Updated: Oct 23, 2022
Woe to me because of my injury! My wound is incurable!
Yet I said to myself, "This is my sickness, and I must endure it."
These words were written thousands of years ago by the prophet Jeremiah in the book that bears his name. They were said in the context of his lament for the people in the towns of Judah, who would soon endure the horrors of war.* The injury and wound are not physical: what he describes is a sickness of the soul. Later on, during the siege he prophesied would happen for years, this same prophet wrote Lamentations, one of the most difficult-to-read and yet extraordinary books in the entire Bible. It seems Jeremiah's life went from one lament and episode of grief to the next. When he wasn't living through the horrors of siege and war he was envisioning them, experiencing them mentally and spiritually, and prophesying about them. Wifeless, childless, friendless, betrayed, rejected, and alone, he recorded for us his very personal experience in blockaded Jerusalem watching the most horrible acts imaginable commited by his own people as they slowly starved and broke under Babylon's iron fist.
When I consider Jeremiah's life and words in the year 2022, I have one reaction: worship. Yes, that's right, worship. I worship the Lord who moved Jeremiah to write. I profusely and profoundly thank God who knew Jeremiah before he was born, called him, sent him, and inspired him to share with us about the painful, raw, and horrendous details of his deeply lonely and agonizing life and ministry.
I worship the God who taught Jeremiah how to carry the lament.
Jeremiah's life and ministry stand in stark contrast to our Western, evangelical "it's-your-best-life-and-you-can-have-it-ALL-in-Jesus!" mentality and worldview. I could go on and on about how I feel about this halfbreed, half truth gospel which has more to do with giving me permission to use Jesus to "gain the world" and be happy than it does to carry my cross and follow Him, but I'm sick of even wasting my time on the lambast. Suffice it to say, I am not a proponent of said "gospel." What I am a proponent of is the robust, nuanced, uncomfortable-yet-comforting, paradoxical, radical, culture-shaking dismanteling of the true gospel that the Bible portrays in its fullness. And Jeremiah shows us in his vulnerable state one of the elements of that gospel that we desperately need in these days we live in.
As we traveled the U.S. this summer, we spoke to many individuals and groups about our experiences coming out of Russia this year and how we have lived through this war so far. Many of our friends and family expressed concern from time to time about our mental and emotional state: How are you doing? How are you holding up? It was impossible to give a good answer. To be brutally honest, there weren't too many reactions that felt "appropriate." If we minimized our grief or plastered some spiritual platitude on the situation (we're ok, you know, God is good, we know everything happens for a reason...) then it might have made people feel better around us, but it wasn't true or accurate to the experience. If we let the truth be known and got emotional and allowed the grief to manifest, we risked people being very uncomfortable or even getting worried about us. I have to say here that there were many occasions where people surprised us with their incredibly gracious reaction and embraced us in our grief, but still--in many cases it felt very awkward to even start down that road.
And this experience led me to see that we as a people, especially evangelicals, do not know very well how to lament. We are not taught or shown how to grieve. We are not often given the permission to publicly and vulnerably express the deepest pain of our hearts and allow the pain to simply be, without platitudes, without all the "yeses" and "amens." Without cures. We think somehow we will lessen the joy and power of the resurrection by expressing the pain of our crosses, but I'm telling you--that's not actually true. We must dismantle this belief system if we are going to express and build the kingdom of God in this generation, which is longing to have an authentic experience of Emmanuel, God-with-us, especially in their darkest moments. The grief and lament our Lord carried--I would argue, He still carries-- is part and parcel to the victory and overcoming He promised. They are so interwined and interconnected that you cannot separate them. And that is as it should be.
My lament over what is happening in my adopted nation of Russia and neighboring beloved Ukraine is something I will carry possibly for the rest of my life. I write those words as salty splatters fall upon the gray and black keys. I cry all the time. Daily, still. Hourly, sometimes. Today is the 21st of October, just 3 days shy of the 8 month anniversary of this horrid war. Eight months of pain, prayers, and pleading with God for it to end. Eight months of unceasing lament. It can't compare to Jeremiah's lifetime of lament, but even 8 months is enough to understand some things. It's enough to understand that pain like this does not go away if you have allowed yourself the vulnerability of truly loving someone. Jeremiah's lament, his "uncurable wound" that he had to endure, came from a place of giving himself over to loving the people of God. My lament over Russia and Ukraine hasn't ended because the people I love are still in pain. And because of that, I would argue that the lament is not just allowable or understandable, it is the only appropriate response.
Love laments when the beloved hurts. The is biblical, beautiful, human. Jeremiah knew this, and wrote his lamentations as his soul groaned under the sorrow of his people's pain. Jesus knew this when he allowed himself to be "a man of sorrows, familiar with grief." And all of us who love Ukraine and Russia know this only too well as the news ceaselessly churns out one horrific war story after the next. We know now what it means to grieve as part of daily life. And we're slowly learning how to carry the lament, which isn't an easy lesson.
I'm tempted to end with some verses from Lamentations 3 where Jeremiah describes his fledging outreach to hope, and the classically beautiful, much-quoted promises of "your compassion is new every morning" and "great is your faithfulness." I believe unquivocally and unshakeably in the power of those promises and in the power of hope, and in the great faithfulness of my Lord. As a matter of fact, the hope in His faithfulness and love is literally all I have in the entire world in some moments. But I hesitate to end this on a "happily-ever-after" note, as much as I believe in this with every fiber of my being. Because this day will be the last for many who are fighting in Ukraine, because the bombs have not yet ceased, and because the war is still raging, I will stand in the uncomfortable in-between with a great host of many like Jeremiah who have decided to carry the lament and "endure the sickness." So instead of the burst of hope in the middle, I will end instead with the paradoxical mingling of hope and hopelessness in the last words of the great prophet's personal journal of grief:
You Lord reign forever; your throne endures from generation to generation. Why do you always forget us? Why do you forsake us so long? Restore us to yourself, Lord, that we may return; renew our days as of old unless you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure.**