Hope for the Grieving (Jeremiah 31:15-22)

Orthodox icon of Rachel weeping for the children

This is what the Lord says:

“A voice is heard in Ramah,
    mourning and great weeping,
Rachel weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.”

This is what the Lord says:

“Restrain your voice from weeping
    and your eyes from tears,
for your work will be rewarded,”
declares the Lord.
    “They will return from the land of the enemy.
So there is hope for your descendants,”
declares the Lord.
    “Your children will return to their own land.

“I have surely heard Ephraim’s moaning:
    ‘You disciplined me like an unruly calf,
    and I have been disciplined.
Restore me, and I will return,
    because you are the Lord my God.
After I strayed,
    I repented;
after I came to understand,
    I beat my breast.
I was ashamed and humiliated
    because I bore the disgrace of my youth.’
Is not Ephraim my dear son,
    the child in whom I delight?
Though I often speak against him,
    I still remember him.
Therefore my heart yearns for him;
    I have great compassion for him,”
declares the Lord.

“Set up road signs;
    put up guideposts.
Take note of the highway,
    the road that you take.
Return, Virgin Israel,
    return to your towns.
How long will you wander,
    unfaithful Daughter Israel?
The Lord will create a new thing on earth—
    the woman will return to the man.” (New International Version)

The bereavement of losing someone you care about is awful. A parent experiencing the death of a child is next level grief. There is no bereavement like it.

As a hospital chaplain, I occasionally attend to a grieving mother who just lost her baby. I have shown up for premature and stillborn deaths, full term births, then death, sudden infant death, and more. The grief is indescribable.

On some level, there is no comfort – and never will be. I know that, for me, providing grief support to mothers who are enduring the death of a baby or young child has profoundly changed me and forever impacted my soul. So, I can only imagine what it’s like for a mother.

Many Christians will recognize the verse of Rachel weeping for her children as part of the early story surrounding Jesus:

An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt,where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

“A voice is heard in Ramah,
    weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.”(Matthew 2:13-18, NIV)

It’s really hard to have hope when you’re in the throes of lamenting the death of children. We need hope. It’s necessary to life. We cannot survive, let alone thrive, without it.

It is possible to simultaneously experience hopelessness and hope. At the same time, we hold both despair and desire, anguish and anticipation, in our hearts. While we may never forget who we have lost, we make it through our days believing that another child can change the world for the better. We place our faith in the Christ child, in Jesus.

Wily old King Herod massacred innocent toddlers in order to ensure the destruction of Jesus. Behind his atrocity was the devil himself who knew that Jesus was the coming King who would one day bring salvation. But the old King’s sinister plan didn’t work. 

Reflecting on a vision of Christ’s birth, the Apostle John stated:

The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. (Revelation 12:4-5, NIV)

Satan wars against God’s Son and God’s people, whose roots go all the way back to the first prophecy of Christ:

And I will put enmity
    between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
    and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:15, NIV)

There has been bad blood, ever since the Fall of humanity, between the serpent and the seed of the woman. The Old Testament Israelites were continually being threatened with extermination; they were constantly tempted to conform to pagan ways for handling their suffering and grief. 

Herod was just another in a long line of demonically animated men trying to perpetuate the kingdom of darkness. The devil knows that his time is short; and he uses twisted persons like Herod for his insidious schemes.

Many people experience hell on earth because Satan is on a rampage; mothers and their children are often the collateral damage.

The holiday season is a hard time of year for many people, filled with depression instead of joy, grieving over lost loved ones for whom you will not spend another Christmas with. And yet, there is a reunion coming, the hope of a bodily resurrection in which we will be with Jesus and God’s people forever.

Satan’s most powerful weapon, death, has lost its sting because of Jesus. Death does not have the last word; resurrection does. And this hope for the future helps us in the present to keep going and not give up.

The prophet Jeremiah was dealing with children lost in war to the invading Babylonians. His words are a lament in the context of the hope that captivity and exile will not be forever. 

