"Lost in a Green Desert"
February 18th, 2020
From: "A Sacred Sorrow: Reaching out to God in the Lost Language of Lament"
I stand in the middle of a congregation on Sunday morning. The service has just begun, a "season" of worship. All around me people I know and trust "enter into" the experience of worship. Some hands are raised, but not all, since this is not a requirement in our congregation. Some eyes are closed. All around me are friends, faithful followers of Jesus, who seem to be able to go to a place I have not been, cannot seem to go. Twenty minutes later the worship time draws to an end. All I'm aware of is the aching in my feet and legs from having to stand up for so long. We all sit down in preparation to hear the sermon, the Word of God preached. It is my deep shame to admit it to you now, as it is my shame before God every Sunday morning, that when I finally sit down I whisper deep inside myself where I hope no one, especially God, will hear, "I'm so glad that's over!" Still aching, I collapse into the pew. I feel as if I've been wandering alone in a desert. It is a particular kind of acute aloneness which is only experienced in the midst of a crowd. The desert is paradoxically green, made verdant by the worship of others. I feel cut off in the midst of those with whom I share the intimacy of the same indwelling Spirit. I remain frustratingly thirsty while those around me rejoice and drink in Living Water.
For years, since the early days of the Jesus Movement, I dealt with this shame by discounting those around me, calling into question the genuineness of their experience. I inwardly accused them of faking an intimacy with Jesus that I could not believe was possible, simply because I had found it impossible. The older I get, the more I have come to realize that, besides it being a sin to sit in judgement on others the way I did, it simply was not true. Many were entering into a deep and genuine place of worship. It was my soul that was missing a piece that perhaps Jesus, in His perfect timing, has decided only now, all these years later, to grant me and perhaps, through this book, to grant you too.
Many of us these days find ourselves adrift in a sea of worship. For us it is a tractless green desert, and we can know neither the way through, nor what the boundaries might be. We fear the giants that might dwell in such a land, those unknown and unknowable fears of what could be. We fear the frightening possibility of the unlimited spiritual "success" of connecting with God. We fear what might happen inside us if we actually did enter before the throne. What sort of Person might we find there? An angry Judge? A stingy Benefactor? A disappointed Father? "Perhaps," we say to ourselves, "it would be better to remain here in the wilderness we know rather than risk trading it for an impossible garden we could never know."
So many of us simply remain, willingly, and willfully abandoned in this wilderness. We do not know where we are. We do not know where we are going. We even lack the language to describe our desolate place in this frustratingly verdant place. Bound by the personal sorrows and hurts we leave outside the door on a thousand Sundays, we are left to languish while those around us drink from a fountain that, to our eyes, looks dry. We are slaves to what we do not know. And muted by what we find ourselves unable to speak. We are thirsty. We are word-less and way-less. Our best hope of finding our way back to true worship lies along the pathway of lament, a path that promises to provide the only route through the green desert. If indeed we are lost, we must push forward together and take the land, refusing any longer to live as strangers there.
If we would only open the eyes that Jesus seems so intent on our opening, we'd see that what we thought was a desert is in fact our own homeland. When the spell of the Fall is broken we realize we have been residing here all along, though not really living. Our souls knew the terrain. We spotted familiar landmarks all along the way. Our hearts understood better than we knew the various narrow pathways. We see that the fountain is indeed full to overflowing, inviting us to quench our sinful self-inflicted thirst.
Our failure to lament also cuts us off from each other. If you and I are to know one another in a deep way, we must not only share our hurts, anger, and disappointments with each other (which we often do), we must also lament them together before the God who hears and is moved by our tears. Only then does our sharing become truly redemptive in character. The degree to which I am willing to enter into the suffering of another person reveals the level of my commitment and love for them. If I am not interested in our hurts, I am not really interested in you. Neither am I willing to suffer to know you nor to be known by you. Jesus' example makes these truths come alive in our hearts. He is the One who suffered to know us, who then suffered for us on the cross. In all this, He revealed the hesed of His Father.
This same failure to lament also hampers us in being able to fully know and reach out to the poor, whom Jesus told us were to be our central concern. After all, how did Jesus come to know us but by entering into the poverty of our world as the "Man of Sorrows"? He lamented along with our experience of fallenness, though He "knew no sin." How can we speak to the suffering and poor if we do not learn their language, the language of lament? Until we learn to honestly embrace our hopelessness and theirs, there will be no true gospel to be heard. Until we learn to lament, we have nothing to say to most of the world.
It follows then, that if our refusal to lament separates us from ourselves and others, it also separates us from God. The heart of the issue after all is not really lament, it is God. What do we believe His character is really like? Is He merely a predictable theological entity who sits frozen on the throne, kept narrowly fenced in by our categories and definitions, safely far away from us like a lion at a zoo? Could that rigidly defined and depersonalized Deity ever be interested in our confusion and hurt?
Have we forgotten that the compassionate face of God was revealed to us in Jesus? Christ revealed to us the Father who stands in the road waiting for a glimpse of prodigal children returning to Him. Jesus revealed the One who gets up from the throne, forever motivated by His defining characteristic, loving-kindness (hesed). In Jesus we experience a God who is moved by our tears, who is even moved to tears. Until we learn to let our tears of lament flow freely in His presence we will never discover this deep dimension of Him. Only the Christ who became so familiar with our suffering can break apart that dispassionate dividing wall between ourselves, others, and God Only the power of His tender tears can tear it down.
Perhaps, thus far, you have been in agreement. You have felt lost, have sensed the loss of your identity, have felt cut off from others and God, have discovered that you have even lost the language to communicate these deep feelings and a thousand more. So far so good.
"But," you inevitably respond, "Isn't it wrong to complain by lamenting to God? Is it not a sign of rebellion and faithlessness? How can it be appropriate to show my anger to Him?"
These are all fair questions. But let me do what Jesus usually did and answer your question with another question: Why then, does God enshrine so many laments in His Word? Laments, we must realize, are God's Word. Why are so many biblical characters shown as disappointed and angry with God? Do we seek to learn from all the other facets of their lives but this? I would put it to you this way. People like Job, David, Jeremiah, and even Jesus reveal to us that prayers of complaint can still be prayers of faith. They represent the last refusal to let go of the God who may seem to be absent or worse - uncaring. If this is true, then lament expresses one of the most intimate moments of faith - not a denial of it.
It is supreme honesty before a God whom my faith tells me I can trust. He encourages me to bring everything as an act of worship, my disappointment, frustration, and even my hate. Only lament uncovers this kind of new faith, a biblical faith that better understands God's heart as it is revealed through Jesus Christ.