Sunday, September 23, 2007

Is There No Balm? Jeremiah 8:18ff

This summer as I have traveled from annual conference to annual conference leading workshops on storytelling, I have described to folks what makes a good story. I explain there are good stories and bad stories and we all know the difference. Right? Good stories I explain, have a structure, a moral and always end in hope. Good stories, good Christian stories, always end in the good news of Jesus Christ.

It is one of those parts of the training with which people naturally resonate. We like inspirational, hopeful stories of triumph despite challenges and loss. These are the stories we want to hear, the movies we want to watch, the books we want to read.

Yet, each time as I move from explaining the characteristics of a good story, to the actual practice of telling our own stories, someone always asks, “But, what if my story doesn’t end in hope? What if there is no good news after all?”

This is a serious question.

The people who attend these trainings are Reconciling United Methodists in some of the most conservative areas of our Methodist connexion…Kentucky, Indiana, Arkansas, South Carolina, Georgia. The reality of much of their ecclesial life is bleak to say the least. When I ask them what it means to be a fully inclusive church they stare blankly back at me. They don’t know because they have never experienced it. They can’t even imagine it.

How do we tell good stories when it seems there is no hope in sight?

Beyond our own experience in local churches that exclude and discriminate based on sexual orientation, we look around the world in which we live and see what seems like an endless array of sorrow and suffering for which there is no good news in sight. Hurricane Felix sweeps through the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua and devastates already fragile indigenous communities. Three white students hang nooses on a tree and receive a two day suspension, while a black teen faces 14 years in prison for a school yard fist fight. Young men and women are sent to serve their country only to come home in body bags. Millions struggle under the weight of chronic illness and debilitating degenerative disease that slowly drains the life from them. Precious children die at an early age, some caught in the global AIDS crisis, others simply lost for lack of nourishment.

In our own lives we too witness suffering and loss that leaves us bereft seemingly without hope. Sometimes our losses come suddenly and without warning, discrete tragedies that make no sense. Other times we are struck by the endless stream of chronic suffering around the world.

It becomes hard to tell a good story in the context of so much suffering, so much pain, so much despair. And, we like the Israelites, cannot raise our head in song or story in the midst of our suffering… “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and wept…How can we sing the songs of God?”

Contemporary health and wealth gospels do us a disservice when they try to convince us that “All things work for good for those who love our God.” We are told to “buck up,” “trust Jesus,” “give it to God,” and “obey God’s will.” Stories of God’s purported need of our loved ones in heaven or God’s intention for us to learn a lesson through pain are supposed to make our suffering and loss better. This type of theology tries in vain to comfort us with the idea that “we’ll understand this in the by and by.” Remember, “Ours is not to question why, ours is but to do or die.” These pat answers, while always offered as sincere consolation, are not only na├»ve, but offensive and insensitive to the realities of our lives, which at time seem broken beyond repair.

For those of us who have grappled with grief and suffering, whether in the context of a sudden loss or a chronic condition, we know these easy answers and platitudes just don’t work.

Yet, while recent revisions of our Christian response to tragedy seem shallow and inadequate to address the suffering of the world, our faith tradition has a rich history in dealing with evil in the world. While modern day seekers may wish to find the answer to how a good God lets bad things happen, our ancient ancestors understood the response to tragedy was not explanation, but lament. In the face of great loss, sometimes all we can do is lament, bemoan to God and to our community our great losses. Our faith ancestors have shown us that to lament is to be faithful.

There are a host of biblical texts which witness to the reality of profound emotional and existential suffering in the lives of the faithful. The reading from Jeremiah this week sounds a lament for the community of Judah. “Is there no balm in Gilead?” Is there no cure for our suffering? Even the famed medicinal remedies of Gilead could not cure the dis-ease of the people living in the turbulent and dark last days of the independent kingdom of Judah.

This cry in the context of social and cultural loss summed up perhaps the people’s own lament for the devastating days in which they lived. Nothing it seemed could soothe the pain of a besieged and beleaguered community under constant threat of warfare and social collapse.

