Lamentations: A Book For Our Times

Recently, I was asked by Student Christian Movement to lead a Bible study on The Book of Lamentations. As a community, we have been meeting online to offer each other support and fellowship in what is a frightening and isolating time for so many. Given the present circumstances, it feels so right that we explore expressions of grief and pain in the Bible, and the Book of Lamentations is certainly a book for our times.

Written in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar II in 586 BCE , Lamentations expresses the grief of a community reeling from the most horrific catastrophe in its history so far. It acts as a memorial to the pain and confusion of the exiled Israelites as they try to come to terms with the new world order they find themselves in. The book is bleak and raw, its images vicerally describing the suffering of a displaced people.

We too are reeling from the sudden changes in society and our lives as a result of COVID-19. Entire nations have been placed in lockdown, forcing people to work from home or be furloughed from their jobs, closing public places once bustling with life, fundamentally changing the way we interact with one another, and requiring us to reconsider the ways we run our institutions. In a way, we are living in an exile of isolation, and we don’t have to work hard to picture the opening lines of Lamentations:

How lonely sits the city that was once full of people!

How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations!

She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal.

Lamentations 1:1 (NRSV)

The first poem explores the psychological trauma that the city’s destruction brought to its inhabitants through images of a funeral and the death of a loved one. It speaks of mourning and grieving, groaning and weeping, as well as desolation, isolation, and suffering. We too are collectively grappling with loss and pain. Thousands around the world are mourning the loss of loved ones, as well as the sudden loss of our freedoms and the upheaval to our way of living, with scientists and politicians saying that life after the pandemic cannot simply go back to normal. We are living through a period of seismic change that will be felt for years to come.

Collective experiences of loneliness and grief are expressed in the third poem, where the poet speaks as a representative of God’s people. There are some crushing images in this poem: the author speaks of being chained in darkness, walled in and torn to pieces. In spite of all this, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Better days are coming – this too shall pass. The author reminds us:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,

his mercies never come to an end;

they are new every morning;

great is your faithfulness.

‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul,

‘therefore I will hope in him.’

Lamentations 3:22-24

The poet examines the visible changes to society as a result of destruction and exile in the fourth poem. Those who once “feasted on delicacies perish in the streets” (4:5), people wear the visible signs of destruction on their faces (4:7-8), and people have become more selfish and greedy (4:2-4). In our own society, panic-stricken shoppers have emptied supermarket shelves of essential items, leaving those most in need with nothing. Foodbanks are worried that stocks will completely run out if they can’t get extra help to gather donations. And in financial markets, once lucrative investments are plummeting in value, with economists agreeing that a recession will follow. The pandemic does not discriminate between rich and poor; our whole society is affected by the destruction it’s causing.

The final poem is an explosion of grief. The structural form of previous poems is gone as the poet takes in the chaos around them. It’s a prayer for mercy, begging God not to ignore their suffering or abandon them. It’s a candid outpouring of deep pain and raw emotion, and it ends with the tenison unresolved. There’s no nice, neat conclusion, no easy answer to what is going on around them, just as we have no simple answers as to when we can be with our loved ones again, when our world will feel safer again, when things might feel remotely normal again. Life just doesn’t have simple resolutions.

Biblical poems of lament are important parts of scripture. They remind us that life is not always easy and that our anger and grief is valid and holy. They are forms of protest, drawing attention to awful things that shouldn’t be tolerated. They are a way of processig emotion, venting anger and putting a voice to confusion. Most importantly, they give sacred dignity to human suffering. They are words of grief addressed to God, and by being part of scripture they become God’s word to us.

Lamentations has so many lessons that we can apply to our lives.

  • In the midst of chaos, we should take control of what we can. The first four poems of Lamentations are written as acrostics, and ordered, linear structure that allows pain to be explored A-Z. It contrasts the disorder of the pain, grief, and suffering explored in the poems. In the same way, we can try to find structures in our lives to help us navigate the chaos. Building routines into our lives to give order to our days can help us avoid being swallowed up into the darkness around us.
  • Your painful emotions are valid and holy. I’ve said that a few times in this article, but I don’t think it can be said enough. Far too often, the narrative in Christian culture is that we should always be joyful and that if we pray hard enough we’ll feel better. This runs completely counter to what we find in the Bible. Expressing our anger, pain, and grief is not sinful; it is holy. Our wrestling with God is holy, healthy, and helpful. Bottling up our emotions and forcing ourselves to act happy is not.
  • Art can be cathartic. The whole book of Lamentations is poetry, an artistic expression of pain. We too can use art to explore and express our emotions, whatever medium we may choose to do that through. As Carrie Fisher once said, “take your broken heart and make it into art.”
  • It’s okay not to have all the answers. Awful things happen. Life is full of pain and grief. As humans we are constantly asking “why”, and get increasingly angry and crushed when we can’t answer that question. Lamentations teaches us that there aren’t easy answers, and that you don’t need to have them. To navigate the chaos we need to keep going, and trying to find answers to questions that can’t be answered will only hold us back.

