Welcoming the Stranger: My Daughter! My Daughter!

 

Story:

From the moment this young mother was pulled from the waters of the Mediterranean, she was desperate to find her young daughter. “Mia bambina!” she cried, over and over. “My daughter! My daughter!”  She clung to the hope that her little girl would be found alive. It was as if hope itself were her lifeboat. Even after she had been transferred to a refugee center in Catania, Sicily, she continued to ask for her daughter. Eventually, the aid workers confirmed that the little girl had fallen into the water and drowned. In that moment, Francesco Piobbichi writes, it was as if “the sun became cold.” Silence fell over them and there were “no more words.”

 

Bible Reading: 2 Samuel 18:33 (NRSV)

When King David heard the news that his son, Absalom, was dead, he was “deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said ‘O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

In that moment, David was not responding as a king, but as a father. It didn’t seem to matter to him that Absalom had betrayed him, or that his own reaction was perceived as the height of ingratitude by his war-weary troops (see 19:1-8). Until the evidence was incontrovertible, he had continued to hope. The first words out of his mouth when the messenger came with the news were, “Is it well with the young man Absalom?”

When I look as Francesco Piobbichi’s drawing of the young mother hoping against hope that her daughter will be found alive, I do not see a refugee. I see a mother. And for me, the sun becomes cold, and there are no more words.

Discussion/Reflection:

  • Have you ever clung to hope in the face of all the evidence? What was it like? How does that experience help you to empathize with the mother in this story? With David?
  • How does the contemporary story help you to appreciate the aid workers who seek to assist refugees?

Action:

  • Read about a recent rescue on the island of Lampedusa, and Italian government’s attempts to block rescue efforts: May 5, 2019 Rescue
  • Reach out to someone who has recently suffered a profound loss.

Prayer: We know that you are a God who sees our misery and hears our cries. Hear the cries of all whose hearts are broken. Soften the hearts of those who have it within their power to alleviate suffering. Amen

 

 

Welcoming the Stranger Series

In the last ten years more than 35,000 asylum seekers have died in the Mediterranean. Desperate to escape untenable situations in  countries like, Syria, Eritrea, Sudan, and Somalia, refugees risk both life and livelihood to board rickety boats bound for what they hope will be a new life in Europe. Many of them die within sight of what they hoped would be the promised land.

 

Welcoming the Stranger is a devotional series designed to help Christians connect this unfolding humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean with the Bible’s call to “welcome the stranger.” Recognizing that “the stranger” can sometimes be an abstraction that blinds us to the face of Christ, the series approaches the refugee crisis from a personal perspective. Each entry focuses on one person’s story, brought vividly to life by Italian artist and relief worker, Francesco Piobbichi. These stories are then linked to relevant Scripture, prayer, discussion, and action prompts.

 

Immigration is a hot topic around the globe, and the Bible passages in this series speak to wherever we are called to “welcome the stranger.” My specific interest in the Mediterranean context was sparked by a 2016 trip to the island of Lampedusa—a small island off the coast of Sicily that is the scene of so much hope and tragedy for refugees trying to enter Europe via small, unsafe boats. In addition learning about the situation there and the work being done by ecumenical groups like Mediterranean Hope, I spent significant time interviewing Francesco Piobbichi, whose art documents the stories of individual refugees and families who often die trying to reach safety. You can learn more about him and work through the following link: Francesco Piobbichi’s Artwork Each of his “snapshots” tells a story—sometimes of triumph, but often of tragedy:  Piobbichi’s goal is to help people understand this large-scale human tragedy on a more personal level. My goal in this series is to use Piobbichi’s art as a starting point for Bible study and personal reflection/action.

Welcoming the Stranger: You Were A Stranger

 

Story:

Happy endings are hard to come by on the island of Lamepedusa. For one thing, even the migrants who survive the journey to this tiny island gateway to Europe have a long way to go before they reach anything that could be described as a “happy ending.” Nevertheless, there are glimmers of hope. The kiss of this young couple radiates both relief and hope. “We made it!” it exclaims. Hope—like the island of Lampedusa itself—persists in a sea of suffering.

Bible Reading: Exodus 23:9

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. God is counting on both empathy and memory to reinforce this command in Exodus 23:9: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (JPS).

