Is There No Balm In Gilead?
God, be in my words and in my understanding. God, be in my heart and in my thinking. God, be in my mouth and in my speaking. Where these words are of your truth, may they be a blessing. Where they err, may they do no harm. Amen.
“A long time ago, an old monk had a young disciple who frequently complained. One particular day, the old monk placed a teaspoon of salt into a cup of water. He told his young disciple to drink it up. The disciple drank it and complained that it was extremely salty! The old monk then walked to the lake. He placed a teaspoon of salt into the lake then told his disciple to drink the water from the lake. The disciple drank the water from the lake and found it clear and pure. The wise monk taught his disciple that life has pain and suffering like the taste of salt. The level of saltiness of sweetness in life is dependant on the volume of the container that holds it.”
We must expand the container in which we hold the experiences of our lives.
Last week we talked about joy and how joy, unlike happiness, is a cultivated spiritual discipline that runs deep and emerges from hard work, suffering, and authenticity. I mentioned that joy and sorrow are two sides of the same coin. This week we will talk more about the flip-side of that coin. What is suffering and sorrow and how are we to authentically live into the painful moments of our lives?
Every life has pain. We enter life through a painful process and, much more often than not, we exit through some pain and suffering as well. In between, we experience pain through the process of growing up, learning how to walk, run, bike, drive a car, as well as all the schooling that we get to… enjoy… even if one likes school, homework is hardly a pleasant endeavor. (I know this currently from intense secondhand experience.) Learning, in general, often comes with a certain amount of struggle. We need to fail a number of times at any new undertaking before we can succeed at it. And then there is heartbreak. From the first friendship that gets lost to the first romantic break-up to the death of a pet, as well as the discovery that the world is unjust and dangerous and beloved parents are less than perfect. And we haven’t even gotten past the high school years! Neither have we talked about the experience of children who grew up in hard, harsh, and/or abusive situations.
Life, from the start has struggle and suffering. Many times in our lives we grow from these experiences - we do learn something, or we accomplish something - and those moments bring us joy. But there is also sorrow that has no easily identifiable silver lining to it - the death of a loved one, abuse or oppression, natural disasters, disease, crippling accidents, etc. - these too come into the life of every person in one way or another.
Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” As with much of Jesus’ teachings, this was a theological revolution for many of his time (and still is for many in ours.) Have you ever heard someone say some version of “well, they had that coming to them” or “that’s karma for you!” or blamed a natural disaster on the perceived sins of particular group of people? People in Jesus' day, and many people today, had a sense that reality was essentially fair and just - that people got what they deserved. If you or a family member got sick or had accident or experienced financial ruin or died, the assumption was that someone had sinned and this was the punishment. But Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn.” When Jesus came to the home of Mary and Martha to discover that their brother Lazarus had died, he wept.
We humans like to find reasons or assign reasons to things that happen, but Jesus told us that “the sun will rise on the evil and the good and the rain will fall on the just and the unjust.” Bad things happen to good people all the time and plenty of good things happen to folks we would call “bad.” I always cringe when well intentioned people say things like “everything happens for a reason.” Well, sure. But sometimes those reasons are physics, chemistry, and biology. Sometimes those reasons are collective sin - systemic oppression, environmental pollution, greed based economy, war - where people and the environment are treated as dispensable.
The prophets of old, as well as modern day prophets, rose up to speak truth to power about these collective sins of the society they were living in. God would hear the cry of the oppressed, the suffering, those mourning the unjust death of a loved one and lift up a prophet. In Exodus we hear God’s words out of the burning bush: “The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”
In Jeremiah’s story we hear the prophet confront the powerful people in his nation, warning them that disaster would come if they didn’t change their ways. Now, a couple things here: 1) scholars know that the book of Jeremiah was written and rewritten by scribes long after the years of the events contained therein. This definitely makes it possible for humans to assign reasons to the events that occurred years before. 2) that being said, there is still a deep understanding of God’s love for God’s people we see written into these passages. How much of it is original to the prophet? - we will never know, but that it is an understanding of the people describing these events does add to the tradition of our theological construct of a loving God.
In the passage that we read today, it is hard to distinguish between the voice of Jeremiah and the voice of God. Is the prophet weeping for his people or is God? It is quite possible that both are being conveyed together. “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!”
“The anthropomorphic imagery of a grieving God,” writes Humanities Professor and Ph.D. in Old Testament Studies, Renita Weems, “an anguishing God, a God at her wits’ end reminds us that God is not immune to human suffering and human need... When God weeps, the awful distance and difference between God and people is bridged.”
In the same way that I love the picture in my office of the laughing Jesus, I am deeply compelled by the imagery of a weeping God. A weeping God is not a God that assigns suffering to her people or forces painful tests upon his devotees. A weeping God does not snatch a loved one away from a lonely and terrified child in order to teach a lesson or give someone a terminal illness in order to see if they will remain faithful or as a punishment or to make them stronger in some other way. A weeping God is in the midst of our suffering WITH us.
