August 16, 2020
Season of Lament
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Here we are, half-way through the month of August. Five months ago, we entered this strange season that has spanned all of spring, most of summer, and promises to work its way through both the upcoming autumn and winter. It has been, and is, a season of fear, agitation, restlessness, anger, even despair. At the same time, it has been a season of reflecting, questioning, learning, stretching, even growing. Yet as I stay connected with friends and colleagues through texts, and e-mails, and social media, I am struck again and again by the reality that we are living through a 21st century season of lament.
Lament … a passionate expression of grief or sorrow. Lament … a profound demonstration of sadness or suffering. Lament … to express regret, disappointment … to complain … to weep for the loss of something significant. In the last 5 months, I have grieved the loss of travel, the sadness of not gathering with members of my family. I have complained of loneliness and have been disappointed with those who don’t take seriously the threat of COVID-19, who refuse to practice measures to reduce the virus’ spread. And I have wept for those who could not say good-bye to dying loved ones and for those whose loved ones are isolated in hospice and nursing care. We are living in a season of lament.
Imagine such a season lasting for 70 years! That was the plight of our Israelite ancestors – 70 years when the problems just kept coming, one after another. 70 years of pain – both personal and communal. 70 years when things would continue to get worse before they got better. The people lost their land, their temple, their king. It was up to prophets like Jeremiah to call the people to reality… yes, building and planting will come … but first you must face hard truth – the kind of truth Jesus would later say will “set you free.” The exile was a time of war; the land and temple were in ruins. With such devastation and destruction all around, the only way Jeremiah could get the people’s attention was through words of deep lament. Lest we think lament is felt and expressed only by humans … in our Scripture passage for today, we hear, in just a few verses, a remarkable 3-way lament … in the voices of Jeremiah, the people, and Yahweh, the Lord.
Jeremiah laments first: “No healing, only grief; my heart is broken.
Listen to the weeping of my people all across the land.
Isn’t the Lord in Zion? Is her king no longer there?”
* Why have you abandoned your people, O Lord?
Yahweh responds: “Why then did they anger me with their images, with pointless foreign gods?”
* Sounds as if you’ve given up on me, says the Lord.
Now the people wail: “The harvest is past, the summer has ended, yet we aren’t saved.”
* When will this end? When will you deliver us, save us, from this season of pain and suffering?
Jeremiah’s despondency continues: “Because my people are crushed, I am crushed; darkness and despair overwhelm me.”
* I have no words … I am bereft.
Verse 22 feels both divine and human – both the Lord and the prophet offer deep lament: “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then have my people not been restored to health?”
* Where is the hope in the midst of this season of exile?
Scripture always speaks to the context of all of God’s people. Scholars remind us that few scripture passages have resonated with the souls of enslaved African Americans in North America as did these words from Jeremiah. Sold into slavery by greedy traders and merchants, forced to live in a “far country” (in exile, if you will) … those hoarded onto slave ships must have wondered what they had done to deserve such treatment. Their cries of despair, their laments, became hymns and spiritual songs – many of them offering encouragement and hope in the face of hopelessness, many showing courage in the face of despair. One such song is today’s focus hymn, “There is a Balm in Gilead.” African American theologian Howard Thurman says this about the refrain of the spiritual: “The enslaved caught the mood of this spiritual dilemma and with it did an amazing thing. [They} straightened the question mark in Jeremiah’s sentence into an exclamation point: ‘There IS a balm in Gilead!’ “
This spiritual offers a note of ‘creative triumph’ in the face of despair; it offers hope in the midst of fear and desolation. This spiritual does not speak of the physical abuse faced by enslaved people; rather it names a spiritual illness, the “sin-sick soul.” In our Glory to God hymnal, the editorial note at the bottom of the hymn suggests that “no earthly remedy can compare with the healing that comes from a sense of God’s presence; nothing else can heal the “sin-sick soul!” This spiritual feels like an ongoing lifeline for our sisters and brothers of color who, for 400 years in this country, have lived a season of lament both personal and communal.
In comparison to 400 years … or to 70 years … our season of lament of 5 months and counting seems infinitesimal, at times even insignificant. Still we cry with the Israelites: “the harvest is past; the summer has ended; yet we aren’t saved.”
We aren’t saved by supposed miracle cures for this deadly virus. We aren’t saved by elected leaders who ignore scientific knowledge. We aren’t saved by 6 hours a day of Zoom meetings. We aren’t saved by expecting our lives to one day be the way they used to be.
In this season of lament, we find ourselves in a bit of a spiritual dilemma – how long do we cry out in despair? How loudly do we complain? How long do we wail for release? We will do well to remember the words of Howard Thurman … that our African American ancestors caught the mood of their spiritual dilemma and, in bold faith, straightened Jeremiah’s question mark into an exclamation point: “There is a Balm in Gilead!”
With that exclamation point, and in bold faith, will come a sense of God’s presence – in and among and around us. And in God’s presence we will find healing. In God’s presence, we will be made whole. For in our 21st century season of lament, there IS a balm in Gilead. Thanks be to God. Amen.
* Working Preacher.org: Commentary on Jeremiah 8 by Alphonetta Wines and by Frank Yamada.
* Discipleship Ministries of the United Methodist Church – History of Hymns: “There Is a Balm in Gilead” by C. Michael Hawn.
* Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal – Hymn No. 792, editorial comment by Ruling Elder David E. Eicher.