Complaining: Lament as a Means of Communication with God

Read these: Lamentations 1:11-12; 2:1-4, 17; 5:19-22 and Habakkuk 1:2, 5-11; 3:2, 17-19.  Does that fit your view of God?  Does it make you uncomfortable that the writers are so angry and voicing their complaints?

The passages in Lamentations and Habakkuk are striking, and unfortunately often left out of the canon taught in many American churches.  Why canonize such desperation, such wrenching accusations and cries for help?  Why preserve in sacred writings this anguish? It doesn’t fit with our modern view of a God who wants us to be “happy,” or our ever-popular prosperity theology.  The purpose of lament does not seem to be explicitly theological – by this I mean that general questions such as “Why do babies die?” and “Why do tsunamis happen?” are not at the forefront.  The foundation is personal experience.  The main problem is not that enemies ravaged cities, that famine and drought came, or that people are dying…it is that all these things happened and God stood by and allowed them.  And even worse than God allowing these horrors, God failed to respond when his people cried out for salvation.

I have a huge issue with churches who promote a health and wealth theology without making room for this integral part of faith.  We find laments in many parts of the Bible: in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the Psalms, and others.  I once heard a pastor say “We should never doubt our faith; if we doubt God then our relationship with him is in danger.” I couldn’t disagree more.  If our relationship with God does not have room for doubt, we need to go back and question what we have been taught.  Throughout the Old Testament there really isn’t punishment for doubt.  It is there for disobedience, self-absorption, unfaithfulness to the covenant, abuse of the poor, and failure to follow the law, but not for a broken soul questioning Yahweh.  There will always be times that require lament; there will always be questions rooted in personal loss and devastation that cannot be silenced.

I remember many times when I was younger being so afraid to voice any complaints to God because I was taught that it was disrespectful.  Finally a teacher told me “It’s okay to yell at God.  He can take it.”  While I don’t advocate “yelling” at God over petty life issues, her statement has merit.  I cry out to Yahweh because I do not understand, because it seems as though Yahweh has abandoned me, or worse – ignored my prayers completely.  I cry out because I want the relationship to continue, not because I want it to end and so am just spewing hate.  Lament challenges God, puts him on the spot.  Lament runs the risk that God will still choose not respond and that the silence felt now could last forever.  Lament takes sacred ideas about God and demands an answer for specific situations.  Overarching theological truths have no meaning if God does not respond here, and now.

Yet lament is hopeful.  It hopes that God will respond, that God will redeem, that by crying out God will be reminded his love and return to his children.  That God will once again become the “God who saves.”  It seems to me that lament, no matter how visceral or angry, ends with a question mark.  The lamenter wants a response from Yahweh and restored communication.  The lamenter wants a God-sized answer to a human question.

The most vivid example of lament in the New Testament is Jesus’ cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Jesus knew the cup he was to drink; he understood his role and the awful things he would have to go through.  The problem was not that he was dying as a criminal – it was that the God with whom he had intimate communion and relationship had abandoned him.

There has to be lament for faith to withstand hardship.  This world is a desperately broken place.  Lament is, and should be, a step towards healing.

-as an aside, I would recommend Scott Ellington’s book “Risking Truth: Reshaping the World through Prayers of Lament” for anyone looking for more theological study on the issue.

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Confessions: I am Mute

It is sobering to realize that after twenty-three years in the church, I do not know how to pray.  I do not know how to talk to God.  I only know how to talk about God.   This is normally fine, because my life is normally fine.  I have a wonderful husband, a cute apartment, and enough money to not worry much.

I am safe.
I am fed.
I am warm.
I am happy.

These are all good things.  But there are other things…things that gurgle about below.  The good things have made me bad.  Or, I was bad already, and I didn’t notice until I had good to compare it to.

I am materialistic.
I am shallow.
I do not like getting out of my middle class comfort zone.
I am lazy.
I am unforgiving.
I am entitled and elitist.

I think that all I have is mine and that I am the ruler of my kingdom.  Who has time for God in all this self-obsession?  Who has time for neighbor?

