The Pastoral Work of Pain-Sharing: Lamentations [Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work by Eugene Peterson, part 4]

In a messy world marked by untimely death and stillbirths, racial injustice and relational ruptures, we all wrestle with the problem of evil and suffering. Does God mean anything or a pastor have anything to say in such situations? Eugene Peterson thinks so.

Among other things pastoral work is a decision to deal, on the most personal and intimate terms, with suffering….The biblical revelation neither explains nor eliminates suffering. It shows, rather, God entering into the life of suffering humanity, accepting and sharing the suffering. (113-114)

With this strong statement, Peterson continues his work in Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work by engaging with the brutally honest book of Lamentations, the third of the five scrolls of the Megilloth. Within the context of suffering, loss, and carnage, Peterson describes Lamentations as “a funeral service for the death of the city” (115). Each year, the people of Israel remembered the Fall of Jerusalem and the subsequent exile with a fast on the Ninth of Ab. The fast looked fixedly both at the suffering resulting from the ruin of Jerusalem, but also the sin that caused that ruin. Learning from this, Peterson writes:

Pastoral ministry [deals] with the suffering in such a way as to direct the despair that ordinarily accompanies guilt toward God and not away from him….The task of pastoral work is to comfort without in any way avoiding the human realities of guilt or denying the divine realities of judgment. (117)

The book of Lamentations is a series of five acrostic lament poems that serve to chronicle the breadth of suffering from start to finish, from A to Z. Such an intentional and deliberate work “organizes grief, patiently going over the ground, step by step, insisting on the significance of each detail of suffering. The pain is labeled…arranged” (122). For pastors this helps us walk alongside others both chronicling their grief fully, without minimizing it, while also pointing to the reality that there is an end to the grief. At a practical level, Peterson encourages pastors to listen to those suffering, but also to provide boundaries and limits to it, through set appointments that, in a sense, remind the sufferer that suffering does not control reality or have endless power of their life.

There is no question in Lamentations about not taking suffering seriously…Finally, though, it says ‘Enough.’ Evil is not exhaustible. It is not infinite. It is not worthy of a lifetime of attention. (124)

The challenges of suffering are rooted in historical realities. For Israel this was the fall of Jerusalem, but for us it may be a wide range of experiences. Lamentations helps us see the importance of tracing suffering toward its historical roots.

When a pastor encounters a person in trouble, the first order of pastoral ministry is to enter into the pain and to share the suffering. Later on the task develops into clearing away the emotional rubble and exposing the historical foundations: all suffering is triggered by something. There is a datable even behind an act of suffering—a remembered word of scorn that sounded, a describable injustice causing injury, a death with a date on it pinpointing the hour of loss, a divorce decree giving legal definition to a rejection. (126)

The pastor explores this historical foundation of suffering so that healing can come. We do not pry into personal lives for curiosity’s sake or to merely open up wounds again. No, pastors explore the history “to pin it to the actual and so make it accessible to the grace that operates, as we know from biblical accounts, in the historical” (129).

As with Israel’s remembrance of the Fall of Jerusalem, this often leads us into an encounter with the anger of God. Today, many pastors debate the validity of God’s wrath or anger, but Peterson is strong on its biblical and theological importance:

The moment anger is eliminated from God, suffering is depersonalized, for anger is an insistence on the personal—it is the antithesis of impersonal fate or abstract law. (131)

The God of the Bible is deeply personal and relational. His anger reinforces this reality,  P. T. Forsyth says: “God cares enough for you to be angry with you” (133). Lamentations brings focus for the pastor to how human wrestling with suffering relates both to God’s care and God’s anger. Pastors help those suffering grasp how their pains find meaning within the context of “the immense backdrop of a majestic salvation” that also leads into God’s “immediate companionship” (135).

It is because of this that Peterson reacts against the contemporary tendency to approach suffering from a merely therapeutic framework. Instead, he calls pastors to “neither attempt explanations of suffering nor mount programs for the elimination of it” (139). Instead, letting go of mere technique, we invite people to pay attention to God and grace in the vulnerable experience of suffering. “Encouraged by Lamentations, the pastor will have the strength to do far less in relation to suffering and be far more” (141).

Lamentations also teaches the pastor that encountering suffering should not merely be a personal journey. Instead, it is a community journey. We enter into personal counseling, but lament communally. The individual does not really surface in Lamentations until chapter 3. The predominant approach is corporate lament and common prayer. We raise our voices and we weep together, and this, at least in part, is where healing arises. Such work slows us down to experience comfort only after truly facing into the suffering, not just on our own, but also with others.

Pastoral work patiently listens and enters into suffering, traces the contours of the history that brought the pain, and invites the individual and community to respond not in hurry and trite platitudes but deep engagement. As Peterson reminds us, quoting Nietzsche, “Only where graves are, is there resurrection” (148).

[This is the fourth in a series of posts on Eugene Peterson’s Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. You can read all the posts here.]

