Review: Sarah’s Laughter

Sarah’s Laughter, Vinoth Ramachandra. Carlisle, Cumbria, UK: Langham Global Library, 2020.

Summary: An exploration of suffering, whether through illness or physical decline, human or natural evil, and the embrace of grief, lament, doubt, questioning and more, and what it means to hope amid our struggle.

I thought a long time after listening to an older, respected teacher began a talk with words something like this: “As one gets older it becomes clearer that there is much in life that is hard, and that hurts.” This new work by Vinoth Ramachandra carries a similar message and it comes as a stark challenge to a lamentless church that proclaims a form of Christian life that moves from victory to victory.

Ramachandra has seen the hardness of life first hand, witnessing the bloody civil war in his native Sri Lanka, and the complicity of global powers that profited from the arms sold that perpetuated the conflict. He observes the staggering consequences of climate change for the poor of the nations and the unique vulnerability of the poor in our present pandemic. And he has grieved the loss of a wife to cancer. So much suffering leads him to ask two questions of God. One is “Why, Lord?” The other is “How long, O Lord?” They are questions that do not beg a theoretical explanation and this book is not an attempt to offer one. Rather it invites the unvarnished expression of our pain and doubts and questions, even as do the “psalms of darkness” in scripture. We both wonder about the existence of God and rage at what seems the unfairness of it all to the God we doubt. His message comes as a special challenge to many Western churches (at least white churches) where lament is not a part of either the liturgy or the life of the church.

In subsequent chapters he explores the anguish of Job, an anguish that both questions and seeks God, and is not answered by friends who can only muster arguments of divine justice and retribution. He explores the testimony of scripture and theologians to the grief and pain of God, the tears of God, the suffering of God with us culminating in the “handing over” of his son who “dies both at our hands and with us.” He wrestles with the realities of natural evil from animal predation to natural disasters, from which he observes the poor dying in disproportionate numbers, while reminding us that human evil is far worse.

Ramachandra considers what it means for the church to live as a community that holds grief and hope together. He believes that this is a creative place, one of forgiveness, of making meaning, of pursuing justice, and of anticipating a new creation. It is also a place of waiting. Ramachandra calls us to a faith that “is about faithfulness in action rather than knowing all the ‘right doctrines.’ ” It is a life lived both with all our questions and griefs, and yet in faithful and hopeful actions that follow in Christ’s steps, both to the cross, and beyond.

This is a far cry from “happy, clappy Christianity.” Ramachandra writes a book that unflinchingly looks at the hardest realities, the hardest questions we may ask and the most painful cries of our heart. And yet he also explores the possibility of a life still lived toward God, by faith and faithfulness, where doubt and belief, lament and joy live together. This book is for those whose life is hard and hurts. Inevitably, that will be all of us.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Surprised by Paradox

surprised by paradox

Surprised by ParadoxJen Pollock Michel. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: In a world where things are often defined in either-or terms and a quest for certainty, Michel proposes there are many things, beginning with basic biblical realities that are both-and, inviting our continuing curiosity.

Whether it is schism in the church, political divides, or just a good old marital conflict, the parties often have defined things sharply in either-or terms, one way or another. Jen Pollock Michel explains how she began to look for a third way, and to write this book. A family member had been lying to her, repeatedly. She described her dilemma to her counselor.

“…I needed light for groping my way out of this tunnel with two exits: should I suffer lying or sever the relationship?

‘What if there’s a third way?’ she asked gently. Her language sounded like a struck bell, especially because ‘third way’ language was something my spiritual director often used with me. It was as if here was yet another invitation to find a sure-footed way on some undiscovered path–to find and where I had previously imagined only either and or. Here was an invitation to ‘lean not on my own understanding’ and find wisdom in the way of paradox” (pp. 22-23).

She discovered that paradox ran through the pages of scripture, that Christian orthodoxy is full of and, beginning with the incarnation, this idea that the Son of God came to earth, fully God, and also fully human. If paradox is at the heart of the nature of the Lord we trust and follow, might we look for God in the and, rather than insisting on answers to either-or questions. This paradox also suggests that we find the spiritual in the material, the living God in the stuff of everyday life. It also suggests that to conform to God’s ideal for our lives, is to live fully the “one wild and precious life” that is ours, expressing in our own uniqueness, the image of God in our lives.

