Habakkuk 1: The Art of Lament

We are about two weeks out from the church season, Lent.  Then for the denomination I serve in and many other churches world wide, we are also about 2 weeks out (First Sunday of Lent) from something we call, Freedom Sunday.  A day when churches will stand together in prayer, in liturgy, in lament, in song, and angst for the millions of people caught in modern day slavery.  For those living under the thumb of violence.  For those ignored by our indifference.  For those ruled by our selfish demands.  

The church calendar follows six seasons: Advent, Christmastime, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost.  All of these season are formed around different focuses.  Lent points us toward the reality of a wounded world, human sinfulness, and God's gracious redemption and restoration.  Many people observe Lent in many different ways.  Some slowly walk through one of the Gospels.  Others follow the annual common lectionary (pdf format).  Others find good Lent focused devotions.  All of these are good.  At the end of the blog I will type out what how I plan on observing Lent, but for today, I want to briefly go over Habakkuk 1:1-4, as a way to maybe posture us toward the practice of lament as we head into Lent.  

Let's start with a few key points to frame in the book Habakkuk:

  • Synopsis: In this very short, 3 chapter book, Habakkuk has a vision of a conversation with God.  It was a vision about what God planned to do about the suffering, pain, and injustice in his land.  
  • History: We know very little about Habakkuk the prophet - we don't know his tribe, we don't know his hometown, in fact we are simply left to educated guesses as to when this book is written.  Many scholars believe it was written sometime in the 7th Century around the same time as the prophets Nahum, Zephaniah, and Jeremiah, right before the neo-Babylonian empire lays siege to Judah.  
  • Different from other prophets: Traditionally in the prophetic traditions, the prophet’s role was to call the people back to right relationship with God.  Habakkuk was a different kind of prophet, instead of confronting his people, he confronts God.  He wanted to know how God could allow so much violence and injustice, when God’s way is peace and justice? 

The book starts out with Habakkuk's first complaint to God, which was about God's apparent apathy in the face of violence and injustice in Judah - let's read

Hab 1:1-4

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted.

What we see plain and simple in this text is Habakkuk's heart for justice.  This is a picture of a person who was deeply concerned about the injustice taking place in and through Judah.  Like us, Habakkuk knew the character of God, and he knew that God does not approve of violence and injustice, yet from Habakkuk's vantage point, it seemed that God's inaction was at the very least allowing these injustices or at the very worst approving what seemed to be so obvious - rampant injustice! 

The questions that haunt Habakkuk should be the questions that fill our hearts, these should be the realities that call us to practice the discipline of lament.  In our world, with things like the revolts in Egypt, Ukraine, and Venezuela.  In a world where we see the racial injustices in the very systems that many of us have prospered from; we see the genocides that happen globally; we know well of the orphan crisis; we are well aware of gender inequality and violence; we are not ignorant of those who are oppressed for various reasons - religion, gender, race, economic standing, etc, and we know of the growth and brutality of human slavery that exists due to our demands.  Today Habakkuk is our example as a human who is full of angst and who continually cries out to God, about injustices that are so big that only God himself can remedy.  

I believe what we need to learn from Habakkuk as an over-arching thought, is this very simple truth: The first act, or first language of the church in a deeply broken world, is NOT strategy, but prayer!  The journey of reconciliation, renewal, and restoration is grounded in a call to see and encounter the brokenness of this world, so truthfully that we are literally slowed down (this is one of the reasons I will be reading through the Locust Effect, to help me encounter the broken world I live in).  We are called to a space where any explanation or action is too easy, too fast, too shallow - a space where the first right response can only be a desperate cry directed to God.  We are called to learn the anguished cry of lament.  

Allow me to use Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice’s words to define the biblical idea of lament: "Lament is a cry directed to God.  It is the cry of those who see the truth of the world's deep wounds and the cost of seeking peace.  It is the prayer for those who are deeply disturbed by the way things are."  We are invited to learn, to see, and feel what Habakkuk sees and feels and to join our prayers with the prophets before us.  The journey toward justice and peace is grounded in the practice of lament!  

