When Only a Sad Song Will Do
The choir’s anthem this morning was really the perfect introduction for the sermon. Thank you for that moving rendition of “Deep River.” Sometimes we need a song, a sad song, to unlock our hearts, to break us open so we can feel what’s going on with us, in us.
Do you have a sad song you listen to when only a sad song will do? Country music seems to capture loss and heartbreak exceptionally well and so two of my sad songs are “Love Has No Pride” by Bonnie Raitt, and “Desperados” by Linda Ronstadt. But my saddest of all sad songs has no words at all: Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.” Gets me every time.
For each of us, for all of us, sometimes only a sad song will do. Adam Brent Houghtaling, who wrote, This Will End in Tears: The Miserabilist Guide to Music, believes our culture undervalues doom and gloom. He explains that depression and melancholy are two very different beasts. Depression is a disease, but melancholy, the fancy word for plain old ordinary sadness, Houghtaling says, “is a tool for reflection and a catalyst for creativity.” There are healthy aspects of sadness, he writes, and “To do battle with that is to struggle against what it is to be human, to misunderstand happiness, and to dismiss the possible catharsis afforded by” all those sad songs.[i]
In other words, there is a time to weep, as the familiar line from Ecclesiastes reminds us.[ii] People in the Bible seem to take this much more seriously than 21st century Americans. Abraham weeps for Sarah;[iii] Esau weeps when his brother robs him of his father’s blessing;[iv] Jacob weeps for his son Joseph;[v] King David weeps repeatedly and “bitterly”[vi] and other kings weep, as well;[vii] brave men weep,[viii] all of Israel weeps;[ix] the apostles Peter[x] and Paul weep;[xi] and of course, the shortest verse in the Bible is: “Jesus wept.”[xii]
There is something cleansing, something cathartic about a good cry. Something that helps us move on; that even can be, as Houghtaling writes, “a tool for reflection and a catalyst for creativity.” That’s why the Book of Lamentations is in the Bible. It’s a long poem, probably written after Judah was conquered by Babylonia. The holy city of Jerusalem and the Temple had been destroyed. Most of the country’s powerful people were dragged off into exile, leaving the peasants and a handful of others to try to put together the pieces. Lamentations is beyond sad; it describes the horrible calamities visited on the people of God by their conquerors, and their fear that God had abandoned them. It is not fun reading. But it served the purpose of giving expression to the people’s agony. Would these ancient people have used the same kind of therapeutic language we do? No. But I think they knew without the help of a shrink that speaking out, singing out, actually expressing grief and suffering has therapeutic value. In other words, it is healing. We need to feel sad before we can quit being sad.
And there’s something even more healing about feeling sad together; about knowing that when tragedy has come to a whole people, the whole people can express their sorrow together. We see this in community outpourings of grief: The mountains of flowers left at the nightclub in Orlando and the warehouse in Oakland. President Obama’s singing “Amazing Grace” at the funeral of South Carolina State Senator Charles Pinckney, among those killed in the Charleston shootings.
There is a time to weep. Grief is not something to cure or get over or deny.[xiii] There’s no way around grief; the only path to healing is through grief. When people say, “Get over it,” they usually mean, “I’m uncomfortable with your pain so I want it to stop now.” But the truth is, we never actually “get over” some losses. The pain subsides and we learn to live with loss but we don’t “get over it.” And the hurt won’t go away just because we don’t acknowledge it or show it.[xiv] If we don’t recognize it and feel it, it’s likely to fester and then lead to behavior that’s completely out of line with who we want to be: resentment, blame, rage, even violence. On the other hand, actually feeling and noticing our own hurt is more likely to lead to compassion for other people’s hurt, compassion that can transform us and our relationships.
The Book of Lamentations shows the movement of healing: acknowledge the grief, express it, feel it, move toward hope. This isn’t always a straight line. Anne Lamott said grief is like a lazy Susan. Often you think you’re through with it, but it keeps circling back around. We see that in Lamentations: pain, hope, pain, hope. The poet keeps reminding the people that God is in the midst of it all; that even when it’s hard to remember God’s promises, God’s promises remain. There is hope on the other side of grief. The verses we read from chapter 3[xv] this morning may have sounded familiar to you. That’s because they became the chorus for one of our best-loved hymns, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”:
Great is thy faithfulness! Great is thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning, new mercies I see.
All I have needed, thy hand hath provided.
