Over the next three weeks, while the Church continues to walk its Lenten journey, we have invited three local pastors to reflect on practices or “holy habits” that have sustained them through the pandemic. To begin, Kaarina Hsieh, Lead Pastor of Parkway Forest Community Church in Toronto, will share a message related to holy lament.
Kaarina says, “As Christ followers, we are a people of hope, who live within the spaces of God’s grace and yet we cannot deny that this has been a year of disruption and disappointment in many different ways. Like the Psalmist, we need to learn and then learn again…and again how to engage God even in the midst of turbulence, sorrow, stress and seasons of spiritual dryness. Holy lament helps us to do that. In this season of Lent, in such uncertain times, we need the reality of God in our lives even more.”
Kaarina is no stranger to the Tyndale community: she is a Seminary graduate and worked for over ten years in two different departments at Tyndale before her move into full-time pastoring. Kaarina and her husband Wayne live in Toronto.
Good morning, Tyndale. It's so good to be back with you for Chapel, all of us here together, even though we still need to be physically apart.
When George asked if I would reflect on a spiritual practice, that this very unusual season has compelled me towards, it took me all of about three seconds to know which one I would bring to you this morning, especially in the season of Lent, as we wait on the Lord, and as we realign our hearts with Jesus, in preparation for Easter. Living through a global pandemic, where so many lives have been taken by COVID-19, so many families fractured, jobs lost, futures uncertain, dreams delayed, in times of continued social, political, racial tension and unrest, it seems clear to me that we could all use a little lament. Now, I don't mean complaining, and I certainly don't mean navel gazing. I mean a True Holy lament.
A quick Google search will tell you that a lament is more than complaining, or a late night venting session with your best friend over Big Macs or ice cream. It's more dramatic than that. It's defined there as a long expression of deep pain or sorrow. Now, to be clear, when a follower of Christ takes up lament, it is certainly not less than that Google definition, but it's so much more. Christian lament may last a very long season, or more than one season, but it doesn't take up permanent residence in sorrow. For the Christ follower, lamenting is actually an exercise of faith. It isn't a sign of lack of faith. It's actually a core strengthening exercise of faith. It's not a sign of weakness. And it's not a sign of bitterness, although it can turn into bitterness if you're not careful. But rather, lament is when you engage, honestly, transparently, vulnerably with God. God can handle our sorrow. He can handle our pain, and our fear, and our despair, our anger and our frustration, and even our doubt.
Have you ever played that game, when someone asks you how you're doing, and you respond with "You know, I'm doing okay", or "Hanging in there. God is good. Can't complain". Even though you're not okay. And even though you're barely hanging on, and maybe you're not actually 100% sure that God is good in this season. And in fact, you've been complaining all day in secret in your heart, about the circumstances of your life.
Well friends, to lament is to desperately call out to Jesus, to cry out to God, in the midst of our deepest doubts, fears, troubles, disappointments, betrayals, and pain. But all the while, simultaneously, turning our hearts to trust in God's power and provision to deliver us from that despair. It is possible to lament, and yet still Praise the Lord. It's possible to lament, and yet hold on to a very real hope. And we hear this reality in the Psalms, everywhere. But today I'm going to focus on what's in Psalm 42, a Psalm that's familiar to many of us, but the words of the psalmist could very well be ours. Hear these words, "As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? My tears have been my food, day and night. While people say to me all day long, where is your God? These things I remember as I pour out my soul, how I used to go to the house of God, under the protection of the Mighty One, with shouts of joy and praise among the festive throng. Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise Him, my Saviour, and my God. My soul is downcast within me, therefore, I will remember you from the land of the Jordan, the heights of Hermon - from Mount Mizar. Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls. All your waves and breakers have swept over me. By day the Lord directs his love, at night His song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life. I say to God, my Rock, why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy? My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me, saying to me all day, where is your God? Why my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise Him, my Saviour, my God." This is God's word for His people.
Did you hear what the psalmist said? My tears have been my food day and night. While people say to me all day long, where's your God? Why am I soul are you so downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise Him, my Saviour, and my God. The Psalm is a prayer, in the midst of a terrible spiritual dryness, or one could even say a profound spiritual depression. The Psalmist is isolated, away from his friends, lonely, unable to sense the presence of God. So what does he do? Well, he preaches to him himself in the Psalm. He cries out in desolation. And then he finds his consolation, in the truth of the reality of who God is.
COVID life has turned everything upside down, and inside out, and not all in good ways. We are homebound, away from family and friends. And if you live alone, you've likely not been hugged very much, very often, in the past year. How I wish I could reach out and offer you that hug right now. Some of us have been touched by COVID-19 more closely than others, with loved ones who have been dreadfully ill from the virus, or worse. Some have lost loved ones during a time when we aren't even permitted to visit in person, often forced to grieve alone. These are tense times. There's fear, there's stress all around us. And it's likely that there have been moments when you have experienced some very overwhelming emotions in this past year. But, perhaps you chose to suppress them, hide them, never mind from each other, but even from ourselves, and worse, from God the Father, as if he's not already aware. You know, every leader has been faced with a myriad of questions, but among them the question, "What do I do now? And who am I in the midst of all this chaos, and uncertainty?"
Pastors all over the world, have learned to preach to a lens, wondering how effective our ministries could possibly be, from a physical distance. The learning curve has been steep, and sometimes messy. And we're still learning to adapt and flex a whole year later. So what do you do? In moments when you just feel dissatisfied and overwhelmed by your reality, and you're not sure what to do? Well, I would suggest that we practice lament, that Holy exercise that allows me to be wholly myself, before a God, who is Holy. I practice in prayer, what so many of you are already familiar with, but I do it in a way more regular way than I used to. This exercise of laying down my desolations before God, but not leaving, until I've allowed his consolations to respond to them. Allowing God's truth to speak life and love into my desolation, allows me to grieve them well, and surrender them to God. Whenever I feel uncertain, confused, or frustrated, sad, I have learned that to not do this, creates a heart clutter, that gets in the way of my being able to serve the Lord in the fullness of joy, that he's called me to.