She goes on to explore three other paradoxes. There is the paradox of the kingdom, which is already here and not fully come, where the least are the greatest, where we both give lavishly and enjoy lavishly what we are given, and where strength takes the form of vulnerability whose crowning hour is the cross. Grace confronts us with other paradoxes. Treasured, yet not for any personal excellency. Finding favor when the wrath we deserved falls upon his favored Son. Michel writes, “We don’t get grace because we change our lives–but our lives are indelibly changed because we get grace. Finally there is lament, the raw, unvarnished plea to God of people in pain that God has not shielded them from, that is a paradoxical kind of faith. It takes God seriously enough to become angry, to speak with blunt honesty rather than pretty pieties when what has happened in one’s life doesn’t square with our understanding of who God is.

Michel is a compelling author, one who can relate the depths of theology to teaching her daughter to drive, and her need for grace. She weaves scripture, teaching of the theological “greats,” contemporary realities, images, and personal stories into a narrative that sings and helps us examine with fresh eyes what we thought we knew down pat, helping us by asking, “did you notice this and this?”

A friend once observed that when we try to get rid of the tensions in our faith, or our lives by getting rid of one side of the tension to focus on the other, we make life simpler, but also smaller and more confined. Jen Pollock Michel invites us to live with paradoxes, and to celebrate the ands of God. She proposes that this opens us up to mystery, to surprise, and to the depth of the riches of knowing our God and what it means to live in the and of his purposes, to experience how grace transforms our work, and how our laments in all their perplexity may be among the most robust acts of faith. What might this “third way” mean as Christians are present to a world mired in “either-or?”


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


A Lament for a Divided Church


Rembrant, Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem

How long, O Lord?

How long will you endure a divided American church?

We were divided over slavery.

We were divided over suffrage.

We were divided over Civil Rights

We were divided over the Vietnam war.

We are divided today.

We travel the world on missions trips;

and fear the immigrants and refugees from those countries.

Pro-life Christians against Black Lives Matter Christians.

We complain about polarized politics and the death of civility;

And mirror those divides every Sunday while worshiping one God.

We pray “thy kingdom come” and pledge allegiance to various powers and parties.

We remember the broken body of Jesus, saying it was once for all;

And blithely continue to rend his body on earth.

We stand over the broken body giving thanks

For our freedom to worship.

How long, O Lord?

The Scandal of the Church in America: Part Two


Claude Vignon, Lament of St. Peter CC BY-SA 3.0

Yesterday I made the contention that the scandal of the Church in America is that it is deeply divided within itself, that we have deeply rent the body of Christ, and that these divisions reflect the divisions in our country rather than the unity of people across our differences in Christ.

So what can and must be done?

I am not proposing that we all just try to gather in some kind of circle around a campfire, hold hands, and sing “Kumbaya.”

First of all, I believe we must awaken. I wonder whether most of us are all that disturbed that the Church in America is divided within itself and that we often include fellow believers in “the enemies” we are fighting and attacking (even when we’ve been told that our warfare is not to be against flesh and blood). I wonder if we are caught up so much with the urgency and the grievances of our particular tribe of Christians, and those with whom we have made common cause that we are woozy like boxers who have been punching each other too long.

Second, I believe we need to lament our sad state. We may not have a clue how we can mend the wounds between us. That tells us how desperate things are. It acknowledges that we need an intervention from on high. Lamenting takes us into a place where we realize our desperate need for God, and that to go on in the way we have is increasingly intolerable.

Third, as we begin to grasp our own contribution to the deep divisions that exist among believers, and the ways we have wronged in word, thought, and deed, in personal acts and unjust structures, we need to repent. Repenting is to call our own sins for what they are, to acknowledge them to God, and the wronged person as wrong, to come to terms with the real hurt and harm we have caused, and to acknowledge our intent, with God’s help to live differently and to determine what that difference will look like. Often we need to do this with the offended.

Repenting is hard, particularly when we think the other might have more to repent of than do we. Often the others think it the other way around. The question sometimes is simply, who will end the rounds of accusations and begin the process of repentance and restoration?

Fourth, we can begin to engage with our fellow believers across our differences and often at this point, what is most needed is simply to attend.  To attend is to listen to understand rather than to refute. Can we listen well enough that we can repeat what is said in a way that the other recognizes that we understood them? We may have to ask ourselves beforehand whether we are truly open to such dangerous listening, because it may open us to different ways of seeing things.

Fifth is that I believe there is a necessity at times to contend. We cannot start here, I think, because I think so many of the things we would contend for are things in which we are deeply invested. The process of awakening, lamenting, repenting, and listening, may help us discern where we are healthily and unhealthily invested, enabling us to advocate for the right reasons, as well as with the right demeanor. But there are things where we really do disagree. The question is whether we will ever seek to come to a meeting of the minds, or at least to identify what we can agree upon and work from that. So often, differing parties only contend in their books and talks directed toward those who agree with them.

