Time to Lament

The twelfth reflection in a series, “Hope to See Us Through,” by the Rev. Terry Elsberry.

“‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.’”

—Jeremiah 29:11

 

I

If you know me at all, you know I’m by nature an upbeat, positive kind of guy.

But today, the accumulated pain, frustration and anger of what’s happening in our country has caught up with me.

When I sat down to write these words, all I  could think of was probably the most unremittingly UN hopeful book in the Bible: the Lamentations of Jeremiah.

The word Lamentation has kept coming to me. And what does it mean? Expressions of passionate grief and sorrow. And that’s what I’m feeling for America right not.

Somehow my personal nadir came this morning when I heard that last night rioters set fire to St. John’s, Lafayette Square, “The Church of the Presidents” a block from the White House.

My first job out of seminary was as an assistant at St. John’s. I was ordained to the priesthood at St. John’s.  I learned more about what it means to be a priest in God’s church at St. John’s than I did in seminary—love and value my seminary training though I did.

St. John’s was built in 1810 by an act of congress instituted by James Madison. He and Dolly were ardent Episcopalians. But the only Episcopal church in the new Washington was St. Mark’s on Capitol Hill, hard for the First Couple to attend because the unpaved streets were impassable most of the year. So President Madison enjoined congress to act and the lovely little yellow church with white pillars was the result.

St. John’s has been at the heart of our nation’s history ever since. I have a wonderful old picture of the new church with the White House, visible in the background, partially burned by the British in the War of 1812.

President Lincoln, during some of the worst days of the Civil War, would frequently walk over to St. John’s to kneel and pray in a pew near the back of the church. Presidents traditionally attend a prayer service at St. John’s before they go to the Capitol for their inauguration. While I was there, I organized Ronald Reagan’s second inaugural prayer service.

So for me personally and for our  country that someone would be so disrespectful of both a consecrated house of God and an icon of our national history is for me cause for lamentation.

Wasn’t the pandemic, with its awful, unfair thousands of deaths, with the heartache and pain caused in thousands of different ways in the lives of thousands of our countrymen and women; with the blow to our economy and the disruption to virtually every aspect of our lives; wasn’t that enough?

Seemingly not. Now we’ve had to watch the agonizing murder by an American policemen of a fellow American—already handcuffed—as the victim begged the officer to take his knee off his neck so he could live, begged him with the words, “Please, Sir, I can’t breathe.”

Wasn’t that enough? Seemingly not.

Now we’ve had to watch demonstrations against this awful expression of brutality turn into riots—as already threatened businesses are sacked or burned and police and national guard find themselves pitted against the rioters in their attempts to restore order and safety.

SURELY IF THERE EVER WAS ONE, NOW IS A TIME TO LAMENT FOR OUR NATION.

II

I was so obsessed by the concept, I actually turned to Lamentations in the Bible. Here we see the prophet Jeremiah in line after line and page after page of powerfully written woeful prose bemoaning, lamenting, the destruction of Jerusalem.

Jerusalem, the national and religious heart and soul of the Jewish nation. Jerusalem, home of the Temple, spiritual center and focus of the Jewish people.

Jerusalem has been sacked and burned  and the Temple destroyed, by the conquering Babylonians and the people who survived have been carried off into exile.

No wonder Jeremiah writes, “My soul . . . is bowed down within me.”

So is my soul bowed down within me today for the suffering of so many in our land. So could I weep for this oppression to lift and set us free from too much suffering, too many seemingly insurmountable problems.

And I—like Jeremiah—know it can happen.

For does Jeremiah not say, before he finishes his salvo of despair, does he not trumpet at last these words of hope in the Lord?

“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“Therefore I have hope in Him. The Lord is good to those who wait for Him, to the person who seeks Him.

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, His mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning, new every morning. Great is Thy faithfulness, O Lord, great is Thy faithfulness.”

May it be for us, may it be for all Americans, as it was for Jeremiah and the people of Israel who were—after years of exile—restored to their land and able to restore their city. May we come through these dark times to a glorious new beginning.