An Elegy For The World

During the season of Lent, 2019, the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are listening to, and learning from, and maybe even seeking to practice along with the ancient book of Lamentations. Each Wednesday, we will consider one of the poems from this volume and seek to understand something of its meaning and purpose in both the original and current contexts.  On April 3, we read Lamentations 4 (included in the text of the message below).  My primary guide for the textual work in this series is Dr. F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp’s insightful Interpretation Commentary on Lamentations.  Incidentally, I find it refreshing that an authority on such a difficult and, frankly, gloomy book goes by the nickname of “Chip”.  Anything that sounds remotely profound in my interpretation of these passages was probably lifted from Dobbs-Allsopp’s work.  Incidentally, the topic for this entire series was suggested by the time that our session (our church’s ruling board) spent studying Daniel Hill’s remarkable book White Awake: An Honest Look at What it Means to Be White.  Hill calls our culture to a practice he terms “hopeful lament”.  This message is an attempt to practice some of that.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship please use the media player below:

When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, Walt Whitman was moved to compose one of the most famous poems in the English language: ‘O Captain! My Captain!”  That work is fairly short – 3 stanzas of 8 lines each, and the last line in each stanza reads, “fallen, cold and dead.”

Whitman’s poem is an elegy – a work that is written in order to express some corporate grief and lament; to celebrate the memory of one who had a deep impact, and to provide some assurance that even though the subject of the verse (in this case, Abraham Lincoln) is dead, the world will remember that one’s presence and will be better because of that presence.

As we turn our attention to Lamentations 4, I’d like to suggest that this work functions as an elegy in the midst of a book of poetry that was written to help a community deal with tragedy.  Like the previous three poems in Lamentations, chapter 4 is an acrostic. There are 22 verses, and each verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  Our text for this evening, however, differs slightly from the other three in that it is not as full of emotion as the others. In fact, Lamentations 4 contains a number of phrases that suggest that there is a numbness or a remoteness that is used to describe the suffering that has occurred after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE.

As we continue to seek to be a community that learns from and about the practice of lament, let us consider that poem now.  It begins with a single word: in our current text it is translated as “Oh!”; it could also be read as “How?”

Oh, no!
Gold is tarnished; even the purest gold is changed.
Sacred jewels are scattered on every street corner.

The same word is used to begin the poems of Lamentations 1 and 2.  It conveys a sense of woe, and intimates that the world has changed drastically.  In fact, as the opening stanza reveals, the world is vastly different – values have changed to the extent that pure gold is worthless and sacred jewels are laying around on the streets.  The elegy deepens in the next three stanzas:

Zion’s precious children, once valued as pure gold—
oh no!—now they are worth no more than clay pots made by a potter.

Even jackals offer the breast; they nurse their young.
But the daughter of my people has become cruel, like desert ostriches.

The baby’s tongue sticks to the roof of its mouth, thirsty.
Children ask for bread, beg for it—but there is no bread.

Here is a lament for the children of Zion.  They were once considered to be treasures worth their weight in gold, but they now are dying faster than they can be buried.  Why do they suffer? Because famine has filled the land. Look at the next six stanzas as they offer a description:

Those who once ate gourmet food now tremble in the streets.
Those who wore the finest purple clothes now cling to piles of garbage.

Greater was the punishment of the daughter of my people than Sodom’s penalty, which was quickly overthrown without any hand-wringing.

Her nazirites were purer than snow; they were more dazzling than milk.
Their limbs were redder than coral; their bodies were sapphire.

But their appearance grew darker than soot; they weren’t recognized in the streets. Their skin shriveled on their bones; it became dry like wood.

Things were better for those stabbed by the sword than for those stabbed by famine—
those who bled away, pierced, lacking food from the field.

The hands of loving women boiled their own children
to become their food during the destruction of the daughter of my people.

The suffering of the hungry is so great, according to the narrator, that it would have been better for them to have died in the original attack.  In addition to the children’s deaths, the community laments the destruction of every echelon of society.  Even the wealthy, who are often spared the ravages of conflict and trauma, find that they have nothing to eat; there is even a suggestion that cannibalism is rampant.

