Tag Archives: lament

Easter Lament?

As I was trying to find some inspiration earlier this week for a Holy Week devotion, I ran across this quote from Angela Bauer-Levesque, a biblical scholar who writes for Feasting on the Word. “Exile is not just a matter of time and place. Exile. . .represents a sense of radical dislocation, separation from all that is familiar and beloved.”

Not “all,” of course. But enough that I can tap into the feeling; it’s what I’m experiencing. For instance, the loss of:

  • familiar work space and the people I enjoy working with
  • freedom to go where I want
  • making pastoral calls
  • going out to a restaurant
  • getting my hair cut at my favorite salon
  • meeting parishioners or community members for coffee
  • a quick trip to the grocery store or hardware store
  • shaking hands or receiving a hug
  • and most of all, not being able to go to church, not gathering as the weekly Christian assembly.

One of the cruel ironies is that in times of grief and loss, we crave, indeed, we need connection. That’s exactly what we’re being denied as we work together to slow the spread of this pandemic. In this exile, we are experiencing not only the uncertainties of the future, but losses upon losses in the present. And that is even without the rising tide of death that the experts warn us to expect.

I’m a church geek. I acutely miss the weekly gathering. I miss the greetings, the singing, the preaching when I can see the faces of those I’m preaching to, the gathering at the table.

I think I have a much better insight into what it must have felt like for the exiles from Judah after the Temple was destroyed and they were carted off to Babylon. They, too, wondered how to worship when the core location of their worship was no longer available. The words of Psalm 137 have become viscerally real.

By the rivers of Babylon—

there we sat down and there we wept

when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there

we hung up our harps.

For there our captors

asked us for songs,

and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,

‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

How could we sing the Lord’s song

in a strange land?

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? How shall we sing, “Jesus Christ Is Risen today” in an empty sanctuary, or even while taping the service at home? In a faith and a tradition where the gathered assembly is so important, where bodies washed with baptismal water stands as the entry rite, where bodies gather around the altar to receive Christ’s body in a morsel of real bread, how do we capture the joy of the resurrection when none of it is the way we want it to be? We preachers are trying to figure out how best to preach the joy of resurrection in these strange times with a strange way of worship, worship in a foreign land.

I get it that the building and the assembly is not required for our worship. We’ve been proving that for the last few weeks. Yet the truth that this is not how we wish it would be needs to be acknowledged. Honesty and pastoral care – both – push us to figure out how to lament on Easter Sunday even as we celebrate the joy of resurrection.

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann repeatedly insists on the necessity of lament. He writes that full one third of the psalms are psalms of lament or complaint, yet they are largely absent from our lectionary. In lament we acknowledge the reality of our situation and then move from there to action. Brueeggmann warns us about depriving the church of language to express the depth of disappointment, despair, and anger. It leads either to guilt – there’s something wrong, and it’s my fault – or denial – pretending there’s nothing wrong when there’s actually something deeply wrong. Action without lament brings false hope; in this case, celebration without lament brings false joy.

So, in the worship I lead this Easter – taped on Holy Saturday, which itself feels so weird – there will be an element of lament. I’m not sure yet how. For sure it will be in my preaching; maybe in the prayers of intercession; maybe an acknowledgement of the longing we experience to share the Eucharistic meal, though we are not; maybe even a song that departs from the exuberance of Easter hymns. While I’m not sure what it will be, it will be there.

If Bauer-Levesque is right, that exile is a sense of dislocation and the loss of things that are familiar and beloved, then this feels like exile. I suppose as Christians, we are always in exile, aliens in a strange land; this year that theological concept feels not like a concept, but real life. I’ll preach the good news of Christ’s resurrection, for sure. And maybe, knowing and acknowledging our dislocation and loss, it will be more meaningful this year than ever.

 

Lament at the Closing of a Church

churchclosing.jpgFor an unremarkable Tuesday morning, too many cars populated the aging parking lot, weeds abundant in the cracks in the asphalt. In the lobby of the church, a woman sat with a clipboard balanced on her walker taking the names of those who entered through the front door. Next to her was the first indication that something was a little off. Still the middle of September, boxes of Christmas decorations, including strings of lights and a random collection of extension cords, sat on the floor in the open area. In the church office, another white-haired woman sat behind a desk. Next to the door was a hand-written sign written with a felt-tipped marker. “Donations.”  The short hallway leading to the sanctuary was littered with rolls of colored paper, a portable steamer, and a few boxes with unidentified contents. A variety of textiles — banners, altar paraments, vestments —  draped the sanctuary pews. On a shelf behind the altar and on the communion railing were rows and rows of glass vessels of all shapes and sizes. Scattered around the altar were candles and candelabras and a potpourri of gadgets used for the church’s worship.

The congregation is closing at the end of this month. What lay around the building was a collection of physical stuff that had accumulated over the years that this proud congregation had been serving its neighborhood.

So, this is what it looks like when a congregation closes. Or at least what it looks like when one congregation closes, one of the over 4000 that close in the US every year.

I had traveled to the south suburbs of Chicago to see if there were things that could be put to use in my congregation. It didn’t feel good to be there. It felt a little like picking through the clothing of someone who had just died. While there, I was dealing with my own feelings about the closing of a congregation. What had happened? What was the tipping point? What does this say about the church? Is this where we all are headed?

Later on in the day, I started thinking about those women. What must it have been like to see things that had meant so much to you carted off and loaded in the backs of cars you had never seen before, taken by people who were strangers and who were taking them to undisclosed locations? What did it feel like to see banners that had been visual reminders of faith and that once hung in your sanctuary, folded up and carted off? What was going through their minds when someone carried out in a cardboard box eucharistic vessels from which they had received the sacrament hundreds of times. To those of us picking through the spoils they were just things that we hoped might find a use; to those who were watching, it must have felt like a part of their lives were being carried away. Maybe it was a little like the women who sat in a different garden in a different time and place.

I was chatting with another pastor, sharing with him my discomfort at picking through the piles. He shared the same discomfort and then added, “It’s a positive that this congregation has decided to become a legacy congregation.” I suppose in a sense that’s true. Their stuff will live on in another ministry. It’s at least a way to put a positive spin on it. When they sell the building, the proceeds will likely go to a judicatory fund that is supporting new initiatives. On some level that is all good.

But I’m leery of jumping to the positives too quickly. To jump too quickly to the saccharine platitudes covers over the reality that something is dying. It’s not something anyone has to feel guilty about. It may not even be something that anyone has to take responsibility for. Yet it’s real. There is loss. There is sadness. There is grief. I can imagine that it must hurt. To acknowledge that is important. To lament is a holy thing.

Something will rise from the ashes; that’s God’s way. Accompanied in the wilderness by a God of resurrection and life, that’s our hope. Hope is made more real when we can acknowledge that we don’t need to explain away or cover over the grief and sadness.

To you, members of Prince of Peace Church, I don’t know with any precision what you are feeling in the midst of all this. But I acknowledge my own sadness and that I could feel something of your grief in my bones. And for the moment, I sit with you at the waters of Babylon.