Lament as Agency
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli with Foundry UMC, February 21, 2021, Lent 1, “Learning to Sing the Blues” series.
Text: Jeremiah 12:1-4
For some cultures, lament is simply part of life. This shows up sometimes in the personal and communal rituals of people’s faith traditions. Sometimes, lament emerges as music rising from a people’s soul, art formed from the lived reality of their lives. The Black Spirituals that many of us know well in the church and their cousin, the blues, are examples of this. The late, venerable Black Liberation Theologian James Cone says plainly, “I am the blues and my life is a spiritual. Without them, I cannot be.”
However, for many people, there is a natural aversion to the idea of lament. This arises from a variety of influences, religious and cultural.
In many churches, it is communicated mostly through un-written rules that tension, anger, and really any emotion identified as “negative” are not appropriate or welcome. I’ve heard often over the years that someone stayed away from church when they were suffering—because they might cry or because they felt they couldn’t be the way they thought they needed to be in church. And in an effort to
balance what was (and still is in some places) an overwhelming focus in the church on sin and guilt, the tendency is to avoid the “downer” topics of failure and fear or the practice of confession. Stadiums and sanctuaries fill up where the “power of positive thinking theology” and “happy, clappy” worship downplays, denies, or distracts from the deep pain, loss, struggle, injustice, and feelings of confusion and powerlessness that many experience every day.
One author writes, “It seems safe to say that within American culture there are deeply conflicting attitudes toward expressions of grief, rage, and other negative emotions. On the one hand, there is the oft-noted tendency in our culture to cover up experiences of loss and failure in both personal and public life and to uphold what has been called official American optimism. On the other hand, there is a strong counterpressure in therapeutic American society, often encouraged by the mass media, to ‘let it all hang out,’ to demand that all emotions be immediately and publicly vented.”
The “let it all hang out” impulse, without any safe or guided channel, simply spews painful emotions in every direction in ways that don’t lead to healing, but rather do more damage. This is not what the spiritual practice of Judeo-Christian lament is. I was tempted to pre-empt a variety of concerns by sharing a whole list of things lament is not. However, I have chosen to simply say that over the course of this Lenten season, we will explore some of what the spiritual practice of Christian lament is. As I said this past week in our Ash Wednesday service, if ever a time called for lament, this is it. //
Over the years in pastoral conversations, I have discovered that often, the key question, the question that loosens knots of confusion and stuckness is this: Who is God to you? How do you think about God? What is God like in your experience?
The answer affects how we feel and act in relationship with God. If we think of God as remote and “hands-off”—a benevolent but uninvolved creator, that will affect our engagement. If God is understood as controlling all things in a micro-managing kind of way, that will evoke a different kind of relationship. If our conception is that God fixates on our mistakes or is mostly about punishment, well, you can imagine that makes a difference in how we feel about God and about ourselves.
In these common ways of thinking about God we are left in a pretty crummy place. We are on our own and left to our own devices, powerless and manipulated on the gameboard of “God’s plan,” or fearful, never feeling we measure up, and weighed down with guilt. And these feelings may hit closer to home than we care to admit. None are appealing or helpful, especially when we are faced with suffering, persecution, anxiety, injustice, and death.
Thankfully, we are not left with only these conceptions of God. As feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson highlights, the tendency has been to think about the God-human relationship in a “power-over” or “powerlessness” paradigm. She invites a shift to a “power with” image. This invokes a different kind of relationship altogether.
I remember years ago, a member of my then congregation noted that she felt really solid about the words I say at the beginning of worship every Sunday except for when I get to God “knows you by name, loves you, and wants to have an ever-closer relationship with you.” She said, “The relationship part is where I need work.” This is where I want to ground our understanding of lament—in all the various ways we will explore it through this Lenten season.
God doesn’t just want to be around you or to observe you or to be a vague “energy” in your life. God wants to have an ever-closer relationship with you. A relationship. As Jewish theologian Martin Buber described it, God wants to be in an “I-Thou” relationship, subject to subject, free agent to free agent. This is understood as a relationship that is mutual, that is respectful of the others’ freedom, that honors the uniqueness and dignity of the other. It is a sharing of two selves, a “power with” kind of meeting.