Love God, Love People.   I am not very committed to doing either.  Because I love myself, all dialogue is with myself.  This is a confession: I do not know how to pray.  Because I do not communicate with Love (God, who is all love) I have no love to give others.  Because I do not communicate with God I cannot love him.  How can I love that which I don’t know?  I pretend.  We pretend.  It is easy to speak of God, difficult to speak to God.  For what can we say, except “I repent?”  I would have to start every conversation by admitting that I am wrong, broken, hateful, selfish.

It’s easier not to speak.
It’s easier not to love.
It’s easier to be mute.

The Bible is full of stories, of prophets, of sinners, of great people.  None were silent.  The sinners proclaimed their sinfulness; they boasted in their success as if they had created it.  The faithful sang of their faithfulness; the doubtful whispered their doubts.  Silence is the enemy of relationship.  Relationships are messy.  They’re hard work.  People in relationship have to stop being selfish, stop trying to “win,” and stop ignoring issues.  People in relationships have to open their mouths.

Do you know how to pray?  Do you only speak with yourself?  Talk to God.  To God.  Start with “I’m sorry.”  Start with “I don’t know how.”  Start with “I don’t like this,” and “This is hard.”  You’ll get distracted; you’ll get discouraged.  But suddenly one day you’ll realize that you were talking to God without thinking about it.  Then listen.  For a minute, for an hour before you start speaking.  And then one day you’ll realize that God is talking back.

The deaf will hear.  The mute will speak (1).  We will love God, and it will be easy to love neighbor.

——–
Notes
1: Matthew 7:31-37

Politicking and the Poor

It’s that time again – the time every four years when two powerful people sling insults at each other and their respective political parties, hoping to gain the confidence of a nation.  Presidential candidates used to advertise on the radio.  Then television came onto the scene, and with it the potential for unlimited amounts of money spent to raise awareness for a campaign.  President Obama’s campaign is expected to raise over one billion dollars and the Grand Old Party (GOP) hope to do the same for their candidate.  That is a phenomenal amount of money.  One billion dollars can do a lot.

It could buy up every Super Bowl ad slot.  For 4 years!
It could buy 600 Bugatti Veyrons – the most expensive car in the world.
It could buy 40 private islands.
It could buy 284, 900,285 Big Mac sandwiches from McDonalds.
It could buy a gallon of milk for every single person in the United States.
It could buy a 30 month supply (on average how many months it takes to potty train) of disposable diapers for 666,000 children.

If you had 1 billion dollars, and you spent $1,000.00 every day, it would take you a million days to spend that much money.  That’s almost 2,738 years.  The average person in America makes roughly $29,000.00 per year.  To make one billion dollars, a person making $29,000.00 per year would have to work for 34,482 years.  And that’s not spending a single penny!

Seems like a lot of money to spend on advertising for one person who wants to be president.  The interest groups lobbying congress spend easily as much.    Michelle Obama was quoted in 2008 as saying “Someone is going to have to give up a piece of their pie so that someone else can have more.”  One billion dollars buys a whole lot of pie.  It would buy a lot of food for the hungry, clothing for the naked, and shelter for the homeless.  According to Fox News, from 2000 – 2004 the Obama’s gave $10,772.00 to charity – less than one percent of their income.  And while any contributions are appreciated by those that receive them, that doesn’t seem like giving a very big slice of pie away so that someone else can have more.  To be fair, there are plenty of other politicians who give one percent or less; don’t think that I’m just picking on the Obamas.  Across the board charitable giving does not appear to be a priority.

There’s a common misconception that there’s not enough “pie” to go around.  There isn’t enough money to erase poverty; there isn’t enough resources to stop aids; there isn’t enough food to stop world hunger.  Those ideas are simply wrong.  There is enough money, resources, and food – but they’re not being prioritized correctly.  One billion spent by one candidate for an election (whether democrat or republican) isn’t a correct priority.  At least, for a Christian.