Sixth, this may lead us to amend our ways toward each other and toward how we address each others concerns.

I dream of several changes that might flow out of this:

  • I hope this would lead our churches into a similar process of listening deeply to God, the Holy Scriptures, and one another, more intensely than to the political echo chambers that form many of our views.
  • I would hope public Christian leaders would sit down with those who differ greatly to practice these steps and model them for others. Imagine if Franklin Graham, from Samaritan’s Purse, and Jim Wallis from Sojourners met each other as believers and modeled this effort toward coming to a common mind and communion of heart.
  • I dream of the day when Christians, instead of aligning with one political party or another, would line up together to advocate for public policies that reflect the whole of the counsels of the Bible and challenge both parties to end the either-or approaches that characterize so much of our politics that set our people against each other.

As I wrote yesterday, I am convinced that if we do not work at composing and reconciling our differences in the American Church, we have little right or hope of expecting our American politicians to do it. I believe this is urgent for several reasons:

  • Christ is grieved and not glorified by how we have torn asunder his Body.
  • Our divisions sow seeds of doubt about the power of our gospel.
  • Our children are abandoning many of our churches because of our behavior around these divisions.
  • If we allow our divisions across race, gender, economics, and politics to continue, we will only aid and abet the inflaming of differences that could lead to a very scary future, and not one from powers outside our country.

Where am I beginning? I’ve decided that from now through Lent I am not going to post political posts or comments in social media in order to work on the six steps above in my own life. I’ve become increasingly aware of my own participation in the divisions about which I’ve written. I’m also going to look for at least a few fellow believers with views different from mine who would be open to practice this with me (anyone interested?).

Do me a favor, would you? If you think these posts on target, pass them along to church leaders you know, locally or nationally. I don’t want to see our generation repeat the error of church leaders in the pre-Civil War era. I hope instead they will say, “we must reconcile our differences and lead our country in doing the same.”

Review: Prophetic Lament

Prophetic Lament

Prophetic Lament, Soong-Chan Rah. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015.

Summary: A commentary and exposition of the book of Lamentations that advocates for the restoration of the practice of lament as part of the worship of American churches, particularly majority culture evangelical churches.

Have you every experienced terrible suffering, or terrible loss, or have witnessed horrible events such as have dominated our news of late and been deeply moved to turmoil and grief that cries out to God, or even the four walls around you, “how long?” Now, when was the last time that you did this as part of a service of worship in your church, if you regularly attend one?

Soong-Chan Rah contends that this was an important part of the worship life of ancient Israel that has been lost in many of our churches in North America. We focus on triumph and victory and success. We see problems and we go around the world to solve them. And we begin to believe we are the answers to the world’s problems–whether they be the problems of the inner city or the problems of the countries in the majority world.

Rah contends that our celebration and praise must be balanced with lament. He writes:

“What do we lose as a result of this imbalance? American Christians that flourish under the existing system seek to maintain the existing dynamics of inequality and remain in the theology of celebration over and against the theology of suffering. Promoting one perspective over the other, however, diminishes our theological discourse. To only have a theology of celebration at the cost of a theology of suffering is incomplete. The intersection of the two threads provides the opportunity to engage in the fullness of the gospel message. Lament and praise must go hand in hand.”

Rah seeks to redress this imbalance by an exposition (part of InterVarsity Press’s Resonate series) of the book of Lamentations, a book attributed to the prophet Jeremiah. Rah contends that in addition to Jeremiah, the book incorporates the voices of the sufferers left behind in Jerusalem after the Babylonians destroyed the city walls and took into exile the best and the brightest and the wealthiest of the city. What were left were women, children, the elderly and other marginalized people to mourn over the death of their city and the loss of loved ones as they struggle to survive.

The book is organized according to the five chapters, or “laments” of the book, with several chapters devoted to each lament. Chapter 1 mourns the death of the city. Chapter 2 struggles with what it means that all of this has come about by the providence of God. Chapter 3 which is three times as long as the other chapters forms a climax to the lament and calls us into deep identification with the suffering. Chapter 4 reminds us of the hollowness of all human achievements in the eyes of God. Chapter 5 concludes with a corporate lament that looks to God for answers even when their don’t seem to be any answers.

Along the way Rah provides textual and historical insight into the book, discussing the “dirge-like” character of these laments, appropriate at the funeral for a city, the death of a vision of national greatness. He helps us understand the acrostic structure of the first four chapters, including the threefold intensification of this pattern in the climatic chapter 3. Perhaps of greatest value is that Rah helps us identify some of the voices of the marginalized, particularly the women who have lost husbands, perhaps children–who often are the voices of suffering.