May you know that your pain is valid, your anger is holy, and that your cries are heard by God. May you find sanctuary from the chaos storm around us, and may you know that God is always with you, even in the depths of darkness.

God of compassion,

be close to those who are ill, afraid or in isolation.

In their loneliness, be their consolation;

in their anxiety, be their hope;

in their darkness, be their light;

through him who suffered alone on the cross,

but reigns with you in glory,

Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

The Church of England

If you want to find out more about Lamentations, this video is really insightful, and I am indebted to it for many of the ideas I have explored in this post.

Life Struggles as Zimbabwe’s Drought Worsens

Life in Zimbabwe is failing to flourish amidst the country’s worst drought in years. Hundreds of animals have died while the World Food Programme believes at least 2 million people have been affected by the drought. 

According to Tinashe Farawo, Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority’s spokesman, over 200 elephants have died in Hwange National Park since October of this year. Competition for scarce food and water resources has led to animals dying of exhaustion and starvation. As the country faces temperatures above 45°C, even fish are struggling to survive in the inhospitable conditions.

‘Almost every animal is being affected,’ said Farawo, ‘elephants are easily noticed during patrols, but some bird species are seriously affected because they can only breed in certain tree heights and those trees are being knocked down by elephants.’ Predator and scavenger species are thriving as their access to food increases with the rising death toll of prey species. Volunteers are bringing food and resources for the struggling park but at a cost of $2500 per truckload. However, Zimbabwe as an already economically challenged nation, will struggle to use this as a sustainable solution. 

More than 2 billion people globally live in areas of high water stress, with demand for water estimated to increase up to 30% by 2050.

Agence France-Presse has reported that the country’s wildlife agency plans to move 600 elephants, two prides of lion, a pack of wild dogs, 50 buffalo, 40 giraffes, and 2,000 impalas, in what would be the ‘biggest translocation of wildlife in Zimbabwe’s history,’ according to Farawo. The relocation will alleviate the pressure on limited resources as the land will take time to recover after the rains come. 

The people of Zimbabwe have also suffered because of the drought. The effect of the water shortage on crops and the failed harvest means that over 50% of the population is in need of food aid. Bloomberg reports that the government has appealed for $464 million in aid to tackle the famine, following a fall in output from hydroelectric plants and the depletion of dams. Nationally, the ACT Alliance (Action Churches Together) has reported that prices of maize, the population’s staple food, have increased 31% from last year.  In Bulawayo, the country’s second-largest city, water has been rationed in an attempt to stem the demand on the depleting resource. 

In the age of climate crisis, these droughts will become ever more common. Southern Africa has been labelled by The United Nations International Panel on Climate Change as a so-called ‘hotspot’ region that faces higher risks of extreme heat and less rainfall as the global temperature continues to rise. Globally more than 2 billion people live in countries experiencing high water stress, and the UN warns the problem is set to worsen, with demand expected to grow as much as 30% by 2050. The world will be watching Zimbabwe closely to see whether an intervention can help alleviate the problem, or whether this will serve as a warning for other climate-threatened nations.

Originally published December 2019 in The SOAS Spirit

Zimbabwe – Hopes Fade as Economic Crisis Worsens

President Emmerson Mnangagwa

The UN estimates that half of Zimbabwe’s population of 8.5 million will be food insecure by 2020.

Hopes that the President of Zimbabwe, Emmerson Mnangagwa, can bring about economic renewal to the south African nation are dwindling after the country’s annual inflation reached nearly 300% in August, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The economic crisis has given rise to a deterioration of living standards, including energy shortages and rapidly rising food prices. The UN estimates that half of Zimbabwe’s population of 8.5 million will be food insecure by 2020. 

Zimbabwe’s economy has seen a difficult year – both in terms of policy and external factors. According to the IMF, ‘severe weather shocks’ affecting the country this year have hampered production, with droughts and cyclone Idai affecting agriculture and electricity generation. Meanwhile, attempts by the government to reduce the deficit through policies known as ‘fiscal consolidation’ have slowed growth. Although the government blames western sanctions for thwarting economic recovery and deterring investment, the weakening of confidence in the government and their policies has increased the pressure on exchange rates. Furthermore, opponents of Mnangagwa accuse the President of lacking commitment to political reform, and have criticised his use of heavy-handed tactics to clamp down on anti-government protests, further exacerbating distrust in the government.

