It’s 12:30am in London. The long summer sun has set and I’m alone with our dishwasher churning away, cleaning this evening’s dishes in the background.
My husband reminds me that I’m volunteering at our church’s second-hand book sale in the morning. It’s a small but important responsibility. We’re raising funds for Tearfund’s work in Ukraine.
He’s said his piece and has now gone to bed.
Quite alone, I open my laptop and prepare to join thousands of Christian women who will be doing the same thing half a world away in Australia.
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Right now, Christian women of all ages are gathering in church halls around the country to attend Equip22 – an incredible conference for women who are looking to be challenged, encouraged and nourished through God’s word.
Equip began in Sydney in 1999 with 135 women. Since then, it’s grown into a Bible-teaching ministry with more than 6000 women attending their conferences each year. This year, everyone gathered to watch the livestream remotely, many in church groups.
I can join these women in London because I agreed to forgo listening to the music due to copyright licensing complications. Music or no music, I am looking forward to learning what God has to say to me for the next five hours or so from the book of Lamentations.
I confess that I don’t remember much about this book. Our church in Sydney looked at it some years ago and my memory is hazy.
Wedged between Jeremiah and Ezekiel, I soon rediscover it’s a harrowing and raw look at suffering and bone-crushing grief.
It speaks of God’s righteous anger and judgement as he finally, after centuries of warning his sinful people to turn back to him, leaves his city and lets it fall to the powerful Babylonians in 587 BC.
In the pitch-black London night, I am confronted with an image of a woman wailing her grief as she deals with the consequences of her sin.
“My eyes fail from weeping,
I am in torment within;
my heart is poured out on the ground
because my people are destroyed,
because children and infants faint
in the streets of the city.
They say to their mothers,
‘Where is bread and wine?’
as they faint like the wounded
in the streets of the city,
as their lives ebb away
in their mothers’ arms.” (Lamentations 2:11-12)
For those who’d like to experience Equip22 for themselves, I suggest you stop reading now. You can still register to watch it until July 20. And the next part is full of spoilers.
Annabel Nixey, the conference’s first speaker, speaks powerfully about that terrible day when Jerusalem fell – the hell on earth experienced by God’s people as the Babylonians lay siege to the city for 18 months.
Yet while the city screamed out her pain, there was a glimmer of hope. For amid her suffering, Jerusalem was finally crying out to God.
The book of Lamentations is showing me that even in the shambles of utter devastation, we could go to God in our suffering. We could let God see our pain, let him know it in all its heartbreak.
As Annabel highlights, no grief is too big for God to bear. He sees us sobbing behind our car steering wheels. He sees us on that bathroom floor.
Jerusalem’s grief is also a clear-eyed one. She knows exactly what has led her to this point. And now she knows God’s judgement is real.
Mercifully, God’s word didn’t leave us there.
Somewhere during the conference, there is an hour’s break for lunch. I turn on my phone alarm and take the opportunity to sleep. When the alarm goes off, it is time for session two.
Tash Leong and Sophie Robson open the Bible to Lamentations 3 and come to that most Instagramable of verses – 22 and 23: “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.”
These verses shine so brightly in the darkness, sandwiched between two grief-stricken passages. They are rich with meaning now that I know their full context.
This is hope, battered and bruised, gripping tightly onto God’s goodness. It’s the type of hope that screams for mercy, clinging desperately to God’s compassion when all we want to do is crawl into a hole and die there. Sometimes it’s what keeps us breathing when the pain gets too much.
These verses show that God won’t leave us in the mire. There will be a rescue, a restoration. We’re not without hope. Even in the heart of deserved destruction, we know that we are not consumed. We have a God whose compassion for us never fails.
After encouraging table talk, Di Warren takes us through the final chapter.
Di highlights the Wailing Wall in modern-day Jerusalem. It’s all that’s left of the old temple, and she shares a photo of the crowd in front of it, all mourning the old Jerusalem. A modern-day Lamentations.
Jerusalem was God’s city. This was the place to find God and his blessings. This was the city where he once lived with his people. But the city of God became a city of tears: “Remember, Lord, what has happened to us; look, and see our disgrace. Our inheritance has been turned over to strangers, our homes to foreigners.
We have become fatherless, our mothers are widows.” (Lamentations 5:1-3)
As Di points out how Lamentations ends with an ominous question about God’s anger, I can’t help but feel the weight of his judgement against our natural sinful state. As the talk continues, I’m confronted with the grief that comes from seeing and truly understanding our limitations.
“Woe to us, for we have sinned!” the writer of Lamentations says.
This wasn’t suffering for suffering’s sake. This suffering was deserved. Yet God, in his mercy, had a plan. One so breathtaking in its show of love and grace it changed the whole world. Forever.
And that’s where Di takes us next. As the dawn light starts to break slowly over the old English buildings on our street, and as the morning birds start to sing, she points to God’s incredible mercy, most profoundly seen through Jesus.
Something even more amazing than God’s exiled people returning to Jerusalem in 538 BC, God’s king, Jesus, enters Jerusalem 400 years later to die for her. To die for me.
All alone in our small flat, I once again ask God to forgive my mistakes, my pride and my selfishness. To forgive my desire to chase and love so many things other than the one who created and provided them.
I can’t thank God enough for Jesus, who saw my fallen state and stood in judgement in my place, taking on the full consequence of my sins.
I am so grateful and so sorry that Jesus took my punishment on his shoulders and went to that cross in my stead.
Soon the conference is over. I close my laptop and head to bed, my heart heavy yet hopeful. This year’s Equip was certainly one to remember.