Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Church and "Two Cathedrals"

One of the main things missing in church worship today is lamentation. And as a partial result, I daresay, there is a large part of our population missing as well.

When it comes to corporate lament, we don't know very well how to do it publicly and appropriately. To be fair, I'm not sure myself. I've been pastoring for a couple months here and we've only intentionally incorporated lamentation into our worship service once in that time (an "ash wednesday" time), and even then it was never given that name.

One of the things that happens, I think, when we fail to incorporate lament into the rhythms of church life and worship is that it goes elsewhere. Or else it comes in and is not received, or is aimed at the church people with malice. Or other things may happen with it.

There was one West Wing episode in season two where President Jed Bartlett railed at God in the middle of an empty cathedral. It was edgy. It was honest. It was probably off the rails in various places. But boy does it raise this issue. The clip is below, and while it is pretty abrasive, I think there is something about it that was essentially healthy.

To give background, essentially it comes after a funeral for one of the President's loved one, and it comes in the middle of a time when he has to tell the American public about the MS riddling his body and has to deal with one more international crisis among other things. After the funeral service he has a conversation with God who, he imagines, must be punishing him. You can watch it if you want, or skip down and I'll highlight what I want to talk about.

It begins with a quote from Graham Greene's Brighton Rock---"You can't conceive, nor can I, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God"---and gets rolling from there. During the course of his talking to God President Bartlett starts speaking in Latin. I don't know whether the show's writers thought it a bit safer to do this or not, but there it is. My uncle did me the favour of looking it up for me the other day. Here's the Latin, followed by the translation, followed by an even more literal (and potentially more deeply profound) translation.

gratias tibi ago, domine. (sarcastically)
haec credam a deo pio, a deo justo, a deo scito?
cruciatus in crucem
tuus in terra servus, nuntius fui; officium perfeci.
cruciatus in crucem (with a dismissive wave of the hand)
eas in crucem
Thank you, Lord.
Am I to believe that these are the acts of a righteous god, a just god, a wise god?
To hell with your punishments!
I was your servant here on Earth. And I spread your word and I did your work.
To hell with your punishments!
To hell with you!
Thank you, Lord.
Am I to believe these things from a loving God? A just God? A wise God?
Put your punishments on a cross!
I was your servant, your messenger on the earth; I did my duty.
Put your punishments on a cross!
To the cross with you!

Perhaps someone who actually knows Latin will correct these renderings somewhat, but I think in either case something very profound is being said, not only out of anger to God, but by the writers (whether knowingly or not) about God's response, and our proper response, to suffering and evil in the world.

He puts them on a cross, and puts himself on that cross, and takes them to hell with him.

We don't do ourselves any favours when we gloss over this stuff and leave it to prime time television to deal with it. Nor do we do ourselves any favours when we shelter ourselves from the fact that we still live with a lot of suffering and evil in our world.

I think we need to pause with Jesus outside the tomb of Lazarus or on the outskirts of a broken Jerusalem, and allow ourselves to weep. Even if we don't feel bad, to pause and weep with those who weep. "Blessed are those who mourn," Jesus said.

Of course, thankfully, he did continue: "For they will be comforted." Ultimately our lamentation, if it is enfolded in Christian worship as such, leads us then to our hope, which is that Jesus ascended from hell, rose from the dead, has ascended to heaven, has left us the Spirit in Church, heart, and Word, and is coming again to finish what He started. Too often I think we just skip to the "shiny happy" without dwelling on any of this, and thus we end up with worship services that seem somehow ethereal rather than real.

As a pastor I can sleep at night because I believe God is gracious with us in receiving us in our worship services and utilizing whatever we bring if we bring it with an open hand. And certainly in our worship services there is much that is good. But imagine if our worship services were places that met the world head on, honestly, and hopefully. I'd like to be there for one of those.


Colin Toffelmire said...

Yet still WW season III languishes in 9/10 land. tsk tsk

oh, and the stuff you said was quite insightful ;).

Brock said...

Great thoughts. The idea of "corporate lament" really resonated with me. Seems like such an important piece to experiencing real corporate joy.

Keep sharing.

jon said...

Colin: WW Season 3 had some very dud episodes in the first part of the season. After that it reached near-perfection though, I'll grant you.

Brock: Yeah. Thanks.

An additional thought: Who hopes for what he already has? How is the hopefulness of our worship in any sense true or real if we act like we already have it all? We have to be honest with our situation in a world still suffering, and be honest with our world about the very real hope we profess, which is based on the finished work and promises of Christ. ...

Tarasview said...

hey Jon, I quoted this post today on my blog- thanks for stating so eloquently what I was thinking :)


Becky said...

I appreciate this blog a lot, I often feel the church fails to meet the real world head on too. I would like to be at a service that achieved that as well. I am very grateful that God embraces us in our raw pain when we cry out to Him and extends His love and mercy. I think the world needs to know you can talk to God however you need to He is big enough.