God’s appeal must have had a powerful impact on the newly liberated covenant people. One wonders if it could have a similar impact on many of us.

Consider, for instance, this statistic: In the years between 1892 and 1954, approximately 12 million immigrants passed through the immigrant inspection station on Ellis Island. Were your ancestors among them? Mine were. I can’t help but wonder if my great-great-great grandparents shared a kiss of hope like the one in the picture.

Discussion/Reflection:

  • Were your ancestors immigrants? If so, how does that affect the way you view contemporary migrants?
  • What does it feel like to be a stranger in a strange land? To what degree can empathy and memory help us engage the contemporary conversation around migrants and refugees?

Action:

  • Research your own family’s story.
  • Read more about the island of Lampedusa in this March 26, 2019 editorial: A Look from the Border.

Prayer: Forgive us for our short memories. Forgive us for our lack of empathy. Forgive us when we are quick to accept God’s grace for ourselves, but slow to show grace to others.

 

Welcoming the Stranger Series

In the last ten years more than 35,000 asylum seekers have died in the Mediterranean. Desperate to escape untenable situations in  countries like, Syria, Eritrea, Sudan, and Somalia, refugees risk both life and livelihood to board rickety boats bound for what they hope will be a new life in Europe. Many of them die within sight of what they hoped would be the promised land.

 

Welcoming the Stranger is a devotional series designed to help Christians connect this unfolding humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean with the Bible’s call to “welcome the stranger.” Recognizing that “the stranger” can sometimes be an abstraction that blinds us to the face of Christ, the series approaches the refugee crisis from a personal perspective. Each entry focuses on one person’s story, brought vividly to life by Italian artist and relief worker, Francesco Piobbichi. These stories are then linked to relevant Scripture, prayer, discussion, and action prompts.

 

Immigration is a hot topic around the globe, and the Bible passages in this series speak to wherever we are called to “welcome the stranger.” My specific interest in the Mediterranean context was sparked by a 2016 trip to the island of Lampedusa—a small island off the coast of Sicily that is the scene of so much hope and tragedy for refugees trying to enter Europe via small, unsafe boats. In addition learning about the situation there and the work being done by ecumenical groups like Mediterranean Hope, I spent significant time interviewing Francesco Piobbichi, whose art documents the stories of individual refugees and families who often die trying to reach safety. You can learn more about him and work through the following link: Francesco Piobbichi’s Artwork Each of his “snapshots” tells a story—sometimes of triumph, but often of tragedy:  Piobbichi’s goal is to help people understand this large-scale human tragedy on a more personal level. My goal in this series is to use Piobbichi’s art as a starting point for Bible study and personal reflection/action.

Welcoming the Stranger: Rachel Weeping

 

Story:

This image of a mother cradling her baby is heartbreakingly lovely—or at least it is until we realize that they are under the waves. Then it is just heartbreaking.

The tragedy that took their lives and the lives of at least 366 others took place just off the shores of the island of Lampedusa in the Mediterranean Sea on October 3, 2013. Over 500 people were crammed onto the rickety boat that caught fire and capsized that night. They were trying to escape war and poverty in places like Eritrea and Somalia.

We don’t know the names of the woman and child in Francesco Piobbichi’s picture. But he drew the picture so that we would not forget their story. Here is how he describes it in words:

On a moonless night, a boat with hundreds of passengers sank just off the coast of

Lampedusa. They asked for help but in vain. Hundreds of people perished at sea.

A baby was born at sea that night and then died without ever having seen the day

or smelled the sweet smell of land. The present sank without giving possibility for the

future to be born…” (Drawings from the Border, Claudiana, p. 21).

 

Bible Reading: Jeremiah 31:15 (NRSV)

“A voice is heard in Ramah,” the prophet Jeremiah writes. It is a voice of “lamentation and bitter weeping.” The matriarch, Rachel, is “weeping for her children” who have been killed or driven into exile. She “refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more” (Jer. 31:15).

Although the circumstances of our contemporary exiles are not precisely the same, it is hard not to hear mother Rachel weeping still. What else can one do but weep?

Believe it or not, some seek to blame the victims. “Why would a woman in the last stages of pregnancy try to cross the Mediterranean in a crowded boat? Why would she leave home in the first place?” they ask. These questions are ignorant of the desperation that drives migrants to leave their homes in the first place. They also overlook the fact that many women are raped along the way, and held for months in brutal Libyan “detention centers.”

