Telling stories

I’ll be honest, I don’t read the book of Lamentations very much. I’ve got nothing against it– all Scripture is God-breathed and useful, after all – but it’s not my first port of call on an average day. But, in these Covid months, I’ve been reading it slowly with a friend and finding deep treasure within.

Set just after the fall of Jerusalem, Lamentations gives voice to those who had tasted the worst that the Babylonian empire could wreak. It describes the devastating story of the exile from the perspective of those left behind and makes for a sobering read. As the title suggests, it’s a series of laments – five in all – that help people pour out their hearts to God.

One thing that has struck me, particularly about chapter 2, is the careful way the narrator notes the stories of different inhabitants of the recently ravaged city, in turn. He doesn’t stop at the generic statement that God “has laid waste his dwelling like a garden” (2:6) but goes on to show how that event means different things to different people. The kings and priests are rejected (v6); the prophets aren’t receiving visions anymore (v9); the elders are silent (v10) and the young women are mourning (v10). He notes that the children are faint (v11); the mothers are desperate (v12); the enemies are rejoicing (v15) and across the spectrum, people lie dead (v21). It’s as if he pans across the whole of society and notes the diverse stories of each and every group. They had all experienced the same traumatic invasion, the same powerful judgement, but there were nuances in their experiences. And no-one, however powerful or powerless, is absent from the writer’s gaze.

Telling the lockdown story
We live in very different times. No siege works are being built on the edge of our city – there’s little chance of us being deported to a hostile foreign land. But we are in a time of trauma. There is a pandemic going on. It’s impacting us all. It’s big, scary and hard. But it’s impacting us all in different ways. Those living alone may be having a very different experience to those in large families. The clinically vulnerable may be feeling vastly different to those still going out to work each day. Those with robust health may not be viewing the future in the same way as those whose immune systems are compromised. Those who can make ends meet will be having a very different experience to those who can’t.

How important then that, within churches, we give voice to people in each of those scenarios – missing none out. We need to listen to each other (we noted that in Louise MacMillan’s post in July) and we can only do that if we encourage each other to speak. Whether that’s one-to-one opportunities over the phone or on a walk or a pre-recorded testimony at an online prayer meeting, whether an interview in a Zoom gathering one Sunday or asking how things are in a formal counselling setting – we need to hear how hard things are impacting everyone, not just people like us.

Then, and only then, can we respond well. Then we, as congregations, can begin to grieve with those who have suffered loss; rejoice with those who have come to faith or grown in new ways; comfort those who have fear; bring some measure of community to the lonely; respite to the overwhelmed; hope to the despondent and peace to the angry. Humans aren’t one-size-fits-all at the best of times – we certainly shouldn’t expect to be at some of the worst.

Telling the Lord’s story
But, of course, the Bible doesn’t stop there. As well as giving a voice to every group within the razed Jerusalem, the book of Lamentations gives voice to the living God. It is his book, for his people, in his world. There is nothing about the fall of Jerusalem that was outside his sovereign control. He purposed it – he used it for his glory. (2:7). And had a plan that extended well beyond those dismal days. Lamentations continues:

Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The LORD is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.” (Lamentations 3:22-24)

It would be unwise to confidently draw parallels between God’s judgment in the Old Testament and events in the here and now. But his character does not change. In our current difficult days, with some of us feeling heavily the weight of returning to a lockdown life, he is still a holy and sovereign God – he is still an active, merciful and saving God. Moreover, we can look back on the ultimate act of judgement and mercy. Jesus’ work on the cross is the story that needs to be told more clearly than any experience of ours. It frames our experiences with hope. It speaks into our experiences with authority. It transforms us in the middle of our experiences – to be ever more the children that God is calling us to be.

So, as we continue to live lives deeply affected by Covid-19, let’s, as believers, be people who are passionate about telling our stories – passionate about encouraging others to tell theirs, so we can prayerfully respond. But, above all, let’s be passionate about telling the Lord’s story because it is in his loving arms that we find the purpose, plans, help and hope we’ll need to carry on faithfully in the weeks ahead. And it is in him that, our friends, find all they need for this life and beyond.