What might a more intentional lament as spiritual discipline look like for you? I think we all need to hone our skills at preaching to ourselves the way the Psalmist does, so that when God feels distant, while you're able to acknowledge those feelings, but also hold them up against the truth of who he is. "Why so downcast, oh my soul?" the Psalmist asks himself. And then he reminds himself and he says, "By day, the Lord directs his love, and at night, his song is with me." And then he says, in the midst of his pain, and sorrow, in the midst of this feeling that God is far, absent, missing in action, he says, "Put your hope in God." The Psalmist commands this of himself.
Friends, if your desolation is, "I feel alone." Then God's truth, your consolation is "the Lord Almighty is with us." He says, "I will never leave you, and I will never forsake you." If your desolation is "My heart is broken, and I don't know how I can go on." Well, God's truth, His consolation to you is "I am near to the brokenhearted and I will bind up their wounds." If your desolation is "I feel lost." Well, God's truth and his consolation to you today, from Isaiah 43, is "Do not fear, for I have redeemed you. I have summoned you by name, and you are mine." If your desolation is, "Everything is spinning out of control." Well God's truth, and his consolation to you is "You know what, I determine the number of stars and I call them by name. I have everything under control." If your desolation is "I'm worried about the future." God's truth and God's consolation to you is "For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future. So do not worry about tomorrow." If your desolation is "Life feels too hard right now." Well God's truth, His consolation to you is that he will never give you more than you can bear, without giving you a way out from under it.
Laments are a form of prayer that are filled with honesty, raw truth and passion. They tend to get emotionally chaotic sometimes, truth be told, but a healing lament will always circle back to our faith in God, and here's why. We enter lament, not to stay there, but instead to seek God in the midst of it, so that we can come out the other side, with more confident hope and stronger faith. In lament we give voice to our struggles in a very real way. Lament is how we bring our sorrow and our concern, and our sadness, and our tension, and our stresses earnestly to God, not to wallow, not to fester in them, but in order to find his help, and his healing, to take us from a place of loss to a place of trust. Without laments we are stunted in our ability to process pain, and that's when bitter silence, and even anger, come to dominate our spiritual lives, and no one wants that. Without our own lament, we won't know how to help others when they walk through their shadows, their valleys, and instead will offer trite solutions. We'll just try to fix them, quick fixes, become impatient in our responses, not truly seeking to understand. And in fact, possibly becoming deeply frustrated at how long their lament seems to last. Lament is how we grieve, but again, not in a way that allows grief to win, but instead in a way that brings us in our brokenness, to a place of eventual wholeness, from a place of sorrow, and loss, to a place of deep trust and security. That's also how our pain can become our platform for worship. There's so many reasons why we need to lament.
Now, for those of you for which this still feels uncomfortable, I understand, and sometimes people feel that to lament, means that we don't trust God enough, and I've heard that, I've heard that before. In his book, A Praying Life, Paul Miller addresses this in a way that I find really helpful. He says this, "We think laments are disrespectful. God says the opposite. Lamenting shows you're engaged with God in a vibrant living faith. We live in a deeply broken world. If the pieces of our world aren't breaking your heart, and you aren't in God's face about them, well then you've thrown in the towel. In our attempts to meet the unspoken expectation of perfection within our Christian subculture, we so often simply refuse to lament. We refuse to acknowledge the dark and difficult realities of our lives in our world, in a way that honestly demonstrates our dependency on the Lord. The reality though, is that we have a deep need for this type of expression, and a large catalogue of examples throughout Scripture on how we can do it." Let me summarize that. We can only be a people of praise, if we understand lament. How do you celebrate a victory, unless you've been able to identify the battle.
There are many examples of lament through the scripture we could easily go to, you've probably guessed it, the book of Lamentations, a really, really, really long prayer of lament where the author, likely Jeremiah, pleads with God, around the evil and suffering of the world. Or Habakkuk, where the Prophet cries out to God of the judgment that comes to Israel. God in His mercy responds. We've already said the Psalms are filled to bursting with songs of lament "How long Lord, how long?" And if you're still worried that this type of expression shows a lack of faith or is offensive somehow to God, I'd like to remind you that Jesus, yes, even our Jesus, lamented. In Mark 14 he cries out to God in the garden of Gethsemane, crying out "Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Would you take this cup from me? And yet not my will, but yours be done." There's a tremendous joy in this life. But we would be liars if we said that life was always easy. When we're doing everything, as rightly as we know how, but our lives still feel like painful blow after painful blow, we need a deeper sense of the reality of God. Intentional lament helps us to relocate ourselves back into the reality of the grace and sovereignty of God. Especially in times of stress, sorrow, turbulence, uncertainty, unrest.
The spiritual practice of lament, the honest confession of our desolations, met with the sweet consolations of Christ, can only deepen our faith and strengthen us for the journey. As we learn to live in the tender embrace of Jesus, we can more fully serve and encourage others too towards the same. I mean, doesn't that sound good? I agree. It's been so great to be with you.
Bless you friends, as you continue to offer up your whole selves to God, knowing that He who began a good work in you, is faithful to complete it. Knowing that the earth is the Lord's and everything in it, that nothing happens without God's permission, and that he who made you, knows you, knows all of your needs, and because he loves you with an everlasting love, because He is the God who sees you, He will also provide for you. Go in peace, friends, even in a pandemic, to love and serve the Lord.
— End of transcript —