Perhaps the greatest challenge of the book is Rah’s pointed applications of the book to the American church, particularly dominant culture, white evangelicalism. We have failed to listen to the voices of lament around us, from the native peoples robbed and subjugated and exterminated and marginalized, from African Americans forcibly enslaved, raped, lynched, and then “freed” to live in a racialized society, and other poor and marginalized in our society. Instead of taking their laments to heart and understanding our own complicity and our own paradoxical enslavement to hate and privilege, we deny the problem, or plant our own urban churches or give “handups” which assumes a certain superiority. What we do here, we do around the world, instead of acknowledging the riches of every culture and our partnership with other believers. We make enterprises out of even our justice ministries while failing to face either our cultural or political captivities.

Lament is the place we come to, according to Rah, when we realize that none of that is really working, when even our well-intended efforts contribute to the inequities of the world and that we are deeply impoverished in the midst of our affluence. It is a place of both repentance and the grace of God.

This is an uncomfortable book, and like Rah’s The Next Evangelicalism (reviewed here), an incisive critique of American evangelicalism. Don’t read this if you are looking for a “feel good” book! But if your heart aches because of the predominance of violence and hatred despite so much “progress,” if the glitzy celebrations of your church life don’t seem in touch with the ragged realities of our land, and if your stomach turns with the pronouncements and alliances of some of our religious “leaders,” then a book on lamenting and making the prayers of Lamentations our own might be timely. It was for me.


Do We Need More Than Lament?

black ribbonAnother mass shooting. At least 14 dead in San Bernardino. Once again there are the expressions of grief and appropriate expressions of sympathy to families who lost loved ones today.  Once again expressions of outrage against what was plainly an outrage against every standard of decency. Men [and, according to reports after I wrote this, one woman] with long semi-automatic rifles decimating a gathering in a conference room.

And in the outrage, it seems the conversation begins to deteriorate. Some cry for gun control, others for arming ourselves against the violence. Meanwhile I see posts on social media about how rhetoric feeds the anger that ends with attacks on Planned Parenthood clinics. Others raise the question of whether similar anti-police rhetoric leads to shootings of police. Advocates for safe space fight with advocates for free speech. While domestic gun violence is claiming thousands on our streets and in our schools, churches and public spaces, we live in fear of enemies from without.

It is right and appropriate to grieve and lament, comfort and pray. Yet I also wonder if we have taken stock of how far we are from a healthy and flourishing good society. What I wonder is whether we are reaping the society we have sown. Can we constantly glorify violence in our games and media and contemplate committing violence against humans with many of the guns we purchase and not have a violent society? Can we constantly foster a vicious rhetoric of us versus them and not have it turn from words to violence, as much as the words are defensible as free speech?

I wonder if it is enough to lament if our lamentation does not also include confession and repentance. While it is true that neither you nor I pulled triggers in the events of today, do we see ourselves as part of a society that has made its peace with a violent way of life, violent in thought and word and sometimes deed? Repentance doesn’t simply mean mourning our sin. It is metanoia, a change of mind. It means a mental “one-eighty”, turning decisively away from violence and our constant celebration of violence, except when it happens in real life (and even then the incessant media cycle serves to celebrate the deeds of the violent, especially in a violent subculture who emulates them).

Frankly, I wonder if we are really ready for that. Yet I would suggest that if, as a society, we are not, our expressions of grief and lament are a bit hollow, as sincerely as we think we mean them. We have not truly decided to lean into the long, hard work of writing and living stories where conflict ends in peacemaking rather than a hail of gunfire, or verbal or physical abuse. We have not truly decided to write and live stories where grievances are acknowledged, repented of and forgiven rather than nursed into deep bitterness and raging revenge.

This has been a year of staring into the abyss of violence. I wonder if it is also a year of seeing the abyss of the human heart, the abyss of violence in my own heart. I wonder…

Nine Dead in Charleston

Emmanuel A.M.E. Church

Emmanuel A.M.E. Church

Nine people who gathered for Bible study and prayer on Wednesday night are in the more immediate presence of the Lord they loved. One was a pastor, who also served as a state senator. Another was a well-respected librarian. Yet even the sanctuary of the church was no sanctuary against hate. Now, even praying while black is dangerous (actually it has been dangerous for a long time–consider the bombing of churches during the Civil Rights Movement). A young, black friend of mine wrote on his Facebook page, “that could have been me.” Another wrote, “I’m tired. I’ll never stop fighting but I’m tired.” This from a friend working on his doctorate in an engineering field.