Isaiah chastises the rulers of Israel in scripture for their misuse of resources: “Your rulers…love bribes and chase after gifts.  They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them.”(1)  American Christians place a higher priority on the defense of their stuff than they do on care for those without stuff.  The United States military budget for the 2011 fiscal year was about 680 billion dollars.  We spend a huge amount of money as a country on the latest technology that can erase governments and peoples that pose a threat to our way of existence, but less than half of that amount on the families that are struggling just to exist in the first place.  Americans as a whole (including corporations) donated roughly 300 billion dollars in 2009 to charitable causes, about half of which went to religious institutions such as churches.  That’s nothing to sneeze at, but it could certainly be more.

America is the richest nation in the world.  American Christians are some of the richest religious in the world.  We pour millions of dollars into constructing beautiful sanctuaries with impeccable landscaping and state of the art cooling systems and sound equipment so that we can be comfortable and entertained on Sunday mornings when we worship.  Should we care for the building we meet in?  Of course.  Should we do everything well?  Of course.  But what is the value of a beautiful sanctuary if the people inside are not cared for?  Isaiah speaks the word of the Lord again, rather angrily: “Stop bringing meaningless offerings!  Your incense is detestable to me…I cannot bear your evil assemblies…They have become a burden to me; I am wearing of bearing them.  When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen.  Your hands are full of blood.  Wash and make yourselves clean.  Take your evil deeds out of my sight!  Stop doing wrong, learn how to do right!  Seek justice, encourage the oppresed.  Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the cause of the widow.”(2)

God asks, “What do you mean by crushing my people, and pushing the faces of the poor into the ground?”(3)  What can we answer?  We can we say when buying meaningless items to satisfy our materialism when not a mile away a single mother struggles to pay for diapers?  What can we say when we parade against abortion, but condemn and ostracize the teenagers who have babies out of wedlock?  What can we say when we drop a dollar or two in the offering plate for missions, then spend fifty on a Sunday lunch?

What is there that we could possibly say?  Only one thing – I repent.  Then perhaps the seraph (angel) will come with a live coal and touch it to our lips, saying “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”(4)

Perhaps then we could defend the cause of the fatherless, and plead the cause of the poor and the widow.  Perhaps then we’d worry less about who’s president, and more about how to love our neighbor. Perhaps we would spend less on entertainment, and more on real relationships with others.  Perhaps we could offer hope – the hope that Christ came to give the world.

(1) – Isaiah 1:23
(2) – Isaiah 1:15-17
(3) – Isaiah 3:15
(4) – Isaiah 6:7

10 Things I Hate About American Christians

Let me begin with a disclaimer – this should probably actually be titled “10 things I hate about narrow-minded, mean, divisive, holier-than-thou, American Christians.”  But that’s just not very catchy.  The disclaimer is to save my skin, and because every American Christian does not exhibit the traits I’m about to complain about.  There are plenty of genuinely wonderful, Christlike people leading and attending churches across the United States.  They love on people, help people, care for people, and do their best to make a difference in the world.  This is not directed at those people.

1. The teaching that if you just say a prayer, getting “saved” will make you RICH/HAPPY/YOUR ENTIRE LIFE WILL BE SUPERDUPERAWESOME!  (Otherwise known as Prosperity Theology)

Um.  Not so much.  In case you haven’t read the Bible, Jesus died a horrible agonizing death only reserved for slaves, pirates, and enemies of the state.  And for all of you who want to point out that he had to die as part of the divine plan to save us from our sins, let me ask this – what about the disciples?  They were all killed too, with the exception of John.(1)

Looks fun, right? Right?

Sure, it could be in God’s plans that you get rich, that nothing ever goes wrong in your life, and that you live happily ever after until you die.  Or, he could want you to give up your riches and go help malnourished babies in Libya.  He might want you to stop being materialistic and live a modest, quiet life, serving in your community.  There might be some pain and hard times in the plans for you.  God never promises that we’ll be “happy” or that we’ll have possessions.  He promises that he’ll never leave our sides.

Faith in Christ is not a “fix-it” pill.  It’s a process, and sometimes it’s really, really hard work.   Telling people otherwise isn’t just false advertising.  It’s a guaranteed recipe for failure when something goes wrong.