Rachel is right. Weeping is the appropriate response. But it is not the only response. In a radio broadcast commemorating the anniversary of the October 3 event, Paolo Naso, the coordinator of Mediterranean Hope suggested that–

The only way to commemorate the victims of immigration should be the commitment

to stop this tragedy with laws and programs that allow safe and legal journeys to those

who have been fleeing war, persecution, hunger, and violence.

Weeping is natural. Blaming is inappropriate. But working for change is imperative.

Discussion/Reflection:

  • The loss of life on October 3, 2013 is often described as a tragedy. In what ways is that word inadequate? In what sense might it better be labeled a crime?
  • Describe your response to Piobbichi’s portrait? Are you drawn to it? Repelled by it? Why? What do you think of the portrait’s nickname: The Madonna of the Mediterranean?

 

Action:

 

Prayer: Forgive us when we are tempted to look away from problems that seem too big to fix. Help us to find real ways to help. And lest we pray only for ourselves when the suffering of others is so great—stretch out your hands to comfort, to heal, and to save.

 

Welcoming the Stranger Series

In the last ten years more than 35,000 asylum seekers have died in the Mediterranean. Desperate to escape untenable situations in  countries like, Syria, Eritrea, Sudan, and Somalia, refugees risk both life and livelihood to board rickety boats bound for what they hope will be a new life in Europe. Many of them die within sight of what they hoped would be the promised land.

 

Welcoming the Stranger is a devotional series designed to help Christians connect this unfolding humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean with the Bible’s call to “welcome the stranger.” Recognizing that “the stranger” can sometimes be an abstraction that blinds us to the face of Christ, the series approaches the refugee crisis from a personal perspective. Each entry focuses on one person’s story, brought vividly to life by Italian artist and relief worker, Francesco Piobbichi. These stories are then linked to relevant Scripture, prayer, discussion, and action prompts.

 

Immigration is a hot topic around the globe, and the Bible passages in this series speak to wherever we are called to “welcome the stranger.” My specific interest in the Mediterranean context was sparked by a 2016 trip to the island of Lampedusa—a small island off the coast of Sicily that is the scene of so much hope and tragedy for refugees trying to enter Europe via small, unsafe boats. In addition learning about the situation there and the work being done by ecumenical groups like Mediterranean Hope, I spent significant time interviewing Francesco Piobbichi, whose art documents the stories of individual refugees and families who often die trying to reach safety. You can learn more about him and work through the following link: Francesco Piobbichi’s Artwork Each of his “snapshots” tells a story—sometimes of triumph, but often of tragedy:  Piobbichi’s goal is to help people understand this large-scale human tragedy on a more personal level. My goal in this series is to use Piobbichi’s art as a starting point for Bible study and personal reflection/action.

Welcoming the Stranger: A Familiar Face

 

Story: If the face in the prow of the boat looks familiar, it’s because it is that of Anne Frank. Most of us know her story. Though she died of typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945, Anne’s words live on in a book that has since been translated into over sixty languages: The Diary of a Young Girl. Penned during the years she and her family were in hiding from the Nazis (1942-1944), Anne’s diary gives us a tender and terrifying glimpse into the soul of a young woman who ached to live in a world free of hate, persecution, and war.

 

What many do not know is that Anne’s father, Otto, tried desperately to get his family out of the Netherlands. His efforts were thwarted in part by the restrictive immigration policies of the United States. Anne is portrayed with a smile in this drawing, but perhaps the artist, Francesco Piobbichi, is inviting us to imagine Anne finally making her escape with others who share her hopes and dreams of a life free from hate, persecution, and war. He may also be nudging us into asking ourselves an uncomfortable question: If we care so much about Anne Frank, why don’t we care more about the lives of the other people in the boat?

 

Bible Reading: Hebrews 13:1-3 (NRSV)

This passage from Hebrews urges us to “show mutual love.” It’s another way of stating Jesus’ golden rule: “do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31). Of course, this requires both imagination and empathy—both of which seem to be in short supply sometimes. Still, if we could manage to drum up even a little bit of both, we might find it easier—and more urgent—to open our hearts and wallets to refugees. “What if I were on one of those rickety boats, trying to make my way across the Mediterranean?” we might ask. “What if I had given everything I had to purchase my passage from unscrupulous traffickers? What if I had been raped and tortured in a Libyan prison?”

