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Jeremiah 8:18 – 19a and 8:20 – 9:1
“Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” has been sung by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Sam Cooke, Marian Anderson, even Bing Crosby, for crying out loud. It was likely a slave song, born from the experience of pain and suffering that is the original sin our our nation, a story so deeply ingrained with what it means to be the United States that we must tell it alongside Paul Revere, Washington crossing the Delaware and the battle of Gettysburg. The original lyrics tell of the promise of an afterlife without all of the trials of this life, the perfect encapsulation of what we now call “slave master” Christianity, a numbing theology that tried to remove the mark of the whips and the trauma of slavery with a flowery promise of some future reward. There’s lots of evidence, however, to suggest that when such songs were sung in the fields, with lyrics that appeased the eavesdropping overseers, it was actually code for a night-time meeting in which the real religious imaginations were spoken out loud, imaginations that thought of freedom in the here and now, that spoke of endurance for a literal tomorrow, of change before death came. It was the beginning of the blues.
Jeremiah, in the midst of singing the blues to Israel, lodges his complaint to the heavens – is there no balm in Gilead? There’s evidence that Jeremiah is referencing an ancient colloquial phrase here. And, if not, it certainly is one now, thanks, in no small part, to King James English and gospel spirituals. A balsam tree was something real, though, an ancient medicinal plant, most likely the sap, and it gets mentioned a few times in the Bible as something of great value. Then the King James version of the Bible that translates this Hebrew phrase into “a balm in Gilead,” which sticks like sap, slowly becoming the equivalent of a “cure all” solution in our vernacular.
But whatever it is…Jeremiah is sure there ain’t none. In announcing this, Jeremiah takes on the role of poet, he sings the truth at us “on it’s side”, like he’s singing the blues, and I say that intentionally. The blues, after all, is more than a musical style, more just three chords and a pentatonic scale. Civil rights activist and blues singer Barbara Dane once said that the blues, “…speak from heart to heart.” The blues, as an American musical style, were born out of the worst conditions one people can force upon another, out of slavery and exploitation and were given to the world in the spirit of turning madness into sanity, pain into joy, bondage into freedom, and enmity into unity. This is music for survivors.
Jeremiah speaks to the same heartache that we find in the blues, but any musician will tell you that the blues isn’t meant to make you sad, as odd as that may sound. It is the voicing of sadness, the expression of grief, or pain, even guilt, but evoking it to get it out. It’s more about making you ache…about developing a longing in us for something other than what we are singing about, something that may feel soul-crushing, but which always sings it’s way into a joyfulness that can only be found in our struggle. “Nobody Knows” is a perfect example of this, a song of lament and promise, of hopelessness and hope, of struggle, yes, but also the endurance to support that struggle.
Psychologists who study the blues, and yes there are such things, tell us that blues songs teach us three things:
1. They remind you that you’re not the first to struggle with problems.
2. They give you perspective, they connect you to a larger story.
3. They enable you to find humor in your situation, and humor is a crucial tool in our stability.
All of this language is strategic language, not the rhetoric of a balm to heal our wounds. It is language that reminds us that we actually depend on our wounds, for our wounds are what can produce wisdom. It’s when we seek to cure them that things can go awry, as we become convinced of the illusion that there’s some perfect place we need to get to to be loved, or cared for, or accepted by God. It seems to me that this is exactly what Jeremiah laments – there really is no “cure” to be had, no God as deus ex machina who will fly in to save the day. The “balm in Gilead” isn’t even needed. What is needed is much more of a radical transformation. A balm is just a band-aid anyway, a way to mend an arm or stop a bleed so we can get back to what we were doing before. And that is precisely what Jeremiah is warning against, and what he laments. His people are searching for a quick and painless to return to business as usual, when what they need is to engage with the struggle, the ache, and the longing to transform them to a new way of living.
The quick fix is oh, so tempting, but it does not do what we hope it will do, whether that’s in our personal lives, or in the systems we build together, our collective lives. Jeremiah teaches us with harsh lessons that sometimes you have to tear things down to build things up. Sometimes walls and barriers, systems and policies need to be plucked up and pulled down, to use Jeremiah’s language, chains broken, so that we can plant freer and more just trees in the soil around us. That doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t happen with some magic tonic, some perfect salve to heal all the wounds, it comes from something more transformative, it comes from seeking a new trajectory, a new way to walk through life, not looking for some path of absolute feel-good happiness that doesn’t exist, but accepting the certainty of struggle and pain, the inevitability of the blues. Jeremiah knows that you sing the blues to find the joy.
