Lamentations 5

This chapter has a drama in its structure in the original language, because after four neat alphabetical acrostic poems in chapters 1-4, the last has no discernable pattern. The structure is gone. Chaos has replaced order.

Like the other poems, the content is divided into observation and implication. It starts with a plea to God to remember what has happened to them, and lists the terrible sights and images in Jerusalem. And it’s awful.

It’s a picture of a destitute, marginalised, powerless people, exploited and abused at every turn. So many races and ethnic minorities come to mind still. The world has more stateless refugees than ever. Paying too much for basics of life like food and water, unable to find work or stuck doing back-breaking labour. Victims of crime, denied justice, joyless.

There is an acceptance that ‘the crown has fallen from their head’ because of sin. But there also a complaint to God that this generation is bearing the sin of previous ones, a hint of self-righteousness.

The list takes up more of the chapter than usual, and the conclusion is more pessimistic. It asks God to remember all this, and on the basis that his throne endures forever, restore them.

But it also considers the option that God may have utterly rejected them, that he is ‘angry beyond measure’.

I don’t think God was more angry about this sin than any, it all earns judgement. His character is one of grace. But the brutal truth was that the paradigm of Israel they knew was not God’s plan any more. The Messiah was coming. It was a new thing, as Isaiah said, and more inclusive, and not tied to sacrifices in the temple.

The exile would end, the temple would be rebuilt as promised, but smaller and then get sacked again and never return… (Yet).

I’m unsettled, I’m busy, I’m vulnerable. In the arc of my life, my strength is getting less not more. There are loose ends everywhere I can’t get a handle on.

Thursday and Friday last week, I opted out. I stayed home, didn’t think about work except to get a medical certificate. I was agitated and distracted, I muddled through the days.

Coming at such a vulnerable time for me, the book both dwarfs and validates my bad feelings. I’m relatively not that hard done by, but also it is ok to lament. The divine plan includes hard bits. It did for Jesus too. They don’t stop being hard because God is sovereign. Talk about them, share them with God and each other, to make sense of our existence.

This is the end of lamentations. It has to be there, after all the prophets. 16 books of prophesy, full of warnings about the coming destruction of Jerusalem and how bad it will be. There had to be a first hand account to close the narrative circle. To show it was indeed 100% as they said it would be.

The Lord gives and takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.

Lamentations 4

The first four chapters have been acrostic poems. There is an image of their suffering for every letter of the alphabet, four times over

Each chapter (aka poem) has a with-God /without-God pattern. All this long list of things that are truly terrible and are from God. But at the end of each, remembering that to be without God is even worse.

This is a limit of lamentation. Better not to be an enemy of God, even as they are relatively prosperous and successful, and being, for the time being, used by God to vent his wrath and judgement on Israel.

At the centre of the set of five poems, in the middle of chapter three, hope.

Today’s poem has no overt hope except a reference in the last verse to the punishment eventually ending. It compares their previous ease and wealth with their current degraded state. The vivid poetic language is so rich and engaging, it’s own creativity is a counterpoint to the bleakness it describes:

How the precious children of Zion,
    once worth their weight in gold,
are now considered as pots of clay,
    the work of a potter’s hands!

Even jackals offer their breasts
    to nurse their young,
but my people have become heartless
    like ostriches in the desert.

The reference to ostriches is a reference to their habit of not really nurturing their young. Their eggs are hatched in communal nests, no link with a particular mother.

This section about children passage ends with one of the Bible’s unreadable “OK, you went there” moments, when it refers to compassionate parents cooking their children.

I’ve been kicking up a stink at work, I made the best case I could about the redundancy proposed for my job being legally unfair, and it came out actually pretty plausible, won’t bore you with the details.

Yesterday – ostensibly my last day – they came back with the promise of a three month contract working on something else. That would give me a better platform from which to find other work, a longer continuity of income.

They are trying to mollify me, my complaint seems to have shifted some leverage my way. They still win but.

Sigh, I’ll probably do that. Such a whiplash. I came from my farewell lunch with a few close friends, back to the office to meet with my boss who acted surprised that I would think it was my last day. Of course I was carrying on!