 

If that were not sufficient motivation, the book of Hebrews points out another possibility. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,” it says, “for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

 

When we read The Diary of Anne Frank we say to ourselves, “If only I had been there I would have tried to help her!” There is no way to know, of course, if we really would have tried. But there is a way to find out if we’re willing to help the real and present refugees that, like Anne Frank, are trying to find their way to freedom. Who knows if, in helping one of them, we might be aiding another Anne?

 

Discussion/Reflection:

  • What was your reaction when you realized that it was Anne Frank in the prow of the boat?
  • Why is it so much easier to care about Anne Frank than contemporary refugees?

 

Action:

  • Research what’s happening with Humanitarian Corridors. This ecumenical effort seeks to provide safe passage for at least some refugees. This link to the World Council of Churches’ web-site describes the safe arrival in France of refugees from Syria and Iraq in July, 2017: Humanitarian Corridors Story
  • Read The Diary of Anne Frank or watch one of the movies, documentaries, or mini-series based on Anne’s story. As you watch, consider how you might help a contemporary refugee find a way to life and freedom.

Prayer: Forgive us, O God, for caring selectively. Forgive us for turning away from people who may not look like us, or speak like us, or worship like us. Fire our imagination; fuel our empathy. Then guide us to ways we can make a difference.

 

Welcoming the Stranger Series

In the last ten years more than 35,000 asylum seekers have died in the Mediterranean. Desperate to escape untenable situations in  countries like, Syria, Eritrea, Sudan, and Somalia, refugees risk both life and livelihood to board rickety boats bound for what they hope will be a new life in Europe. Many of them die within sight of what they hoped would be the promised land.

 

Welcoming the Stranger is a devotional series designed to help Christians connect this unfolding humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean with the Bible’s call to “welcome the stranger.” Recognizing that “the stranger” can sometimes be an abstraction that blinds us to the face of Christ, the series approaches the refugee crisis from a personal perspective. Each entry focuses on one person’s story, brought vividly to life by Italian artist and relief worker, Francesco Piobbichi. These stories are then linked to relevant Scripture, prayer, discussion, and action prompts.

 

Immigration is a hot topic around the globe, and the Bible passages in this series speak to wherever we are called to “welcome the stranger.” My specific interest in the Mediterranean context was sparked by a 2016 trip to the island of Lampedusa—a small island off the coast of Sicily that is the scene of so much hope and tragedy for refugees trying to enter Europe via small, unsafe boats. In addition learning about the situation there and the work being done by ecumenical groups like Mediterranean Hope, I spent significant time interviewing Francesco Piobbichi, whose art documents the stories of individual refugees and families who often die trying to reach safety. You can learn more about him and work through the following link: Francesco Piobbichi’s Artwork Each of his “snapshots” tells a story—sometimes of triumph, but often of tragedy:  Piobbichi’s goal is to help people understand this large-scale human tragedy on a more personal level. My goal in this series is to use Piobbichi’s art as a starting point for Bible study and personal reflection/action.

Welcoming the Stranger: Samia’s Story

Welcoming the Stranger Series

In the last ten years more than 35,000 asylum seekers have died in the Mediterranean. Desperate to escape untenable situations in  countries like, Syria, Eritrea, Sudan, and Somalia, refugees risk both life and livelihood to board rickety boats bound for what they hope will be a new life in Europe. Many of them die within sight of what they hoped would be the promised land.

 

Welcoming the Stranger is a devotional series designed to help Christians connect this unfolding humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean with the Bible’s call to “welcome the stranger.” Recognizing that “the stranger” can sometimes be an abstraction that blinds us to the face of Christ, the series approaches the refugee crisis from a personal perspective. Each entry focuses on one person’s story, brought vividly to life by Italian artist and relief worker, Francesco Piobbichi. These stories are then linked to relevant Scripture, prayer, discussion, and action prompts.