Later on, in chapter 31, Jeremiah will hope (with the same intensity that he laments) for the humanity around him to have a new heart, one made of flesh and not of stone. God’s word, the text famously says, will be written on this new heart and placed within the body so that we will all be God’s people again. Surely such a heart transplant is a painful process filled with blood, sweat and tears. We have a lot of hurt in the world and currently several flavors of impending doom. This is our lament, these are our blues – quite different than Jeremiah’s, and yet not so different after all. And this isn’t Holy Week. It’s not Ash Wednesday or All Souls Day, or Lent or even a Blue Christmas service. This is called “Ordinary Time” in the church calendar. Ordinary time. That is the lament itself, I think. For this is not ordinary. Our relationship to the planet, our relationship to each other, our relationship to power and money – none of it is ordinary. We just think it is. Our default settings, Jeremiah has been screaming at us, are all off-kilter. We were not created for this, yet we seem unable, or unwilling, to change.
Now if it seems like I’m preparing us for something, I am. I believe that we have very challenging days ahead of us. Like the large crowds of mostly young people who gathered on Friday at Guthrie Green and in parks and public places all over the world, I believe that the impending climate change will have incredible impact on our social systems, the fabric of our societies and the awareness (or lack of awareness) of our interconnectedness. It’s like the anxiety around the impending invasion of a conquering army. Its a clarifying crisis that makes us remember that we are not the first to deal with problems, we are connected to a larger story of resistance and change and we need some good humor and light hearts to endure such trauma.
The truth is that we still need one of those heart transplants that Jeremiah sought. And there is a movement at work for just such change. Our children, if you haven’t noticed, are rising up now, lifting their voices on a multitude of issues. They are asking for us not to listen to them, but to the overwhelming science that climate change is real, it is here, and we are causing it. They call on us to transform not only our carbon footprint, but our social footprint, pleading for us to stop this mad dash towards a “freedom” found only in more consumption, more guns and more walls. They ask us to consider the world we will leave them – will it still be imprisoned by racism and sexism, captive to fear and animosity, confined by a greed that we’ve been told is good, but actually constrains us all? Will we be able to light any candles for our future, or will we simply curse the darkness loudly at one another, over and over?
Jeremiah, friends, pleads for repentance, a fancy Bible word for changing course. He seeks the same words that we bandy about all the time now – resistance, transformation, revolution – even salvation. Here’s where I part ways with Jeremiah, though. He seems to try and guilt-shame people into this revolution, to humiliate them to change. In fact, this is an oft-used technique of organized religion, browbeat people into submission. But I think that’s another band-aid. It doesn’t really work, not long-term. It just makes people miserable, and miserable people don’t transform anything. And, truth be told, miserable people don’t sing the blues. They don’t sing at all. They despair.
So, here’s another approach for the very poignant and necessary message of repentance from Jeremiah’s time to ours, a message we can hear and then tailor a bit for our purposes. I mean, if our salvation, not just the salvation in some life to come, mind you, but OUR salvation – ALL of our salvation – is supposed to come only from suffering and struggle and sorrow, then I have little hope for that salvation to succeed. Jesus tells his disciples, take up my yoke, take up this discipline, but his yoke, he tells them in a gentle voice, is easy…his burden is light. For his yoke is joyful, it is the full-throated blues sung in full awareness of the misery of the world, and in full acceptance of a God who seeks to transform and to heal. It is the yoke of joy and we should pave the road to transformation with such joy, we must gear our revolution with life-giving things, for if the resistance is only struggle and heartache, who’s going to sign up for that? If the revolution is awful and brutal and full of only suffering and torment, bitterness and beatdown, how many will we really expect to sign up for that rally? And why would they?
Joy, my friends, is not happiness. It isn’t giddiness or elation. This is not a “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” plea, nor do I want some pollyanna hope that is built on rainbows and puppy dogs and fairy tales. That’s a band-aid approach as well, an numbing approach to the struggle that we need to build new things. I am calling us to joy, a joy that stands next to our pain, alongside our struggle, recognizing that we need our scars to show us healing, we need our broken places to teach us about wholeness. Mark Twain, never really known for being an optimist, once wrote that, “the healthiest response to life is joy.” Not happiness or despair, not resignation or acceptance…joy. Joy is not optimistic, but hopeful; not content, but hungry; not at peace, but peaceful. One of the most popular voices on this life balance is Brene Brown, the “vulnerability researcher” as she calls herself. Dr. Brown says that joy comes only from the darkness, only from the Blues. She writes, “Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
May God be with us all on the journey, with us in our joy. Amen.