This is a concluding reflection for the class “Being Held by the Shepherd” (John 11:6, 17-37), part of the Lenten series “Beholding the Lamb, Being Held by the Shepherd: Exploring the Question of Suffering in the Gospel of John” taught at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church on Sunday March 4, 2012. (Lesson based on paper written in November 2009: “Lord, if you had been here…”)
During this season of Lent, it is common for us to practice prayers of lament. However, most of these laments are penitential, like Psalm 51, which lament our sinfulness. Old Testament scholar Claus Westermann argues that “in a certain sense the confession of sin has become the Christianized form of lament: ‘Mea culpa, mea culpa, maxima culpa!’ The result of this,” Westermann continues, “is that both in Christian dogmatics and in Christian worship suffering as opposed to sin has receded far into the background. Jesus Christ’s work of salvation has to do with forgiveness of sins and with eternal life; it does not deal, however, with ending human suffering.” So although we may lament our many sins to God and then consequently experience God’s forgiveness, we are not always liberated from our sufferings as a result. Some of our suffering may in fact be the result of some sin (or sins) that we need to confess and sometimes our confession of those sins may bring healing and liberation from suffering. However, not all of our suffering is the result of our sin, as Jesus pointed out in John 9.
Penitential lament is healthy and necessary, but that is only one form of lament and if that is the only way we know, then we are missing out on a whole new way of being in honest relationship (in genuine covenant interaction) with God. Sometimes we need to lament not because we have done anything wrong but because we are experiencing suffering or because we ourselves have been wronged. In John 11, we see Mary and Martha rebuking Christ for allowing such suffering to take place: “Lord, if you had been here…” They were not confessing their sins and showing penance, they were angry and frustrated with Christ just as many of the psalmists were angry and frustrated with God. And Christ’s response was not, “How dare you question me?” Instead, Christ responded with profound humanity and humility, by entering into their suffering and weeping. Of course, Christ eventually liberates them from their suffering by raising their brother Lazarus, but before we see Christ as the Resurrection and the Life we first see Christ as the Good Shepherd who holds us lovingly and empathetically in our tears, our anger, and our confusion with suffering.
Although Christian worship tends to focus mostly on penitential lament, practicing non-penitential lament this Lent may lead us to experience Christ in some new and life-changing ways. By lamenting to God in Christ in the same spirit as the psalmists and as Mary and Martha, we will likely deepen our love and “friendship” with the divine, as we enter into a more authentic relationship.
As the Gospel attests, God will not respond to our anger with anger, but with love and compassion, humility and tears. By practicing non-penitential lament this Lent we may begin to feel God’s compassion for us, we may begin to imagine God’s tears being shed for us, we may begin to be changed by God’s empathy for our suffering. Perhaps it was the power of Christ’s empathy that brought Lazarus back to life and perhaps that same divine empathy can resurrect the dead parts that lie entombed within us.
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