It was, as Kelly said when I unpacked with her about it, a mind fuck.

I feel quite wrung out and exhausted. But I’m not boiling the kids, so I suppose I should count my blessings.

Lamentations 3

The contradictions of suffering and hope. 6 stanzas of every imaginable depredation. All from God:

  • Being driven to a dark place
  • Having flesh age and body broken, without comfort
  • Being walled in
  • Body attacked like an animal attack, or being shot with arrows
  • A crucifixion-like picture, pierced with a sword, drinking bitter herbs and gall, mocked
  • Loss of status and wealth, teeth broken in the dust without hope.

Then reviewing and remembering through it all, that it is from God, and having hope.

Saying “His love never fails, his hope is new every morning”

Familiar verse, but what a context.

And it reminds you of Jesus, of his loss of status, God in human flesh having his flesh whipped and cut.

I’m in a bit of mental anguish, blindsided by the loss of my job. Coming to it this way, I feel a bit guilty – its not the worst suffering in this world by a long shot. A friend at work who works a lot with the Aboriginal community tells me worse stories without trying to, every time we meet.

At a certain point am I rejecting hope? Refusing God’s grace by continuing to feel sorry for myself? Where does lament end and hopelessness start?

I am so downcast, I’m still in denial really. I’m not taking it well.

I’ll pray. I will.

Lamentations 2

This chapter is full of horror at what the Lord has done. It’s summed up probably by the line that the Lord has treated them as an enemy.

But it also says they should pour out their hearts like water before the Lord. It recoils from and turns to God, and also recognises all that has happened as being part of God’s plan.

What’s been getting me down is the spectre of redundancy. All things being equal by this time next week I’ll be out of a job. It’s the third time in my “career”.

I’m exhausted at the thought. I turn 58 this year. It’s very hard for me to get a job. I keep experiencing it as a form of shock. A bit like when someone has died, I do a double take and have to keep reminding myself again and again that I really am losing my job.

I’m not sure how helpful it is to read in todays passage how bad things can get and still be part of God’s plan. People at work have been lovely and supportive, and reminded me of the Lord’s goodness.

The thing is, things can get very bad indeed. Illness, disaster, death, pain. They are part of God’s world, part of God’s plan for good. And I have nowhere to turn to for lament but to God.

God God God, that’s how it is. It’s a slippery slope once you don’t find atheism plausible.

I’ll do what I can to make the case for my job not being abolished, why not? But I’ll brace for the worst.

Lamentations 1

So I come to the book of Lamentations. Poems of misery and sadness written after the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of the people. A few stray people, such as Jeremiah I think, did hang around after the siege. This was written by someone who stayed.

The city is empty. The agony is profound. The punishment is recognised as deserved, because of Jerusalem’s great sin. But that doesn’t stop the emotions, and the purpose of lament is partly to give space to emotions as you narrate bad things that have happened to you.

I liked the way their sins are referred to as a yoke. God wove their own sin together and hung it around their neck. Relatively, Jesus would point out, his yoke is easy. The tendency of lament can be towards self justification: “it’s not fair!”. This is showing an awareness of guilt and regret, and God’s justice in their situation, coexisting with sadness and suffering.

The flow of the narrative is from a picture of the devastation, to a recognition of the culpability for the punishment, then an acknowledgement of the emotions: the tears, the loneliness, the hopelessness and lack of comfort. It ends looking forward to the promised day when enemies, now gloating, will experience similar justice.

I’m feeling pretty sorry for myself today… More on that tomorrow. Today I’ll focus on having grief, but not being aggrieved.

I need strength to do today Lord.

Ezekiel 48

End of Ezekiel and right at the end of my super long holiday.

I forgot to mention, I think, a key detail at the end of chapter 47. Foreigners living in the land being allotted to Israel’s tribes are to be treated as equals. They share the land with the tribe, them and their children, according to where they happen to be. The tribe they find themselves in becomes their tribe.

How different from the early mosaic law about not including outsiders. And different from how it actually played out in Ezra and Nehemiah, the accounts of the return from exile, where the families were torn apart.

