A Lament: I’m Scared
If I have to confiscate the Nerf guns my children were given by a family friend one more time, I think I will scream.
One of the most popular activities in our house seems to be running through the house, knocking things over, shooting each other, and many other things, with the soft foam bullets that come with a Nerf gun. It’s generally a pretty evenly matched competition, but in the end it always seems that the younger competitor is jumping on the couch where I am sitting usually working on my computer, and in the process upending all my books and papers, jostling my carefully constructed work station, crouching down behind me and begging, “Mom, make him STOP!!!,” while suddenly I become the target of flying Nerf bullets.
Apparently this activity is fun and exciting, because my repeated warnings of: “Boys, stop it right now; I’m trying to work!” go unheeded almost every time. When the chaos swirling around me and the desperate pleas for my intervention and mediation get to a certain decibel, I finally take the Nerf guns away.
I think they are having fun when they do this. I think.
Calls for help—that’s what laments are, and for five weeks now in worship, we’ve been reading ancient Hebrew songs of lament in the book of Psalms. Our adventure has taken us through all different kinds of laments—calls out to God for help. Some are individual; some are offered on behalf of the community. Some lament the sins of others, and some, like our Psalm last week, express grief over our own sin. Today’s Psalm of lament is a special kind of psalm—called an “imprecatory” lament, a particularly urgent cry, definitely asking God to, in the words of my son, “make him stop!”, but also calling for punishment, for God to give out some measure of the same to the one who is hurting me. “God, make him stop. Then, punish him for what he’s done. That’s the only way things will be fair!”
As ever, our temptation as readers of the ancient text is to try to become detectives, to put clues together to tell us what situation is motivating the writing of a Psalm of lament like Psalm 140.
But as we know, there’s no real way for us to know what human event inspired the writing of the Psalm.
Because of that, the lament becomes an “everyman’s” cry. We can tell, for example, that something has happened to the writer of the Psalm…he has been falsely accused of some wrong, has pursued every avenue available to secure justice, can’t seem to get any vindication. So he ends up going to the temple to beg God to make things right, to set the record straight, and most of all, to punish and punish hard.
The actual structure of the lament is pretty typical. The person lamenting calls out to God for help and details the injustice he has undergone, along with a whole laundry list of negative qualities embodied by his oppressor. It seems, in this particular case, that there’s a whole pattern of destructive assaults, from verbal abuse to violent action. And, the metaphors the Psalmist uses to describe what’s going on are pretty intense. Whether in words or with actions, he’s being assaulted, and it’s so bad that he feels like he’s running for his life. He compares his oppressor to a hunter, setting traps to ensnare him, and, also, to a venomous snake whose bite could kill him.
Remember that a Psalm like this was used in public worship, so its original language and spoken style contributes to its effective use. Since we don’t speak the Psalm today in Hebrew, we wouldn’t know that this metaphor of a snake, in addition to bringing all the cultural and historical baggage that the image of a snake will do, is also described in verse three using four Hebrew words containing the “sh” sound. When the cantor or the congregation sang out “[t]hey make their tongue as sharp as a snake,” for example, you could hear a hissing sound in the words.
And, more than the content of the Psalm, which is fairly straightforward as far as Psalms of lament go, this is one of the most powerful themes weaving through this Psalm of lament: fear. Raw, aching, urgent fear.
Help me, God. They are running after me. They have ways to hurt me, and hurt me bad. I’m scared…I’m so scared I’m worried for my life. This is more than just getting my feelings hurt. I have an enemy who is trying to hurt me, and every morning when I open my eyes to face the day, what do I see looking back at me? Fear. Crippling, all-consuming fear.
And, I’m scared.
In my little corner of the world—that is, in articles I read in theological publications, blogs related to my work, links from colleagues of Facebook…and even maybe in some places in your little corners of the world like, recent articles in The Washington Post, for example, there is a big stir over a new book by popular evangelical pastor and author Rob Bell.
Rob Bell is the founding pastor of a large church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and prolific writer, author, and producer of short videos very popular in churchy circles. He’s a very gifted preacher and speaker, and soon after he rose to national prominence was tapped to become the poster child of conservative, evangelical Christianity.
The problem with Rob Bell, like some of the rest of us, is that he doesn’t seem to conform to the party line or keep his mouth shut if he can’t. His recent bomb has been the publication of a controversial book called Love Wins. As a result of the book’s publication, swirling through the Christian world is speculation about whether Rob Bell believes in hell or not and what this development might mean for everybody who reads his books. It seems the main point of his recent book, Love Wins, is the shocking premise that God’s love is the resounding, and ultimate, theme of God’s interaction with the world.
I haven’t read anything but excerpts of the book, so I’m not aiming to talk here about the specifics of what Bell is proposing. What has been so curious to me is the controversy that has arisen in response to the book’s publication. For example, John Piper, a prominent northern pastor, tweeted: “Farewell, Rob Bell” upon hearing of the book. Al Mohler, president of Southern seminary and prominent Southern Baptist, has been extremely critical of Rob Bell, accusing him of wrong doctrine and insisting that we have to have a healthy fear of hell and eternal punishment if we want to understand relationship with God. Others have called Bell a heretic, tried to discredit him repeatedly…and the list goes on and on. And, the firestorm has garnered quite a bit of national attention.
Geez, I wish I had known you could sell so many books by suggesting that shocking and controversial idea that God loves us!
It sounds silly, but that’s not it, is it? Not really, anyway.