In my generation, the day troops fired on students at Kent State and four lay on the ground dying, it seemed our country took a collective breath as if we were saying, “has it come to this?” Students with their life before them including two who were just walking to class were suddenly taken from us. We listened to Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young plaintively sing, “Four dead in Ohio.” And it seemed for a time we backed away from violent demonstrations and responses, and found a way to end the war in Vietnam.

The Nine Who Died

The Nine Who Died

And I find myself wondering, will the deaths of nine black men and women in the midst of a prayer and Bible study service make us pause and take a breath and ask, “has it come to this?” I wonder what has become of the country I was raised in and love that we fear violence not only in our streets but in our movie theaters, schools, and even our churches during worship. And if this does not give us pause, then what will?

As I write, I have no answers but to lament and to pray, to cry to God, “how long?” We could talk causes and solutions until we are all blue in the face, and I’m sure that for every proposal, there will be at least five arguments about why this will not work. That, it seems to me is a good indicator of how far gone is our national discourse. Again I say, “has it come to this?” What will it take for those of us who are keepers of the common good–all of us really–to pause and consider whether it is time for us to turn away from these ways?

Nine dead in Charleston. Perhaps it would do us well to hear this plaintively chanted on the airwaves and Youtube videos this summer as we did “Ohio” in the summer of 1970. Who will write this song? And who will sing it? And will we pause, and listen, and ask, “has it come to this?” God help us if we do not.

From Lament to Thanksgiving

I’m already seeing them. The status posts and blogs for “what I am thankful for at Thanksgiving.” It seem that lots of these have to do with food, friends, family, and freedom. In truth, I experience many of these blessings as well and am thankful for these. But it seems that we are in the midst of a season of heaviness in our land and to write of thanksgiving without acknowledging these realities feels insular and trite to me. How is it possible to engage in thanksgiving in a time of lament?

Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem --Rembrandt

Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem –Rembrandt

Indeed there is much to lament:

  • Whatever we think of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson, we lament that one family faces Thanksgiving without a son and another with a promising career shattered because of a tragic encounter.
  • We lament a community torn by a hundred year history of racial conflict that is a microcosm for our nation’s continuing struggle with and accommodation to racial divides.
  • We lament for the people of West Africa whose families and societies have been decimated by a lethal virus.
  • We lament the continuing clash between Islam and the West represented most recently in the atrocities of ISIS, but also at times in Western policies extending back to World War I and before that are more concerned with self-interest (or even payback) than the flourishing of the people from whom ISIS recruits.
  • We lament the breakdown in society from neighborhoods where one’s children could play and roam safely and one’s doors could be left unlocked to cities with security systems, GPS tracking of our children, surveillance cameras everywhere, and a proliferation of guns and the need to protect ourselves.

I could go on but the question remains, is thanksgiving even possible in such lamentable times? Or are our thanksgiving rituals simply temporary ventures in escapism?

For me it begins with the idea that there is One who hears laments and who will one day “wipe away every tear” (Revelation 21:4). I hang on to the hope that my laments are not simply futile exercises that reach no further than the ceiling or simply an emotional release. I believe in One who heard the cries of Israel in bondage and who sent Moses to lead them out of Egypt (Exodus 3:7-8). It also is striking to me that while my hope is in the One who hears and acts, I see that this One acts through his people. For me this is where thanksgiving begins:

  • I’m thankful for all the leaders both black and white, many who never make the news, who are pursuing the hard work of justice and reconciliation, believing that the status quo is not the best we can do in our cities, states and nation.
  • I’m thankful for the courageous doctors and aid workers from Doctors without Borders and Samaritan’s Purse and other agencies who have risked their lives to bring comfort, care, and where possible, healing in West Africa.
  • While I am thankful for those in our own military services who put themselves in harm’s way to restrain the evil of groups like ISIS, I am also thankful for the peacemakers in places like the Palestinian territories and for every instance where someone, often in a persecuted minority, chooses to return love for hatred.
  • I’m thankful for those who engage in the hard work of “re-neighboring”, who move into blighted communities and rehabilitate homes and form neighborhood associations and block watches believing it possible to restore the fabric of community in a place.

Most of us are not on the front lines of such efforts. Most of these efforts are far removed from our thanksgiving tables. But I know how conversations can go at these gatherings and how easily we may degenerate into conversations that blame this or that group, find fault with this or that party or organization, or even demonize this or that group of people. Why not agree to leave this to our prayerful laments where God can be the judge of these things? Rather, if we say anything about these matters on this day of Thanksgiving, might it be better to give thanks for those acting with grace and courage and humility on the front lines of these great challenges? Might it be better this day to light the candle of thanksgiving for them rather than curse the darkness?