It’s an inclusive vision. It’s a vision of access. There is a gate in the holy city for every tribe to come.

I called the city Jerusalem, but a canny commentator raised that in all the visions of the last section, it is not actually named. Ezekiel/God saved that dramatically for the last verse of the huge maddening book.

“And the name of the city from that time on will be:

The Lord is there”

As with most visions in the Bible, its truth does double duty in the near and far. For its time it gave hope and confidence to the forgotten people lost in Babylon, hearing news of the destruction of their culture and beliefs.

It’s still a great message of hope, for indigenous and marginalised people, anyone without hope.

Also for rich evangelicals like me faced with choices about whether our culture or God’s eternal truth matter more. The core truths that survive exile clarify what can be let go. Jesus’ new wine that should burst the old wineskins each time we share in it.

The book started with God’s presence coming right out to that forgotten place near a river in Babylon, for Ezekiel. It ends announcing God’s presence for all with these pictures of new beating hearts of flesh, dry bones breathed to life and an inclusive holy city of God’s presence following out like a river across the world

The extraordinarily beautiful black sand beaches of Karekare and Piha on the West coast of NZ (just a stone’s throw from the East coast really). We go home tomorrow evening.

The psalmists didn’t need to visit New Zealand to write about considering their place among the wonders God has made, or the heavens telling the glory of God. I won’t pretend this is necessary.

But I’ve loved being here, and it has helped me remember, after the apocalyptic fires back home, that the creation God already did is enough. I don’t need a better heaven as much as a better heart. I can be part of building God’s holy city here now.

Ezekiel 47

This is a picture of abundant blessing. In Ezekiel’s vision of the new temple, a river flows out from it, growing longer,wider and deeper the further, bringing life and blessing to all the land it passes through. The fruit of trees that grow near it bring healing, the leaves bring blessing.

It flows into the valley of the dead sea, so salty that not much lives there, and it makes everything new, a new creation.

At this point it’s obviously a spiritual parable about the hope that is revealed in the whole Bible about god’s love and promises.

It’s like Ezekiel’s vision picked up the deep longing of the exiled people, after the news in chapter 33 that the temple had fallen. It started where their hearts were, talking about restoration of the nation to a new better temple. But now the vision has enlarged to restoration of all creation.

We talked about heaven as a family the other day, the three of us. A rare event. We’ve seen it, we’ve seen it this week that this world is a blueprint for how heaven could be. Maybe heaven is a future plan of God, a new place of escape.

But we know what heaven is like, and there’s no reason not to start now, doing what we can to make our world match god’s blueprint for existence.

The last day in Queenstown South Island, before flying back to the North Island. We stayed in a airBnB that was pretty much a glass box with views about this wide, but water level, of this beautiful lake city. Rennie and I rode down that track on cute little carts. I remembered, on the gondola and chair ride up, that I’m more afraid of heights than I remember.

Ezekiel 46

I don’t think I’m the only one losing patience ever so politely with Ezekiel at this point. Another Leviticus-type chapter detailing worship in the temple, different in minor ways from the mosaic law given back in the Torah.

Reading some of the commentators… A lot of explaining and unpacking of the mechanics and process being described, not a lot of why and what does it signify?

The set-up is the very pure holiness of God, as represented by the priests and the sacrifices in a part of the temple the people can’t get to. This we had in the first temple. A new element is the Prince, for whom the gate between the people and the holy bit is opened.

When he is before them and among them, they are able to see and worship as the sacrifices occur making peace with God.

Then there are laws that clarify that the inheritance of the children of the Prince is permanent. It is to reset every year of jubilee, so any of his wealth anyone else has returns to his children.

This is a bit of an odd flip on the concept of jubilee, which up till now I thought of as the cancelling of debts every 25 years. Here it extends to property rights stemming from debt, as if the bank cancelled your mortgage debt to them, but also your ownership of the house. Not such an appealing plan practically but it makes a point about being children of the Prince.

Its not hard to see messianic elements to the Prince, Isaiah’s phase “Prince of peace”, which became a title for Jesus, comes to mind. But it is hard to understand.