I cannot help but imagine that the threat of violence our Israelite ancestors lived with might be similar to that faced by the thousands living at the edge of the current conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Is there no balm in Gilead?” “Is there no balm for Baghdad?”


How do we tell our stories and sing our songs in the midst of a world besieged and beleaguered by tragedy and loss?

While well-meaning, many of our contemporary Christian responses to suffering end up painting God as an omnipotent, yet capricious supreme power who saves some while allowing others to perish. This answer quells our questions but leaves is with a faith in a terrifying and seemingly apathetic Divine. Rather than pat answers, perhaps, we like our faith forebearers are called back to the lessons of lament.

This week at a Methodist funeral for a father and son lost through a tragic and inexplicable murder-suicide, the pastor there, a friend and colleague of mine said this,

“There are no words, no simple platitude, no empty condolences that can make this better, nothing that can take away the pain we are feeling today. Along with the sorrow and shock and saddness come confusion and even anger. We want to know why and how this could happen, and that's something we'll never be able to know. We want someone to blame for this tragedy, someone to rage against, someone to take the brunt of our anger.

I stand before you with whatever authroity I can claim to tell you that there are no bad guys here today; there is no one to blame. The bad guy, the perpetrator of this terrible tragedy is nothing more or less than deep pain, a pain so severe that it claimed the lives of two victims, both of whom were and are loving and beloved men. And so, without a tangible outlet for that pain and grief and anger, we might be tempted to blame ourselves, to wonder if there was something we could have done to stop it, or to be angry with ourselves for no other reason than we have no where else for that anger to go.

But there is someplace else. There is someone else. Perhaps we're afraid to name it, to go there, to let ourselves be angry, because some might say it's wrong or sin or blasphemy. But there is only one person--one being--one entity I know of that can take the full force of our anger, the only one we can yell at, blame for things that have happened, scream ourselves hoarse with grief, and be assured that we will still be loved just as much, if not more. And that's God. We can take that pain, that anger, and yell at God. God can take it. God can and will still love us with that amazing, forgiving, unconditional love with that surround Ed and Eddie too.”

This is a what it means to lament: to cry out to God with our pain and our anger; to scream ourselves hoarse with grief that we might find relief.

The good news is not found in some Pollyanna interpretation of sorrow that magically turns it to joy, nor in a helpless acknowledgement of incomprehension at God’s omnipotent will. Rather, the good news comes that even in the midst of tremendous suffering and sorrow, God is present with us, no matter whether we can sense the Divine presence or not. God can take our anger and our sorrow because God has already experienced it in flesh.

What is interesting about the passage in Jeremiah that we read is that scholars disagree about who the speaker is in the passage. Is it Jeremiah? Or is it God in God’s self, lamenting the devastation and suffering of God’s own people? The choice of voice radically changes how we interpret the scripture. If God is the speaker, notions of an omniscient and omnipotent God who stands by idly while we suffer is shattered. Instead we have a picture of the divine who weeps with us, who suffers with us, who laments with us. Far from being unfaithful doubters, we join God in questioning and crying out at the chaos and ambiguity that is the very nature of human and created existence. God like us has no pat answers, only laments at the loss and devastation.

Re-reading verse 22 in this light suggests that the people's wound is God's heart wounded. God identifies so closely with the people that their wound is the Divine wound. For us as Christians this should sound familiar. Isn’t this a facet of our incarnational theology that tells us Jesus is the Divine poured out into human flesh to dwell in and among humanity, as one of us?

God suffers not because suffering is somehow salvific. No, God suffers, simply because we suffer. Our existence is so intimately connected to that of the Divine that God cannot but help suffer with us as we walk through the many varied, valleys of the shadow of death.

How do we tell our stories when it seems there is no hope? We tell them to God and know that in our pain, God is there, seen or unseen, felt or unfelt. God can take it and bear it with us.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Just as the pslamist cried out, so also did Jesus, and so also do we. Yet, we have the confidence of children of the Divine to know that just as God did not forsake the psalmist nor Jesus, neither will God forsake us.

1 comment:

Jennifer said...

just what I needed to hear. Thanks for posting this.