Earlier this evening I mentioned that this poem could be considered an elegy. As we read the first 10 verses of Lamentations 4, I note the sad truth that the events described here could have happened anywhere.  We know, because we’ve been here for three weeks already, that this poem is in response to a particular tragedy – the siege and defeat of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. But I have seen the deaths of children and the trauma of famine far too often in my own lifetime.  As horrible as the events described are, one of the things that makes it even worse is that such atrocities have seemingly become everyday realities in the life of a particular community.  The general lament of the first ten stanzas of this poem becomes a little more specific in the next six. Listen:

The Lord let loose his fury; he poured out his fierce anger.
He started a fire in Zion; it licked up its foundations.

The earth’s rulers didn’t believe it—neither did any who inhabit the world— that either enemy or adversary could enter Jerusalem’s gates.

It was because of her prophets’ sins, her priests’ iniquities,
those who shed righteous blood in the middle of the city.

People wandered blindly in the streets, polluted with blood.
No one would even touch their clothing.

“Go away! Unclean!” was shouted at them, “Go away! Away! Don’t touch!”
So they fled and wandered around. The nations said, “They can’t stay here anymore.”

It was the Lord’s presence that scattered them; he no longer notices them. They didn’t honor the priests’ presence; they didn’t favor the elders.

Do you see that the narrative now gains a particular context.  Although these things could have happened in a number of places, they actually occurred right here in Jerusalem.

In some ways, the opening verses of this poem remind me of a twelve-step meeting.  Everyone has gathered because of a general condition.  This building is full on Monday evenings because there are a number of people with substance abuse issues – that’s a common theme to their lives. Yet each meeting occasions the telling of a particular story: it’s as if each gathering begins with an acknowledgement that alcohol and drugs bring pain and grief in general, and then we are directed to look at a particular case in which that has been true.  In the same way, while the suffering of children and death from famine occur in many ways around the globe, this is the story behind these particular deaths, and this particular pain.  Even though the voice continues to be one of narration from a third-party perspective, it is a particular scenario that is described.

As we lean into the next four stanzas, listen for the change in the voice of the poet:

Our eyes continually failed, looking for some help, but for nothing. From our watchtower we watched for a nation that doesn’t save.

Our steps were tracked; we could no longer walk in our streets. Our end had drawn near; our days were done—our end had definitely come.

Our hunters were faster than airborne eagles.
They chased us up the mountains; they ambushed us in the wilderness.

The Lord’s chosen one, the very breath in our lungs, was caught in their traps— the one we used to talk about, saying, “Under his protection we will live among the nations.”

Did you hear that? Instead of being a dispassionate narrator using the third person voice (they, them, theirs), now we hear from those who have suffered:  oureyes failed, our days were done, they chased us; weused to talk…

When this happens, the reader’s participation in the poem moves from hearing a description of events that took place to a retelling of the horrors that happened to us.  Have you ever noticed that retelling a story of horror and grief is a way not only of reliving the trauma, but of sharing, interpreting or understanding it.  The poet is saying, “Look, not only did this terrible thing happen – but it happened here!  To us!”

Some of you know that a friend of mine died violently some time ago. When I first discovered what had happened, I didn’t have words for it.  I was horrified and wounded.  And yet as time went on, I found myself needing to find some way to speak that story to some other friends. I even took a couple of them to the place where it had happened – because I found that sharing the story in this way allowed me to have some measure of control over the pain and disorientation that had come into my life.  I know that some of you have been in that situation, too – you have needed to tell someone else about the difficulties you’ve lived through, or the terrible thing that has happened.  I believe that’s what’s going on in these verses of the poem – that the use of the first person adds a voice of intimacy to the narration and makes the pain share-able in the community.

Chapter 4 ends with two short stanzas in which the tone shifts one more time:

Rejoice and be happy, Daughter Edom, you who live in the land of Uz.
But this cup will pass over to you too. You will get drunk on it. You will be stripped naked.

Your punishment is over, Daughter Zion; God won’t expose you anymore.
But he will attend to your punishment, Daughter Edom; he will expose your sins.

