Hi friends! It is with great privilege that I introduce this post by introducing the person who wrote it. Zach DeMoya is a friend I met early on at Duke Divinity School, who is passionate about everything he wraps his mind around. He is a stellar husband, friend, dog dad, and Hebrew student. I hope you will sow with him these seeds of lament that you might reap the joys that come as we approach Easter.
Brothers and sisters, we find ourselves nearly midway through the Lenten season, fervently disciplining and preparing ourselves for the risen Messiah. Traditionally, we do this as an act of modeling the trials and tribulations that our Christ underwent in the wilderness directly preceding his ministry. Growing up in the Bible Belt, this primarily meant an overemphasis on fasting from something in our lives that would be considered “bad” for us – soda, candy, television; you name it, someone probably fasted from it as a form of self-help. That’s exactly it – the Lenten season has been watered down to the point that not drinking Mountain Dew or eating pecan pie has been equated by modern Christians with Jesus’ fasting in the wilderness, tempting by the devil, and ministering with the shadow of the cross beckoning nearer by the day.
Only recently have I been introduced to the tradition of lament during the Lenten season. This can be a confusing word and practice for most modern Christians – lamenting is not exactly a mainstream form of worship or spiritual practice these days. Lamenting requires mourning, grieving, even weeping – all actions that are rarely if ever practiced communally, and equated with weakness and tragedy if practiced individually. After all, since we as Christians believe in the resurrection of Jesus and affirm that moment as the ultimate victory over sin and strife and the only true hope we have in the midst of the chaos of this world, why would we possibly need to lament during the days leading up to the remembrance of the greatest event for the Christian faith in human history?! Naturally, this sort of belief has rendered the Lenten season a time of giving something up to feel better about oneself and a time to make plans to celebrate the Easter holiday with family and friends and pick out a new pastel piece for the wardrobe to wear to the Sunday service.
I want to reflect a moment on this concept of lamentation. If we acknowledge that it is a counter-cultural practice in mainstream Christianity, where might we find a model for properly and healthily lamenting in our own lives and as the body of Christ? For me, the epitome of capturing the utter humanity that comes with lamenting can be found in the Psalms. This collection of poetic hymns and musical pieces, presumably authored by David (although this is widely debated by scholars across the theological spectrum), often are characterized by the modern church as joyful and enthusiastic songs in praise of God’s divine work in the presence of danger and sin. The beautiful, albeit unfamiliar, metaphorical language has been adapted into worship songs and hymns in all Christian traditions, again typically in upbeat harmonies and used as music of celebration in church services and gatherings across the world.
So why then do I refer to the Psalms as the model for lamentation for the modern Christian? The Psalms are unique in the Christian canon in that the words reflect human emotion. The author speaks directly to God, reflecting upon God’s action, mourning over God’s inaction, praising deliverance from enemies, and even begging for oppressors to be “smited” (or physically assault violently, for you New Living Translation folks). All of these postures that the author takes in speaking to the divine portray the range of emotions that any human might go through in his/her life – joy, sadness, anger, fear, apathy, contentedness, etc, etc. This is rare if not nonexistent in the Scriptures, and even may beg the question of why the imperfection and inconsistency of humanity would even be included in an inspired or authoritative collection of texts about the Christian God. After all, humans are sinful! What could the Bible possibly need the input of a sinner for in providing the good news of the gospel that indicates the final defeat of sin on the cross?
I would posit that the oddest emotional expression we see in the Psalms is that of anger. Especially in more conservative Christian circles, “do not be angry” or some version of that phrase is widely (albeit mistakenly) treated as essentially a Bible memory verse. Parents and adults in the church use this to attempt to teach children to love one another and react calmly to adversity. Yet, here in the Psalms, we see quite the opposite. For example, take Psalm 3:7:
“Arise O Lord, save me O God! For you smite my enemies on the cheek; you shatter the teeth of the wicked”
First and foremost, let us acknowledge that the beloved New Living Translation translates this as “you slap all my enemies in the face”, which is just a fun modern convention. Imagine David saying this.
More to the point, appealing to a just and merciful God to “smite my enemies” and “shatter the teeth” is not exactly the type of authoritative reading we want our kids to grow up reading. In the context of the Bible, it gives credence to human anger as a Scriptural emotion and a valid way to converse with the Almighty. While I am certain some well-meaning parents might not be pleased if their children start using the word “smite” in their nightly prayers, the beautiful thing about the psalmist’s words here are that his/her words are REAL. The Psalms as a whole reflect human emotions as not some sort of defect or abnormality that is against the will of God, but rather that God WANTS to know all of us, not just our good sides. Yes, I am asserting that our most wicked thoughts and evil desires are fair game to God – just as the psalmist wished for God to shatter his enemies’ teeth, so too does God want to know when we desire nothing more than the comeuppance of that smug politician that we cannot imagine was created by the same deity as us.
