Allender puts it this way: “Lament is a search – a declaration of desire that will neither rest with a pious refusal to ache, nor an arrogant self-reliance that is a hardened refusal to search.”

Of course, you won’t know the hope of lament if you don’t risk walking through the valley. But we need not venture in to the valley alone. We journey with a host of biblical witnesses, and hopefully, a community of faith and friends more dependable than Job’s. The biblical model for lament, whether in the Psalms, Lamentations, Job, Jesus, Paul or the saints in heaven reflects a rugged heart born for a risky, but incredibly rewarding, journey Home. The cry of lament, as Allender writes, is the deepest and most honest cry of the homeless person. Our journey is no different than the saints of Hebrews 11 who, by faith, kept on their sojourn because their hope was in a heavenly city. In other words, we walk in familiar company, men and women who longed deeply for God’s presence in times of trouble, people thrown to the lions and hung on crosses and beaten mercilessly for the sake of the Kingdom. Our hopeful lament is caught up in the universal cry reaching up in to the heavens, even among the saints. God has given his community permission to lament. In fact, he has given his family permission even to make their complaints known to Him. Psalm 44 and Psalm 80, for instance, bring accusations before God that send chills down the spine:

You have fed us the bread of tears

You have made us drink tears by the bowlful

You have made us a source of contention to our neighbors. (Ps. 80:5-6)

However, we speak with the confidence that our complaint will be heard, contained, validated, listened to, and ultimately bring about a change in our circumstances. Like Jacob, our wrestling leads to surrender, deeper relationship, greater trust, a heart made soft by its honesty before God. It is a sure indication that we are fully alive human beings, says Barry Webb, open to the full possibilities of God’s wild and risky involvement in our lives.

This wild trust, this openness to surrender, is precisely how God brings about radical transformation in the hearts of sinners. But it is a transformation that takes time, that is often un-remarkable, that doesn’t change the facts and circumstances of life very quickly. Lament without a quick fix or a happy principle to mitigate it is lament that is ugly and un-productive to modern, ‘results-driven’, western Christians. However, the gift to be patient and engage suffering not to fix or make sense of it, but simply to experience it before the face of God honestly, is a gift that stirs the deepest hope, the hope of the saints, the hope of the very un-broken, tear-free world to come.

He Will Wipe Away Every Tear

God is not in the business of quenching hope. His way, however, often is the longer, harder road through rough wilderness terrain. The oft-quoted proverb, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick” speaks of the reality of life in the now. Suffering is just plain sickening. I hate to see it. I hate it for myself, and I hate it for my friends. It angers me, and it causes me to jump-start quick cures to get through it. I almost always have a better plan than God’s, but His wisdom wins the day.

I notice a tendency today to skirt past the reality of suffering. We pride ourselves in being a people who can quickly move past our grief, as we experienced in the September 11 attacks, to regain our pride and status as world superpower. While mourners cry their uncivilized tears on the other side of the globe, we apply our best science to eradicating the need to lament ever again. And isn’t it ironic? Don’t we do this in our churches, as well? Don’t we position ourselves in ways to eradicate suffering and maximize progress?

Upward mobility has become not only the mantra of a consumer culture, but of churches that believe bigger is better, that pride themselves as “healthy” churches rather than “broken” churches, that sell a Gospel of feel-better spirituality. Incarnational ministry is a rare thing these days. In fact, we call smaller churches that focus on pastoral care and spiritual formation the “dying churches” of our day. These churches often contain the walking wounded, the financially destitute, the spiritually needy. You don’t build churches on the backs of these folk. But it is precisely these folk that Jesus came to and lived among. The comfortable didn’t meet Jesus on dirt roads. Lepers met Jesus. The poor met Jesus. The homeless reached up from their beds of sand to touch the corner of his robe. The Gospel is offered to those weak and frail enough to cry out for strength outside of themselves.

Isn’t this the hope of lament? Isn’t lament far less scary if we view it as our divinely inspired and ordained way of communicating deep heart desires to a God who can do something about it? Rather than theologizing lament away, or finding ways to contain it, might we “lean in to it”, as Eugene Peterson remarks, in a way that brings about personal and communal transformation? Might we take the example of the heavenly martyrs who called upon God to act?

In St. John’s apocalyptic history of the world, The Book of Revelation, God does respond with force and fury to the enemies of His people. The Satanic trinity of dragon, beast and false prophet are, once and for all, thrown in to the lake of fire. God’s wilderness-wandering people are vindicated, saved, and prepared for their heavenly betrothal. The weary Bride, tainted and tarnished from her long journey through dark valley of self-indulgence, and the rough terrain of persecution, is now readied for eternal glory, fitted in her pristine white wedding dress for her heavenly Pursuer and Rescuer. Gently wiping away her tears, He speaks to her words she has longed to hear: “There will be no more weeping or mourning. Isaiah’s prophecies have come to fruition. No more death, no more pain, no more struggle. You’re mine, and I’m yours, eternally. Lament no more.”

The end of the Story is a happy one. The Gospel is for those who love comedy, tragedy, and a good, true fairy tale, as Frederick Buechner loves to say. In Revelation 21, the scene shifts from epic battle to unimaginable glory and ecstasy. The Bride is given back her lost Eden, the paradise-city she remembered only in her dreams. C.S. Lewis reminds us that the first Eden has always existed, if only in our memory, urging us own to lives of holy desire as we search out our Paradise-Home. The Bride gets all she has ever desired, and much more. Her ancient lament, raised to God not as an angry fist of rebellion but as an impassioned complaint rooted in desire, is heard, received and acted upon. Her Groom has come to the rescue. And now, eternal happiness.

The Glory of the Gospel is that our lives, our worship, and our relationships need not end in a minor key. The kingdom Hope is the dominant tune, albeit thrown off-key by our trials and tribulations. The minor key of lament is an important reminder that we’re not Home yet, and an invitation to sing songs that reflect our deep hearts and truest struggles, knowing always that our long-suffering Savior will win the day.

So, lament. Join the chorus of ancient voices in their universal cry. Speak honest words to a God who does not fear a complaint born in desire, but actually responds to it. And by all means, live. Pain, as CS Lewis says, is God’s megaphone to call us to be awake, and the awakened, passionate life is a lot better than the false realities our neurotic and fearful world has to offer. Lean hopefully in to lament, and be honest with those who don’t lean with you. The wintry valley of suffering will eventually lead to green pastures, tall-snow capped mountains, and a sunrise that will break through the darkness to a final chorus of praise.

Copyright Chuck DeGroat 2005