For Zion’s sake I won’t keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I won’t sit still until her righteousness shines out like a light, and her salvation blazes like a torch. 2 Nations will see your righteousness, all kings your glory. You will be called by a new name, which the LORD’s own mouth will determine. 3 You will be a splendid garland in the LORD’s hand, a royal turban in the palm of God’s hand. 4 You will no longer be called Abandoned, and your land will no longer be called Deserted. Instead, you will be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land, Married. Because the LORD delights in you, your land will be cared for once again. 5 As a young man marries a young woman, so your sons will marry you. With the joy of a bridegroom because of his bride, so your God will rejoice because of you. (CEB)
A New Name
2010 was a difficult year for my family. I lost an uncle early. Then, in September, my 22 month-old nephew and Godson was killed in a car accident. The driver who killed him was driving twenty miles per hour over the speed limit, flew over a blind hill, and hit them as they were turning left at the bottom of the hill. And in the midst of this tragedy, as my family was grieving, friends, family, and acquaintances wanted to offer their comfort.
Unfortunately, many well-meaning people said things that inadvertently did the opposite. They meant to try and make sense out of something that was senseless, but their attempts only added to the pain and grief. There were people who said, Everything happens for a reason. God has a plan. Something good will come out of it, you’ll see! Just have faith.
We’ve all probably said those things at some point.
I’ll admit I wasn’t happy those people because, regardless of their intentions, their words denied the tragedy of my nephew’s death. Their words denied our grief as a family: my sister’s brokenness as a mother, my brother-in-law’s pain as a father. And it’s not only laity who say stupid things to grieving families, we clergy can do it as well as anyone. The pastor at their church said to me, I believe God called him home. And my thought was, You’ve got to be kidding! You think God caused this? Do you realize what my sister is going to think if you tell her that? Like any mother, she would think, “If that’s the case, then God should have shut up and left my son alone.”
There’s an element within the Christian Church in America that I find extremely uncomfortable. It’s a mindset. We’re embarrassed by grief, and we don’t want to experience it. Our aversion to grief is so severe that we shut other people down in the midst of their grief and pat ourselves on the back thinking that we said the right thing: the good thing, the Christian thing, even the Biblical thing.
The problem is these false platitudes only deny a person’s reason to grieve. They deny the tragedy. Denial of someone’s grief isn’t Biblical. Giving solid, well-meaning advice is what Job’s friends did and, as you might recall, they were proved the idiots at the end of the story.
Sitting with people in their grief and weeping beside them is Biblical.
It’s hard to believe the nonsense people often say to those who are grieving.
“God needed another angel in heaven.” Bologna! We won’t become angels, Scripture says we’ll judge angels.
“God has a plan, and good will come out of this. God called him home.” Bologna! God didn’t cause this! Death has never been a part of God’s plan. God’s plan has always been abundant life!
My nephew’s death was a tragedy precisely because it was an avoidable accident! It happened because a person made a reckless choice. She decided to floor the gas pedal of her car and see how fast she could take those curves and hills. She didn’t think to consider the fact that she might kill someone. It shouldn’t have happened!
The thing is, I hear words like these all the time at funerals. But every time those words are spoken, the tragedy is denied, the grief of those most profoundly affected is stripped away so that they’re left with nothing, and untruths about God are spread.
Every time I hear those words spoken, I can only assume I’m listening to another person who has never read the Psalms or the prophets. You see, the Psalms and prophets are full of an element of prayer called the lament. There’s even a book called Lamentations! But for some reason, the lament has become somewhat off-limits in “proper” Christianity. We think Christians should put on the brave face and be all about joy and happiness, never letting anything get us down because, you know, Jesus never wept.
(In case you missed it, that’s sarcasm. Very thick sarcasm).
You remember the story of when his friend Lazarus died, how Jesus didn’t cry. He told Martha and Mary, “Oh, God has a plan. God called him home. Don’t cry. Just have faith that good will come of this.”
That’s not what happened. When you read the story (John 11), you see that the whole community had gathered around Martha and Mary and wept with them. They wailed because of their pain. When Martha told Mary Jesus wanted to see her, Mary got up and left the house. And everyone who was with her just got up and went with her. They assumed she was going to weep at the tomb, and their commitment to Martha and Mary as a community of faith was to simply be with these two sisters in their grief, no matter where they went to mourn.
When Jesus saw Mary, Martha, and everyone else crying, he started to cry so hard that the people marveled, “See how much he loved him!” (Jn. 11:36, CEB). You betcha Jesus wept!
It was a communal lament that acknowledged the pain and grief, and allowed it to be felt and dealt with as the community stood in solidarity with these women because of it.
Before healing from any tragedy can begin, the tragedy itself has to be acknowledged, the pain and anger associated with it has to be allowed and felt, and those around us need to sit down beside us and say, “I love you. I’m here with you. Whatever you need, wherever you go, I’m here with you.”