In a few months time we will be singing carols about Emmanuel. Emmanuel literally translates to “God with us.” We understand Jesus as God with us in human form. In the singularity that was Jesus of Nazareth we could see God with us in the flesh. Today we can see God with us in the Body of Christ - otherwise known as the church. But we can also, with faith and practice, experience God with us in spirit. When I pray for others I frequently pray for God’s comforting arms to hold them in their pain and for them to be able to feel that presence. I know that I have experienced God’s presence in my times of need and I have heard some similar stories from others sitting in these pews.
I believe so strongly that God is with us though our suffering and sorrow - whether we feel it or not. I believe that God weeps with us in our tears and holds us in our pain. God also has taught us to be with one another in the midst of the hard times of our lives, because no one should have to carry heavy burdens alone.
If we think about God as loving papa or loving mama, we can perhaps imagine how authentic grieving can be a sort of spiritual discipline. Have you ever comforted your or someone else’s crying child? Whether the tears are of deep sorrow, disappointment, anger, or hurt - a loving parent can hold the child and all of those emotions in loving arms. I encourage you to imagine yourself as the child and God as the parent when you grieve. Sometimes we feel angry when we are sad. Anger is one of the ways that grief manifests itself in us and I have heard people talk about how angry they are with God. Sometimes they say this in a way that suggests that they feel ashamed for this anger. But imagine a small child who is so sad, or so sleepy, or so hungry, that they melt from sadness into anger in your arms, anger often directed at you! With infinite patience mama God can hold on to this anger from us, too. Are you now or have you ever been angry with God? That’s ok. God can take it.
God can hold our anger as well as our tears. We have plenty of examples in the scriptures of people being angry with God, questioning God’s actions, and arguing with God’s choices. It is authentic to be angry if that is what you feel. Cry out to God in your anger and voice your pain just as you would with your sadness. This is angry prayer and it is just as valid as any other conversation we have with God. Trust that God will love you no matter what, as a child trusts her loving parent.
God can also help hold you through your anger with others during this time. Grieving a relationship that has crumbled, like a divorce, generally has a simple target for your anger - the other person. This anger is often both necessary and helpful to get beyond the initial pain of it’s ending. But what happens when you find yourself angry at your loved one who has died? “How dare they leave me so soon?” “They promised me that I would never be alone again.” Or there is unresolved anger from the relationship while they were still alive and you can’t shake the feeling of wanting to fight it out with someone who can no longer fight back. Vent these feelings, friends! Anger in our grieving is normal, healthy, and authentic. Allowing yourself to feel this anger doesn’t mean that you will be angry forever. Infact, it will pass sooner if you find healthy ways to vent it from your system. One way to do that is through angry prayer.
Yell it out at God and give in to the need to fight in a way that won’t hurt yourself or others. Like that loving parent with a small child, God can take this. Unlike even the most patient of parents, God’s patience is limitless. That doesn’t mean that She won’t be stern from time to time and help us move on to the next step of our process, but it will always be done with love.
Finally, straight up sadness. What are we to do with the torrent of sadness that runs through us, under us, threatening to erode our most valiant efforts to put on a good face and a stiff upper lip? “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night”
I heard about a man who had a regular practice of grieving where he would find a completely isolated place in the woods, strip off all of his clothes, lie on the forest floor, and speak out-loud all of the things in his life, both present and past, that had brought or was currently bringing him sorrow. It wouldn’t take long before the tears would stream from his eyes and then sobs would rack his body. Once the tears were completely spent, he would stand up, clothe himself, and walk back out of the woods.
I think that, both literally and metaphorically, this is the best expression of authentic grieving I’ve ever heard. Is this not how we are to approach God with our sorrows? Naked yet unashamed. Here I am, God. I beg you to hold me in my grief. Here are my woes. I weep for myself, for my loved ones, for the strangers I will never meet, for this world that is broken and crumbling. It is not a prayer to be relieved of the sorrow. It is a prayer of relationship with our divine parent. It is the desperate prayer to be held and known and loved through the pain and suffering.
This is what we were promised. Not that we would never suffer or even that all suffering would be inherently meaningful. No, we were promised that we would not have to suffer alone. God infuses our sorrow with meaning the way a parent does with a sad child, through a closer bonded relationship. When we offer all of ourselves, naked and unashamed, to God then God can truly show us love and care.
The poet Kahlil Gibran wrote, “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”
I like this poet’s expression. Sorrow and joy go together. The more we practice authenticity in both of these, the more we will truly feel alive. Like the monks mentioned at the beginning of my sermon, we will be increasing the size of the container that holds the salt, the suffering. And we will also be strengthening our love with our loving God - the Holy Parent of us all, who yearns to hold us close through it all.