Our Righteous Lament
There is quite a strong tradition in the Old Testament of complaining to God about injustice and suffering. It's lamenting -- and we should perhaps reclaim this part of our tradition. I have a friend who says if you're going to have a "praise band" in your church, that's fine, but only if you also have a "lament band."
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And there are some very real things to lament about folks; we're not talking petty complaints. Many of you this week were made aware of a horrific spate of recent teenage suicides.
Billy Lucas, age 15, Seth Walsh, age 13, Asher Brown, age 13, and Tyler Clementi, age 18, have all died at their own hands in the past two weeks. Billy, Seth, Asher, and Tyler were gay youth who ended the unendurable anti-gay violence done to them at the hands of churches, families, or peers by doing life-ending violence to their own selves.
How can we know of such things and not cry out to God like Habakkuk did in this way:
O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you "Violence!" and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous -- therefore judgment comes forth perverted. (Habakkuk 1:1-4)
You have to admire Habakkuk for just calling a thing what it is -- for calling out God's people for their injustices against each other. I love the way some of the characters in the Old Testament really have it out with God; how they confront the Almighty. It's downright argumentative. These days, if we are angry with God, we just give God the silent treatment. But not so with our ancestors in the faith. If they felt there was some serious neglectful, abusive, or absentee parenting from God they, you know, complained. And their complaints were not a sign of faithlessness. Quite the opposite really. Their complaints were a sign that they took God's promises seriously.
We don't seem to have retained that part of the life of faith very well. Maybe our society's general lack of covenant keeping diminishes the power of promises these days. We don't trust the promises of the government, we don't trust the promises of public schooling, we don't trust the promises of each other, and we certainly don't trust the church. So, it's understandably acceptable to just walk away when things gets hard. When we no longer enjoy our partners, or our cars, or our sneakers, we just dispense with them and get something better.
So maybe it's no surprise how easy it is to also dispense with God when things get tough, rather than just have it out like Habakkuk, as though it's impolite or impious to remind God of God's promises -- to say, "You promised, and all evidence points to the fact that you, God, are not following through." Yet people like the prophet Habakkuk seemed to stick around in this covenant with God even when things got ugly, and that, my friends, is what this beautiful little book of Habakkuk is about.
And the central theme of Habakkuk is summed up in verse 4:
Look at the proud!
Their spirit is not right in them,
but the righteous live by their faith.
The prophet contrasts the proud whose spirit's are not right in them to the righteous who live by faith. It's easy to think that the righteous means the same thing as the religious -- the pious, the priggish. But scholars much smarter than myself agree that "righteous" in these texts is not primarily a moral category -- it's a relational category.
To be righteous then is to rely on God; to trust God; to speak of God; to lean into God. To be righteous is to rely so deeply on God that we refuse to leave, refuse to look to myself, or to a romance, or to a job, or to the free market economy to do what only God can do. Righteous faith takes the promises of God seriously enough to be unafraid of lament.
And when things get worse and not better, Habakkuk reminds God, "Hey. We are suffering here. And you are our God, and what do you have to say for yourself?" And then he waits.
This is what it means to be a people of God's promises. The promises of God to which we cling to are made and given completely apart from our own righteousness. Christ does not promise us that where two or more are gathered, he will be there, you know, if you have all managed to be really good this week. A promise from God is made and given based on God's righteousness alone. God's righteousness is good news. God cares for this world God created -- cares enough not to let our folly and hate and brokenness spoil it forever because this a God of resurrection.
So, the righteous who live by faith are not the good people who, because of their goodness, are blessed by God, but those who live in reliance to this God who is present not only at times of joy but also in times of real suffering. So we lean into the promise that God makes all things new even when it doesn't seem like that is happening. And when these promises seem so far from being realized, then faith is just how we live in the meantime.
And sometimes faith is simply the courage to lament. Faith is speaking the names of Billy, Seth, Asher, and Tyler and refusing to let go of the promise of a world made new by a suffering God. Hear how our prophet Habakkuk ends his book:
Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength. (Habbakkuk 3:17-18)
(If you are a GLBTQ person and have been the victim of violence, or if you wish to learn about how you can help prevent violence to the GLBTQ community visit the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs.)
Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor living in Denver, Colorado, where she serves the emerging church, House for all Sinners and Saints. She blogs at www.sarcasticlutheran.com and is the author of Salvation on the Small Screen? 24 Hours of Christian Television.