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A Sacred SorrowReaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament
By Michael Card
NAVPRESSCopyright © 2005 Michael Card
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWEEK ONE
Vocabulary and Concepts
Before you, a narrow pathway extends into a dark terrain. Perhaps you have crossed it at various times in your life, maybe even traveled for a season within its boundaries. The path is lament, and this study will help you explore its length more deliberately.
The Bible promises that the path is going somewhere. Though it frequently passes through the "valley of the shadow of death," that is not its final end.
First, there are a few milestones, signposts, with which we must become familiar. Our first week will be spent learning to read them and follow their direction along the way. But more than direction, they will give a sense of shape and meaning to what can sometimes appear to be a senseless and confusing journey. Perhaps you might even consider them lampposts like the one on the border of Narnia, marking the boundary between one land and another completely different one.
Once the trek begins, we will be joined by other, infinitely more experienced travelers. We will meet the first-Job-and walk with him for a time. We will follow in his footsteps in order to gain our direction and learn the proper pace. Without his help in the beginning of the trip, we would most likely lose our way.
Next, we will take up with David. Having begun to get accustomed to the landscape, our time with him will provide us with priceless and hard-fought knowledge of how to deal with all the various terrain. The road may turn sharply uphill or might skirt a precipice. The landscape will, no doubt, be dark. David will enable us to follow the path no matter how steep, rocky, or threatening.
Just as we part company with David, Jeremiah will join us. He will teach us how to follow the course with a crowd, as well as when we are utterly alone. He, perhaps as no one we've met thus far, has fallen more often along this path of lament. His knees are more bruised and bloody. He will understand if we long to turn back and look for home. He will remind us that our final home lies at the other end of the trail, in the direction we are already heading. Most importantly, Jeremiah will prepare us, will teach us to recognize the most important Guide we will encounter along the path of lament.
Finally, at what seems the far end of the trail, we will encounter Jesus. We will find Him waiting for us. In His company we will discover that what we thought was the end is, in fact, the beginning. What felt like the last of our strength has become the first. The trail will become no less rough or steep with Him, yet we will find it a different trail.
If you are ready, let's begin. I would like to be able to tell you that it will be easy, but it will not. In fact, these next ten weeks might be the most spiritually strenuous in your life. But I am as certain as faith can make one certain that we are, you and I, called to follow this path wherever it goes. And it promises to go someplace wonderful.
What Is a Lament?
Lament is not a word we typically use in everyday conversation. What does it mean? Is it simply a sad song?
Biblical laments are "songs"-that is, they are made up of lyrics. When you look at the way they are set aside in the margins of your Bible, you can tell they're poetic in structure. Most of them were originally set to music. Many have musical notations, naming a well-known melody, or perhaps describing what kinds of instruments they were written for. Look at Psalm 22, one of the most poignant laments in the Bible. It was to be played to the tune of a long lost melody entitled, "The Doe of the Morning." The musical notes for the laments in Habakkuk occur at the very end; "For the director of music. On my stringed instruments (3:19)." David, who composed most of the laments in the Bible, was a fine harpist (see 1 Samuel 16:16-23) but also composed for flutes (for example, Psalm 5 superscription) and other "stringed instruments" (see Psalm 4 superscription). Psalm 81 lists other musical instruments like the tambourine, lyre, and ram's horn. So clearly the Bible indicates that laments are at least lyrical, if not almost certainly song lyrics.
But are laments always sad? Many of them are poignant, such as David's lament for his friend Jonathan in 2 Samuel 1:19-27. But others are filled with fear (Psalm 55:5), confusion (Psalm 13), or even the blackest hatred (Psalm 109). In fact, the full range of human emotions is to be found in the laments of the Bible.
How Is This Study Organized?
This is a ten-week study. Each week has an introduction and then is divided into five days of study. Each week will involve reading, both in this book and in the Bible. There will also be questions on which to reflect and discuss and opportunities for journaling. Finally, you will have the chance to begin writing your own laments. This is called an "Experience Guide" because the central purpose is for you to experience a new and deeper type of interaction with God-biblical lament.
As you work through the various Scripture readings, you might try using an ancient form called the lectio divina or "divine reading." This is a simple method which involves reading through a passage of Scripture three times. The first time, called the lectio, you simply let the words wash over you, never straining to "solve the puzzle." Initially you listen to the words of Scripture with the "ears of your heart." When you are finished with this first reading, spend some quiet time listening to what you remember about the text. This is called the meditatio, or meditation.
The second time, as you read, ask the Holy Spirit to speak directly to your heart through some phrase or word in the text. This is called the oratio. Finally, spend some time savoring this word as a precious gift. Again, do not strain to decipher it; only receive it as a gift.
On your final read through, move slowly once more through the entire passage. When you come to the special verse that was the Spirit's gift to you, pause one final moment and listen to it with a heart of thanksgiving. Allow yourself to rest in the given-ness of God's Word to you. This is called the contemplatio.
