Robert Frost’s thrush is not singing a solo in his invitation to lament, but is adding to the words of the prophet Jeremiah, and has now been joined by Soong-Chan Rah in Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times.
In Frost’s poem, the invitation is declined, and perhaps he had good reason, as he was “out for stars” and would not come in. According to Rah, this is also the position of the North American church, which is unfortunate, for in losing lament, we are also losing our collective memory of how to live in the midst of suffering. Soong-Chan Rah explains:
“We forget the necessity of lamenting over suffering and pain.
We forget the reality of suffering and pain.”
Just as poetry is divided into broad categories of praise and lament, believers around the world can be divided into the “have-nots,” who “develop a theology of suffering and survival,” and the “haves,” who “develop a theology of celebration.” This impacts on the church in that “worship that arises out of suffering cries out for deliverance,” while those who live in celebration are largely consumed with maintaining their happy status quo.
Dr. Rah’s thesis in his analysis of the book of Lamentations is that “to only have a theology of celebration at the cost of the theology of suffering is incomplete. The intersection of the two threads provides the opportunity to engage in the fullness of the gospel message. Lament and praise must go hand in hand.” A cry for justice is foundational to biblical lament, for the heart that suffers or that allows itself to be drawn into the suffering of others will seek answers from God and pray for change.
Prophetic Lament opens wide a neglected book of the Bible and teases out several riveting and perspective-altering points for 21st century Christians to consider:
- It is over-simplification to tie the sufferings of others to their sin, and it is our tendency, as a church, to “engage in relativism when it comes to God’s judgment.” It is God’s sovereign prerogative to mete out punishment, and our human standards of justice are woefully inadequate to evaluate equity or even our own culpability.
- Jeremiah utilizes both communal and individual lament in his writing, but in the West, we have largely lost the sense of corporate sin. “Hyperindividualism” is a cultural condition that prevents us from seeing the power of sin to impact “not only the individual but also the community.”
- “Justice” is a popular battle cry in the church today, but we must beware of our attachments to power and success, and the resulting delusion that we are God’s chosen “fixers,” and that this is the path to favor with God. Lamentations 4 chronicles the downfall of all Jerusalem’s cherished symbols of success. God may choose to work along paths that have nothing to do with human achievement.
- Dr. Rah makes the startling observation that God’s voice is strangely absent from the book of Lamentations. This should rivet the reader’s attention to the need for leaving space for the voice of suffering to be heard in our day. There is a place and time for sitting with the cries of distress, allowing them to resonate before “moving to the psalms of praise.”
- The realities that surround us on this planet call for both celebration and lament. A theology that does not integrate the two is insufficient just as a Christology that emphasizes triumphal resurrection at the expense or Christ’s suffering and alienation from God would be incomplete.
Without a knowledge of Hebrew, the beauty of Lamentations’ structure is lost on me, but Dr. Rah has provided diagrams that demonstrate the fascinating and excruciatingly strict and disciplined format Jeremiah imposed upon the text as he wrote the five acrostic poems that comprise Lamentations. Notice that Chapters 1, 2, 4, and 5 have twenty-two verses. Chapters 1 and 2 devote three lines to each of the twenty-two Hebrew letters. Chapter 3 demonstrates an intensification of this structure in order to provide a climax in its message of torment and grief. The harsh images of broken teeth and gravel in the mouth veering sharply into the renewal of God’s mercy every morning are communicated in sixty-six verses because each of the twenty-two Hebrew letters is given three alliterative lines. Then, as if his intensity is spent after the effort of Lamentations 3, Chapters 4 and 5 exhibit a declining intensity in form with only 2 lines per letter in Lamentations 4 and a “weak acrostic” in Lamentations 5 with the twenty-two verses not in alphabetical order.
A church that enters into the suffering of others will put aside materialistic goals in order to shift resources toward the needy. This alignment with God’s priorities reduces wealth to its proper position: a tool for the propagation of biblical shalom, for the elimination of injustice, for the practical working out of Jesus’ vision and prayer: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Image credit for Frost’s poetry lyrics: cvirginia
This book was provided by Intervarsity Press in exchange for my review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
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