What Do You Get When You Cross Ecclesiastes and Lamentations?
I doubt there’s a literary category for such a monstrous hybrid. But there is surely and existential one. And that is where I find myself these days. I don’t think I’m depressed — been there and know what that feels like. But I am sad, and somewhat adrift. And I’d like your prayers, those of you who are praying types.
I’m a child of the 60's and 70's. A time when it truly seemed possible that significant structural and systemic change in America could happen. And that there was a generation committed enough to live sacrificially that such might happen. Forty-five to fifty years hence, I hold little to no hope for any such change, at least in the direction of equity and justice. This is not a democrat or republican thing — the rich have gotten richer under Obama (Eccl.5:10), the environment has degenerated (perhaps past remediation), oppression is rife (Eccl.4:1-3), the Occupy movement has generated some good ideas, but good ideas scare no one in power (Eccl.8:4). Apart from some such disaster that dwarfs 9/11 or 2008, the kind of change I hope for, the kind the gospel says is God’s intention for his creation, seems exceedingly unlikely to happen. There is, indeed, “nothing new under the sun” (Eccl.1:9)
Being a child of the 60's and 70's, I lived on the passion of those times and on the hope that though that generation proved to lack the character and will to be agents of just change, such a generation might yet rise for some time. I no longer believe this. I believe the range of change possible through the political process is quite limited (though still worth working for in certain situations). Witness Obama, again. He’s better than Romney, in my view, but not by a whole lot. The power of consumerism/materialism in our culture is well neigh totalitarian. What I call the unholy trinity of “Mars, Mammon, and Me” reigns unchallenged, even by communities that are mandated to contrast and counter such devilish ways of thinking and acting. The “principalities and powers” which Paul says are our true enemy face little resistance from the church.
This erosion and corruption of the church is as evident as it is lamentable. I do not mean, of course, that there is no good or that God is not at work through the church as we have known it. Wonderful people staff and form the congregations of most of our churches. They make good and faithful efforts to live as they believe God would have us live. Yet for various reasons, some of them noted above, the church in our land has made itself captive to the ethos and ethics of our culture and chaplain to its values and visions. This diluted form of church has worked hard to achieve the mediocrity it has earned. Finally, God, it seems, has tired of such mediocrity, and, if theologian Stanley Hauerwas is right, “God is killing the mainline church in America, and we goddamn well deserve it.” And not just mainline churches either, I submit.
And we deserve nothing less from the Lord our God! Like the Lamenter in Lamentations, rage as we might at God for allowing or not stopping such a devolution into mediocrity, we cannot, at the same time, but admit the fault is wholly ours. “He definitely doesn’t enjoy affliction, making humans suffer” (Lam.3:33), says the poet, and may yet turn again toward us in mercy (Lam.5:21-22). Yet the reality of our desolation is, or should be, overwhelming.
You may well suspect me of melancholia by this point. Yet, I believe my complaint is more theological than psychological. If this, my season of a misshapen hybrid of Ecclesiastes-Lamentations, can’t be (a least primarily) chalked up to psychological dysfunction, then perhaps it is a function of what you might consider a poor choice in theological reading. For even forty years hence I consider that Jacques Ellul’s Hope in Time of Abandonment remains the most prophetic and perceptive treatment of the church in our time (as well as his). His claim that we live in a time in which God has turned his face away from his people in the western church because of its settling for the kind of mediocrity described above is all that helps me make sense of what I experience today.
I’m not sure how to move on in this season, or whether I even should. But I’ve lived through for so long now that I long for some light, some direction, some sense of what to do in or from this place. And that’s why I need and ask for your prayers.
What do you get when you cross Ecclesiastes with Lamentations? You get me! Please pray for me!