A Father’s Day Psalm of Lament

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Let’s face it, for so many, Father’s Day can be a painful reminder of the worst moments of our lives. For some it is a reminder of what they’ve lost. For others it can be a reminder of what they never had. While still more have only been given abuse and violence from their fathers. Father remains as a loaded, painful word but one that God chooses to call himself. How do we reconcile that? The authors of the Biblical psalms processed heavy, complicated emotions through their poetry. What follows is an attempt to process Father’s Day through the form of a modern day psalm of lament.

Expect a parallel and thematic structure of a psalm without the poetic verse structure of a PhD in Literature. It begins with the question of how a God that is supposed to be all good and all powerful can ask us to call him a word that to so many means loss, evil, and pain. It ends with a reminder that the only thing that defeats death is life and even if our fathers never gave us anything good we have the opportunity to bring goodness to the world. Even in the darkest family situations, hope can survive in the next generation. We have been adopted as children of God. Given absolute love and compassion by the creator of all things. In light of the gospel, my hope is that the connotation of that word can be transformed.

Oh Lord, how can I possibly call you father

when all that word does is remind me of loss?

You are the Father of Fathers but

when I hear that word I think of the day mine left.

How can I feel close to you remembering what I’ve lost

feeling again and again that day when he died?

It seemed on that day as if separation was king

dealing decrees of disease and death into my life.

My father was a good, good man

so how could you let him die?

You claim to be a good, good God

but now that word, “father”, means death.

Still others have lost more than me

never having a moment with their fathers worth grieving.

I can’t imagine what that word brings to mind

for those who never had someone to fill it’s image.

Even worse I can’t imagine what that word feels like

for those who had a father that only made them feel pain.

Our hearts ache 

for those for whom that word means verbal, violent, violating abuse.

This cannot be the way things are supposed to be.

What then?

If there is a good connotation of that word

what is it?

Lord you are patient and kind and loving,

is that what “father” is?

You are gentle and gracious and powerful,

is that what my father left behind?

You, oh Lord, are the father of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,

and, at times, they were not faithful.

Your people, Lord, again and again and again

create space for sin to remain in the world.

Yet the hope of Abraham was Isaac

and the hope of Isaac was Jacob.

The death and decay of sin that defines our fathers’ day

gives way to new hope always present in new generations.

Our father’s cycles and chains

can always be broken.

While death has struck it’s only blow

I still live and will live.

Not only that but those words that “father” should mean

love, patience, kindness still live.

It is because of who my father was that in me

gentleness, graciousness, and power still live.

I live therefore my father lives

because I am my father’s greatest hope.

In the same way our Heavenly Father is proved good

because he gave the world his Son.

Death, decay, violence, and violation

do not get to have the last word.

We were born of our fathers

to ensure that what struck them sees no victory.

Death will always win

if we do not give life.

Hope will always end with us

unless we pass it on.

Even if to me that word is marked by death

it is also marked by love.

While for so many of us that word carries a sting

by its nature it also carries new life.

Lord I can say you are good

because death is not the end.

Lord I can call you father

because I am your child.

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Me and my dad.

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Finding your Roots: The mini-series and the Exodus

“You can’t buy a slave, you’ve got to make a slave.” So says Kunta Kinte’s slave overseer prior to a vicious whipping. This line summarizes the film’s history of the struggle to subjugate African slaves and their ensuing fight to keep their minds and hearts free. The goal of slavery is to rob a person and a people of who they are. To make them forget their identity, to strip away family ties, to stamp out any memories and relationships that could give one strength and purpose. To extinguish the spark of humanity and replace it with numbness, despair and faceless productivity.

This is the struggle that Roots (based on the 1976 novel by Alex Haley and 1977 original miniseries) chronicles as the miniseries follows the Kinte family from West Africa in the mid-1700s through the end of the Civil War in the United States. It follows their fight to remember where this family came from in the face of the horrors of slavery and this vile institution that desired to take everything from them. Kunta (played powerfully by Malachi Kirby) remains determined to hope for freedom and to keep his family name and story alive. He diligently teaches his daughter Kizzy the names of her grandparents and the place where he grew up as part of the Mandinka tribe. He passes on the tradition of naming their children under the stars of heaven, proclaiming that their name is their shield. The story fades a little with each generation, but the name continues to ring across the decades of persecution and oppression.

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One of the reasons why the miniseries originally struck such a nerve is because slave owners were very successful in suppressing the history and family lineage of African-Americans. It was a common practice to split up families, to severely punish slaves who learned how to read and write, to take every measure to erase the family trees of slaves. But we all have a deep longing to know our stories, to know where we came from and why we are in the world. Roots gave a glimpse into what that might look like for many African-Americans. To see what it took to remember one’s name and to survive with incredible strength in the face of deep evil and cruelty.