Lamenting Our Losses: three vital parts of lament in the pandemic

lament.001

I was talking with a friend the other day about some of the changes we have experienced during the pandemic. Some of them were simple—activities we could no longer enjoy or places we could no longer visit—and others were more complex—missed milestones in our lives, friends and family members suffering with sickness, and concerns about the future.  Maybe you have had conversations like that recently as well. I certainly hope so because one of the most important things we can do in this time of the pandemic is to lament our losses. 

lamet 003Lament is commonly defined as “a passionate expression of grief or sorrow.” Within Scripture lament has the added significance of mingling our grief and sorrow with prayer as we bring it into the presence of God. Lament takes up a considerable amount of space in the Bible, from the psalms of lament to the Hebrew prophets to the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane and more. I often distinguish between complaint and lament by saying that with complaint we practice the presence of our problems, but with lament we practice the presence of God while simultaneously bringing our problems to Him. Complaint lives in agony with the self. Lament lives in agony with God. Each and every one of us needs lament these days. Let me suggest three parts of lament that are vital during this time of the pandemic.

The first is to name our losses. At a spiritual retreat I attended not too long ago, participants were asked to write a list of losses we had experienced in the past year. It was illuminating for me to write down things, whether small or large, I perceived as losses. When I read the list later, I realized some things that seemed small initially had become larger over time, occupying a lot of my background attention in life. Until I named those losses it was difficult for me to deal with them or let them go. Consider the words of the psalmist in Psalm 73 where inner troubles stewed until a name was given to the real source of trouble, both internally and externally.

But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
I had nearly lost my foothold.
For I envied the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. (Psalm 73:2-3)

So, let me ask us: have we named our losses? Have we written them down, given a name to  them, or voiced them aloud as a loss to ourselves or others? We cannot lament without naming our losses.

The second vital aspect of lament is to grieve our losses. For some of us, this can be particularly difficult. My Scandinavian upbringing has taught me how to work hard and persevere in trials, but it has not always helped me to grieve things appropriately. Grieving was something that I had to learn how to do. Grieving is an essential part of lament. As mentioned above, lament gives space for passionate expression of grief or sorrow. Think about David grieving the disastrous death of Saul and Jonathan at the hands of the Philistines.

A gazelle lies slain on your heights, Israel.
How the mighty have fallen! (2 Samuel 1:19)

Here is the anointed of God, a mighty warrior, a man after God’s own heart, lifting up loud cries of grief over the loss of a dear friend and the untimely ruin of a ruler. What about us? What are our losses? Have we given expression through grief about these things? If not, our souls become a cesspool of hidden pain and difficulty often leading to bitterness and anger.

lament.002The third vital aspect of lament is to bring our losses to God. You may think this last point is obvious, but I have found over the years that this more difficult than we might expect. One the one hand, we find it easy to linger in our troubles. We readily practice the presence of our problems to the point that they become a sort of sick companion. But lament is not about lingering alone in our griefs. Psychology without acknowledgment of God often becomes narcissistic. On the other hand, those of us familiar with the church seem to find it easiest to be happy or joyful in the presence of God instead of giving voice to our griefs and angst. A quick search through the most popular worship songs today reveals very few songs of authentic angst and pain brought into God’s presence. Spirituality without space for lament quickly becomes superficial. Consider with me the book of Habakkuk, where the prophet meets with God again and again in his pain and complaint.

How long, Lord, must I call for help,
but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
but you do not save?

I will stand at my watch
and station myself on the ramparts;
I will look to see what he will say to me,
and what answer I am to give to this complaint. (Habakkuk 1:2; 2:1)

Habakkuk shows us what true lament looks like, when trouble and pain is named, grieved, and expressed in the presence of God.

Friends, I find it hard to express how important it is that we recover lament today. I am sure each that every one of us could fairly quickly make a long list if we tried to name our losses. However, I am less confident we are truly making space in life to grieve our losses and to do so in the presence of God. I worry for all of us that without lament the deep places of our souls will fill with bitterness and anger, and that such foul waters, undrained, will spring out into our lives and those around us when we least expect it causing great ruin. May God help us to lament!

||40days|| week three: turn

As we continue the ||40days|| journey through Lent, this week we will focus on the theme: ‘turn’.

Last week, we looked at acknowledging things in our lives: sin, fears, brokenness, and longings. Radical honesty to acknowledge things in our lives is the first step of the journey, but it does not stop there.

The next step is to turn from those things that we acknowledge in some way. To turn means to see something, and willfully move in a different direction. In our ||40days|| journey, we are talking about turning from sin and other things so that we might turn back to God. As we read in the book of Lamentations:

Let us examine our ways and test them,
and let us return to the LORD. (Lamentations 3:40)

Here at the beginning of the week, ask God to speak to you and strengthen you to turn fully to Him in your everyday life.

The Mark of a False Prophet

The visions of your prophets were false and worthless; they did not expose your sin to ward off your captivity. The prophecies they gave you were false and misleading.
Lamentations 2:14

As the author of Lamentations weeps over the desolation of Jerusalem and the people of God, as he says again and again that God’s people are without any comfort, as he asks God to look and see, he finally draws attention to the false prophets.

These false prophets had visions that were both untrue and, in the end, completely worthless. They were “false and misleading.”

But tucked into the words about these prophets are a clarifying indictment: “they did not expose your sin.” If there is one thing a true prophet does, it is to point out the wrong ways of people. A true prophet must not hesitate from this. Unfortunately, the lack of this true prophecy led the people of Israel on a sin-laden path to exile.

Where are our true prophets today? Those who unflinchingly expose our sin?