Great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me![xvi]
This hope helps us through our grief. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
It was almost 50 years ago that Bobby Kennedy was supposed to make a routine campaign stop in a poor section of Indianapolis. A largely black crowd had waited an hour to hear him. Kennedy had been warned not to go by the city’s police chief. As his car entered the neighborhood, his police escort left him. Once there, he stood in the back of a flatbed truck. He turned to an aide and asked, “Do they know about Martin Luther King?”[xvii]
They didn’t, and it was left to Kennedy to tell them that King had been shot and killed that night in Memphis. The crowd gasped in horror.
Kennedy spoke to the crowd without any notes. He said we could choose as a country to move toward greater polarization, “filled with hatred toward one another. Or,” he said, “we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love.”
He did not tell the people not to hurt. Instead, he quoted from his favorite poet, Aeschylus, who wrote:
Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
through the awful grace of God.
“In our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
“What we need in the United States,” Kennedy said, “is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.
“So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King … but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love – a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke. … We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We’ve had difficult times in the past, … and we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it’s not the end of disorder. But the vast majority of … people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.”[xviii]
Many other American cities burned in the weeks after King was killed. But there were no fires in Indianapolis. Kennedy, like Lamentations, knew there was a time to weep, and that tears can heal us; tears free us for compassion and hope.
Each of us, all of us, have our own reasons to grieve now and again. Loss of loved ones. Loss of health, or of a job. A relationship broken and either in need of or beyond repair. The loss of a beloved colleague and pastor. The current division in our country, the threat to communities that have been historically marginalized, the forces that are presently threatening to dismiss (and in some cases) destroy the gains that we’ve made as a nation on civil rights, immigration policy, social policy and economic enfranchisement for all.
It is appropriate and important to feel this grief, whatever its source, because there is a time to weep. At the same time, we are the people called to infinite hope, and hope will move us through our grief. So as Bobby Kennedy said, let us pray for our country. “We’ve had difficult times in the past, … and we will have difficult times in the future.” But let us let our grief be “a tool for reflection and a catalyst for creativity”[xix] and compassion. A catalyst for creative, compassionate action that can change a time of weeping into a time of joy, laughter, and hope.
I’ll leave you with a wry but very hopeful version of the Ecclesiastes passage written by a Bay Area pastor, Kim Notvotny. She calls it “Ecclesiastes for 2017”:
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every single thing this side of heaven:
a time to be a baby, and a time for last breaths;
a time to rage incoherently at the state of the world, and a time to tuck yourself into soft blankets and drink ginger tea;
a time to smash the imperialist white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy, and a time to build up the egalitarian, multiracial, anti-racist, environmental, liberationist love movement;
a time to make wishes on dandelions, scattering seeds to the wind, and a time to pluck up new weeds, declare them flowers, and make new wishes;
a time to ugly cry and let the snot drip down, and a time to belly laugh till your sides ache;
a time to grieve dear ones gone to glory, and a time for dance parties even among graves;
a time to deep clean and throw away all the crap that doesn’t spark joy, and a time to collect thrift shop treasures and impractical shoes;
a time to cuddle so close you get tangled up in embraces and can’t tell whose arms are whose, and a time to give each other space, to become your whole selves;
a time to be on the search for what’s next, what’s on its way, and a time to let go of what you always thought you’d have;
a time to recycle what’s ready to go, and a time to upcycle what wants keeping;
a time to shred old files, and a time to stitch up fresh wounds;
a time to get real still and quiet, and a time to yell true things out loud;
a time to love what needs loving, and a time to hate what needs hating;
a time for necessary conflict, holy resistance,
and a time for peace, which steadily persists,
and passes all our understanding.”[xx]
May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.
© Joanne Whitt 2017 all rights reserve
[i] Aaron Leitko, “When All Hope Is Gone, Put on a Sad Song,” September 20, 2012, https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/when-all-hope-is-gone-put-on-a-sad-song/2012/09/20/a656f358-fce5-11e1-a31e-804fccb658f9_story.html?utm_term=.a35891b8d789.
[xiii] Brené Brown, Rising Strong (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2015), 145.
[xiv] Brown, 59.
[xvi] “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” lyrics by Thomas O. Chisholm, music by William Marion Runyan, 1923. It may be found at #39 in the Presbyterian hymnal, Glory to God.
[xviii] Robert F. Kennedy, “Remarks on the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” delivered 4 April 1968, Indianapolis, Indiana, http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/rfkonmlkdeath.html.
[xix] Houghtaling, in Leitko, ibid.
[xx] Kit Novotny, January 3, 2017, https://www.rmnetwork.org/newrmn/ecclesiastes-for-2017/.