Sunday, February 16, 2014
This book of the Bible is referred to as ‘Lamentations.’ Can it possibly contain any hope? Actually, yes. We will get to that, but not at first. It would not be appropriate to begin there. We must never rush to Easter, skipping Good Friday along the way.
Lamentations is one of the places the Bible declares bad news bad news that must be acknowledged out loud. Too many voices in Christian circles fear pain, so they bury it. In the face of sorrow they pretend nothing is wrong. They talk of God’s goodness and how God has a purpose in all things.
The Bible rejects the impulse to skip over the painful moments of life. The Bible names it all – disappointment, loss, death. I am one who is guilty of not wanting to face darkness. I want to stick with what feels good and hope pain will go away if it is ignored. What I share in this message is my experience of being confronted by God. God had had enough of me turning away from the ugliness of sin and pain that fills real life. Through praying the scriptures in Lamentations, God brought forcefully face to face with things that demand lament.
In my quiet times of prayer toward the final months of 2013, God’s confrontation was intense enough that to spare myself many days, I just played online games instead of having prayer time. I should not have done that. But, I did. There were, though, enough times that I turned the computer off, opened the Bible, turned to Lamentations, turned inward, found God in the deep parts of myself, and there, I was confronted.
For me the beginning of this portion of my walk with Jesus was our youth grip mission trip to Atlanta. The week in that city brought me face t0 face with the black-white divide in America; the face of urban, inner city poverty and toughness of life in that context; my own tendency to retreat to the safety of my cozy life in the suburbs. I want to follow Jesus. Atlanta pried open doors inside me, doors that had been locked. Without those doors being opened, my discipleship was severely reduced.
While we were Atlanta, July 2013, another important American city, Detroit, declared bankruptcy. I sat at breakfast preparing for a day of tutoring belligerent inner city Atlanta sixth graders in reading. I saw the story of Detroit’s demise in the Atlanta newspaper. I felt a chill. Detroit is a city that matters to me.
Detroit is marked by mile roads that run east-west, lines on a map marking how far you are from the center of the city. Fourteen mile road is 14 miles north of downtown and 15 miles is a mile north of that and so on. By the time you get to 14 mile you’re actually out of the city. We were in a suburb. My mom had grown up on 7 mile in the city limits. We moved away from the Detroit area altogether, to Virginia, in 1982. I was 12. My grandmother stayed in Detroit on 7 mile until she died in 1994.
The city experience post World War II prosperity in the 50’s, post Civil Rights Movement upheaval in the 60’s, and terrible decline in the 70’s, 80, and 90’s. As the city changed, Grandma’s life did too, or it should have. But, she did not change her habits and thus, she was mugged. One Christmas Eve while we were all out, the house burglarized. The crime rose, yet this little old lady defiantly held onto her life there.
She, came to America as an immigrant at age 13. She was an English girl surrounded by Americans. When she and my grandfather began life on 7 Mile, their family was one of the few gentile families in the neighborhood. Most of my mom’s school friends were Jewish.
The neighborhood changed and by the time we moved to Virginia in 1982, the Jews had migrated to the suburbs and Grandma was among the last of the white people still there. She would not move. There is nothing bad about an English woman surrounded by Americans or a gentile living among Jews or a white among blacks. American, Jews, and black people are all beautiful, wonderful people. I simply point this out to illustrate the city’s changes and my Grandmother’s steadfast commitment to honor the life she built – a life built on faith and indomitable intestinal fortitude. She was always a minority and never felt like it. 7732 West 7 Mile Road was her home.
Sitting in Atlanta in July of 2013, almost 20 years after Grandma’s death (of natural causes at age 84), I read of Detroit’s plight in an Atlanta newspaper, and it hit me very personally. And to read of it while doing God’s work in another large American city with black-white racial tension amplified my emotions. When we returned from Atlanta, I needed to do something with those emotions. Talking to someone did not feel right. Who would understand why I, a Chapel Hill resident, went to Atlanta, and got emotionally messed up by the news from Detroit? It doesn’t even make sense as I type it. I needed to talk to God; real, deep conversation. I turned to lectio divina, an ancient method of praying the scriptures.
A disclaimer: if you are well-schooled in Lectio Divina, then you know more than I do. I don’t know if what I did would satisfy a ‘Lectio Divina’ purist. Someone may hear what I have to share and say, “Hey! That’s not how you do Lectio Divina!” All I can say in response is this is how I did it, and God spoke to me.
Returning from Atlanta and thinking about Detroit and thinking my own place in American culture, I had thoughts for which there were no words. I needed help expressing what I was thinking and feeling because I could not identify it until I expressed it. And I could not express it. So, I turned to Lamentations and my own attempt at praying the scriptures. What I offer this morning is my testimony of my own personal experience. This is what I did starting in late August, 2013. I kept up this routine (when I wasn’t retreating to Facebook video games) until the end of the year.
The first step is reading the passage that will guide you into prayer. God lead me to the book of Lamentations.
I was in a quiet place, no distractions. I read the entire passage out loud. I closed my eyes and took four deep breathes. Then I repeated, the entire passage followed again by four slow, deep breathes. I did this four times. This was my reading of the passage.