 

Immigration is a hot topic around the globe, and the Bible passages in this series speak to wherever we are called to “welcome the stranger.” My specific interest in the Mediterranean context was sparked by a 2016 trip to the island of Lampedusa—a small island off the coast of Sicily that is the scene of so much hope and tragedy for refugees trying to enter Europe via small, unsafe boats. In addition learning about the situation there and the work being done by ecumenical groups like Mediterranean Hope, I spent significant time interviewing Francesco Piobbichi, whose art documents the stories of individual refugees and families who often die trying to reach safety. You can learn more about him and work through the following link: Francesco Piobbichi’s Artwork Each of his “snapshots” tells a story—sometimes of triumph, but often of tragedy:  Piobbichi’s goal is to help people understand this large-scale human tragedy on a more personal level. My goal in this series is to use Piobbichi’s art as a starting point for Bible study and personal reflection/action.

Samia’s Story:

Only God knows the names of all the people who have sought the relative safety of Lampedusa’s shores. But we know the name of the woman in this picture. It is Samia Usuf Omar. She was a sprinter for Somalia in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. When she returned to Somalia after competing in the Olympics, she found herself in an increasingly dangerous and restrictive situation. So, in October of 2010 she began the journey she hoped would take her to Europe, a new coach, and a chance at the 2012 Olympics.  In October of 2012 her overcrowded boat ran out of gas. She drowned within sight of the rescue boat. The only reason we know about her is because another Samali athlete, gold medalist Abdi Bile, told her story.

 

Bible Reading: Ruth 4:11-18 (NRSV)

Ruth was a refugee. She fled famine with her mother-in-law, Naomi, and struggled to find acceptance in Naomi’s home town of Bethlehem. As a foreigner, a widow, and a recent convert to her mother-in-law’s faith, Ruth exists on the margins of the community of which she longs to become a part.  In this passage from the end of the book that bears her name, we see the community finally returning her embrace. Instead of “Ruth, the Moabite,” she is here named with the matriarchs, Rachel and Leah. In the genealogies that follow, we realize that she is the great-grandmother of King David.

Ruth’s story reminds us that “foreigners” have had a crucial role to play in God’s story of salvation. It prompts us to remember that every refugee has a name and a story that is known to God even if it is not known to us. It makes us wonder about how the gifts and hopes of those who have died might have changed our world for the better. Finally, it nudges us to open our hearts, our minds, and our homes to people who we perceive to be different from ourselves.

 

Discussion/Reflection:

  • How does knowing that Samia’s name and story affect your image of what it means to be a refugee?
  • How might our response to the refugee crisis change if we knew the names and stories of the people involved?

 

Action:

Prayer: Gracious God, to you all your children by name. We lift before you all the people who risk their lives to find safety on distant shores. Even if they are anonymous to us, they are known and loved by you. We pray, especially, that Samia’s story may inspire others. May it help us to revise our assumptions and check our stereotypes. Comfort all those who grieve for those the world has forgotten, but whose love and legacy will always be a part of those they have left behind.

 

Teach Us To Pray – Study #15: Over Again We Go

Introduction:

Jesus taught his disciples to pray. But there’s a very real sense in which the psalms taught Jesus to pray. In this series, we’re going to sit with Jesus at the feet of the Bible’s lament psalms to see what they can teach us about prayer.

Why the laments? One of my students once observed that reading the laments made her feel like the Holy Spirit had been reading her diary. Generations of the faithful have testified to these psalms’ peculiar ability to help us express our most private and sometimes painful thoughts. Yet, the laments also teach us that, even when our prayers are full of anger or anguish, they are still “praise in a minor key.”

 

Over Again We Go

Read: Psalm 22

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (v. 1, NRSV)

Have you ever thought about what it would be like to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel?

Poet Christian Wiman has. Diagnosed with an incurable cancer of the blood on his 39th birthday, Wiman calls prayer “my quiet Niagara of unnamable things.”[1] “Over again I go,” he says, “in my barrel of prayer.”

Wiman and the author of Psalm 22 are separated by at least 20 centuries, but I think they would have understood each other. The person who began his prayer with “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” must have been hurtling toward his own “quiet Niagara.”

Why is it quiet? my students wondered when we read Wiman’s poem in class. Isn’t the roar of Niagara Falls deafening?