Let’s return to Emmanuel Katongole’s words, "Lament calls us into a fundamental journey of transformation.  If we are to follow the path this practice lays out for us, we have to unlearn…speed.  Lament views speed with pessimism.  Lament slows reconciliation down because it sees the challenge of transformation not from the top but from the margins - indeed from the bottom.  Lament teaches us to see the world from the standpoint of the powerless, the marginalized, the orphan, and the slave.”  Slowing down is what we need!  So often we prefer to work superficially.  We are quick to sensationalize our cause, to move quickly to "solutions", that only mask our brokenness.  Lament calls us to unlearn these habits of speed.  "To learn to lament is to become people who stay near to the wounds of the world." 

So, I pray, for you and for me and for churches world wide that are joining together as a voice of peace and justice, that through the 40 days of Lent, we slow down.  Let us  realize the time to act is coming.  The time to move will be upon us.  But for now, let us slow down, let us “unlearn the habit of speed” so that we can enter into a season of lament, lament for those who are oppressed under the chains of slavery, and let us ask God, to fill us with the sort of angst that Habakkuk lived with.  An angst that would not allow him to live life as normal, but life that cried out to God, for God’s action on behalf of the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, and enslaved - those who live under the thumb of violence.  

So, in a fast paced world that prizes speed over thought, action over contemplation, here's how you can join me in observing Lent this season::

  1. The Common Lectionary: Join in hundreds of years of tradition and join with thousands of churches world wide as we follow the Lectionary Reading (web calendar or pdf format).  The Lectionary reading will put you in the middle of the story, it draws you in to your own brokenness and the brokenness of the world, and points you back to the Christ who is God's redemption for this world.    
  2. Habakkuk: Slowly go through the book of Habakkuk.  Why Habakkuk?  I believer his book will help us connect with a prophet of old who has a heart full of angst about the injustice his world, to help us enter into a practice of Lament, and to teach how to have faith in a world so littered with violence, pain, brokenness, and loss. 
  3. Connect with Reality: Read through the Locust Effect.  The Locust Effect is not a devotional, it is not Lent oriented, and it is not a bible Study.  The Locust Effect is a very real look into the violence, poverty, and injustice in our world.  Why would I go through this during Lent?  If part of the reason we observe Lent is to point us toward the reality of a wounded world, then I believe this book, helps us do just that.  So, carve out some time to read about those in the world that suffer under the thumb of injustice. 
  4. Give: Often times during the season of Lent, many people fast something they do on a regular basis.  Some people fast alcohol. Some fast a certain type of food. Some people fast a certain meal.  The list of things included in a fast is to long to write.  It's the purpose I am getting at - the purpose for fasting during lent is not simply to deprive ourselves of something, as it is on devoting ourselves to God and his purposes in this world.  So, if we are going to 'fast' something during the season of lent, let us use the money or time saved and devote it to an issue of justice or mercy.   

A friend of mine, Austin Evers, put the following liturgy below, one I recommend we keep close to our hearts during this coming season:

When our songs have ignored the pain of your broken body on earth When our services have been more of an escape for us, than good news to the poor, Lord have mercy 

When we praise you with our lips, but deny you with our finances,  Christ, have mercy

When our instruments are louder than our cries for justice,  When we fail to learn from the sacrificial worship of brothers and sisters across the world. Christ, have mercy.

When our lives deny the words on our lips. Christ, have mercy.

When our affection are turned to the order of Chaos instead of life in the Kingdom.  Christ, have mercy

So, living God, please draw us near to your heart this moment, this season.  We want you to inhabit our praises, because we love being your people.  Thank you for allowing us to worship you in community, with our families, and with the broader global church this morning.  Thank you for being our God and making us your people.  Please activate in us a cry for peace and justice!



credit for photo: http://mycatbirdseat.com/2013/04/lament-of-the-levelers/