I remember a crush I had in high school. I don’t think we were quite dating. But we were together all the time, until she decided she didn’t want to hang out any more.
I remember the weekend when it dawned on me that’s what happened. I stayed in my room all day. I wrote poems. I made a mix tape that featured various versions of U2’s “With or Without You.” I was convinced I was in love and would have to live with this heartbreak for the rest of my life.
I was fine by summer break.
How do we think about God’s love for us? How do we think about God’s love for the world, when all we know of love is our own loves — what we’ve experienced, what we’ve felt, what we’ve known?
We imagine God as someone like us, a person who loves like we love — as fickle or as faithful as we are. We can’t help but make comparisons between us and God, because what else do we have but human experiences, human words?
But we also have to pay attention to a warning in Scripture that there are differences between God and us. Isaiah offers this warning clearly when he tells us God’s ways are not our ways and God’s thoughts are not like our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9).
A church council in the 13th century developed this caution into a rule of thumb: “Between Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying an even greater dissimilitude.” That statement is from the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215.
Between God and us, the dissimilarity is always greater than any similarity. We have our assumptions about God. We project our human ways of doing things onto God. But we have to remember that God is not like us.
The Book of Lamentations is a window into the struggle of trying to understand the baffling similarities and dissimilarities of God’s love.
The book is a set of five acrostic poems, each line beginning with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet. One reason for the acrostic style is to help people memorize the poem. That’s how important these poems were. They were meant to be stored in the heart and mind, repeated words to guide relationships with God.
Ellen Davis, in Opening Israel’s Scriptures (2019), describes Lamentations as “the love poetry of disaster.” The poems were written after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 587 BCE, during Jewish captivity in the Babylonian empire. They express the shock and anguish at the devastation of Jerusalem — homes, city and temple, everything taken.
The poems remember disasters of warfare and testify to a people able to pick up the pieces. The poems are declarations of love and longing for what has been lost, what has been stolen — all expressed in conversation with a God who seems to have abandoned the people.
Lamentations 3:22-33 is a passage from the middle of the first poem. It comes as a surprise — dissimilar to the rest of the book. These verses interrupt the grief.
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end” (3:22).
“The Lord will not reject forever. . . .
He will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love” (3:31-32).
The poet believes in God’s love despite experiencing absence. It is a love in defiance of Babylon’s violence, a love that persists.
THe COVID-19 pandemic brought profound losses. I’m sure you, like me, have witnessed the death of friends, family and neighbors. We’re still trying to piece together something like the life we had before. We’re still looking to regain community, to find our people again. And when we do, we’re grateful for reconnection, but we’re also confronting our sense of hurt, abandonment, disappointment. We’ve let each other down. We’ve failed to be there for the people we said we love.
Despite our best efforts, we love inconsistently. We’re always trying to get love right. We depend on the grace and patience of others to sustain the possibility of love. We rely on communities to hold us and care for us. To be there even when we fail and try to love again.
To be the church is to hold the door open, to hope for restoration and the healing of wounds. That’s what it means to live according to God’s love: to be steadfast and merciful to each other, because we get love wrong over and over again. Steadfast because we always need people we can depend on, to be there for us, to offer us mercy again and again.
To believe in God’s love and to offer that love in mercy to each other is the substance of our faith.