Of course it is. But Wiman may be calling our attention to the fact that other people can’t necessarily hear the roar within his own spirit. It is, after all his Niagara. The sense of utter isolation is part of what makes the experience so terrifying. It is the sound that novelist George Eliot describes as “the roar that lies on the other side of silence.”[2]

The author of Psalm 22 knew all about that roar…knew all about the isolation…knew all about the terror.

So, is it any wonder that Jesus quoted this verse from the cross?[3] The words are so abrupt that they hardly even seem appropriate as prayer. They are an accusation—hurled into the mist just before the barrel goes over the falls.

And yet…the fact that they are uttered at all speaks volumes. There is still a relationship that is grasped like a life-line: “My God, my God….”

As we hear this anguished prayer again in the context of Holy Week, may it give us courage to climb into our own barrel of prayer with all our “unnamable things” remembering that we are “not our own, but belong—body and soul—to our faithful savior, Jesus Christ.”[4]

Prayer: Over again we go in our barrel of prayer, O God. Give us grace to trust ourselves to you.

 

 

[1] From Once in the West (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010)  p. 73.

[2] Middlemarch (Penguin Classics, p. 226) The full quote is: “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”

[3] See Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34.

[4] Question & Answer #1 of the Heidelberg Catechism.

Teach Us To Pray – Study #14: A Prayer from the Depths

Introduction:

Jesus taught his disciples to pray. But there’s a very real sense in which the psalms taught Jesus to pray. In this series, we’re going to sit with Jesus at the feet of the Bible’s lament psalms to see what they can teach us about prayer.

Why the laments? One of my students once observed that reading the laments made her feel like the Holy Spirit had been reading her diary. Generations of the faithful have testified to these psalms’ peculiar ability to help us express our most private and sometimes painful thoughts. Yet, the laments also teach us that, even when our prayers are full of anger or anguish, they are still “praise in a minor key.”

Study #14: A Prayer from the Depths

Read: Psalm 130

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. (v. 1, NRSV)

Sound doesn’t travel so well under water. As kids we used to make a game of it. One of us would stand on the end of the dock and scream something while the others would listen from under water, trying to make sense of what was being said. Sometimes we got the gist; other times we misunderstood quite magnificently. Did you say, “Fourscore and seven years ago” or “Gophers have very far to go”?

When the author of Psalm 130 cries to God “out of the depths,” it is first a compliment to God. The psalmist doesn’t have any doubts about God’s ability to hear him clearly. But the fact that his cry rises from the depths also tells us something about how much trouble his is in. People in ancient Israel were terrified of the ocean. So when the psalmist chooses that particular image to describe his situation, it means he’s absolutely desperate.

What is he so worried about?

Though this prayer works for all kinds of desperate situations, the psalmist seems to be drowning in his own sin. Yet, there is one thing that gives him hope: God’s forgiveness (v. 4). So he reaches for the lifeline and feels himself pulled upward to the light.

Whatever it is that drives you into the depths, hear the good news: God’s hears your cry. You have only to reach for the lifeline.

Prayer: Thank you, gracious God, for hearing our cries and forgiving our sins.

Teach Us To Pray – Study #13: Surprise Endings

Introduction:

Jesus taught his disciples to pray. But there’s a very real sense in which the psalms taught Jesus to pray. In this series, we’re going to sit with Jesus at the feet of the Bible’s lament psalms to see what they can teach us about prayer.

Why the laments? One of my students once observed that reading the laments made her feel like the Holy Spirit had been reading her diary. Generations of the faithful have testified to these psalms’ peculiar ability to help us express our most private and sometimes painful thoughts. Yet, the laments also teach us that, even when our prayers are full of anger or anguish, they are still “praise in a minor key.”

Study #13: Surprise Endings

Read: Psalm 126

May those who sow in tears, reap with shouts of joy. (v.5, NRSV)

It’s no use telling someone whose tears are falling into the earth beside an open grave that “those who sow in tears, reap with shouts of joy.” When grief is fresh, tears are tears, pure and simple. Still, once our eyes have cleared and some time has passed, we may be ready to read Psalm 126.

The image of tears as seeds is a powerful way of saying, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” And the person who wrote those words knew firsthand that our God enjoys surprise endings. “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,” the psalmist recalled, “we were like those who dream” (v.1). No one could have predicted that the exile would have a happy ending. “You can’t go home again” is a saying that could have been written by the Babylonians. No one ever expected that those ancient enemies would be overthrown by an empire with a more generous philosophy. And yet, the Persians said, “Pack your bags,” and the exiles’ mouths were suddenly “filled with laughter” and their tongues “with shouts of joy.”

