Tuesday, July 10, 2018

On Belay: Lament

I didn't want to go to church yesterday. It was my first free weekend in a while. I had chores, work, and writing to do. I wanted to read and go outside and have some down time. But I've learned to pay attention to good things I don't want to do. I pay attention when I am tempted to just stay home instead of being around people. I pay attention when I don't want to engage.

So then I do it anyway. Usually.

That doesn't mean I showed up an extrovert. I rolled in at 10:03 am. I knew the music would already be going, and I could slip in and avoid the chitchat at the beginning. I sat mostly near (not with) people I knew so the "greet your neighbor" part would be uneventful. I thought I'd show up without actually showing up. Basically.

Thankfully, the Holy Spirit doesn't work that way.

We're journeying through a sermon series on the Psalms. I love the songs of praise and triumph and perseverance borrowed from this book.

We turned to Psalm 13. As we stood to our feet for the reading of the psalm, I thumbed from the back of the book to 22, 18, 15, 14... 13. My heart sank. I knew from experience it was about lament, and not just because that's how David meant it. But because in the greatest lamenting moment in my life, I turned to this one. Psalm number 13.

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? 
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?

It goes on. David's wailing to God. He's crying out, not in disbelief but in faith. Faith that God can handle his disappointments. Faith that God is capable of changing the situation. Faith that God is worthy of his emotions and his experience. Faith that God is worthy of his worship in the hard and really bad times.

It's lament.


My two friends and I left the farm on our day off to go to church in Jerusalem. We walked the mile and a half to the end of the barricaded road to the Tent of Nations farm outside of Bethlehem and scrambled over the concrete blockades. We walked to the bus stop at the top of the next hill. It would be easy most other places to hail our ride, pay the fare and take a seat. But in the West Bank, nothing is easy. Even the bus systems are a facet of division in the land. Israeli buses don't serve the Arab communities there. And our pale skin and skirts repeatedly have us mistaken for Israelis. 

In a series of fortunate events, we hitch a ride with a friendly Jewish settler. We asked questions about her life and history, and she asked about the farm and our experience with Palestinians. There aren't any checkpoints between the bus stop and Jerusalem if you're Israeli, or traveling with one. A few minutes later, she dropped us at the light rail station where our inability to count change drew an impatient audience at the ticket kiosk.

We ultimately figured out the rail fare and found our way to the train that would take us directly to the gate we'd need to enter. Along the way, we shared grab holds on the train with an Israeli soldier with a loaded assault rifle strapped across his body, his fingers drumming on the grip. We dismounted the train and the door sealed behind us. We began walking toward the gate as we contemplated the normalized militarization, and how even though my husband carried a semi-automatic weapon for a living, I didn't love standing a few feet from one on that train in this place a flicker away from an assumed threat.

The quick ride from the bus stop meant we had some time to kill before we had to make our way to church, so we decided to sit down for a minute before going in to the Old City. We walked down the steps of the Damascus Gate where it descends from the bustling, modern street of honking horns and fuming buses down into an echoey, claustrophobic and ancient city carved out of stone. At the bottom of the steps next to a railing, we took a seat.

We had been talking for a few moments when a fight broke out. I watched in slow motion a man attack an Israeli soldier. The man was stabbing the soldier in the neck with a blade. The soldier got him on the ground and fired a few bullets into him in self-defense. Then a few more for safe measure? Then a few more for retaliation.

We crouched, then we stood, then we ran. We were on the bottom step, but the stairs kept escalating down in front of us, and the short leap around the other side of the railing seemed to take us several minutes. We cried out, Jesus! Oh my God.
The whole thing unfolded quickly and slowly. There are details I wish I could unsee, and there are words I'm sure were said that none of us remember. We huddled in a small pack behind the stone walls crying when two Muslim women came over and patted our shoulders and curled up knees. They spoke softly and consolatory. It's okay. It happens all the time, they seemed to say. I enraged that women who live under occupation and are subject to unjust treatment and hardships... they were comforting me.

We stood up and come back to awareness of our surroundings. There were people running toward the scene and many running away. One of the girls said this is where riots start, and so we should go. And we descended into the labyrinth of the Old City without glancing back to see how much damage was truly done.