Mnangagwa acknowledged the economic crisis and the need for reform in an address given to parliament on October 1st. Media outlet, Al Jazeera, reported that this was boycotted by the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Mnangagwa pleaded with the nation for time and patience in order to revive the economy from the ‘dead’. ‘I’m aware of the pain being experienced by the poor and the marginalised. Getting the economy working again from being dead will require time, patience, unity of purpose and perseverance,’ Mnangagwa said. In a controversial move the Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube suspended the publication of official annual inflation data in July, although the IMF continues to publish its data on the country’s economic situation.

Led by Mr. Gene Leon in September, a recent IMF mission to review progress in Harare laid out several recommendations for the country to tackle the economic crisis. ‘Policy actions are urgently needed to tackle the root causes of economic instability and enable private-sector led growth,’ reported Leon. Such actions include the containment of fiscal spending, the tightening of monetary policy to stabilise exchange rates and build confidence in the currency, and improvement in the transparency of monetary statistics. The preliminary findings also criticised Zimbabwe’s ‘slow progress on international re-engagement,’ and Leon concluded that ‘efforts will need to be intensified on both economic and political fronts to drive Zimbabwe forward.’  

Originally published November 2019 in The SOAS Spirit

Self-Care: Because You’re Worth It

“Self-care is how you take your power back.”

Lalah Delia

“Think positively!’, “Don’t think like that!”, “Snap out of it!”, and “Just go and do something and you’ll feel better!”, are all shit pieces of advice that are offered on a regular basis to depressed people, often without malicious intent but instead a lack of understanding. Though well meant, these attempts at helping do more harm than good; they invalidate the thoughts and feelings we have, and place pressure on us to hurry our recovery and just simply feel better. So why do we tell ourselves the same things when we’re feeling down?

In my last blog I talked about accepting the feelings we have and the situations we are in. Once we do this we can begin to help ourselves, and a key part of helping ourselves is practicing self-care. The NHS beautifully describes self-care as follows:


“Self-care is about keeping fit and healthy, understanding when you can look after yourself, when a pharmacist can help, and when to get advice from your GP or another health professional. If you have a long-term condition, self-care is about understanding that condition and how to live with it.” https://www.england.nhs.uk/blog/what-does-self-care-mean-and-how-can-it-help/

In the context of mental health, self-care is something we do deliberately and consiously to take care of our emotional and mental health. It should be nourrishing rather than draining and not forced upon us – although taking the first step towards helping ourselves can seem impossible, futile, or unwanted. If we think we’re worthless, why would we deserve self-care? What’s the point anyway if I’m just going to feel shit again later?

God is an advocate of self-care. In 1 Kings 19 we learn about how Elijah flees from Queen Jezabel, fearing for his life. He’s deeply unhappy and completely fed up – so much so that “he asked that he may die” (1 Kings 19:4 NRSV), or as the Common English Bible translates it, “he longed for his own death.”

What would people’s advice for Elijah be? Perhaps they’d tell him to snap out of it, to think positively, to just pray harder, to focus on the positives. But God doesn’t say any of this. God tells Elijah to get up and eat and drink something, because he has a difficult road ahead of him (1 Kings 19:7 CEB).

When we’re depressed, self-care is vital, because the road to recovery is long and difficult. And this is something that we have to aknowledge, just as Elijah did. If we don’t look after ourselves, we won’t have the energy to start getting better, to engage with those trying to help us, and we won’t see that we deserve to feel better. Depression does not care that we feel shit, and sadly neither does a lot of society. Therefore we have to be the ones who care about ourselves the most, who show ourselves the most love, who aknowledge that we deserve to treat ourselves kindly.

“Acknowledge, accept, and honor that you deserve your own deepest compassion and love.”

Nanette Matthews

Self-care looks different for every person, and it took me a long time to workout what it mean for me. It’s a phrase that gets bandied about far too easily and can become a meaningless thing that we don’t know how to apply, so it’s important to spend some time thinking about the things that make us feel better – however marginally – to a baseline point from which we can start to work on our recovery. For me, this means making sure I take care of my personal hygeine, that I eat regularly and healthily, that I exercise, and that I talk to my friends. It also means that I allow myself time to do nothing and rest, to indulge in some chocolate, and to take away the feeling that I have to be productive and succesful 24/7. Because God didn’t tell Elijah to feed himself so that he can get back to work. God told Elijah to take care of himself so he could face the journey ahead of him, so that he could face the world from a baseline. God wants the same for us.