For the women at the foot of the cross, tears were tears, too. They had no way of knowing that God’s biggest surprise ending of all was just three days away. But nothing has ever been the same since that first Easter morning when they ran from the tomb “with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves” (v. 6).

Prayer: Plant our tears, O God, and help us to wait for a joyful harvest.

Teach Us To Pray – Study #12: Faith and Fingernails

Introduction:

Jesus taught his disciples to pray. But there’s a very real sense in which the psalms taught Jesus to pray. In this series, we’re going to sit with Jesus at the feet of the Bible’s lament psalms to see what they can teach us about prayer.

Why the laments? One of my students once observed that reading the laments made her feel like the Holy Spirit had been reading her diary. Generations of the faithful have testified to these psalms’ peculiar ability to help us express our most private and sometimes painful thoughts. Yet, the laments also teach us that, even when our prayers are full of anger or anguish, they are still “praise in a minor key.”

Study #12: Faith and Fingernails

Read: Psalm 125

Do good, O Lord, to those who are good. (v.4, NRSV)

It was supposed to be another beautiful summer day. It was supposed to be a chance to earn money for college. It was supposed to be safe. But on the day three young men forgot their safety harnesses and fell into a huge grain bin full of shelled corn, it was none of those things. It was a tragedy that tested the faith of a whole community. Two of those young men died. One will live with the memory of twelve hours of terror and helplessness.

When tragedy strikes, we often grasp for answers. But as often as not, there are no answers. Bad things happen to good people—and vice versa. Believers are left hanging onto faith by their fingernails.

The author of Psalm 125 knew all about faith and fingernails. The psalm opens with a soaring confession of faith in the God who embraces us like the mountains surround Jerusalem. But by the center of the psalm, his confidence begins to crack. Behind his plea for God to “Do good…to those who are good” is a tacit complaint. The righteous are not always rewarded. And this psalmist is worried that they may lose heart, and “stretch out their hands to do wrong” (v. 3).

If misery loves company, then there is a lot to love about this psalm. There are no easy answers—only a God who embraces us even as we hang on to our faith for dear life.

Prayer: Gather us up in your arms, O God, especially when our faith is frail and our hearts are hurting.

Teach Us To Pray – Study #11: Merciful Heavens

Introduction:

Jesus taught his disciples to pray. But there’s a very real sense in which the psalms taught Jesus to pray. In this series, we’re going to sit with Jesus at the feet of the Bible’s lament psalms to see what they can teach us about prayer.

Why the laments? One of my students once observed that reading the laments made her feel like the Holy Spirit had been reading her diary. Generations of the faithful have testified to these psalms’ peculiar ability to help us express our most private and sometimes painful thoughts. Yet, the laments also teach us that, even when our prayers are full of anger or anguish, they are still “praise in a minor key.”

Study #11: Merciful Heavens

Read: Psalm 123

Have mercy upon us, O Lord…for we have had more than enough of contempt. (v. 3, NRSV)

I’ve had it! That’s it! No more! Never again!

If you’ve ever said words like these, then you have some sense of where the author of Psalm 123 is coming from. He has had a belly full of what he calls “contempt” (v. 3). He’s had it up to here with the enemies of his people who live on easy street, lording it over those whom they consider their inferiors (v. 4).

Before we get too indignant on his behalf, however, perhaps we had better pause to consider whose side we’re on in this little standoff.  Psalm 123 is a prayer of and for people who are oppressed. If that shoe fits, then by all means, we should wear it. But if it doesn’t, perhaps we should hear this psalm first as a call to repentance. Only then will we have earned the right to share this psalmist’s indignation.

Notice that the psalmist doesn’t have any illusions about his enemies suddenly having a change of heart. He knows their probably never going to change. But he knows where to look for help. “As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master…so our eyes look to the Lord our God, until he has mercy on us” (v. 2).

No matter whose side we’re on, we’re all standing in the need of this prayer. We’re all standing in the need of God’s mercy.

Prayer: To you we lift our eyes, O God, longing for mercy and longing for grace.