I’ll leave it in hold and think more.

Rennie, my son, has gone home to start school. Kelly and I have an extra week by ourselves of holiday. We see her sister Wendy today, and for a couple of days.

Not sure how that will go. She’s been in a rough spot in her life and marriage, and she’s a complex person at the best of times.

I’ve already started having a bit of forboding about going back, which I suppose is inevitable in a holiday scenario.

I’m doing some precessing about who I am and the way our family works. I don’t understand why I had this holiday, but I think it will cause some changes to the way I operate that will be good but maybe a bit difficult in the short term.

Together in Queenstown before Rennie returned. Like the South of France in the South of NZ.

Ezekiel 45

Lots of detail about the land, the rituals, the adminstration of the priesthood and the temple in Jerusalem.

Some say it is allegorical. Others say the wealth of very specific detail shows it is intended to be literal instructions.

Either way, it hasn’t been realised. What if God had given all the instructions for Noah’s Ark but the story said that the ark was never actually built? We’d have a plan for saving the animals to think about. This is like that I think, a plan for a holy city for us to think about.

Features include:

– It is owned by and for all.

– There is no King only leaders (a prince) who adminsters the city according to God’s will, and whom the Jewish scholars saw as Messiah.

– It is fair, God is very concerned about honesty in small things.

– It is God’s. Set aside and kept for God and God’s people.

I’m still living a dream in this longest and most indulgent holiday I’ve ever had. I wonder if because I don’t really do holidays, I’ve gone a bit over the top.

Yesterday we toured the Fiordland national Park in New Zealand’s wild South west. On a ferry through doubtful sound, I was moved to tears at the majesty. The Elivs Costello song “all this useless beauty” came to mind. So many lakes, mountains, rivers sitting there untouched. Barely used even by animals. New Zealand traditionally really only had birds.

God set up beautiful systems that churn away, making paradises. Regenerating rather than depleting, as most of our systems seem to do. God’s is an abundance model.

The city of God? Let’s build Jerusalem, among these green and pleasant hills. Rennie has been confident enough to talk openly about his spiritual views on life, aware that they are different from mine, for which I am grateful. I think it’s a bit intimidating for him to open up to me.

This very apt Maori poem from the region reminded me of the universal nature of human experience:

“My eyes are filled with tears, at the sight of the mountains of Takitimu, and the mountains of Manawapouri. Would that I were a bird, that I might fly forth; would that I might obtain wings”

Doubtful sound

Ezekiel 44

A chapter about the renewal of the priesthood to Levitical standards, part of a series of visions about the restored temple in Jerusalem after Israel’s exile to Babylon. The reality in history fell woefully short, despite a brief but passionate revival of national religious fervour that tore many mixed families apart.

It all seems quite remote, I must say from my holiday. Here we are white water rafting

That’s me Kelly and Rennie in the back, and our friends Kirsten and Taylor in front. Within seconds Kirsten was victim of an involuntary kick from Taylor and out of the boat!

The integration of the local Mouri culture is much more natural and ever-present in NZ than aboriginal culture in Oz. We recited a cheiftan’s blessing before we went over this waterfall, and were told the story of how deceased chief’s bodies were left by the river at the bottom of the fall to be taken to eternity by the next flood.

80% tourist moonshine, no doubt. It has a good dramatic effect building tension for the most dangerous part of the trip. It was interesting how much the guides apologised for the religious element. The expectation that people will object to spirituality. But the acknowledgement of indigenous life is everywhere here.

So…

On the one hand God, in a vision of perfect Judaism. The priest of the right race, gender, tribe, subset of tribe, wearing the right clothes, on the right day, after the right rituals, may enter the chamber adjacent to the chamber where God is.

God is radioactive. Impossible.

On the other hand, the popular spirituality: watered down, apologised for, used for cultural background to a tourist experience.

What a gulf.

The whole Ezekiel passage is thrown off balance by a reference to a “prince” in v3 who can be before god, who rabbis identify as the messiah.

And I believe Jesus is there, to bridge the gulf.

But this holidays, I’m feeling the size of the gulf, even so.