Matthew wants us to see that the exile is over for us; Jesus has arrived, and the tears that were shed will shortly dry up. There may be a time of suffering that we must endure, but there is glory ahead.

Jesus is the Great Deliverer who brings us out of the grip of death, grief, and lament and into the promises of God. Christ is our hope. Amen, and amen.

Depression Is Our Teacher (Psalm 102:1-17)

Lord, hear my prayer!
    Let my cry reach you!

Don’t hide your face from me
    in my time of trouble!
Listen to me!
    Answer me quickly as I cry out!

Because my days disappear like smoke,
    my bones are burned up as if in an oven;
    my heart is smashed like dried-up grass.
    I even forget to eat my food
    because of my intense groans.
    My bones are protruding from my skin.

I’m like some wild owl—
    like some screech owl in the desert.
I lie awake all night.
    I’m all alone like a bird on a roof.

All day long my enemies make fun of me;
    those who mock me curse using my name!

I’ve been eating ashes instead of bread.
    I’ve been mixing tears into my drinks
        because of your anger and wrath,
        because you picked me up and threw me away.

My days are like a shadow soon gone.
    I’m dried up like dead grass.

But you, Lord, rule forever!
    Your fame lasts from one generation to the next!

You will stand up—
        you’ll have compassion on Zion
        because it is time to have mercy on her—
    the time set for that has now come!

Your servants cherish Zion’s stones;
    they show mercy even to her dirt.

The nations will honor the Lord’s name;
    all the earth’s rulers will honor your glory
    because the Lord will rebuild Zion;
    he will be seen there in his glory.

God will turn to the prayer of the impoverished;
    he won’t despise their prayers. (Common English Bible)

Author Marianne Williamson tells the story concerning a study of a group of chimpanzees. Supposedly, researchers observed primate behavior which correlates to human depression, such as eating at odd times, spending lots of time alone, and staying on the outskirts of the group. This behavior was observed in about 10% of the chimps, which is about the same percentage of Americans who show symptoms of depression. 

The scientists removed the depressed chimps for six months, to see how this would affect the behavior of the other 90%. You might think that in the absence of the depressed individuals, the remaining majority would produce another 10% of depressed chimps. Instead, when scientists returned six months later, all the non-depressed chimps were dead.

The interpretation and conclusion of the study is that the depressed chimps had functioned as a kind of early warning system, continually looking out for predators, tropical storms, and other threats to the group. Without that system in place, the group was doomed.

Whether the study can be substantiated, or is a fabrication, for those who pay careful attention to the inner person, knowing there is much more to us than physical pathology, this account of chimpanzees resonates deeply.

More than a mere problem to be fixed, depression can also serve as an asset to society. Depressed persons can serve an important role, providing a critical mass of individuals uniquely suited to guarding against danger.

I am not trying to put a positive spin on a terrible malady of mind and spirit. Instead, I’m simply pointing out that there is a lot going on beyond an individual’s inner sadness and struggle; it is also a community’s struggle.

Reading today’s psalm, especially if you read it aloud, you can feel the expression of deep lament borne from a person going through a major depression. Although there are persons in the church and society who, unfortunately, believe depression to be a sin, we get no such judgment from Holy Scripture. Depression just is.

Consider the following biblical characters:

  • Elijah became depressed. The prophet’s depression served as a sign and warning that there was something horribly awry in ancient Israel. Jezebel was the wicked queen, pulling the strings in a nation connected in a web of evil which permeated the land.
  • Moses became despondent time and again. The leader’s depressed spirit pointed to the faithless network of apostasy that kept rearing its golden calf in the life of the Israelite people.

Whenever we, as contemporary persons, become depressed it can and should serve as a billboard to others that something is terribly askew among us, and not just within the individual.

Please know that I fully believe depression ought to be addressed and treated so that the depressed person can come around again to a sense of happiness and hopefulness. Yet, there are also emotionally “healthy” people who try to push pills, hurry along therapy, and pronounce exhortations to the despondent people around them. It’s almost as if depressed folk make others uncomfortable and uneasy.

