I remember the first time. I was seated on the stone plaza of the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Night had fallen and I was surrounded by thousands upon thousands. Among the murmuring voices, I heard Hebrew, French, Russian, German and Polish. There were others, but my attention was tightly held by the English voices seated with me in a circle. Our small group — Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant ministry leaders from Canada, India, Ireland, Russia and the U.S. — observed Tisha B’Av together. On this traditional fast day, we commemorated the destruction of the first and second temples, understanding its renown as the saddest day on the Jewish calendar.
We, like the others on the plaza, read Scripture aloud together, inviting God’s words to settle deeply into our soul. Although the cadence, language and speed varied among groups, we all read the same text, Lamentations Chapters 1–5.
How deserted lies the city, once so full of people!
How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations!
Prior to that night, I had only experienced Scripture read aloud in small chunks: a few verses at a time, a parable of Jesus, a (short) Psalm — rushed along and hurried through as if it stood in the way of the more important parts of the service.
How the Lord has covered Daughter Zion with the cloud of his anger!
He has hurled down the splendor of Israel from heaven to earth.
The words spoken into the night enveloped me. I began to understand more deeply the words of Hebrews 4:12, “The word of God is alive and active.” The words rearranged themselves into a lamenting prayer and sorrowful song. They reverberated with generations of ancient voices who had spoken them before. I slowly began to recognize my place within the larger story. I — an adopted daughter of the King of Kings; a descendant of faithful, spiritual ancestors — heard God’s Word anew.
Chapter 3. My turn to read.
I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of the Lord’s wrath.
He has driven me away and made me walk in darkness rather than light.
The enormity of the words caught in my throat. I couldn’t speak. No sound came, only silent tears. And then another voice spoke forth, and eventually my voice joined his to create a chorus, crescendoing at the climax.
Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
In the midst of utter despair, God’s hope remains. Love, compassion, faithfulness — it is a truth I hold fast and share with others. I am reminded now of reading Lamentations 3 aloud years later to George (not his real name) on what would be his final day in this life. The words declared his awakening faith amid his torrent of depression and desperation. They expressed it in a way a sinner’s prayer never could. With eyes closed and tears fresh upon his cheek, he simply whispered “amen.”
How the gold has lost its luster, the fine gold become dull!
The words continued to rain down, building upon the biblical narrative I knew and loved. Phrases and ideas I had read silently before gained newfound weight when spoken aloud, reminding me of related passages, and drawing the biblical story closer together. The God who reveals Himself and makes Himself known; the God who pursues relationship with His creation from Genesis to Revelation and beyond; it was as if I was meeting Him again for the first time — seeing connections, understanding insights, discovering new questions. As I grasped God in new ways, I understood myself more deeply, as one who bears His image.
Remember, Lord, what has happened to us; look, and see our disgrace.
He looks, and He sees. He sees every Hagar, Tamar, Hannah, Dinah and Ruth. He is the God of the marginalized and forgotten; the God who introduces Himself to us, promising to be the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.
The close of Chapter 5 sounded into the night:
Restore us to yourself, Lord, that we may return; renew our days as of old unless you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure.
With that, the book of Lamentations ended, but the story did not. The story does not. It continues today, spreading into every corner of the world: beside stained glass windows and under sun-scorched trees, in executive suites and upon trash heaps. God’s words have never stayed within the pages of Scripture. They were never meant to only be read silently by isolated individuals. It’s a story — a living story — meant to be extolled by storytellers and engaged by audiences. The story breathes within community and finds full expression when spoken aloud and then radically lived.
Like the apostles in Acts. Like the believers in Bangladesh.
I remember the most recent time, an annual gathering of pastors in Bangladesh — pastors whose pictures I cannot show and whose names I cannot speak, facing dangers I will never know. And yet they expressed such joy and eagerness when asked to read God’s Word aloud! Two, three and four hands raised. Three pastors jumped to their feet. Several simply started reading. Gentle helps were given to struggling readers stuck on words. The chorus of “Amen and Amen!” came when the passage was complete.
Their voices join with others who have read Scripture aloud in their communities: Moses, Josiah, Ezra, Jesus, Timothy and others who read it today. Melanie, Pam, Kathy, Janie, Karli; we are the people of the Story, but if we do not hear the Story, we cannot know the Story. Paul questioned, “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Romans 10:14). Preaching is simply proclaiming the Good News, and whose words could ever herald anything more profoundly than God’s?
He has given us the Story. Let us share it and let us speak it. Together, aloud, in community.
Kristen Bennett Marble is an ordained Free Methodist elder, the senior pastor of West Morris Church in Indianapolis and the author of “The Scriptures of Jesus and the Early Church” (fmchr.ch/kbm). Visit kristenmarble.com to learn more about her and to read more of her writing.