So, let me pivot back to lent. The Lenten season, at its core, is all about preparing ourselves for the crucifixion and resurrection, meaning we are meant to ponder and experience all of the lows as we approach celebrating the highs. As we read through the Gospels during this season, we learn about how Jesus conducted himself in his ministry all the while knowing how his life was meant to end. In light of the discussion of anger in the Psalms, some of the words of Jesus are striking, to say the least. Let’s compare:
Psalmist: “Smite my enemies, shatter their teeth”
Jesus: “LOVE your enemies and PRAY for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43)
Needless to say, the dissimilarity is obvious. Reconciling these two concepts as equally valid can be really, really difficult. Let me reaffirm my statement above – God wants ALL of us, all of our thoughts, all of our desires, all the good, all the bad requests to hurt our enemies. Also, Jesus commands the Christian in the Sermon on the Mount to love his/her enemy. This is one of many reasons that loving the enemy is quite possibly the most counter-cultural and near impossible of Jesus’ instructions for the Christian. I can safely hypothesize that 99% of this audience has not loved the enemy, much less even considered praying on behalf of the enemy. Yet, the Lenten season calls us to prepare for the events of the crucifixion and resurrection. If you recall the final moments of Jesus’ life as recorded in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says of his oppressors “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”. This is amazing and speaks to the purity and divinity of the Son to plea to God on behalf of the men who had quite literally just nailed him to a cross and signed his death warrant.
Lent calls us to lament. Lent calls us to mourn, to grieve, to weep. Just as in the Psalms, these are all human actions that even the “perfect human”, Jesus Christ, performed in his life in our broken world. We strive as Christians to model the life of Jesus as closely as possible as we prepare to meet our God in heaven upon our final day. Modeling Jesus is incredibly hard work, especially as our world grows more hostile and divided by the day toward the faith. It seems our enemies grow in number day by day – not just from outside of the church, but even from within. The teachings of the Scriptures are co-opted by false teachers and power-hungry “leaders” to promote their personal agendas and justify their biases and passions all the time. The enemy becomes harder and harder to discern. Naturally, there are more and more things in our world to lament as each hour passes.
My goal for this Lenten season is to lament. To mourn the loss of innocent life at the hands of radical extremists of all nations and races. To grieve the unbearably difficult conditions that so many of my brothers and sisters live under. To weep over the injustice that minorities in so many Western nations face in the name of the law and of patriotism day after day. How long, O Lord?
Yet, my lament falls short without following all of Jesus’ instructions. As I mourn and grieve and weep over the oppressed, I am equally called to love the oppressor. As I lament over the misfortune of my neighbor, I am equally called to pray for my enemy.
In this Lenten season, I pray that you might actively spend time challenging yourself to love your enemies. Not only to love for the sake of meeting that Biblical requirement per se, but to love with the intrinsic desire for your enemy to come to know and believe the Gospel because your enemy equally bears the imago dei as a beloved child of the Almighty God. With the desire that these words might not ring hollow without action on my part as well, let me attempt to put pen to paper on a few unorthodox prayers I have offered up in the past week or so:
Lord, I pray for Bashar Al-Assad. I pray that in the midst of his dominance and complicity in the tragedy of the Syrian Civil War, your hand O Lord might protect him from harm. I pray that he might find the comfort of your presence in times of grief and times of celebration, and I pray that you might save him from perilous plight.
Lord, I pray for Bibi Netanyahu. I pray that just as I know with confidence you are the rock and redeemer of the many Palestinian Christians that fear for their lives day after day, that you are that same foundation on which he might find his strength. I pray that you might offer your grace to forgive him of his misdeeds, and your love might shower him in such a way that the path to you might be irresistible for him.
Lord, I pray for Nikolai Cruz. My heart aches for the families and loved ones of his seventeen victims on that fateful afternoon in Parkland, Florida. In the deepest recesses of my heart, I find it near impossible to desire even life for him, much less a desire to share the same God as he does. All that being said, I pray that he might come to know you. I pray for his salvation. I pray that we may sing the songs of joy and praise together in the golden streets of heaven at the foot of your glorious throne. I pray for healing not only for the families of Cruz’s prey, but also for their predator, as he too is your child and bears your image.
Let this Lenten season be for you a return to the good news of the Gospel, a time of expectation for the miracle of Easter, but also a time of personal challenge to lament the plentiful evil in this world, and then pray for its evildoers.