This ancient method of reading the Bible is more about connecting with God and less about straining to achieve a didactic understanding of the text. It relies on the simple belief that, alone with the Scripture before God, anyone who is willing to come can receive the Word as a priceless gift.
(I am thankful to Bob and Claudia Mitchell for teaching me this ancient technique during a Navigators retreat at Glen Eyrie.)
Day One Wilderness "Worth-ship"
When Isaiah and later John cried out their message of preparing a way and making it straight, they made clear where this "way" would be experienced: in the wilderness. It is only in the desert places that we pick up the trail of lament.
Israel The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to say, "Let My people go that they may worship Me in the wilderness." (Exodus 7:16, JPS)
These were the final words of God through Moses before the plagues were to descend upon Egypt. God's intention was deliverance for His people and the goal of deliverance is always worship.
The purpose of their hard-won freedom was not simply emancipation. The purpose was the worship of God. And notice the place where their worship was to begin: "in the wilderness." True worship always begins in the wilderness.
In the wilderness, the children of Israel discovered God's worth. When they were thirsty, the rock would be struck and water miraculously provided (see Exodus 16; Numbers 20; 1 Corinthians 10:4). When they were attacked, God told the people, "Stand still, I will fight for you" (see Exodus 14:14). The people discovered what their God was worth. In fact, the first primitive form of the word worship was "worth-ship."
Through worship, we offer ourselves to God (see Romans 12:1). Along the pathway of lament we realize that the invitation of Scripture is to offer all of our emotional lives to God-our joys as well as our sorrows, the full spectrum of our hearts, including even the hatred we have for our enemies. As the path winds through the desert, we discover the dimensions of thirst and find out that the Rock is still with us, providing living water. When we are hungry, He feeds us with Himself. In the wilderness we discover how much He is worth. This is an uncharted area of worship for most Christians today. We need to rediscover this lost and overgrown path.
Remember what Job did when he first entered into the wilderness of his suffering, when he heard that all his children had been killed? He worshiped (see 1:20). His worship was in the form of lament, and through it Job offered up to God the deepest disappointment and sorrow of his heart. At the end of his long journey of lament, Job discovered a new depth to the worth of God.
When David was lost in the wilderness of his sin with Bathsheba, how did he find his way back? He worshiped (see Psalm 51). His worship was in the form of a lament of contrition, and through it David found that God had been waiting all along to meet him, forgive him, and restore him. David found God waiting there on the pathway of lament.
As he stood over the smoldering ruins of Jerusalem and finally witnessed the unthinkable destruction he had prophetically seen for so long, Jeremiah felt within his heart both the sorrow of his seemingly forsaken people, as well as the wordless grief of the God whom they had forsaken. The Holy City had become a deserted wasteland. The only pathway out of the ruins of both the city and the spiritual lives of the people was lament. Jeremiah composed and conducted laments on behalf of both Israel and God.
When Jesus was forced to wander through that darkest of death's shadows, the deep blackness of the sin of the world, it was through His cries of lament that He held on to the "joy set before him" (Hebrews 12:2). He was worshiping there on that cross, for there He demonstrated and the world discovered that God alone was worthy. Jesus' worship took on the only form it could have taken: the form of lament. Through it He offered His confusion and desolation to God as an act of worship. And, as Hebrews 5:7 says, "he was heard."
Tabernacles in the Wilderness
In the wilderness, Moses had been shown the pattern for the Tabernacle. There the people were to gather to "meet with God." And over it hovered the Presence of the cloud by day and the fire by night. At the center of this big tent complex was the Holy of Holies, where the Ark of the Covenant was placed. Above it resided the Presence.
If Pentecost (see Acts 2) suggests anything to us, it is that we have become God's tabernacles in the wilderness of this fallen world. The flaming tongues of fire that hovered over the heads of those early Christians were the sure sign that God's Spirit had come to inhabit them, even as He had filled the Tabernacle.
We have inside of us something like a Holy of Holies. Its shape is defined by our sorrows, though it is meant to be filled with our joy. Like the inner room of the tabernacle in the wilderness, it is a sacred place that can only be entered by a priest, by our High Priest. He is also known as the Man of Sorrows, who is acquainted with our grief (see Isaiah 53:3). It had been His intention all along to enter into that holiest of places in your life, that place that He already knows so well. It is a wilderness place. It must be so. If you and I are going to meet with Him there, it must be by way of lament.
At a time when so many of us talk about worship, the Scriptures are calling us beyond a shallow experience of good feelings to the place of Job, David, Jeremiah, and Jesus. This is a place where we come to realize that God wants every part of us, everything we have to give, especially our sorrow and pain, for those must become our offerings of biblical worship. The glorious truth is, God wants it all!
Suggested Bible Readings: Exodus 12:31-15:18; Mark 1:1-13 Reflect & Discuss:
1. What parts of yourself have you not been offering to God in worship?
2. Can you think of times in your life when your personal "wilderness" led you to worship?
Excerpted from A Sacred Sorrow by Michael Card Copyright © 2005 by Michael Card. Excerpted by permission.
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