2.  Dress Code

We’ve all heard the phrase “Sunday best.”  Dressing up to go to church was a staple of American society for years.  It’s just what you did, and no one questioned it without negative repercussions.  My mother used to make me wear pantyhose and dresses, even to Wednesday night services.  We were going to the house of God, after all.  There’s a flaw in that logic that it took me years to uncover – the church building is not the house of god.  We are the house of God.

Which means God sees me all the time.
No matter what I’m wearing.
He sees me even if I’m not wearing anything.
He did create me, after all.  I doubt he’s offended if I, his perfect house that he created, walk into a building that man created, wearing a pair of jeans and a t-shirt.

Seem familiar?

What I am positive is offensive, however, is how people who don’t meet the dress code are still treated when they walk into some churches.  Those are his babies.  He created those people.  It might have taken a very long time and a very long list of circumstances for those people to set foot inside a church door.  They might have come looking for answers, or hope, or peace, or some story they didn’t quite believe about a God that might care about them.  Instead, they get talked about because their clothing doesn’t meet the status quo.

Grow up, people.  If a person wearing baggy pants won’t come in to your church  because all the men are wearing suits, check yourself.  If a girl with neon pink hair and combat boots won’t even look your way because every woman is in a dress and heels, check yourself.   Make it fit with the culture of your area – if your church is in a place where only business types gather, maybe a business dress is appropriate.  But you might want to preach a few sermons on how God wants to reach everyone, and then take a few field trips to the areas that aren’t so businessy.  After all, Jesus spent most of his time with the people who had nothing.

3. Fat Pastors

This is a touchy one.  Like, really touchy.  Weight is something we don’t talk about in church.  We’re not allowed to be addicted to alcohol, or cigarettes, or porn, or crude tv shows, because those things are all “bad.”  But we are allowed to be addicted to food, and no one says a word.  Having a youth event?  Pizza’s #1 on the menu.  Having a 4th of July barbeque?  Well…might as well eat a hot dog, a hamburger, and a sausage.  What better way to celebrate being American than stuffing our faces full of processed foods that have almost negative nutritional value?

I once had a (very large) church lady lecture me for ten minutes on the definite evils of the half glass of wine I was drinking, while stuffing her face with a large nugget meal from McDonalds.  Her argument?  My body was the temple of the Holy Spirit.  How could I be putting that crap into it?  I could’ve asked her the same question.

It's okay. My temple for God just has a little extra cushion!!

We eat and eat and eat and lie around and watch tv and never ever exercise.  And then we want God to just heal us when we have heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure and cholesterol, diabetes, and a myriad of other ailments that we bring on ourselves?  Pastors, of all people, should take care of their temples.  They are the examples for the rest of us.  Somehow, pastors seem closer to God.  If it’s okay for the pastor to be fat, well, then it’s okay for me too.  God must not mind what I do with my body.

I think I’ll have another slice of that pizza.  Oh, and two scoops of ice cream.  With hot fudge on top.

4. LGBT

LGBT – or just “those people” in most Christian circles.  For those of you who don’t know, LGBT stands for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender community.  Fundamentally, LGBT people think they should be given the same rights that people in heterosexual relationships are given, and would like to be recognized as human beings.  Also, they’ve adopted the entire color spectrum (the rainbow).

Now, I am not here to start a debate about whether being LGBT is right or wrong, whether people who have those tendencies should remain celibate, what the Bible says regarding the issues, etc.  If you’re looking for a fight, go somewhere else (if you’re looking for honest, humble dialogue about LGBT issues, check out http://gcnjustin.tumblr.com/).  I’m simply here to complain about how the church treats LGBT persons.  Most of the time there’s little to no dialogue, and an enormous amount of judgement.

I have a happily married straight friend who recently walked into a church hand in hand with a friend of hers as part of a research project.  The two girls went in, sat down in the back row, and were not very politely asked to leave within 5 minutes.  5 minutes!  For all the drivel the church puts out about how Jesus loves everyone, he sure seems awfully picky.  It feels like Jesus doesn’t love those people, and won’t until they stop what they’re doing.  Everyone can come as they are…except LGBT persons.  And if we do let them in the building, God forbid they don’t give up their lifestyle immediately.  After all, we can’t have “those people” around our children.

