Thursday, March 7, 2013

Laments for Lent

David Sweeney, lament, #228
#228 by David Sweeney
by JaneAnn Kenney

“…it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.” –Lamentations 3:26

I grew up in churches that had little use for the Christian calendar. My understanding of Lent has been largely trial-and-error, without the guidance of church practice. For years, I would give something up from Ash Wednesday to Easter (pizza, alcohol, certain dorky computer games…), and I felt the pain of an extended fast. This year, however, I’ve added a discipline to my life rather than taking away a luxury, and I’m finding the experience profoundly enlightening.

My fascination with Lamentations began long ago, as a sophomore in college, writing for my Old Testament class. Jeremiah’s brief hope in chapter three shone like a beacon across the dark sea of my life, caught at age 19 in the despair of the stark reality of mortality and how easily life is taken away, how quickly those who survive are forever changed, so deeply as to be unrecognizable even to themselves.

Jeremiah’s despair in the other four chapters mirrored my own despondency, giving words to the abandonment I felt deep within my soul. I wish I had understood then that the despair which returned to him after his moment of hope would come to me as well. I wish I’d known that the brevity of that hopeful interlude didn’t mean I was broken or faithless, as though it should have lasted forever, but rather that I was granted a respite in order to gain strength for what was to come.

Enough abstractions! You deserve some concrete insight. Three days before leaving my brand new house in Kentucky for my brand new college in Texas, I saw a man die in my front yard—unnatural causes. It’s far too much for a blog post, all of my feelings and the repercussions, but the feeling that engulfed me as I came to know he was really and truly dead in front of me… it was like an eclipse that goes on too long, leaving the world cold, even in the sunshine of a mid-afternoon in August. Chaos swirled around me as though displaced by demons’ feet.

I didn’t shake that feeling before my freshman orientation, or even during my (seemingly) endless freshman year. I felt alone among my peers; who could understand how the death of a stranger had destroyed the world as I knew it and, therefore, myself as I knew me? Sophomore year was that shaft of sunlight, when I thought I was good, when I felt hopeful and like myself again, and then. Well, and then life went on, and despair returned, and I could no longer say that Pete’s death was the sole cause of my darkness.

With these things in mind, I decided to focus on Lamentations for my Lenten observance. What can I learn on the other side of that pain? Leading up to Good Friday, can I learn to wait quietly?

David Sweeney, woman, #33
#33 by David Sweeney
And so, I am reading one chapter of Lamentations a day, Monday through Friday. By the time Lent is over, I will have read the book through about six times. Each week, I read a new translation which allows both for new insights and dwelling on persistent themes which recur, without respect to translation. So far, I’ve covered the NIV, NRSV, ESV, and part of the Message.

What I’ve seen:

“Her uncleanness was in her skirts; she took no thought of her future; therefore her fall is terrible; she has no comforter. ‘O Lord, behold my affliction, for the enemy has triumphed!’” (1:9, ESV)

I know you didn’t sign up for my biography, so I’m not going to give you any more now. Suffice to say, if this verse resonates with you, it sure as hell resonates with me. I took no thought of my future, the fall was terrible, and I’ve been years learning to stand again. I just pray to God I’ve learned as much as I think I have from that second darkness.

(and I thought, is any suffering like my suffering?)

“And you passersby, look at me! Have you ever seen anything like this? Ever seen pain like my pain, seen what he did to me, what God did to me in his rage?” (1:12, the Message)

She sounds angry—“Can you believe this was God?” How often do I sound like this—can you believe what God is doing to me now? It’s dangerous without a prophet around to assign cause and effect to our suffering or to anyone else’s, so don’t hear me saying that the bad that happens to me or anyone else is punishment. Maybe it is, maybe it ain’t. The real question is, am I comfortable being angry at God? Does he deserve it? Surely I’m not alone in saying, “Well, maybe…”  And not being alone is enough.

(my people have become heartless)

 “See, O Lord, how distressed I am; my stomach churns, my heart is wrung within me, because I have been very rebellious” (1:20, NRSV)

“My stomach drops and my guts churn.” You know that song? I resisted writing what came to mind when I read this verse, but Amy Winehouse and lament go well in a sentence together, I think. What wasted talent, what a hard life, and how quickly ended. Next time you read Lamentations, picture Amy as the woman Jerusalem, crying out to God, stunningly ignorant about why she suffers. Both deserve our tears.

David Sweeney, #454, lament
#454 by David Sweeney
(she weeps bitterly in the night)

 “Look at us, God. Think it over. Have you ever treated anyone like this?” (2:20, the Message)

In context, this isn’t terribly hopeful. Being out of context doesn’t help either, really—“You don’t even treat our enemies so badly!” And yet, perhaps the woman, Jerusalem (Amy), finds solace in a community of suffering. This is no longer her battle alone. She will not be exiled alone. And what of us? Are we in exile? How would we know if we’re in exile? Shall we assume we’re in exile until we hear otherwise, being aliens in the land?

(He will regard them no more)

 “For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men” (3:31-33, ESV)

His heart’s not in it. Against this angry God we think we learned from the Old Testament, against a God defined by vengeance, I love to see his heart’s not in it.

(there may yet be hope)

“Those who once feasted on delicacies perish in the streets; those who were brought up in purple embrace ash heaps; [people like me who were well-educated found it meant nothing]” (4:5, ESV)

Sometimes when reading the laments, parallels to today present themselves. I’ve seen more of them the longer I’ve been reading these words, over and over. It seems an appropriate, middle-class American emendation to the text.

(there may yet be hope)

Redactions for today (from lament 5, NRSV):
With a yoke on our necks we work long hours;
                we are so tired, but there’s no time to rest.
Our forebears sinned; they are no more,
                but we continue in their sins, learning nothing.
The joy of our hearts has ceased;
                our dancing has been turned to mourning.
Are we now in exile and forgotten
                in a land deceptively accepting of you?
Will you not restore us after so long?
                Please do.

lamentations 3:29, hope
- Lamentations 3:29
JaneAnn tries to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn, and her favorite people are those who try to do the same. Follow her on Twitter @JAKof3Ts.

Special thanks to David Sweeney for putting his work online so I could happen upon it at the right time. Check out his stuff at

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