I confess I don’t read as much as I should. Pastors should be readers – readers of the news to help with prayer, readers of theology that challenges and asks questions, because we need to be prepared for the questions our people are asking, and be able to address them in their struggles, readers of the gospel for obvious reasons (I hope!), and readers of contemporary culture so that we understand the context in which we live and minister. So feeling the lack of reading input lately, I decided that I would read (or rather re-read) a favorite of mine for Lent.
Walter Brueggemann is a giant to me. I discovered him in seminary and find his reading to be easily accessible and down to earth. Theology can be so “heady” at times, and I’m a much more practical person – I need to find a way to apply something in my life, or understand how it can apply in the lives of others for me to find it interesting. One of Dr. Brueggemann’s books has been swirling in my head for a while. I remember it had a HUGE impact on me the first time around, but hadn’t looked at it in YEARS. So, I decided it was time to look at it anew. And I have not been disappointed.
If you haven’t read Finally Comes The Poet, and you’re a preacher (not that you have to be a preacher to appreciate it), put it on your list NOW. Published by Augsburg Fortress in 1989, it’s as current today as it was then, because it speaks to universal timeless needs for people to hear from preaching. If you read it a while back, I implore you to re-read it as I’m doing now.
One of the human conditions he explores in the book is the reality of what he calls “residual ache.” Part of righting the wrong of sin is dealing with guilt and alienation – feeling “bad” and separated from the one we’ve sinned against. Brueggemann states, “…even when hidden, the alienation remains powerful and destructive,” and that, “Guilt, unaddressed, will finally kill” (p. 16&17). How do we address the guilt? How do we stop denying the hurt we have caused both God and neighbor? There are two things. Brueggemann uses Leviticus 6:4-5 as a guide for the first action. He comments, “Guilt requires not simply equity and an even balance, but gift beyond affront. It requires surplus compensation”(p. 25). Reparation, pure and simple. We need to pay back what we’ve taken, and then some. The second action is “more difficult, because we cannot do it ourselves. It must be done for us. There is a weighty residue of ache that one cannot dispel by one’s own actions“(p. 26). He goes on, “What remains unresolved is underneath guilt; it is more like taintedness, uncleanness”(p. 26).
Brueggemann then looks at Leviticus 6:6-7, which details the “guilt offering” of an animal. He comments, “This remarkable text may sound strangely archaic to us. In matters of guilt, however, we are archaic creatures who have not ‘outgrown’ the need for action outside ourselves…. What the priests in ancient Israel know is that the ache that is left from guilt, even after reparations, cannot be overcome by good works, by willpower, by positive thinking, or by romantic psychology. The ache can be removed only by entry into the sphere of the holy… Such guilt requires the self-giving of God”(p. 27-28).
It’s just that simple – but just that HARD. I think we suffer from the unwillingness to do both.
- Either we don’t want to do the dirty work of reparation – thinking an “I’m sorry” is good enough, (or for some of us in the protestant tradition, thinking reparations sound too much like the Roman Catholic practice of “making satisfaction”), or we’re too proud to admit our sin or say “I’m sorry.” It requires humility to admit we’re not perfect or need to make up for wrongs.
- Or we don’t think we need God, that we CAN work it out on our own. It’s hard enough to submit ourselves to another person to make things right, but many people just can’t stomach the idea of placing themselves at God’s mercy. This requires intense humility, because while reparations are within our control, mercy and forgiveness are NOT.
In Lent, a special focuses for observers is repentance. Admitting we act in ways contrary to God’s Will, and making changes to “turn around.” Turning away from sin and to God. I think Brueggemann’s diagnosis of residual ache is important for us as we go about our practice of repentance. Residual ache weighs us DOWN, keeps us from true healing, prevents us from experiencing true joy in the Lord and with our neighbor.
I look forward to sharing more observations with you as I move through the book. Till next time, a thought to ponder: how do you see residual ache in your own life?