This is a sermon for the sixth Sunday after Pentecost. The Scripture it references is Lamentations 3:22-33.
On my side of our family, I’m the only person – at least of our closer relatives – who has any connection with a church. It wasn’t always that way – both of my parents were raised as Roman Catholics – but as teenagers or adults they walked away, and as far as I’ve been able to tell, haven’t had any real desire to go back (or to find some other denomination to which to belong).
And while the reasons for a decision like that are always complicated, I think it’s fair to say – from the version of the family history that I’ve been given, anyway – that at least part of the problem for both of them was that when life was crap, church gave them neither language nor space to deal with that.
When church spoke of the incredible holiness of God, and of the blessedness of our life in relationship with him; but found no words for brokenness, no space for grief, and no answers except a prescription for deeper piety… is it any wonder that my parents, along with many of their generation, ended up deciding the church was pretty irrelevant to the big stuff in their lives?
Few of us would feel comfortable bursting into tears in the middle of a church service, or otherwise being demonstrative about our wounds. Partly that’s a social thing – our culture doesn’t go in for public displays of distress, in general – but in church there’s often an extra layer of expectation that because God is good (all the time!), we should be okay. That God should be enough. And it can make people very anxious indeed to be confronted with evidence that maybe it’s not all that simple.
But we know that’s not reality. We know that when we gather, some of us are hurting. Some are grieving. Some are anxious. Some are weighed down with worry. For some people, the bit of the intercessions where we acknowledge that people are struggling – or the chance to light a candle in silence – might be the only moments in coming to church where there’s kind of tacit permission to feel those feelings.
But – here’s the key point of what I want to say this morning – this kind of flattening of our human emotion before God and one another isn’t what God wants. It’s not even Biblical. This morning we had a reading from Lamentations; a whole book to give expression to grief and sorrow! And if we flip through the rest of the Bible, we find in Job, in many of the Psalms, in a fair few of the prophets, and even, at times, on the lips of Jesus, absolutely righteous examples of people voicing so-called “negative” emotions.
The people who wrote these parts of our Scriptures didn’t keep silent about what they were feeling or experiencing. They found words, poetry and even music to give shape to these emotions, and to share with others the experience of processing what was happening.
That means that these parts of Scripture can be a precious resource for us. When I don’t know the words for how I feel, I might find that someone else has written something that resonates. When I feel “stuck” in my own emotional mess, using a phrase from Scripture as the starting point for journaling or creative writing can help me find a way to work with it. When I want to feel that I’m not alone in what I’m struggling with, I can relate to other people with similar struggles; those who wrote about them in the Scriptures, and other believers now who gather around those Scriptures seeking company on the journey.
And more than that, these texts can help us bring how we feel into our relationship with God. If we believe that God wants to bring healing, restoration and hope in answer to our brokenness, we also need to understand that that can only happen when we confront our brokenness, are honest about it, and allow God to be at work in it. To open our wounded hearts to God, and to be able to be vulnerable as we wait for what God might do. A piece of text can help us to do that in a more controlled and measured way – I’d almost say a more emotionally safe way – than if we just kind of try to deal with everything all at once.
But they help us do that because these Scriptures aren’t empty words uttered to no one. God’s people have someone to whom we can bring all of our emotional burdens. In fact, lament – naming what is wrong – is just as valid a form of prayer as praising God for what is right. It’s not somehow a denial of God’s goodness to say that your heart is breaking; on the contrary, it’s an affirmation of God’s goodness; because to even try to have that conversation with God says that you trust that God actually cares. That God’s heart is moved with compassion; that God will not leave you unanswered in your distress. Think about it; you wouldn’t complain to someone you really thought didn’t give a fig, would you? But we can say these things to God because we know that God does care, and does want to respond with tenderness.
Our emotional lives are complicated. I don’t for one second that preaching a sermon like this will magically fix everything, or even fix anything. I do hope it will encourage you to be open with yourselves about the times when you’re not okay; and open with one another (this is half the benefit of the social time over a cup of tea), and maybe even give you some ideas about how to feel you can talk to God about this stuff.
How we might make space for it in our worship together is trickier, but I think it’s important to be thinking about that too. I’ve been wondering for a while whether we might make more creative use of the oratory; set up different prayer stations at different times, encourage people to explore different ways of praying. Doing that sort of thing well takes work and thought, though, so at the moment it’s really just an idea I’m keen to explore.
We neither want to rush past our difficult emotions nor get stuck in them. I hope what I’ve said today will encourage you to accept them as normal and healthy, and explore some of the resources we have for finding the life God wants to give us, even amidst our difficulties.