Those people?  Those people are God’s children.  He created them.  He loves them.  He probably gets really pissed off when people hurt them using his name.  Sure, they have sin.  So does everyone.  Beating someone over the head with a metaphorical Bible is never a good way to save a soul.  If I walked into a church and someone told me to leave because I had pre-marital sex or told a lie or stole something, I would probably never go to another church.  Stop being sin snobs.  Try actually having a conversation for a change.  You might realize that the LGBT community is made up of people, not sins.

5. No Care for the Environment

Now I sound like a tree-hugging, whale-saving, hybrid-driving hippy, right?  I wonder why that has such a bad name.  Is it because saving trees and whales and fossil fuel is inherently wrong?  Or is it just because it’s inconvenient for us, and it’s too much work, so we don’t want to bother.  If we were going to save the Amazon rainforest, we’d have to stop eating so much McDonalds, since it’s getting chopped down for farmland.  If we were going to save energy, we’d have to turn up the air a few degrees in our houses and open the windows.  Maybe we’d have to take showers instead of baths, and drive cars that got better gas mileage.  Maybe we wouldn’t use so much disposable dishware and plastic bottles that end up in landfills, never to decompose.

None of this matters though, right?  I mean, we’re all just going to die and go to heaven, and if it does matter, it’s only because our kids live here.  Wrong.  We’re not “going.”  Heaven is coming here.  The Bible doesn’t say that God is going to “make all new things.”  It says he’s going to “make all things new.”  Which means that all the things will still be there, and that they will be the building blocks for the new heavens and the new earth.

Don't lie. You'd totally take your kids for a swim here.

In Genesis 1, right after God created humanity, he blessed it, and told it to “rule over the earth.”  Another way to say that is to “be responsible” for the earth.  Be responsible.  Drinking water from a different plastic bottle that you don’t recycle every day isn’t responsible.  Driving a vehicle that guzzles gas short distances when you could ride your bike or walk isn’t responsible.  Throwing things that could be recycled or given to thrift stores away isn’t responsible.

It’s convenient, but it isn’t responsible.  Let’s stop pretending we care about the environment just because we bought a trendy reusable sports bottle.  Yes, every little bit counts.  But it’s not enough.  In the words of a famous superhero, “With great power comes great responsibility.”  Step up, Christians.  Stop and plant some roses before there aren’t any for you to smell.

6. Women aren’t Allowed to Minister

Now, this isn’t always true.  Some churches and denominations have women pastors on staff; some even have a few women leading congregations.  As a general rule, however, the church is a male-dominated society.  There are all kinds of debates about this – whether the Bible allows for women in leadership, whether women should be silent, whether women can minister, but can’t be the “head” pastor.  I am not going to list those debates here.  There is plenty of literature on the matter.  Educate yourselves.

My point is simply that the church is just one more place where women have been oppressed throughout the centuries.  Even in churches that say they allow women in leadership, there can be little opportunity to minister.  If women are allowed to minister, it is usually only to children, other women, or as part of a husband-wife team.  And why is that?  Because we are only capable of being a “helper”?

We have something to say, but our lips have been closed by oppression.

The holy community of God’s believers should not be just another place where women feel oppressed and marginalized.  We have a voice.  A strong voice.  There are more women than men in churches across America.  Don’t believe me?  Look it up.  We have an enormous pool of talent, experience, and resource in the women in our churches.  It’s wasted, because no one bothers to fight the status quo.

7. “Jesus is American!”

I don’t actually know anyone who would say that phrase outright, but too many live as though they believe it.  “God bless America!”  “God’s on our side!”  “America’s a Christian nation!”

…Yeah….right.

Last time I checked, the only nation God was ever on the side of was ancient Israel, and that was only when they were following his express commands to a T.  When they weren’t, he let all kinds of terrible things happen to them.  America definitely isn’t Israel.  And it definitely isn’t a Christian nation.  No, that’s not because they took prayer out of schools, or the 10 commandments out of courtrooms.  It’s because the people who make up the nation aren’t Christian.  Like, at all.  I know that may come as a shock to some of you, but it’s true.  America doesn’t really care about Jesus, except as a trendy wardrobe item or a laughable badly drawn adult cartoon.

