Jeremiah 8:18-9:1. Lament and the way forward.
Is it OK to be angry at God, to ask why, or even to question if God is truly fair and just? Or is it our lot to accept our fate, quietly suffering our pain? Do you fear if you complain that, God will think you are a whiner, perhaps even punish you? Is your example of faith Mary, the mother of Jesus, who quietly moves through the Christmas pageant pondering things in her heart? Or the same Mary who sang the Magnificat about scattering the proud from their thrones? Are we allowed to be outraged, or is the expression of anger a sin and a sign that we lack spiritual maturity and understanding?
Have you ever yelled at God? In a moment of anger, you shook your fist and shouted, “It isn’t fair!” Like Newscaster Howard Beale in the movie “Network,” you opened the window and shouted, “I’m mad as Hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” I love the scene in Forest Gump when his buddy Lieutenant Dan, who lost his legs from a war wound in Vietnam, climbs the ship mast in a storm to wrestle with God.
If you have ever wrestled with God, you are in good biblical company. Jacob wrestled with an angel throughout a long night and wouldn’t let the angel go without being blessed. Moses once shouted at God, saying, Why have you called me to lead these stiff-necked people? Strike me dead; I would rather die than deal with them!” (Numbers 11:15) The Psalmist said, “How long, oh God, shall the wicked prosper?” Jesus’s last words echo Psalm 22, “My God, My God, why has thou forsaken me?”
From these few examples, God gives us broad latitude to express our outrage, grief, and anger. We have permission to wail. A lament is more than just grumbling and whining. Whining is complaining about things we could do something about or we caused the problem. A lament is an act we do when we are out of control and can’t see how anything will change. It is a passionate expression of grief, often in music, poetry, or song. Examples include:
- Hearing the bagpipes play at a funeral,
- the lead in a baroque opera,
- an NBA star’s disbelief at a foul called on him in a close game.
- Think of the U2 song “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” about a massacre in Northern Ireland,
- Billy Joel wrote the song “The Downeaster Alexa” about the disappearing fishing grounds.
- During Lent, we sing, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.”
Lament is a writing genre. One of the oldest writing artifacts is the 4000-year-old “Lament of Sumer and Ur,” weeping for cities destroyed in battle. We see its influences in Homer’s Iliad, the Psalms, and here in Jeremiah. Jeremiah isn’t just a social critic urging better public policy or warning about the dangers of greed and indifference. He is not just a prophet of doom with his “The End is Near” sign because he hates humanity or society. Here in chapter 8, Jeremiah is a poet of grief; shedding tears seems inevitable because people don’t want to face painful reality while change is still possible. As Dante, another poet of lament, put it, “Hell is truth seen too late.”
In our reading for today, Jeremiah expresses that he is heartsick; his eyes are a fountain of tears as he weeps day and night. (That crying part makes me completely uncomfortable.). Then he skillfully uses questions to draw in the reader. Questions help us open new awareness when we feel stuck. “Is the Lord not in Zion?” Where is God in all this? Aren’t we God’s chosen nation? It says right on my quarter, “In God we trust.” This tragedy isn’t supposed to be happening. He uses more questions searching for an answer:
Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of the daughter of my people
not been restored?
You probably recognize the phrase “balm in Gilead, from the popular negro spiritual. Scriptures refer to a balsam collected from trees in Gilead, an area in modern Jordan. This balsam had medicinal properties, had high value, and was exported throughout the Middle East. Today Jeremiah would ask, “Don’t we have the medicine we need right here? Don’t we have a great health care system with the best technology, pharmaceutical companies, and doctors? Why can’t we be healed? What pill can I take? What is wrong with the system?” Unlike the spiritual, Jeremiah is implying that balm won’t be enough. Human knowledge and technology are not going to fix this. We will have to go to a deeper spiritual place for this kind of healing.
Listen to verse 11, where Jeremiah speaks to priests who do not speak to the suffering and injustice and the dangers of allowing it to go on as if nothing is happening:
“They have treated the wound … my people carelessly,
saying, “Peace, peace,”
when there is no peace.”
When we ignore pain and suffering, we are treating a wound carelessly. As we might say, we are putting a Band-Aid on a more severe injury when we say, “Peace, peace” when there is no peace. It’s like thinking a festering wound will get better if we cover it up. Later we must amputate a whole limb.
Think of a family who loses a child to suicide. The parents and siblings are rocked by grief and loss and ask many questions. “Why, God?” How could this happen? They search for a cause, but underneath it all is shame. Did I do something wrong? Could I have stopped it? How could I be so unaware? The thought is so painful that they push away the grief, find some factor to blame, or are consumed with silent anger. They shut down and bury their feelings and don’t talk about them. The parents grow apart and distant. The kids find other things to do than eat dinner together except for one sibling. One sister, who can’t seem to go on like the others, who can’t stop crying, shouts, “I want to talk about this. I don’t want to pretend it didn’t happen.” So, the rest of the family starts to see her as the problem. Maybe she needs therapy because she can’t get over this. She needs to move on with her life. This sister has to take on all the emotional labor for the whole family because somebody must do it. But they have treated her wound and their own carelessly.
If she is lucky, she finds an outlet for this grief, a way to engage in lament. She starts writing poetry or playing music. She paints, sings, throws pots, molds clay, or looks for dramatic roles in the school play. Something gives shape to her feelings. It is through the vehicle that she provides creative expression to her grief that she finds healing. Her song or stories become space for others; she has blazed a trail for others to follow.
This path is what Jeremiah is trying to do for his people. By expressing his outrage and despair, he gives anyone who will listen a way out of numbness, the resilience to move through suffering, and the words they need to live by truth instead of illusion. At first, he is treated much like the sister in the grieving family, as if he is the problem. Stop being such a downer, Jeremiah. Don’t worry, be happy. Stop being fake news. You might think Jeremiah was utterly unsuccessful because Israel is overrun, and Jerusalem and the Temple are destroyed. But now, his words can be a gift to us. Jeremiah offers us a way through grief when we struggle to face what is happening, and our words seem inadequate. There are no easy steps to go around grief. You must go through it.
The ancient wisdom in our scriptures understood the need to lament. It is an art form, often expressed in the psalms. Laments have a structure that includes calling on God, voicing complaints or anguish, some soul searching about our role in our troubles, trust in God’s presence, and gratitude even while waiting for relief or an answer. You might read a Psalm, like Psalm 22, that begins with “My God, My God, why has thou forsaken me? And then abruptly shifts to an expression of gratitude for God’s presence and the words:
Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.
The Psalm is going through the pattern of lament. It gives us a structure to creatively express what is troubling us. We will experience a lament together during the Pastoral Prayer as we pray about all the flooding and droughts and impacts of climate change.
When we ask, “Why, God?” it helps me to know that this is a prayer of the ages. It is not a rebellion or a lack of faith. It is the way through our most challenging times. Lament is one of the most ancient forms of expression in every culture. This form of prayer gives us structure for what overwhelms us when we don’t know what to do. But we are doing something when we lament, taking our deep emotion and creatively expressing it to God. God can handle our questions, frustrations, and anger.
In conclusion, I came across these words on Facebook this week from Brene Brown:
“I went to church thinking it would be like an epidural to take the pain away. But the church isn’t like an epidural; it’s a midwife.
I thought faith would say, “I’ll take away the pain and discomfort.”
But it ended up saying, “I will sit with you in it.”