If depression points to societal ills, not just personal sickness, then it makes sense that non-depressed people want depressed people to get healthy now, because then they don’t have to take a good hard look at the systemic problems of our society and culture. 

Whenever we rush to make someone feel better, typically the person we really want to help is ourselves.

Depression and emotional struggles must be deeply felt, examined, and carefully dealt with. Thus, enter the psalmist. The sheer volume of laments in the psalter ought to clue us in that this is important work. Sadness and grief can get trapped in us like monkeys in a cage. Reciting psalms of lament can help express what is within us and serve as the pick which unlocks us to freedom.

Dealing with depression is a process. It takes time and therapy, perseverance and patience, to heal. Learning new ways to accept, cope, and transcend are difficult – they take time. Cheap hope is a switch which can be easily flipped; genuine hope is a large heavy gate that needs effort to open.

While the depressed among us learn to hope again, the majority who are free of depression ought to pay attention.

We who are depression-proofed persons ought also to examine ourselves, our families, our organizations, our workplaces, and our faith communities to determine what is awry and create new systems and new ways of living together on planet earth.

Depression helps us all become more aware of ourselves and our society. And it drives us to the One who can truly heal all of our ills, both personal and societal. In this way, depression can be our teacher, and not just an unwanted interloper.

After all, who wants to make a monkey of themselves?

Holy God, please observe all who live with depression and hold them in your good strong hands. Send them your love through therapists, pastors, friends, and family. Grant them assurance of your love in their dark hours.

In your mercy, hear my prayer concerning the depressed persons in my life. I feel powerless and inadequate to help. I am frustrated because depression can be so unpredictable. Help me find the resilience and resources I need to be with them during their time of pain. And teach me what I need to learn in their darkness, as well, through Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen.

Psalms 42 & 43 – Longing for Another World

As a deer gets thirsty
    for streams of water,
I truly am thirsty
    for you, my God.
In my heart, I am thirsty
for you, the living God.
    When will I see your face?
Day and night my tears
    are my only food,
as everyone keeps asking,
    “Where is your God?”

Sorrow floods my heart,
    when I remember
leading the worshipers
    to your house.
I can still hear them shout
    their joyful praises.
Why am I discouraged?
Why am I restless?
    I should trust you, Lord.
I will praise you again
because you help me,
    and you are my God.

I am deeply discouraged,
    and so I think about you
here where the Jordan begins
at Mount Hermon
    and at Mount Mizar.
Your vicious waves
    have swept over me
like an angry ocean
    or a roaring waterfall.

Every day, you are kind,
    and at night
you give me a song
as my prayer to you,
    the God of my life.

You are my mighty rock.
    Why have you forgotten me?
Why must enemies mistreat me
    and make me sad?
Even my bones are in pain,
    while all day long
my enemies sneer and ask,
    “Where is your God?”

Why am I discouraged?
Why am I restless?
    I trust you, Lord!
And I will praise you again
because you help me,
    and you are my God…

Show that I am right, God!
Defend me against everyone
    who doesn’t know you;
rescue me from each
    of those deceitful liars.
I run to you for protection.
Why do you turn me away?
Why must enemies mistreat me
    and make me sad?

Send your light and your truth
    to guide me.
Let them lead me to your house
    on your sacred mountain.
Then I will worship
at your altar because you
    make me joyful.
You are my God,
    and I will praise you.
Yes, I will praise you
    as I play my harp.

Why am I discouraged?
Why am I restless?
    I trust you, Lord!
And I will praise you again
because you help me,
    and you are my God. (Contemporary English Version)

Longing is a universal human experience. It is also an integral part of the human condition.

“If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”

C.S. Lewis

Before that statement, Lewis spoke of the nature of longing – how all that we experience in this life is not the ultimate object of our desire, of our longing. The beauty and satisfaction we seek:

“was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

If we follow the path of any pain, any psychological or emotional wounding, it will lead us to this one primal pain: the pain of separation.