Jesus' heart is red, white, and blue! YEAH!!!!

Stop pretending that Jesus is a blond haired, blue eyed, pageant king wearing a white bathrobe and a blue beauty sash. Stop pretending that Jesus hates gays, muslims, liberals, and those people who just stay on government disability and never get a job.  Stop pretending that Jesus would support blowing up the world if it’s in America’s best interests.  Jesus is NOT American.

In case you missed it, Jesus is a little more global than 1 continent with severe ego issues.  He looked like an Arab.  And he hung out with the people that the church rejected – like the gays, the people with a different religion, the liberals, and the poor.   In fact, you probably wouldn’t want to hang out with Jesus, if he just showed up on your doorstep.  Think about that, before you go saluting God and country.

8. You don’t believe in Hell

What?!  That’s outrageous!  Of course you believe in hell.  You talk about it all the time!  Those sinner people will burn there and stuff, if they don’t get saved.

You don’t believe that.  You don’t really believe that.  If you really thought that there was a literal place of terrible agony and eternal pain where nearly all of the world was going to go once they died, you would do something about it.  If you believed that your unsaved mother was going to get thrown into a lake of fire that burned so incredibly hot that you couldn’t see the flame (think the part of the flame closest to the wick) for eternity with no hope of escape, ever, you would try to save her from it.

Oooooooh this place looks awesome!!!

So make up your mind.  Either you believe it enough to try and actually save people from it, or you don’t.  If you don’t (which, clearly, you don’t), then stop talking about it.  Make it one of those parts in the Bible that never gets brought up, like all of the sex references in the Song of Solomon.  “What?” you say!  “We can’t just take out part of the Bible!”

If you don’t believe it, what’s the point?

 9. Donating.  Not Doing.

We’ve all seen the videos that missionaries bring in of starving children in faraway places.  Pregnant mothers that have no shelter or water.  Girls kidnapped and forced into the sex trade, boys carting around guns at 7 years old.  It tugs at our heartstrings.  Makes us weepy.  Makes us feel guilty, even, since we have so much.  So we get out our checkbooks and write a nice sum and send them on their way, able to feed 2 more children for a year.

Meanwhile, we don’t actually ever do anything.  It’s easy to ignore the starving babies in Rwanda – they’re super far away.  But what about the homeless people right down the street?  What about the pregnant women in your community that can’t afford proper nutrition during the 9 months before they give birth?  What about the fathers that can just barely afford the rent for their families, and the mothers that have to take their children back-to-school shopping at the Salvation Army?

Are you the Good Samaritan? Or are you just going to walk by on the other side of the street?

You could help.  But helping isn’t as easy as writing a check and sending someone else on their way.  You have to actually do something.  And that just isn’t pleasant, now is it.  Again, you probably wouldn’t really want to hang out with Jesus.  Because he’d be doing something.  Not sitting on the couch, or in a church pew.

10.  Use your brains!

Of all the things I hate, this one bothers me the most.  American Christians don’t use their brains.  You don’t think.  You just take what people tell you (so long as it fits in your comfortable lifestyle) and absorb it.  Never questioning, never analyzing.  And then the thoughts are left to stew in the cauldron of your brain, never seasoned with new knowledge, until someone challenges you.  Then the brittle beliefs bubble up and out into the air.  To everyone else, they’re stale, not defensible.

It is not enough for a Christian to go to work, come home, eat, watch tv, and go to sleep.  You have to expand your horizons.  You have to learn, think, grow, challenge, expand.  God created your mind.  Don’t let it stagnate into a puddle of disgusting putrid mush.  No one wants to listen to that.

Trust me.  You’re not just making yourself look dumb.  You’re making God look dumb.  You’re his ambassador.  Sounds cheesy, but it’s true.  Ambassadors are not supposed to be stupid.  So turn off the reality television and learn something, will you?

____________________________________

1: John died of natural causes.