Love–God Be Present: a Reflection on Psalm 25:1-9, Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32, and Matthew 21:23-32
Praising God in the unsettled times of life is the appropriate thing to do. The way we do that, however, is through lament. Lament is “the plea of a desperate person.” Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University writes,
When I was a student at Harvard Divinity School, I learned preaching from Dr. Gardner Taylor, a pastor in New York City. I’ll never forget those lectures. I remember him telling us a story from when he was preaching in Louisiana during the Depression. Electricity was just coming into that part of the country, and he was out in a rural, black church that had just one little light bulb hanging down from the ceiling to light up the whole sanctuary. He was preaching away, and in the middle of his sermon, all of a sudden, the electricity went out. The building went pitch black, and Dr. Taylor didn’t know what to say, being a young preacher. He stumbled around until one of the elderly deacons sitting in the back of the church cried out, “Preach on, preacher! We can still see Jesus in the dark!” Sometimes that’s the only time we can see him—in the dark. And the good news of the gospel is that whether we can see him in the dark or not, he can see us in the dark.
Due to our sin nature, which is always being redeemed, we must never forget our desperate need for God. Without gratitude for our need for God, because of our fundamental desperation, there is no hope.
Living with an attitude of gratitude. That requires generosity. Generosity is an outgrowth of being loved and loving. God be present. Yes, at all times and in all situations. Yes, there is a place for lament, our crying out to God in those times of desperation when we are at our wits end. I am grateful to Mark Douglas, Associate Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the MATS Program at Columbia Theological Seminary for reminding me and now you that it is because God is just and loving that we can pray prayers of lament, which are praise. It is God’s divine work in our human predicaments that we are reminded that lamenting God’s absence is coming to know how present God is. Lament seems to be a limited practice, if not all together missing in the American church.
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 and Matthew 21:23-32 confirm the point made in Psalm 25:1-9: the unsettledness of life, those times when we believe God to be absent, are fertile times for lament. First, search for comfort in the face of external threats by trusting God. We are not to ponder whether the threat is fair or unfair, nor are we to blame. All we can do is cry out to God in our desperation. Second, search for purity in the face of internal threats by trusting God. Once again, we are not to ponder whether the threat is fair or unfair, nor are we to blame. All we can do is cry out to God in our desperation. In both external and internal threats, lament your helplessness and trust that God welcomes you just as you are.
On June 22, 2007, a hit-and-run incident left Daniel McConchie paralyzed from the waist down. McConchie states, “God has not healed my affliction, but he has taught me the power of lamenting to him about it.” God be present. It is through lament that Christians demonstrate their faith that God is present. Listen to a lament Daniel McConchie wrote a year after the accident:
Oh Lord, my God! Why do you wait to show up? I cried out to you when trouble struck. I asked for your restoration. I know that you heard me. I know that you answered.
Yet nothing—nothing of meaning happens again today. Infinitesimal changes dog my days. I am hounded by the prayers of the fickle Looking to me to prove their faith.
Wearily I drag on Tiring of the waste, hating the horror, The pain, the suffering, the never-ending trial. The endless story drags on, and on, and on.
When will the clouds break? When will the night cease? When will the tunnel end? When will you smile again?
What a two-edged sword your voice is! You speak. And then wait? You give hope. And then vanish into the mist? Have you forgotten me? Have more important things arrested your attention?
Hope turns black. This evil I have seen. Nightly my dreams show me restored, And in the morning I am broken again Cursed to relive the horror of suffering’s first day.
Please slay me! Blot my name from the ranks of the living! For in the grave can I finally rest. My wife can have her dreams again; My children a father who can provide as I should.
I wasted my youth. I dismissed the joys I should have embraced. Now I am a mere spectator pretending to be consequential while others take my place. A position I threw away one fateful day.
How long? How long must I wait here in the middle? Between healing and hell, Between heaven and horror, I am unable to move … unable to see … lost in eternal confusion.
My demons torment me Batting me about like a toy, I spin and crash in endless cycle. I no longer know which way is up, Which way is right, which way to go.
Which way is the path to life? Is it up an unclimbable mountain? Or on a path tread by all but me And the others who are broken like I?
Surely it is impossible for me alone to find and impossible for me to transverse. Alone I am finished, Dust left for the broom.
Who am I that God should remember me? My only salvation is that he should not forget his image,Or let his word be broken. He is faithful to us because he is faithful to himself.
There is nothing I can do, In no way can I help. I sit in the ruins and wait, And take comfort in those who lie in the ashes with me.
But one day, by his promise, I will stand; Restored as his message of hope is fulfilled. The Lord will turn this horror into a fading dream, And I will honor his name forever.
It is good for the soul to cry out to God in authentic grief, sorrow, and brokenness, all the while trusting God and God’s unconditional love and unmerited grace. God is always for us and never against us.
Be generous. Love God and others. Do not pass judgment on others. Give praise to God. And lament. These actions, in word and deed, demonstrate love. Rob Bell, the author of Love Wins writes,
How great is God? Great enough to achieve what God sets out to do, or kind of great, medium great, great most of the time…God has a purpose, something God is doing in the world, something that has never changed, something that involves everybody, and God’s intention all along has been to communicate this intention clearly.
The message of Jesus is this: Lament. Be transparent. Trust God.
We are to be “doers of the word, and not merely hearers…” Live your life with an attitude of gratitude. Love as a noun and verb is the way God captures us during our lamenting of external and internal threats. Words and actions of believing God is present in our experience of absence are authentic lament. God be present.
Wallace W. Bubar in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 108.
Taken from Timothy George’s sermon “Unseen Footprints,” PreachingToday Audio (Issue 290).
My words articulate some ideas gleaned from Mark Douglas in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, 108.
I must acknowledge Mark Douglas for his impact on my thinking in this paragraph. More from Mark Douglas can be found in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, 104, 106, and 108.
Rob Bell, Love Wins (New York, New York: HarperOne, 2011), 97-98.