When life gets tough, working out what we need to do in order to look after ourselves is vital. Spend some time praying and thinking about what self-care looks like for you, and try to incorporate some of these practices into your daily life. You deserve to be happy and well, and you owe it to yourself to treat yourself nicely. You are made in God’s image and because of this you are worth all the care and love in the world. So take a bold step, and offer some love to yourself.

Storms

Jesus, Saviour, pilot me
Over life’s tempestuous sea;
Unknown waves before me roll,
Hiding rock and treach’rous shoal.
Chart and compass come from Thee.
Jesus, Saviour, pilot me.

Edward Hopper

Life makes me feel shit sometimes. Perhaps a bit more than sometimes. Allan Saunders was right when he said that “life is what happens to us while we are busy making other plans.” But just because we know this doesn’t mean it hurts any less when it happens.

My boyfriend and I were planning on spending the summer together – as a newly fledged couple we wanted to get to know each other better. Then he had to go back to Lebanon one week in; I won’t get to see him until October. We recently decided to take a break – it’s impossible to be in a relationship spanning 3000km without getting angry and depressed. Of course this was one of those moments where life butts in and fucks up all your plans, but the notion of accepting life as it comes is like most ‘nice’ ideas: good in theory, impossible in practice.

At times like this my mind can only be described as stormy. I feel like I’m swimming in a tempest of anxieties and sadnesses and it can be a real struggle to keep my head above the water, to want to do more than just curl up into a ball and nap all day. Crappy television seems like the only option to pass the time and try to keep my mind off everything I’m worrying about.

Contemporary evangelical Christianity perpetuates an idea that through faith we will be happy, carefree, strong in the face of life’s shit storms, immune to the sadness and mental turmoil that comes with so many of life’s motions. “Christ is enough for me; everything I need is in you” declares one worship song. According to these principles all will be okay as long as I pray harder, become purer, devote myself more, and only focus on Jesus. But Jesus can’t make my boyfriend come home; singing about how Jesus has everything I need does not fill the emptiness I feel, the crippling loneliness, the general dissatisfaction; focusing just on Jesus does not seem like a very helpful option when I can’t even focus on simple tasks, as if I’ve been left me to drown.

These thoughts are not unbiblical – in fact Jesus’ friends felt exactly the same way. There’s a story in Mark there’s a story about a boat trip Jesus takes with his friends. Tired after a long day of preaching to crowds, he takes a nap at the back of the boat. During their journey they are hit by a massive storm. You think that these seasoned fishermen would be able to cope with a storm, but instead they lose it and panic. Angry and afraid, they awaken Jesus and ask him “Do you not care that we are drowning?” (Mk 4:38 CEB)

I completely understand how the disciples felt, and find myself asking the same question. In my anger and fear at the uncomfortable emotions that get thrown at me I stamp my feet and question whether God cares that I’m drowning and can’t take this anymore. Is Jesus just sleeping while I have to face all this crap alone?

Jesus wakes up and calms the storm. He then turns to his friends and asks them “Why are you frightened? Don’t you have faith yet?” (Mk 4:40 NRSVA)

Jesus asks us to look deeper at our situation and ask why we are fearing it. Probably because we don’t have control over external events, though we’d very much like to. Probably because we think life should go our way, the way we want it to, the way we planned it out, rather than taking its own course. Probably because we are scared of being abandoned, left to fend for ourselves. Probably because we just don’t like feeling shit and want it to go away.

Here, Jesus makes us consider our longing for control over our lives, our circumstances, and our emotions. By calming the storm, Jesus demonstrates that he is the one in control and that he is with us through the storms. He does care deeply about our pain and our struggles. By questioning whether we have faith yet, Jesus is asking how much we have given up the notion that we can control everything about our lives.

You see, having faith is not about being pious, more devoted, happy, perfect to the point that nothing can go wrong. Faith is about the freedom that comes with giving up trying to order the world around us and orchestrating every moment of our lives. True freedom comes with the acceptance that we are not able to fend off every storm that comes our way.

I may feel powerless looking at my storms and admitting that I have no control over them. But neither do the storms have ultimate power over me: Jesus can rebuke them, calm them, still them. Instead of fighting against them, we must bear them patiently, knowing that God is on our side, guiding us through the tempestuous waters around us. And when we give up trying to control the external events around us, we can take control of what we do have power over: how we deal with the situation. We can control how we treat ourselves – we can choose to give ourselves a hard time, or we can acknowledge that these are periods that require more self-care. We have the power to choose to seek help, whether that be therapy, medication, or even just talking to someone who will listen. This is how we gain true power over our storms: not by fighting them, but by focusing on ourselves and changing what we can change.