That’s because, having been born into this world, we are banished from Paradise and carry the scars of our Edenic estrangement – the separation from God.

Although it may sound counter-intuitive, if we will but embrace this suffering, if we allow it to lead us deep within ourselves, it will take us deeper than any healing this world can offer.

In other words, longing is itself the cure. It is when our hearts break that they become open for the love to come pouring out of it.

The grief we acknowledge and express draws us toward intimacy with the Divine and with others. It brings union, not separation. The problem itself becomes the cure.

“Do not seek for water. Be thirsty.”

Jalāl al-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī (1207-1273)

The longing for love, belonging, and connection needs to be deeply felt, because it is really the only way of actually loving another. It is in hungering and thirsting – that is, in longing – which leads us to pray and seek to end our separation.

Prayer is the voice we give to our longings.

Naming our sadness for what it is, even our depression, is most necessary. Since we are emotional creatures, profound sadness even to the point of depression and/or despondency will happen.

Yet, despite the universal nature of discouragement, tears, and the longing for better and beauty, many Christians buck the feelings. Far too many believers focus so exclusively on victory in Jesus through his resurrection, ascension, and glorification that they use religion as their denial when unwanted emotions come banging at the doorstep of their soul.

Depression is not sin. To be discouraged is not the Enemy. And our longings are the evidence that this is so. We must sit with our emotions and feel the breadth and depth of them. Both our spiritual and emotional health come through an awareness and robust engagement with our feelings. Refusing to feel is, in reality, putting the stiff arm to God.

The psalmist does anything but deny his feelings. He brings them before the Lord and spreads them out before the Divine. Why am I discouraged? Why am I restless? Why the sadness? Could it be that God has forgotten me? Where is the Lord? Is God angry with me? Are my troubles the result of divine wrath?

To blandly say we have never uttered or thought such questions is a telltale sign of denying our deep longings. The bottom line for many folks is that they do not want to feel discouraged or cry any tears because it complicates their lives. Besides, it hurts!. “Why feel,” we reason, “when it only brings pain?”

Ah, yes, the avoidance of pain. And there is no pain quite like emotional and spiritual pain of separation and longing for things to be different.

Much like an open wound which needs a liberal application of painful peroxide, so our spiritual wounds must sting with the salve of emotional feeling. Healing is neither cheap, easy, nor painless. It typically hurts like hell.

The psalmist’s own pain revolved around feelings of alienation from God, being cut off from fellow worshipers, and harassed by others around him. Understandably, he experienced despondency and loneliness. The psalmist wondered if anyone, including God, even cared what he was going through. In other words, he is desperate for God to show up. So, he prayed as if his life depended on it.

The psalmist did not get answers to his questions. But that was never the point of the asking.

Hope arises from holding the big picture of the past, present, and future together at the same time. When present circumstances are difficult, and it appears we are about to swallowed up into the now, we must hold the past and future along with it, in careful tension.

While we desperately search for a cure, none will be found in this life – at least not in full. We are occasionally and surprisingly graced with glimpses of our deepest longings whenever we experience the kindness of a stranger, an answer to a prayer we uttered years ago, or the peace of an unexpected rest.

Then, our trust reawakens, and we are encouraged to take another step in the long walk of life – a walk in which God is beside us, even if we cannot discern it.

Gracious God, help us to know wonder in our waiting, patience in our wonderings, and a vision of how life is supposed to be lived. May our deepest longing find its satisfaction in you and in the many ways you mercifully hold the world together, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Psalm 32 – Don’t Waste Away

Blessed is the one
    whose transgressions are forgiven,
    whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
    whose sin the Lord does not count against them
    and in whose spirit is no deceit.

When I kept silent,
    my bones wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
    your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
    as in the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you
    and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
    my transgressions to the Lord.”
And you forgave
    the guilt of my sin.