The second step is meditating – thinking deeply about the text. After reading, I looked over the passage and chose one word or a phrase. Then, I would go over it and over it and over it some more, in my mind. I spent an entire week on the first five verses of Lamentations. Each day, in the meditation portion, I devoted my thoughts to a different word in the passage.
The reason Lamentations was so fitting for me in this exercise was the phrase that began my meditations on day 1. From verse 4, “the roads to Zion mourn.” I chewed that phrase us. The roads to Zion mourn … the roads to Atlanta mourn … the roads to Detroit mourn. I was filled with sadness and helplessness and the Lamentation gave me the words and the framework to not only speak but name what I was speaking as I lifted it to God. I thought of every city I have encountered. I have actually done a lot ministry work in down town areas: Roanoke, Richmond, Washington DC, Kombolcha (Ethiopia). Ironically, I have not done any in Detroit and only one week in Atlanta. But, I have lived my life in Detroit. So as I focused on the phrase, I thought of cities.
I also though of every occasion for mourning and grief I have known. What is it like to grieve? What are cities like? What does it mean, the road to the city mourned? The thoughts ran together in me as I mediated from Lamentations.
The first step was reading; the second was meditating. The third step was spoken prayer.
Eugene Peterson writes, “It’s one thing to be listening to … Jesus preach the Beatitudes on a grassy Galilean hillside. … It’s quite another to realize that God is speaking to me [as I sit alone with no one else around]. I am speechless; or I stutter. How do I answer God? But answer, I do, for the text requires it” (quote adapted from Eat this Book, p.103). And God invites it. And the Holy Spirit helps.
In my reading and meditating, God had helped me name it – sadness over loss and over the death sin inflicts on cities – cities I have known. Next, I had to pray. Thinking about the grief, I prayed for those kids we met in Atlanta. I prayed for the CBF missionaries who don’t leave after a week. They live there in that tough place and share their lives with those troubled children. I prayed for the people who broke into Grandma’s house on Christmas Eve. I don’t even know if those crooks are still alive. God knows. How desperate must your life be that you spend Christmas Eve breaking into others’ homes? I prayed for the new mayor in Detroit, for the street children I have seen in Addis, for the poor kids I work with each year in Kombolcha and the city kids I used to work with in Washington DC. I prayed for the people in our city, Chapel Hill, those for whom our HillSong teams have built ramps and removed trees and help in other ways. I poured my heart out before Heaven. What I said in those prayers was been shaped as I listened to the Word of God in Lamentations and meditated up on it.
The third step, spoken prayer, is unstructured and carries on as long as it needs to. God is a patient, encouraging, inviting listener. God receives all these prayer.
I ended with the fourth step. This is where I listened to God. At the the end of the spoken prayer, I would take a deep breath. I had the word in me. My own experiences and memories were awakened. Everything I dumped on God in my spoken prayer was out there. I took another deep breath or maybe a few. I quieted down my mind, and sat in stillness.
I sat comfortably, but not so relaxed that I might fall asleep. I wanted to heighten my senses, my mental alertness and my listening. I asked God to speak into the silence. The constant flow of my own thoughts interrupt, but I don’t beat myself up over that. I understand that that happens. I imagined my thoughts as a river and I let the distractions flow through my mind and return to the silence. Usually, I practice this silent contemplation for about 5 minutes. Sometimes I spend much of the time forcing distractions out of my mind. Other times, the intensity of God’s presence is such that I don’t know where the time went.
When my 5 or 10 minutes of silence was up, I recited the passage one more time. I thought once more about the roads – the roads to the city mourn; or whatever my phrase was for that day. I thought about it, took a final deep, intentional breath slowly exhaling. Then I got on with the day.
The prayer and the word stuck with me. Again Eugene Peterson: “contemplation means living what we read, not wasting any of it or hoarding any of it, but using it up in living.” Everything I have shared this morning about praying the scriptures culminated in me seeing the world through Jesus-tinted lenses.
Now, that season in Lamentations is complete. My care for the city is awakened. As Lent and then Easter draw near, I realize now God is confronting me anew. Just as God forced me to deal with my disregard for issue like racism and poverty, now God is forcing me to deal with another topic – spiritual laziness. I will continue the practice of praying the scriptures, but not Lamentations. I am now going to move to 1st, 2nd and 3rd John for my practice of praying the Word. God is in the process of shaking me awake.
The process of praying the scripture I have shared is one anyone can practice. If you want to, but don’t know where to start, contact me this week. I don’t know what would happen in our church life if 20 HilllSong people were praying the scriptures with this focus and intensity and raw confessional honesty. Or 50 or 100? We could find out. Would you try it, 30 minutes a day, from now until Easter? What is God going to say to you? There’s only way to know.
One last thing; if you plan to begin where I did, in Lamentations, don’t give up before you reach the middle of chapter three. Even in that book that serves to remind us how important it is to be honest about the pain in the world, there is also hope.
This God of Lamentations, the one on whom we can depend, whose mercies never fail, is who we meet when we pray the scriptures. God is why we pray, so my urging to each one of is that we make space for Him. Pray the scriptures so that the word of God takes us to the heart of God.