It’s not if the storms will come, but a matter of when. And if we build our lives on a false sense of being able to control everything around us, we will be washed away when the storms come, powerless when our perceived control fails us. But if we build our lives on faith – a faith that says I am not in control but a God who loves me is, we can face down our storms, knowing they will pass and that life will move on.

Shit happens. Life is unfair. It can be hard to want to get out of bed in the morning and face the day. I know that right now I need to focus on myself – my self-care, my self-esteem, and some of the things that are holding me back. Doing this won’t make the storms go away, but it will let me choose how much control I want them to have over my life.

Be still, my soul: your God will undertake
to guide the future as he has the past.
Your hope, your confidence let nothing shake;
all now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know
his voice who ruled them while he dwelt below.

Kathrina von Schegel, translated by Jane Borthwick

Resources that might help:

Rob Bell’s Nooma 001: Rain – This really helped me to think about where God is in the midst of suffering. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=loFBGdeXGtg

Samaritans – Whatever you’re going through, you can call them any time, from any phone for FREE on 116 123. https://www.samaritans.org/

Childline – Childline is a counselling service for children and young people up to their 19th birthday in the United Kingdom provided by the NSPCC. 0800 1111 https://www.childline.org.uk/

Papyrus – PAPYRUS is the UK Charity for the prevention of young suicide. For PAPYRUS HOPELINEUK call 0800 068 4141. https://papyrus-uk.org/

Mind – A mental health charity offering advice and support. https://www.mind.org.uk/

Shout! – Shout is an affiliate of Crisis Text Line® in the UK that provides free, confidential support, 24/7 via text. Text SHOUT to 85258 in the UK to text with a trained Crisis Volunteer. https://www.crisistextline.uk/

British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapists – A database for finding an accredited counsellor or psychotherapist in your area. https://www.bacp.co.uk/

Matthew 1-3: “This is my Son, The Beloved, with whom I am well pleased”

Reading the opening of Matthew, I struggle to see how Jesus can be the true idol of so many white conservatives. His fundamental origins and life circumstances are enough to make many hot under the collar.

Jesus is the son of an unmarried mother (Matthew 1:18), whose image-conscious partner contemplates dismissing her to save their reputation (Matthew 1:19). Unmarried and single mothers have a history of being targeted and ostracised by the Church. In the 1950s and 60s in Briain, more than 500,000 children born to unmarried women were given up for adoption, usually to agencies run by the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Salvation Army.[1] Indeed, the Catholic Church in Ireland referred to these mothers as “fallen women” and placed in Magdalene Laundries, where women and girls had their names taken from them and were treated like slaves by the nuns running the institutions.[2]

To add to his stigmatic beginnings, the Holy Family became refugees, fleeing persecution and the systematic killing of boys under the age of two (Matthew 2:13-16). It is safe to say that this family would not be welcome at the US border. After horrific journeys to the US, immigrants and refugees are kept in overcrowded and unhygienic conditions, where the wailing of hungry children is heard all day and night.[3] Jesus would most likely be separated from his parents so that they could be prosecuted by a state that should help them.[4] And although attitudes towards refugees here in the UK are softening, only 52% of people feel that refugees deserve more support from the government.[5]

An icon by Kelly Latimore depicting the Holy Family at the Southern US Border

A Palestinian refugee child born to an unmarried mother – this is the Christ that we worship. Yet this is also the Christ that is seldom, if ever, depicted in conservative Christian spaces. But this is the reality of our saviour.

And when this illegitimate refugee child is baptised, what is the reaction?

And a voice from Heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’ (Matthew 3:17 NRSVA)

God delights in God’s son. And God delights in each and every one of us, who God chooses to call God’s Beloved – regardless of our background, circumstances, or fundamental being.

To all those who feel unwelcome in society and the Church: single parents, immigrants, refugees, queer people, the broken, the lost, the addicts, the whatevers:

You are God’s Child, with whom God is well pleased.

Hold on tight to that; there are many who would do anything to deny you of that feeling.

God chose to manifest in a Palestinian refugee child born to poor unmarried parents – a child who would no doubt be rehected in so many spaces. But instead this is the Beloved Son, with whom God is well pleased.

May you, whoever you may be, whatever your circumstances or experiences, know the love that you are given as God’s beloved child.

Image Credit: David Hayward

References

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jun/10/mps-demand-apology-for-unmarried-mothers-forced-to-give-up-children

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/feb/05/ireland-magdalene-laundry-system-apology

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/sep/12/us-immigration-detention-facilities

[4] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-44538110

[5] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-44538110