Therefore, let all the faithful pray to you
    while you may be found;
surely the rising of the mighty waters
    will not reach them.
You are my hiding place;
    you will protect me from trouble
    and surround me with songs of deliverance.

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
    I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.
Do not be like the horse or the mule,
    which have no understanding
but must be controlled by bit and bridle
    or they will not come to you.
Many are the woes of the wicked,
    but the Lord’s unfailing love
    surrounds the one who trusts in him.

Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous;
    sing, all you who are upright in heart! (New International Version)

Depression is downright awful. It is the leading cause of disability in the Unites States among people ages 15-45. More sobering is the fact that two-thirds of all persons with depression have not yet sought help.

The psalmist was once one of those persons. When he kept silent, it was as if his bones went limp and wasted away inside him. The emotional pain of such an experience transcends our language.

David, the psalmist, had every reason to feel deeply about the circumstances of his life. He had been both the victim and even the perpetrator in all kinds of very troubling situations. Yet, as the king of Israel and Judah, he kept the stiff-upper-lip of stubbornly holding everything inside. 

The very word “depression” literally means to depress or stuff the emotions down inside and keep them tightly held within, not allowing them to see the light of day. Deep inside, those feelings don’t just go away. Instead, they sit, not going anywhere, and eventually rot the soul.

“It’s so difficult to describe depression to someone who’s never been there, because it’s not sadness. I know sadness. Sadness is to cry and to feel. But it’s that cold absence of feeling — that really hollowed-out feeling.”

J. K. Rowling

There was a time in my past in which I was so good at stuffing my feelings that one night when my neighbor had a blow-out of a party at two o’clock in the morning, I actually felt no anger. Just so you know: That’s not healthy. I had an anger problem. Not the kind where you explode, but just the opposite – the kind where you stuff every unwanted feeling in the book.

Recovery, for me, meant first recognizing that I was depressed and had a lot to be angry about. Next, I began to let myself feel the past situations of my life. And I need to tell you that what was inside me wasn’t at all pretty. 

Like a wound that needs peroxide, dealing with depression hurt like hell. But I couldn’t heal without it. I couldn’t go around it or avoid it; I had to go through it. 

Finally, I learned to not only identify my feelings, but take charge of them. I discovered I could choose to say how I feel without apology, and I could say it all in a way that helped others, as well as myself. Like David of old, I had to get what was inside on the outside.

The Christian season of Lent is an appropriate time to do this sort of internal work. This is no time to sit on neglected feelings or stuff emotions. It may seem as if opening up will cause internal shame, outward regret, or judgment from others.

But that would be a lie.

Shame cannot survive the light of day; regret typically happens when we fail to do something; and millions of others are struggling with the very same sort of things you are.

What’s more, God is patiently awaiting for us to break our silence and tell what’s troubling us. With the Lord, there is bountiful grace, unconditional forgiveness, and emotional healing.

I don’t believe depression is a sin which needs to be confessed but rather a terrible condition of the spirit that must be named and dealt with. So, if you are experiencing:

  • Feelings of sadness or a depressed mood that lingers for weeks, even months
  • A loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed
  • Changes in appetite — weight loss or gain unrelated to dieting
  • Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
  • A loss of energy or increased fatigue
  • An increase in useless activity (e.g., hand-wringing or pacing) or slowed movements and speech
  • Feelings of worthlessness, shame, or guilt
  • Difficulty thinking, concentrating, or making decisions
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

Then, it is high time to get help. A place to start can be with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National hotline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or online at findtreatment.samhsa.gov

It is also wise to speak with a trusted family member or friend about the need for help and support, as well as a safe faith leader, pastor, or chaplain. There is no reason for anyone to have to live with crushing emotional and/or spiritual pain day after day.

Gracious God, your stamp of approval is on the penitent – those who are brutally honest with the inner self and receive your mercy. I will not keep silent. I will declare to you the current state of my life and not run away from the ugliness within. Through the gracious Name of Jesus, I pray with thanksgiving. Amen.