The poet ends with a warning to those who live in neighboring communities: “Listen, friends, you can be happy that this hasn’t happened to you yet, but be aware that it is coming toward you.  And Jerusalem, or Zion – while you have been crushed, you can be thankful for the fact that your worst is already past.

As we contemplate this poem in the first part of the 21stcentury, what are to do with it?  I mean, it’s a horrible sequence of events, all right, but what are the imperatives for us? What is our take-away?

I’d suggest that this poem, perhaps even more than any of the previous three, opens up for us the language of lament in the face of atrocity.  As I mentioned, the general language and the detached voice that comes in the first half of the poem in particular allows us to find a voice that elegizes the horrible things that we encounter.

About fifteen years ago there was a horrific famine that struck the land of Malawi. I went with a team of other Christian leaders and we took stock of the effects of the damage and we sat with those who had been afflicted. One young pastor with whom I met was called Abusa Dennis.  He was in a remote region of the nation, and I asked him, “Dennis, look: is all of this making a difference?  I mean, we’re coming here and we’re trying, but is the suffering reduced at all?”  And right away, he took my hand and he said, “Abusa Dave, it is!  A year ago this time, I was conducting 8 or 9 funerals a week, and they were mostly for children.  It was horrible. But now, I’m only preaching 2 or 3 a week and it’s mostly for old people.”  I had to stop and weep at the thought of doing “only” three funerals a week, and I wondered how I might survive in a community wherein I was burying a child every single day.

These verses may offer you some vocabulary as you name and lament that which is broken in our world.  Look at these verses, and consider what you know about the realities of the Holocaust, or the plight of refugees around the world right now.  Read through them again, slowly, and allow your mind and your heart to summon up images of those who have been slaughtered in schools or places of worship around the world in recent months and years.

Although this lament is written in response to a particular set of tragedies that befell a specific community a long time ago, can you find that some of this language makes your lament a little deeper?  Can you see a connection?  That’s what elegies are for – to help bring people together in times of pain and loss and grief.

But consider this, beloved, and do not lose sight of it.  Remember how the book of Lamentations came to be, and in particular how chapter 4 reached our ears: this is a narrative written by someone who survived.  While many perished, the author did not.  That means something.

One of my favorite books and movies of all time is a striking memoir by Frank McCourt entitled Angela’s Ashes.  It is a vivid first-person narrative that begins this way: “When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while.  Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.. . the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters…”

Page after page finds young Frankie narrating the horrors of his childhood – the deaths of his siblings, the pain of his father’s alcoholism, the grip that depression had on his mother…  As I read that book, I had to keep reminding myself, “Look – he’s telling the story.  HE lived.  It’s horrible, but hegot through it.”  A memoir is like that, isn’t it?  You know that in order to have written the story, the author had to live.  It’s difficult to read, but as you are reading it you can remember that somehow the person passed through the trial.

One of the core lessons of Lamentations 4 is that somehow, the community survived.  In the context of being a community that did survive, they had to learn how to become a resource to others who were in pain.  Those who suffer greatly are, in some ways, able to be more deeply attentive to the needs of others in the wider world. While not advocating increased suffering, the authors of this work would no doubt hold fast to the truth that someone who has lived through a great tragedy, someone who has been shaped by a difficult story, now has the opportunity or maybe even the responsibility to stand with others who find themselves in the midst of great pain.

It was for this reason that a week ago Friday I went to the Islamic Center and found myself standing with dozens of Jews who were handing out roses to Muslim worshipers reeling from the pain of the shooting in New Zealand.  Because the Jews had felt the pain in the Tree of Life slaughter here in Pittsburgh, they found it important to stand with the Muslims in their time of pain. Some of you have known the difficulty of, say, miscarriage; when you find a friend experiencing that loss now, it’s important for you to say, “Yeah, I’ve been there…”

Beloved, the suffering you have experienced and witnessed has shaped your life. And yet, here you are.  You are a survivor.  You and I have survived different things, to be sure, but do not forget that you are changed because of the pain that you have seen, known, and carried.  This Lent, may we remember that pain, and be motivated by the memory of such suffering to share in the plight of those around us in our families, our community, and our world.  Thanks be to God for the gifts of lament and elegy, Amen.