I glance over and see my four-year-old daughter sitting on the couch. Still in her pajamas, she’s coloring happily, a spray of multi-hued markers in reach of her right hand. She’s healthy, she’s safe, she’s here with me.
Glancing over to my computer screen I gaze at a photograph of a four-year-old girl in a hospital bed. Her eyes are bandaged. Her face scarred by shrapnel. Her neck burned. Her leg broken. Her name is Hawra. She asks for her mother, not fully understanding that her mother is gone for good—a civilian caught in the airstrikes targeting ISIS in the battle for Mosul.
A wave of nausea sweeps through my belly. Tears well up in my eyes. How long, oh Lord?
How long will this conflict—and conflicts like it all over the world—continue to take lives? How long will families be wrecked by violence?
The Cry of Lament
How?! That’s the cry of lament. The Hebrew name for the book that in English we call Lamentations is ’eka, literally, “How!”
How can suffering and tragedy like this exist in a world where God is loving? How do we reconcile the cruelty and brutality of war with the goodness of God? These are questions that have been asked since people began thinking about God and seeking Him. They’re questions that are at the heart of the book of Job, among the most ancient compositions in the Bible, dating back to at least 700 BC, but likely drawn from a much earlier oral tradition. And they’re there all through the book of Lamentations.
Lamentations is only five chapters long. It’s not hard to read it straight through in one sitting. I did that earlier this week, rediscovering the exquisite structure of a poem that speaks to one of the most fraught questions at the center of human existence—how do we reconcile loss with the lovingkindess of God?
The book is an outpouring of grief in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians in the 6th century BC.
“How lonely sits the city that was full of people!
How like a widow she has become…
She weeps bitterly in the night,
with tears on her cheeks…
she has none to comfort her…”
Reading in English the verses overflowing with emotion, it’s easy to miss the exquisite structure of the composition. The first four chapters of the book are all acrostics, each verse beginning with a subsequent letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Chapters 1 and 2, 4 and 5 are composed of 22 verses, while chapter 3—the climax and heart of the book—features 66 verses, a triple acrostic, where each stanza is formed by three verses beginning with the same letter. No one overwrought with emotion writes like this.
Scholars note the dissonance between the emotional content and the elaborate structure. The book isn’t a rant; it’s a rational reflection on the bitter experience of defeat and disillusionment, on the cause of Jerusalem’s suffering, and on the possibility of salvation. The poet alternates between lament and confession, turning ultimately in the conclusion to prayer for restoration.
But what strikes me with the most force this morning is the turning point of the book. At the center of the composition—the middle of chapter 3—are verses I’ve recited and sung repeatedly without understanding their context in the middle of Lamentations:
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.” (Lam. 3:22-24)
The Steadfast Love of the Lord as Turning Point
The steadfast love of the Lord is the turning point of the book. Remembering the steadfast love of the Lord is the genesis of a nascent hope.
The poet says: “I call this to mind, and therefore I have hope.” He has hope even though he previously witnessed the destruction of the city he loved. He has hope even though his “flesh and skin waste away,” even though his bones were broken, even though he’s dwelt in the darkness of the dead. He has hope even though he’s become a laughing stock, even though his “teeth grind on gravel,” even though he “cowers in ashes,” even though his “soul is bereft of peace,” even though he’s “forgotten what happiness is.” He has hope because even in this devastating state, he has chosen to remember the steadfast love of the Lord. Memory saves the poet from despair, and enables him to turn to face the future.
This way of processing tragedy shakes me to my core. And it convicts me. Because if I doubt the goodness of God when I watch tragedy unfolding in other peoples’ lives, how will I react when tragedy comes home?
I pray I’ll act like the poet of Lamentations and remember that the Lord’s mercy is real even when I can’t see it. That his love is steadfast even when it seems there’s no evidence of it. That he’s faithful even when I’ve gone astray, wandering like a lost sheep. And I pray I’ll wait, like the poet, for the salvation of the Lord.
A Prayer for Hawra and the Families of Mosul
Waiting in Lamentations isn’t passive; it’s active. Waiting is about pleading in prayer for the Lord to restore, relent, heal, and save. I know that there have been a flood of painful images from Aleppo, Mosul, and all along the refugee highway. But friends, we can’t give into the temptation to stop caring, to stop feeling, to stop actively waiting for an end to the tragedy through lament and prayer. When there are wounds this deep in the fabric of society we have to keep feeling them so that we stay human.
I cling to the center of the poem: “For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men.” (Lam 3:31-33)
Compassion, Oh Lord, have compassion on the families trapped in Mosul.
Embrace Hawra, and the children like her who have lost mothers, fathers, homes.
Lord, heal their wounds, cradle their broken souls, and restore all that’s been lost.
For those whose hearts are sick, for those whose eyes have grown dim, for those who have cried more tears than a river, Lord, remember them, and return.
Remember and restore.
Remember and save.
Bless those who are your hands,
reaching out to feed,
to heal those who’ve lost so much.