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Our Lamentable Lacuna (or Gap) - Lamenting and Repenting in Lent 2019 (Part One)

Posted on March 6, 2019 at 9:00 AM Comments comments (0)

THESE MAY WELL BE THE MOST IMPORTANT six and one-­half pages of the decade for Christ's churches in the West and for their pastors.


I have in mind the six and one-half pages that comprise the conclusion of Professor Ronald Rittgers's magisterial book, The Reformation of Suffering,1 a recent volume in the Oxford Studies in Historical Theology series. Rittgers is Professor of History and of Theology at Valparaiso University. His conclusion merits at least a full church year of dedicated thinking-of meditative, repentant thinking for us together on what I take to be the central issue for pastoral the­ology, the pastoral care of souls in the midst of their suffering.


If Rittgers is right (and his theological and historical horse­power is evident in every section of this Oxford volume), then we in the Lutheran church need to reach deep into the back of our closets for the sackcloth and immediately stock up on ashes. Why? We urgently need to rethink and repent regarding our centuries-long rejection of lament. Why? Because in this crucial area of our responsibilities to Christ and to the people he redeemed with his holy, innocent sufferings and death, we have been making of the Lutheran Reformation a deformation of sorts. As I will argue, this longstanding rejection of lament means that we actually cultivate a lacuna, a Grand Canyon of a hole, in our Lutheran theology of the cross.


This lacuna, as Ronald Rittgers puts it, can be brought to light via a brief catechesis in his conclusion:

Q. "What effect has this centuries-long rejection of lament had on the plight of Christianity in the modern Western world?"

A. "Perhaps in the (very) long run, the insistence of the Western churches that human beings must face suffering without the possibility of lament has worked to under­mine the plausibility of Christian faith."2


Let's together participate in Professor Rittgers's catechesis. Let me begin by speaking in imitation of the apostle Peter, who wrote so much in his brief epistles about suffering.


God's divine power has given us everything we need for life and for godliness. This power was given to us through knowledge of the one who called us by his own.glory and integrity. Through his glory and integrity he has given us his promises that are of the highest value. Through:tliese . promises you will share in the divine nature because-you have escaped the corruption that sinful desires cause in the world. Because of this, make every effort to add in­tegrity to your faith; and to integrity add knowledge; to knowledge add self-control; to self-control add endurance; to endurance add godliness; to godliness add Christian affection; and to Christian affection add love. (2 Pet 1:5-7, God's Word [GW])


One preacher's paraphrase of this passage:

God's divine power, working on us through the Word, not excluding the psalms, chapters, and biblical books of lament, has given us his promises and establishes his in­tegrity with us in our lives of suffering, for example, via Psalm 22. Because of his gracious initiative, let us make every effort to keep on cultivating his integrity with us as the Suffering Servant by lamenting as he teaches us to do in praying as he himself has taught us to pray.


But do we have the ears to hear what isn't there (and, by and large, hasn't been present for centuries) in our preaching, teach­ing, and caregiving? We shall see.


This essay is an argument for us in the early twenty-first century to repent regarding our churches' neglect of lament. Within a dynamic borrowed and adapted from Caemmerer's homiletics that many of us grew up on, a dynamic of the "prob­lem, malady, means" of this omission, I firstly elucidate the problem of our lamentable lacuna in terms of the ever-change­able cultural interpretations of suffering.


Secondly, I elaborate Rittgers's diagnosis of our malady in the Western churches, an addiction to Stoicism in preference to the clear word of God.


Thirdly, I amplify the undeniable significance of Rittgers's historical and theological recognition that "[s]uffering was viewed as the most important litmus test of confessional loy­alty, for it was in suffering, as nowhere else, that people's deep­est religious convictions were revealed" for the means of our turn to truly confessional thinking and pastoring today to do so by reminding us of the only orthodox response to suffering, namely, Christ himself. It is he who comes to us in the means of the word of God which-particularly in the Hebrew Scrip­tures -do not exclude the Psalms and books and other biblical chapters of lament.


[***]

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1. Ronald K. Rittgers, The Reformation of Suffering: Pastoral Theol­ogy and Lay Piety in Late Medieval an4 Early Modern Germany (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

2. Ibid., 261-62.


For my complete essay, please see "Our Lamentable Lacuna: How Western Churches Have Undermined the Plausibility of Christian Faith," in LOGIA: A Journal of Lutheran Theology, Epiphany 2019, pages 7-14.