We walked further and deeper into the maze. I didn't look up. I just stared at the slight steps and the long narrow ramps and the crooked stones that formed the ground. We cried -- bawled really -- and shopkeepers stared with wide eyes. The stones underfoot raced past. At one point we found ourselves in a clothing market. It was so dense with hanging garments overhead and streams of people going both ways. We swatted the dresses and keffiyehs out of our eyes and pressed on. Angry. Sad. Scared. In shock. No one said a single word aloud.

We eventually found the church, though we weren't looking for it. It was well past starting time and how could we sing praises right now? The congregation upstairs sang loudly in Arabic. I found a lone pew in a dark hallway and two of us sat down.

I can't go up there, we agreed.

We opened our Bibles. What else do you do?

I was too angry to go upstairs and sing praises or songs of thanksgiving.
I was too shaken to face my pain in front of sisters and brothers who see this kind of violence regularly.
I was too scared of what happened to the men involved.
I was too afraid I didn't belong in this story.

I thumbed from the back, like I always do, to a random Psalm in the middle of the book: Psalm 147, He heals the brokenhearted. Then Psalm 125: As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people. Psalm 13: How long, O LORD?

How long, O LORD?
How long will this hurt? 
How long will war and injustice reign in this region?
How long can we handle this excruciating task of peacemaking?
How long, O LORD?

We didn't have words enough to pray, but God was nearer than our next breath. He heard our cries and our asking for help, even if they weren't our words, but his that we rehearsed back to him. The bench held us and our tears while the Lord hugged us back to Himself.

We gathered ourselves enough to go upstairs. I made it one song before I crumbled. By grace, we powered through. The service ended and we were introduced to a woman from New York working in Ramallah. She asked what we were up to in the West Bank, and how our visit had been. Synchronized tears dove from our faces. We told her what we saw, where we'd been that morning. She seemed to know the journey herself. She seemed to sense our deep grief. So she took us to the kids' playroom behind the sanctuary. We could still hear the chatter outside, but at least we could cry to her freely now without prying eyes.

Without asking for permission to pray, she starts interceding, "LORD, HOW LONG? How long, O LORD?!"

I don't remember the rest. It doesn't matter. She wasn't going to let us cry to her, but to the One who can take it. To the One who can fix it. The One who will heal it.

Sometimes God doesn't give us new circumstances, he give us just Himself. And because of the work of the cross -- where Jesus died on behalf of the whole world -- just Himself is sufficient. For any season. For any loss. For any broken. For any attack.

He is sufficient.


We stumbled and traced the maze of stone alleys back out of the Old City through the Lion's Gate, and my thoughts were everywhere. The rocks were the same as on the way in, except clearer because I wasn't crying anymore. I minded the smooth and rounded corners of the cobblestones. I watched merchants skillfully wheel carts down the ramps.  I noticed the tiled names of the roads. ST. FRANCIS STREET. Old roads and walls and doors. Suffocating passageways where you must look up to get fresh air. Stones. Hundreds, maybe thousands of years old. VIA DOLOROSA.

Down this road Jesus walked, with a cross burdened on his shoulder, paraded through the city before his crucifixion.

As Jesus hung on the cross, with his dying breath "cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

My feet were heavy on the stones and my heart raced in my chest. I was walking where Jesus walked, down the Via Dolorosa. Two thousand years ago, he walked straight down this road to his death.

AND resurrection.

History was cut in two and the world knew no greater lament or greater triumph.

My world knew no greater lament than the morning He met me on that random pew in that dark hallway on that hot June day in the greatest anguish of my life. The flooding reminder when I read Psalm 13 is that God is good, and He is WITH me (not just near.) There's a closeness to Jesus I know in suffering that I can't access in praise. When the Holy Spirit comes as I lament, He shows up. Not at 10:03 or halfway through the worship service, but "in the beginning."

I marvel at what I would have missed if I had given in to my desire to skip church yesterday in order to worship my to-do list. And I wonder if it's all been allowed to happen so I could lament. So when I scream, "how long, O LORD?!", He can whisper back, "I Am."

Climb on,


Christina said...

Beautiful story that's beautifully written Shelby! That sermon hit me hard too. You have a gift for words my friend. Keep it up! God is working mightily in you!

Shelby Mathis said...

Thank you for always reading and cheering me on, Christina! I miss you! - Shelby

TAV said...

I love Shelby's writing. These are such hard times.

Rebekah Storey said...

Shelby, I find myself lost for words. Thank you for this writing. I wept through it. It's heavy and beautiful and so full of truth!