Lament as Trust
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli with Foundry UMC, February 28, 2021, Lent 2, “Learning to Sing the Blues” series.
Text: Jeremiah 20:7-18
If you were to flip through the pages of the Bible I was given by my church in the 3rd grade, you’d see that I spent some time as a child, marking passages I thought were especially important. Some I remember in particular are from Proverbs, and the topic is anger and how important it is to speak “pleasant words” if you speak at all. For example, Proverbs 29:11 says, “A fool gives full vent to anger, but the wise quietly holds it back.”
I was determined to try to be patient and wise and to speak pleasant words, kind words, gentle words. I was what? 8 or 9 or 10 years old? Since those early days of my life with God, I’ve come to understand that holding back quietly isn’t always the way of wisdom. There “is a time to keep silence and a time to speak,” (Ecclesiastes 3:7) a time for anger and for peace. Last week, we began to explore the spiritual practice of lament and were reminded that we are not limited to only “pleasant words” when we speak to God. We are free and, in fact, encouraged to bring it all—and that includes our most raw expressions of pain, rage, and grief. The encouragement is simply to be honest. Though it isn’t always simple or easy to do that.
Just this past week, I spent time with a beloved friend who is experiencing a time of deep suffering. Significant losses and challenges in his life have left him feeling alone and deeply depressed. Through his tears, he talked about how he wears masks every day, never letting others see what he’s feeling. He has always been the one to take care of things, to manage the details of life for himself and his loved ones, to be strong and confident. He feels like a failure right now. This is an all-too-common experience for men in particular, though of course “fake it ‘til you make it” is a sometimes dangerous strategy employed by persons of any gender identity. Thank God, my friend found it within himself to trust me enough to reach out and say he needed a hand. But here’s the thing: if no one teaches you or gives you resources to ask for help—or to tell you it is allowed!—then tragedies of all kinds can and do occur. Many people literally do not have the language to give voice to their pain or know how to ask for help.
This is one reason it is such a gift that the prayer and practice of lament is part of our faith tradition. When our congregations utilize the language of lament in prayers, sing words of lament in Spirituals and other sacred music like we’re receiving today in worship, and create the kinds of brave spaces in which people feel free to be honest, we collectively learn the language of pain and can practice naming the pain and suffering in our lives and the pain we observe in the world around us. And we also learn that it is OK to bring it all to God.
Last week and today we have received words of lament from the prophet Jeremiah. In chapter 1 of the book, we are told that Jeremiah’s calling as a prophet was upon him “in the womb.” When Jeremiah becomes aware of this call, he protests that he’s too young for the task. And, in response, God promises to be with him, tells him not to be afraid, puts God’s words in Jeremiah’s mouth, and appoints him “over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow…” (Jer 1:10) Yeah, that always goes well… There’s a reason for the saying “don’t shoot the messenger…” Jeremiah sets about speaking truth to power and calling the people out for their idolatry and breach of covenant with God. Persecution ensues.
One example is found just prior to our scripture passage for today where we are told that Pashhur, a priest in charge of the temple police whose job it was to keep order in the sacred space, had arrested Jeremiah, beaten him, and put him put him on display in stocks. (Jer 20:1-2) // Jeremiah has some feelings and some choice words for God.
In fact, the laments of Jeremiah include some of the most brutal charges against God in the entire Bible. The first of the two laments Shelley read for us, verses 7-12, the lament we heard echoed in the presentation from the Heritage Signature Chorale, accuses God using the metaphor of seduction or enticement and sexual violence—overpowering. When Jeremiah cries out about the “violence and destruction” done to him by God there is no one to hear or to help. Jeremiah’s “close friends” are characterized as plotting the same kind of violence against him that God has committed.
The second lament, found in verses 14-18 hearkens back to the words Jeremiah received at his calling. He curses his own existence, wishes he had never drawn breath, wishes both he and his calling had died in the womb.
Keep in mind that Jeremiah is not here spewing hate speech against a stranger, making these claims against a known enemy or a foreign threat. This isn’t Jeremiah namelessly, facelessly bullying someone through social media. This is Jeremiah crying out to the God who was with him in the womb, the God who’s been with Jeremiah all along, the God with whom he has a close, intimate relationship. And as much as some may have the impulse to remind Jeremiah of this, to try to talk him off the proverbial ledge, it is important to just let Jeremiah have these feelings, to let him use all his words in his moment of deepest anguish and to turn the sharp, biting power of prophetic speech back upon the God who had given him that power. We don’t need to protect God or God’s feelings. God can take care of herself.
I am reminded of what a colleague said to me once after he witnessed a particularly anxiety-ridden and brutal event in which I had taken some direct hits in a very public way. He said, “Sometimes when my children say cruel things to me, I have to remember that they feel safe enough with me to process their feelings that way, trusting my love enough to hang in there with them.” It might have been one of the kindest things a colleague has ever said to me. It certainly came right when I needed it. And I think of God like the parent who takes so much and understands why the complaints and charges and laments are coming. God knows what a mess we’ve made of so many things in the world. God knows the injustice and suffering within the human family. God knows why we cry out. And God’s love is steadfast no matter what.
Even Jeremiah, in the midst of his most scathing diatribe against God, signals something that contradicts his attack. Did you notice how, like an unexpected green shoot appearing in the slightest crack in hard and cold pavement, a little praise chorus emerges between the laments? “Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord! For God has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers.” (20:13) Even in the midst of the deepest suffering and lament, after accusing God of the worst kind of abuse, Jeremiah praises God as deliverer. This is held in that one little verse, verse 13, that smallest thread connecting Jeremiah to something beyond the pain, to someone beyond the suffering. It is a sign that Jeremiah hasn’t been completely swallowed up by the abyss.
Sometimes we may think that lament is an inherent rejection of God or reveals lack of faith or trust in God’s goodness, mercy, justice, and love. But, consider: if with God we are willing to take off all our masks, to stop faking being “fine”…if we stop going it alone, cleaning ourselves up, and using only pleasant speech, and instead just open up and vent everything we are feeling, right, wrong, or completely over-the-top, that might just be a sign of the deepest faith and trust. And it may be that in giving voice to your pain, your own “verse 13” may emerge.
But, even so, in the moment—and perhaps for many moments to follow—there is disruption in relationship with God. “The prayer of lament is the language of the painful incongruity between lived experience and the promises of God.” As one author writes, “The lament prayer is…full of tension and paradox. On the one hand, it signals the breakdown of previous ideas about God that have foundered on the harsh facts of experience, with the result that God seems utterly hidden and frightening. On the other hand, it expresses a trust in the goodness of God so profound that is continues to cry out for God in the agony of God’s apparent absence and silence and looks for redemption in the midst of God’s terrible hiddenness. Paul Ricoeur rightly speaks of ‘the enigma of a lament that remains…caught up with an invocation.’”
Sometimes one verse of invocation is all we can manage in the flow of curses and complaints to God. Today the invitation is to trust that whatever you can manage is enough. God knows. God understands. God can take it. Try to trust that, whether you can speak or feel it, there is a “verse 13” truth, a lifeline, a love, that will never, ever let you go, there is a God who will deliver and bring you through.
Let us pray:
Out of the deep we cry to you. We confess that there are times we still don’t trust you enough to be honest. We confess we are afraid. We don’t want to admit how we feel. We don’t want to tell you how angry and disappointed we are in you. We don’t want to admit we need help. We confess that we often make you suffer through our charades in prayer, if we pray at all. Forgive us for our failure to acknowledge that you know our thoughts before they are on our tongues and that your presence with us is steadfast, and that you love us with an everlasting love.