Excerpts from a sermon preached at Church of the Ascension, Munich, Germany
December 3, 2017
The season of Advent is often associated with words like waking, waiting, watching, hoping and longing. These actions often emerge in the dark. Human life is conceived in the dark of the womb, spring is born in the dark of winter, and spiritual life is birthed in the darkness of the soul. Advent is a counter-cultural season when we are encouraged to sit in the stillness, listen in the quiet, watch in the darkness, and wait with longing and hope for God to break into our lives and the life of the world.
With all due respect to Handel and Bach, I think that Advent is best expressed by singing the blues. An ancient blues singer – the prophet Isaiah – laments on behalf of his beloved people to their beloved God.
Second Isaiah (as it is known) was probably written in 6th century BCE, at a time when the Persians had conquered the Babylonians and the previously banished Judeans had returned home to Jerusalem after 50 years in exile. Both the returning, former elite and the largely peasant class who had remained behind both found themselves disenfranchised and disconnected.
The people lamented, crying out to the God of their covenant, expressing a combination of anger, frustration, disillusionment, longing and hurt.
You know this mood. You know that “Why me, oh Lord” feeling. Perhaps, you experienced it at the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, the loss of a job, the discovery of a serious illness, or the acknowledgment of a psychic wound. Maybe you know it now in your fear of violence and terrorism, your concern for our fragile earth, your worries over the state of the economy, or your unease about the future of the European Union, the Middle East, or the United States.
Most of us, in our own way, have probably been there before (and we’ll go there again). It is that place of hopelessness, that awful place of waiting – waiting for the awfulness to end and trying to understand why it happened anyway.
I have come to understand more profoundly what’s it’s like to sing the blues in the presence of God. Last year, after receiving devastating news that I had early stage dementia, I was stunned. Like many people who receive a terminal diagnosis, I found myself in a season of relief, grief and escape. Both Emily and I played our song of a lament – like a favorite, but broken record – over and over again.
By giving myself permission to acknowledge the devastation that I was feeling, I allowed myself to grieve, lament and begin the process of dying to the life I had always known and being reborn to something new. Through my lament – my crying out to God – through facing my own Good Friday head-on, I came to a new place in myself.
Even though I knew that this wasn’t going to be a fun ride, I wanted and needed to live what I had been preaching for over 30 years: out of pain comes joy, out of brokenness comes wholeness, and out of death comes new life.
Lament is good for the soul. It’s even biblical. When we lament, we don’t have to preface our cry by, “I know I shouldn’t feel this way, but…” For we should feel this way when we feel this way. Life is not all sugar and honey. To say that everything is great when it is not is a lie; it’s an untruth, and it’s not fair. Lament is a form of honesty, a speaking of truth in love.
When we lament, when we sing the blues to God, our troubles do not magically vanish. However, our vision is lifted beyond our human hopelessness and life, and the waiting game becomes more manageable and meaningful.
Advent is a good time for singing the blues. It’s a lot like writing, painting, music or, as Isaiah suggests, making pottery. You take the clay, paint, words or music – and throw it, pound it, mold it, pinch it, stretch it and shape it. You might build it up, break it down and start again, and again, and again. And eventually, you start creating something beautiful with it.
So this Advent, try singing the blues, writing a poem or a prayer, painting a picture, or making a piece of pottery. In doing so, awake from your slumber and arise to the dawn of your own life, naming those things in the recesses of your soul that are blocking new birth, keeping God at a distance, numbing the psyche, and imprisoning the soul.
And when you’re finished with your lament (at least for the time being), be still, and listen for the response of God deep within you. You’ll be amazed at what you see and hear, and what you touch and feel. - Tracey