I say all of this because Isaiah 62 begins with unfamiliar territory for most of us. It’s a lament. It’s the prophet’s defiant cry at the injustice God has allowed to happen. “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.” (Is. 62:1, NRSV).
It’s a lament. A cry from the prophet for God to pay attention to their plight, to not ignore them or their grief any longer, and Isaiah isn’t going to shut up until God restores what is broken. He sees what could be and proclaims that vision as if it’s a reality right around the corner.
But first, the current suffering of the people has to be acknowledged. First, someone has to say, I know you feel abandoned and forsaken by God. I know your faith has faltered because you can’t see God’s presence anywhere. I know you feel defeated and your dreams are broken.
You see, until we allow the tragedy to be acknowledged, any words of hope we try to offer will sound empty and devoid of truth. Just as the crucifixion comes before the resurrection, so too grief because of a tragedy comes before any hope that we might survive it.
Isaiah’s lament reminds us who our God is, and how much more real our relationship with God can be as individuals and as a community. When we pray honestly, everything is allowable. Lament, anger, weeping, disgust, protest: these things are as much a part of our prayers as thanksgiving and praise. Nothing is off-limits to the conversation. Nothing is inappropriate. Nothing is expected to be held back.
In fact, it’s when we keep these things out of our conversations with God that we’re being untruthful, even unfaithful. Because that’s when we’re withholding a very real part of our lives from the God who loves us and desires to be present with us. But our initial reaction is to ball up these pieces of ourselves and try to hide them from God as if they’re not there.
We try to hide the reality of our need to lament because we don’t think real Christians should feel that way. And that false thought process is confirmed every time our need to lament is shut down by people who think they mean well, but speak falsely. They don’t want to feel our pain with us, so they deny it altogether, and thereby deny it to us.
But Isaiah’s lament acknowledges everything. Only after he has done so does Isaiah move on to a vision of hope. In fact, Isaiah dares to speak of the reality God should enact. He speaks the words that need to happen. Everyone saw Israel as downtrodden and defeated, but nations will see Israel vindicated.
God will give Israel a new name, which means a new reality: a new destiny. Abram’s name was changed to Abraham. The exalted ancestor became the father of many nations. Jacob was renamed Israel. The one who supplants became one who strives with God. A new name points to a new future.
Isaiah spoke of new names in terms of marriage. “You will no longer be called Abandoned, and your land will no longer be called Deserted. Instead, you will be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land, Married.” (Is. 6:3-4a, CEB).
I remember the days leading up to my and joy’s wedding. We chose October 13 as the date because it was the Saturday of my mid-fall recess from graduate school. I had to reschedule one of my mid-term exams so I could participate in the rehearsal. I went to class on Thursday, October 11, and left Durham, North Carolina sometime before 11:00 a.m.
I was SO excited. The drive took about ten hours because of some crazy bad weather. But Joy and I were incredibly happy to see each other that night. Our rehearsal was the next day, and the pastor kept telling us things like, “I really wish you two liked each other”; and “Stop kissing”; and “Save it for the wedding.”
But you have to understand that Joy and I hadn’t seen each other in a while. She had been living in Atlanta for an internship. I was in school at Duke. We hadn’t started dating until after I had graduated from Findlay and moved to Durham, but she was still at the University of Findlay. So our entire relationship as a couple had been long-distance.
We longed for the day we didn’t have to be apart anymore. We longed for the day we could forge our future together, side-by-side. And that day before our wedding, we were so excited it was almost torture that we weren’t married yet. We were almost there.
After our wedding, our futures were set on a new course. We would live our lives together. Whatever burdens came at us, we would bear them together. Whatever trials we faced, we would share them together. We would walk through life hand-in-hand, for better or for worse.
That’s the kind of imagination Isaiah has, and the vision he sees for Israel. It’s a new future as exciting, as joy-filled, and as beautiful as a marriage.
That joy and delight is the expected end of the story Isaiah offers us. But before that vision could be shared, Isaiah properly began with a lament. The prophet’s prayer spoke the needed truth, acknowledging the people’s pain. He couldn’t remain silent about the terrible reality he saw. Nor could he remain silent about the hope of his vision. But one rightly comes before the other. And through Isaiah’s words, we are given a lesson in honest prayer and the meaning of true community.
Honest prayer means we don’t hold back what we’re feeling as if God can’t handle it. I guarantee God can. God wants our relationship to be authentic and honest. Honesty is a part of God character, and it should be part of ours.
True community means we abide with each other and bear each other’s grief rather than deny it with well-meaning, but ultimately untrue, clichés. We need to acknowledge the grief and the griever. After grieving with them, perhaps we can walk beside them toward a vision of renewal. But first things, first. It’s only after we lament and grieve that we might find the courage – and accept the grace – to live by a new name and walk forward into a hopeful future.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!