Perhaps this sounds obvious or simple. But do keep in mind that scripture and particular images of God have been used to justify subjugation of women, people of color, and minoritized groups—to make us feel that we don’t have agency or voice of power. Some of you will have watched the PBS series The Black Church this past week and been reminded how slave masters feared enslaved persons learning to read because once they could read the Bible for themselves, they would understand even more clearly both who God is—a God of justice and liberation—and who they are to God—beloved children of dignity and worth. The Spirituals were, according to Howard Thurman, “an expression of the slaves’ determination to be in a society that seeks to destroy their personhood. It is an affirmation of the dignity of the black slaves, the essential humanity of their spirits.”
Likewise, feminist and womanist theologians highlight the ways that biblical prayers of lament provide a model for women’s resistance to domination and abuse. “Women who have been taught (like children) to be ‘seen and not heard’ in relation to faith and religion should notice that the very act of putting anger, impatience, and frustration into words often enables the speakers in the Psalms to come to a renewed sense of assurance in God’s continuing care.”
My friend and teacher, the Rev. Jesse Jackson gave voice to all of this with his famous call and response lament and affirmation… “I may be poor, but I am somebody! I may be on welfare, I may be uneducated, but I am somebody! I may have made mistakes, but I am somebody! I must be, I’m God’s child.”
The core affirmation is that you are a person. You are somebody. You have agency. Your voice, your experience, your perspective matters—and not only if or when you are successful in the world’s eyes, but also when you’ve hit rock bottom. You can cry out from that place and be met there by a God who knows you by name, loves you, and wants to have an ever-closer relationship with you.
And in that relationship, you don’t have to clean it all up or have “the right answer.” I’ve observed over the years, particularly when teaching about prayer, that there is a strong tendency to feel that being angry at God, talking back to God, or accusing God is off-limits—that it’s wrong or breaks the “good, faithful Christian” rules. Our scriptures contradict this over and again, as persons reveal faith in God’s steadfast presence precisely through their anger at God, their arguing with God, their accusations against God. This, you see, is a sign that they know themselves to be in the kind of relationship with God that allows them to be somebody with God, to be free to speak, to act, to feel.
Our text from Jeremiah is a good example. In this lament, the prophet brings formal charges against God saying, “let me put my case to you. Why does the way of the guilty prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive?” (v.1) Jeremiah implies that the wicked continue in their destructive ways because God “is blind” to their ways. (v. 4) Jeremiah speaks of how the treacherous have God in their mouths but not their hearts. And then he cries out, “my heart is with You and look at what I’m going through! This is unfair! Give the guilty their due, God!” // Our focus today is not to try to answer Jeremiah’s perennially valid question of why so often the guilty not only get away with their crimes, but prosper. Our focus is on the fact that Jeremiah lifts his voice with this complaint and request to God. Notice that Jeremiah didn’t just spew his anger and complaint all over society. He brought it to God in relationship. This is what we are talking about when we speak of Judeo-Christian lament.
I can already hear some sweet Church People responding to Jeremiah. Can you imagine what some would say in the presence of Jeremiah’s outcry? “Now, now. I know it’s hard. It’s not fair. But God has a plan. God is in control.” And I then imagine Jeremiah firing back: “If God is in control, then I don’t want anything to do with that God or to be anywhere near that God because none of this is OK…”
One teacher writes, “A lament is a passionate expression of distress. To lament is to wail and to complain and to ‘sing the blues’—of loneliness, hopelessness, helplessness, grief, exhaustion and absence of meaning. It is the voice…of a person in turmoil. Finding this voice for ourselves and learning a vocabulary with which we can honestly engage…in a way that does not deny or dishonour…very real anguish, is vital…Availing ourselves of the language of lament is the alternative to disengagement.”
If we aren’t given permission to lift our own voice, to name what is real for us in our lives, to lament, then we may very well disengage—from other people, from the church, from life, from God. I distinctly remember a woman in one of my prayer courses explaining how she felt that God had abandoned her in her time of greatest need, the suffering and death of her loved one. As we engaged in some conversation, it became clear that she had never felt she could name how angry she was at God for all that had happened. She realized that she didn’t believe she had permission to bring that anger directly to God. She lost her voice…she denied her true feelings and experience…and, as a result, put distance between herself and God. She said, “I wandered away. Maybe God has been waiting for me all along…”
You have permission to lament. You have permission to bring your charges against God. You have permission to come into God’s presence as the somebody you are. God is there. Waiting.