a reflection on Isaiah 24:4-11 and the tradition of prophetic lament
The prophet we know as Isaiah, whose words we read this morning, lived nearly three thousand years ago, somewhere in the 8th century BCE. And yet, his words speak intimately to our life today. It’s not hard to imagine someone like Isaiah standing on a street corner downtown, maybe out in front of RiteAid, holding up a cardboard sign that says, “The earth is polluted beneath its inhabitants, for they have violated an everlasting covenant!” I’m pretty sure I saw that guy downtown last week!
It’s also not difficult to picture the reaction of those who are casually walking by: all the good citizens of Salem averting their eyes as they hurry on their way.
Letʼs face it: a prophet like Isaiah is not the guy you want to run into while you are doing your weekly errands. This is why guidance counselors never suggest that students choose a career as a prophet. Talk about a lonely and thankless job! The job of the prophet is to stand in the midst of our busyness, in the midst of our preoccupation, and call our attention to the painful things we’d rather not think about.
In Isaiahʼs case, the message is that the kingdom of Judah and its capital, Jerusalem, have been destroyed by the Assyrians and that the people of Israel have been subjugated by these invaders. Now, if it’s true that your homeland has been overrun and devastated by an invading army, it’s not immediately obvious why you’d need a prophet to stand in the middle of the marketplace and announce this event. I think it’s a pretty safe bet that everyone listening to the prophet Isaiah prophet already knew about the great tragedy that had befallen God’s people.
But while Isaiah might at first glance look like some ancient version of the tabloid press as he stands there shouting out apocalyptic headlines, it turns out that the prophet is not standing in the marketplace in order to share a news story. On the contrary, Isaiah is asking the people of God to take a closer and possibly difficult look at the tragedy they are already experiencing. And it seems to me that here, in the midst of our own difficult and tragic season, it might be helpful for us to take a closer look at what our friend Isaiah is up to, and to see whether he might have some advice for our own spiritual practice in this painful and frightening time.
It turns out that Isaiah, as he stands on the street corner shouting out a list of sorrows, is calling us back to an ancient and paradoxical tradition of prophetic lament. The collection of writings we know as the Bible offers several different types of lament: there are psalms of lament; there are books such as Job and Ruth that are filled with personal lament; there is even an entire book of Lamentations. Has anybody cracked the book of Lamentations lately? I haven’t either! We tend to skip over these texts in our yearly cycle of scripture readings because they are so very painful to read. But our tradition is filled with cries of the human heart in the midst of painful situations. And when a cry of lament comes from a prophet, as it does from Isaiah today, the prophetʼs job is to help us cry out in the midst of our own painful catastrophes: a cry that opens our hearts to the healing presence of God.
The deep wisdom of our biblical tradition—a wisdom that has become rather unpopular in our day—is that when we resist the urge to distract ourselves with entertainment and busyness; when we hold still long enough to let our hearts break open in pain, then we become vessels through which the healing presence of God pours into the world. And I believe that this spiritual practice—this practice of lament, this practice of holding still and crying out in the midst of our pain—I believe this is a spiritual practice that the world needs us to reclaim, and to offer, today.
So. How might we do that? How might we access the ancient spiritual wisdom of prophetic lament in response to a global pandemic, catastrophic climate change, and growing income inequality, just to name a few painful situations? How might we harness the power of this ancient spiritual practice to help us respond to our current predicament with compassion, and justice, and hope?
To answer this question, I want to talk a little bit about pain. I want to revisit some deep truths we know about pain – from our spiritual ancestors, from our modern-day prophets, and from modern neuroscience and physiology. Because the way we respond to pain has everything to do with how we respond to the dangerous and difficult problems that face us today.
Human beings, of course, are wired to perceive and respond to danger. We see an oncoming truck and without even thinking, we leap out of the way. We feel a burning sensation, and we automatically pull our hand away from the fire. This ability to perceive danger and instantly respond is essential to our survival as individuals and as a species.
But there’s a catch. Our ability to respond appropriately to danger depends on an unblocked connection between our perception of pain and our ability to take immediate action. If we donʼt feel the pain, we will fail to act. If our hand is numb, and our perception of heat is therefore blocked, we wonʼt pull our hand away from a flame. In the same way, if we ourselves have not personally been affected by the coronavirus, if we happen to live in a city where we ourselves do not see the destructive force of this pandemic, then we may not act to protect our most vulnerable neighbors. Human beings cannot respond to a pain we do not feel.
The problem is that today, our perception of danger is often blocked. Because the dangers facing our world are so enormous, and because we receive distressing information from so many sources all the time, we can easily feel overwhelmed. The very pain, the very prophecies, that should make us leap into collective action on behalf of the earth, and on behalf of our neighbors, instead make us want to numb out and run away. We turn off the news; we pull down the blinds; we distract ourselves with work, with entertainment, with alcohol or food, with online shopping, with anything that will take our minds off the pain of the world.
This is understandable, of course. Particularly in this extremely frightening time. It is a natural human instinct to want to protect ourselves from the pain all around us. No wonder we want to run the other way when we see that prophet on the street corner.
And yet, our tradition offers us an alternative response. Through the ancient practice of lament, our tradition offers us a path that can help us learn to bear the pain of the world in ways that are healing for everyone. Through this practice—through a Christ-like practice of bearing the pain of the world—we become ready to respond in the ways God calls us to respond. As we allow the practice of lament to break our hearts open, we invite the presence and power of God to pour into the world through us. The wisdom of the prophets is that in our pain, in the breaking open of our hearts, we ourselves become the doorway through which the current of Godʼs love is now free to flow into the world. And what a beautiful gift that is to a world that needs us.
I’d like to invite you to join me now as we experiment with this ancient practice of lament. As you’ll see, this practice takes place in four distinct movements. Four movements that can open us to the healing presence of God in this and in every difficult time. If you’d like to settle into a comfortable place for prayer, I’ll lead you through this practice.
As we come into this time of prayer, I invite you to turn your attention inward to your own heart and to notice any pain, any painful situation that is calling for your attention this day. It might be something in your own life. It might be something in the life of the world. See if you can call this situation to mind.
The first movement in our prayer of lament is to offer an honest, unvarnished statement of this pain you are facing. I invite you to go ahead and speak this pain out loud, knowing that the naming of this pain is the first step in opening yourself to God.
And now that you have named the pain that is on your heart, see if you can invite the presence of God to enter into this situation. There is no need to tell God what to do; you can trust that God knows what type of divine action is needed. Simply invite the Divine Presence, whatever that looks like or feels like to you, to infuse this situation that you are praying about. See if you can picture this in your mind in as much detail as you can.
When you are ready, enter the third movement of this prayer of lament, which is to remember times in the past — in your own past or in the collective past — when you have felt or seen the presence of God healing and blessing a painful or broken situation. See if you can recall this healing, this blessing, in all its specific detail.
And finally, the fourth movement of our prayer of lament is to thank God in advance for God’s healing in this situation. You can speak this prayer aloud if you like: a prayer of thanksgiving in anticipation of God’s healing and redeeming presence…a healing presence that even now is flowing in and through our hearts…a healing presence that even now is flowing into the world.
Beloved, I hope you will remember that you can return to this practice of lament as often as you like. Remember that this ancient practice is meant for the healing of your own heart, and for the healing of this beautiful, broken, always-holy world that God so loves. Amen.