I am sure all of Rob Bell’s detractors would insist that God does love us. But what they really object to is the way they feel Rob Bell is promoting that message. See, he’s challenging an old tool of influence that organized religion has been using for thousands of years to keep us all in line: fear.
And, what might happen to institutional religion—to the control that people can exert over others—if folks were to suddenly be free fear? Yikes! Why would anybody even come to church anymore?
To be fair, church folks are not the only ones guilty of using fear to motivate behavior. Parents do it…governments do it…bosses do it…and, as the writer of Psalm 140 was experiencing, our enemies—people who want to hurt us—do it, too. The power of fear is tremendous. It can hold us in its mesmerizing spell; it can convince us there are limited, prescribed solutions to our situations; it can inspire us to lash out and hurt others and ourselves; and, worst of all, it can make us forget about love.
For all the pain and victimization the writer of Psalm 140 had received at the hands of his enemy, he was, most of all, assaulted and oppressed by fear. It haunts him, you can read it in his words, and he can see no other solution to his fear than to strike out and hurt his enemy, or to beg God to do it on his behalf. He should have read Rob Bell’s book, maybe, because it seems he didn’t know that love wins. The fear was too much with him.
Curiously enough, our Gospel lesson today is also a story about fear—about the fear that every human on the planet faces and tries desperately to conquer. That is, the fear of death.
Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, you might recall, were very dear friends of Jesus’. They lived in a town called Bethany, and Jesus would often go to their home to visit. The text gives the impression that they all were the kind of friends who felt more like family to each other.
Well, Lazarus got sick. We don’t know exactly with what, but we do know that it was serious. And his sisters, Mary and Martha, could see the writing on the wall—they were living with the very real fear of their brother dying. But that also came with crippling practical fears. What would they do, how would they live, as women with no man to care for them in a society where there was no other option? Would they be forced to marry, find another household, resort to menial labor or questionable activity just in order to eat? These could have been some of the fears, among many, coursing through their minds and their hearts as they saw Lazarus weaken and steadily get sicker.
Knowing that their friend Jesus was a healer, Martha sent word to him to hurry and come to Bethany to heal his friend. Who knows why but Jesus chose not to go immediately after hearing the news, and you know the ending result. Lazarus died, Mary and Martha were devastated, Jesus came too late, and everyone cried.
After Jesus arrived, Martha confronted him with her fear by doing what we’ve seen we all have a tendency to do—lash out. “If you had been here my brother would not have died!” she said. I don’t know for sure, but I am thinking she probably said some other things, too….
Jesus and Martha continue talking, the substance of their conversation largely a theological question and answer parlay worthy of Rob Bell and all his critics. Jesus kept insisting on this concept called resurrection, where the fear of death is put aside, where disbelief is suspended, and where life—not death—becomes the order of the day.
Martha, to her credit, wanted to believe. She wanted to understand what Jesus was saying, to believe in the hope he was offering, to really live in this situation of death and devastation, as if she knew for sure that there was something else out there. Can you imagine the courage it took to stand there with Jesus and engage in a conversation about resurrection and life when you’d just spent the last exhausting days burying your brother, being slapped in the face with the biggest fear of your whole entire life?
Ultimately, instead of shutting down or lashing out or running away or doing any of the things we’re prone to do when we’re scared and lamenting, Martha listened to Jesus. She heard his grand pronouncement insisting on something that didn’t make much sense at all. She glanced over at the tomb where her brother Lazarus’ body was buried and confronted all the fears that faced her. She heard the words of Jesus insisting on love and life and resurrection and hope. And in face of death and fear, she had the courage to say: “I believe.”
It’s an audacious thing Martha did, and certainly not an “everyman’s” response to fear, like the lament we read today in Psalm 140. I wonder if we have the courage to confront our deepest fears with the radical step of believing?
And, this is the invitation our Psalm of lament extends to all of us today, because our station of the cross for this week is one of the darkest and most painful of all: Jesus nailed to the cross. Talk about fear. All of those people had given up so much and dared to place their fragile hopes in the person of Jesus Christ, whose message of love and healing, of hope and inclusion, of real relationship with God, sounded revolutionary and wonderful to them.
But that afternoon the sound of the nails being struck as they went in kept ringing in their ears, and I’m quite sure the main thing they felt then was fear. Huge, overwhelming, helpless fear. And I wonder if somewhere in the back of their minds they could hear, also, the echoes of Jesus’ words and ancient scripture, repeating the oft-told command to “fear not”.
Faced with the reality of death—painful, violent end to human life and human hopes for change…and the reminder that God’s love is ultimately the winner, every single time…they had to choose, as do we. Give into the fear and lash out in violence and pain? Or choose a different way? A better way?
As we approach Easter—two weeks from today—we have the very same choice. We look around and perhaps all we can see are the numerous ways in which we are being pursued, oppressed, hurt. Looming up there in the distance is the specter of death, the constant in every human life.
But also we see and hear the invitation of Jesus to believe—to believe that there is more than what we can see and that our fear does not have to rule our lives, no matter how urgent and efficient our enemies’ efforts seem to be.
It’s true that human life is hard; that we often feel like victims. And we can’t help but lament with Martha and the Psalmist and all the people gathered around the foot of the cross: “I’m scared! So scared!”
But instead of taking our instinctive approach to our fear, what might happen if we gather our courage to embrace a new way? What if we hear the words of scripture: “perfect love casts out fear”? What if we dared to believe…that love wins?