Roots isn’t the only origin story of an enslaved people. The first five books of the Bible (in Hebrew “Torah” or “Law”) are written to a newly freed people who have lost touch with their story and their cultural identity. Moses is widely held to be the primary author of these books, though others may have contributed as well, and he is writing to a people that have been slaves to the Egyptians for over 400 years. They had an oral history but no written account of what it meant to be a Hebrew and who their ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob really were. The Egyptians were harsh slave owners who treated them “ruthlessly” (Exodus 1:14), so they knew about Egyptian culture and gods, but little about Yahweh. So Moses started telling them their story. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth…This is who we are, our God is so powerful that He created something out of nothing, and made it very good. And He made us in His image, men and women as partners with great value to be image-bearers and to mirror the character of God in this wonderful world. Our God made us on purpose to cultivate the beauty of the creation, and gave us a unique and important role to play.

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And then Moses gives them plenty of genealogies as the story continues. Names that are hard for modern readers to pronounce and which we often skip, but which would have been treasures to the enslaved Hebrews. They may have turned to each other and marveled, “Our God knows our names! He has a record of each of our people and kept close track of our history. He called our ancestors by name and made promises to them. And now he has heard our cries and kept a record of them too (Ex. 3:7-10), and He rescued us. Yahweh hasn’t forgotten us, He remembers everything.” When it seemed like they had lost everything after centuries of slavery, they found out that they served a God who watched them closely. Now He was calling them by name and leading them into freedom and His protection. When their oppressors told them they were expendable, their God told them they carry a glorious Image within them.

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God chose an enslaved people who were an ethnic minority to be the bearers of His redemptive story in history. The Bible was written by oppressed people for people suffering under physical and spiritual slavery. This was personified by the Israelites and has played out for all of humanity ever since. I think it’s little short of miraculous that despite heretical misuses of scripture to perpetuate slavery, so many African-Americans still managed to encounter the love of Jesus Christ and a deep hope and faith. I praise God for the Spirit’s ability to transcend evil and suffering to propel beautiful truth through terrible lies. We all serve a God whose light shines so brightly that no darkness can overcome it (John 1:5).

The realities depicted in Roots are gut-wrenching and I hated so much of what I saw. It called me to grieve and repent over the ways that America still falls short of full restoration and equality. There are ways in which I need to identify with the Egyptians and tremble over God’s judgment. It called me to explore what I can change about myself and my particular sphere of influence to move closer to God’s desire for healing. And it filled me with gratitude that no child of the Living God can ever truly be lost. Every person that God has created is endowed with eternal value that no other human can ever erase.

Luke 12:6 Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

Viewer discretion guide: the mini-series seeks to depict slavery as accurately as possible. That means significant physical violence and three generations of sexual violence. There is no nudity and the sexual violence is depicted with sensitivity, but is still atrocious and hard to watch. You should expect to feel troubled and emotionally distraught. Check out Ebony’s review for additional guidance in this area.

Habakkuk: This country is going down the tubes

When you read Habakkuk, you’d almost think he’s talking about the 2016 election. He’s very dissatisfied with the state of his country (Israel) and is complaining that everything is a mess. The land is full of violence and conflict and it feels like no one remembers how to do what’s right anymore. Habakkuk is fed up with his country; he’s angry and ready for God to change things. If you’re growing increasingly angry and anxious watching this election cycle unfold, then this book might be for you.

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This prophet is unusual literarily in that Habakkuk does not directly address the people. The book is a dialogue between him and God and almost reads like a personal journal. The prophet is upset at Judah’s (the southern kingdom of Israel) moral and spiritual failures and is complaining that God has done nothing to stop them. He then does not particularly like God’s answer that He will judge Judah using Babylon, also a wicked nation. Habakkuk at first thinks this seems contradictory or foolish. How could an even more evil nation be used as God’s instrument to discipline his wicked nation? (Each political side is probably asking that when they think about the possibility of the opposing candidate winning the presidential election. How could God possibly use them, they’re the worst?!?!?) Ultimately he is reassured that God will judge all wickedness and none will escape unpunished, both in his own nation and in Babylon.

 

Habakkuk is likely a contemporary of Zephaniah and Jeremiah but the dating is somewhat vague. He’s probably not writing after the reign of Josiah so he is still before the Babylonian invasion. He’s on the final countdown for Israel, the time to repent is slipping away. Similar to Zephaniah, the people have been on a spiritual rollercoaster of rebellion and reform and Habakkuk is fed up with their current rampant rebellion. He’s tired of the flip-flopping and wants some justice (also feel familiar?) The format of the book is a pattern: the prophet complains twice, listens to God twice, and prays once. He ends with submission to God’s wisdom and trust in God to act righteously even if it comes in a form that Habakkuk did not expect.

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For additional context and insights, watch The Bible Project’s short overview. Take 10-15 minutes to read the 3 chapters, then consider:

  • Why do some people repent for a time, often under particular leadership, but then return to their old ways?
  • How do you relate to Habakkuk in feeling upset and angry over the sins of our culture?
  • Where do you also feel tempted to tell God how He should intervene?
  • How have you seen God act in unexpected ways in the past? How might that give you the same response as Habakkuk in trusting that God’s timing and approach will be perfect?
  • When you follow election coverage, how might Habakkuk’s prayer give you peace and calm?

3:17 Though the fig tree does not bud
    and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
    and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
    and no cattle in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
    I will be joyful in God my Savior.

Other Minor Prophets study guides (in chronological order):

Nahum: When The Man is keeping you down

Haggai: Life in the Ruins

Joel: The Bible’s horror poetry