“Singing from Darkness into Light”

October 27, 2019


Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
Oct. 27, 2019

“Singing from Darkness into Light”
Excerpts from Lamentations

A few weeks ago, I spent 24 hours in a short 48-hour period going to and from Indianapolis in my car with a good friend. We had a lot – I mean a lot – of time to talk. Thank goodness there are 236 Starbucks between Wichita and Indianapolis… and we stopped at a good number of them!

I am usually a pretty positive person, but I found myself saying to her that I was really looking forward to welcoming my new granddaughter as 2019 ends, because this has not been a particularly good year. I have done my share of lamenting. The news is saturated with people caged in holding cells and babies washed up on distant shores and abandoned refugees and human trafficking and water tables rising. I am aghast at the goings-on in the world and the inhumanity of it all. It is enough to give anyone pause.
• Social trust in our government is low
• Charitable foundations are collapsing
• Mom and pop stores are failing
• The family farm has disappeared
• Trust is a rare commodity
• We worry that undocumented workers will take jobs away
• We’re warned that nuclear build-ups can destroy the world
• Our world is polarized
• Fear is running rampant

I don’t know if you realize it or not, but whenever the people of God face difficult times, we sing. It has happened for thousands of years. 4,000 years ago, there was a Lament for Ur. Then came the protestations of Job. The tunes of the troubadours and the blues played in the South; the spirituals and even the hip hop of more recent times process human emotion. Lament is one of our greatest human tools. Shakespeare called it “giving sorrow words”. In our words and songs, we become aware of the brokenness and yet the bondedness of our souls.

Art Dewey, a Biblical scholar who spoke at UCC more than a year ago, wrote that “Lament trumpets a fundamental truth: we are in pain because we care. As we sing, we take a stand. We realize more than ever that we are not alone…. For our hearts spill out into the crevices of the universe.”

The book of Lamentations in the Hebrew Bible is a work of art produced in response to a historical disaster. It has 5 poems that grieve over the destruction of Jerusalem, military occupation, and the deportation of its leading citizens by King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians in 586 BCE. It has evocative poetry that still rings true to today’s sorrows because the expressions are universal. In Hebrew, the book’s name is ‘ekah, or “How!” – the conventional cry of shock at a death. It implies a question: How could this happen to God’s beloved?

Before I read a selection of Lamentations, I want you to take a moment to think of a time (perhaps it is in your distant past or maybe it is now) that you felt bereft… a time when you felt like you had been abandoned by God… a time you were hopeless and alone… a time you were completely distraught. And hear the lament echo through the years…

Look, O Lord, and see how worthless I have become.
Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?
Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow,
Which was brought upon me, which the Lord inflicted on the day of his fierce anger.

For these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears; for a comforter is far from me,
One to revive my courage; my children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed.
See, O Lord, how distressed I am; my stomach churns, my heart is wrung within me, because I have been very rebellious.
In the street the sword bereaves; in the house it is like death.

He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes;
My soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is;
So I say, ‘God is my glory, and all that I had hoped for from the Lord.’
Excerpts from Lamentations

I was reminded of Lamentations last week when Elijah Cummings died. He was the Congressman from Baltimore, Maryland and a civil rights activist. He is widely quoted as saying, “My life is based on pain, passion, and purpose.” It is not only poetic. I think for Cummings, it is truth. Pain, passion, and purpose. What a perfectly beautiful combination to motivate and push him forward as a Congressman.

Ann Weems, a poet whose spiritual insight and lovely words are often used during our Advent worship, wrote a different kind of poetry too. Her book, “Psalms of Lament” was written after her son, Todd, was killed less than an hour after his 21st birthday in 1982. In her book, she talks about writing these psalms of lament with tears streaming down her face and tossing them in her desk drawer and slamming it shut. The psalms stayed there in the drawer for some time. She writes, “(My story was) too painful to try fitting into ten correct steps of grieving. There is no salvation in self-help books: the help we need is far beyond self. The only hope is to march ourselves to the throne of God and in loud lament cry out the pain that lives in our souls.”

Many of you know that my mom is a grief counselor and is on call to help parents whose children have died. Certainly not in the first year – but later – one of the things the parents talk about in their grief groups is that the depth of their grief is related to the depth of the love they felt for their child. This is true of all lament… the depth of our lament over any issue is related to the depth of our commitment and feeling we have toward that person or thing. We lament because we care. It is the price of love. And when we lament, we sing.

The words of Elvis over the loss of a love:
Hear that lonesome winter bird
He sounds too blue to fly
The midnight train is whining low
I’m so lonesome I could cry

Did you ever see a robin weep
When leaves began to die
That means he’s lost the will to live
I’m so lonesome I could cry

The silence of a falling star
Lights up a purple sky
And as I wonder where you are
I’m so lonesome I could cry
I’m so lonesome I could cry

In the musical “Sound of Music”, Captain vonTrapp sings Edelweiss as a lament for his homeland of Austria before WWII:

Edelweiss, edelweiss
Ev’ry morning you greet me
Small and white
Clean and bright
You look happy to meet me

Blossom of snow
May you bloom and grow
Bloom and grow forever
Edelweiss, edelweiss
Bless my homeland forever

This next song of lament was published in 1937 and has been performed by many artists but most notably Billie Holiday. It is a dark and profound song about the lynching of African Americans in the Southern United States during the Jim Crow Era. In the lyrics, black victims are portrayed as “strange fruit,” as they hang from trees, rotting in the sun, blowing in the wind, and becoming food for crows upon being burned.

Southern trees
Bearing strange fruit
Blood on the leaves
And blood at the roots
Black bodies
Swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin’
From the poplar trees
Pastoral scene
Of the gallant south
Them big bulging eyes
And the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolia
Clean and fresh
Then the sudden smell
Of burnin’ flesh
Here is a fruit
For the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather
For the wind to suck
For the sun to rot
For the leaves to drop
Here is
Strange and bitter crop

If you ask someone who has loved and lost whether the love was worth the loss, they often pause and with tears in their eyes shake their heads a sad but reluctant “yes”. This is true not only of the love of a person – but the love of a pet, the love of a country, or the love of a deeply held belief.

I’ll close with this poignant Ann Weems lament from her book:

Jesus wept.
And in his weeping,
He joined himself forever
To those who mourn.
He stands now throughout all time,
This Jesus weeping,
With his arms about the weeping ones:
“Blessed are those who mourn,
For they shall be comforted.”
He stands with the mourners,
For his name is God-with-us.
Jesus wept.
“Blessed are those who weep, for they shall be comforted.”
Someday. Someday God will wipe the tears from Rachel’s eyes.
In the godforsaken, obscene quicksand of life,
There is a deafening alleluia
Rising from the souls
Of those who weep,
And of those who weep with those who weep.
If you watch, you will see
The hand of God
Putting the stars back in their skies
One by one.
Ann Weems

So, my friends, the next time you are faced with lament – whether you are grieving the loss of a love or the loss of an ideal, sing. It’s Biblical and it heals the heart. Sing as though your life depended on it. Perhaps it does.

Resources Used:
Weems, Ann. “Psalms of Lament”. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995.
Dewey, Art. “The Art of Lament: Singing in Our Pain…” The Fourth R. volume 32; number 5. Sept.- Oct. 2019. Pg. 2, 18.