James Cone said that “The blues are about black life and the sheer earth and gut capacity to survive in an extreme situation of oppression.” Yes, of course the blues are entertainment, music to dance to and usually, as Son House said, are about what happens between a man and a woman. But we can’t get away from the fact that the blues originated in the context of the suffering and discrimination suffered by black Americans in the early decades of the twentieth century. Blind Willie Johnson, blinded as a child, and who died a pauper in 1945 after living in the ruins of his burnt-down house, expresses a deep-rooted sorrow in “Lord I Just Can’t Keep from Crying”:
When my heart’s full of sorrow and my eyes are filled with tears
Lord, I just can’t keep from crying sometimes.
The blues express the mourning of a people. They are what the Bible call a lament.
This isn’t something you hear about too often in our churches – we prefer happier, more joyful expressions of faith. Nothing wrong with that, but there’s got to be an opportunity to give voice to the sorrow and fear and distress that is part of the experience of life. Those of us who live in North America or Europe have relatively stress-free lives for the most part; the majority of the world, living in poverty, suffering from war, subject to food and health insecurity have much more to be anxious about. But all of us, rich or poor, at some time or another have to go through difficulty – as I’ve been reminded recently by readers of this blog or of my book – ill-health, family problems, job or money worries, sometimes life-threatening, frightening, painful.
Old Testament specialist Water Brueggemann says that “the practice of lament is a sine qua non for believing people who embrace need and vulnerability in the presence of God.” Lament, he says, needs to be “a permanent theological practice.” All of us, at one time or another are feel vulnerable, are in need and, like Willie Johnson, “just can’t keep from crying.” And giving expression to that vulnerability, as Brueggemann reminds us is part of our humanity and part of our relationship with a loving God. It’s OK to cry out in despair and pain. Because, if there’s anything that Good Friday reminds us of, it’s that the very nature of God is expressed in weakness and suffering and pain.
Good Friday is the day when Christians remember the suffering and execution of Jesus the Messiah. The church calendar knows this past week as Holy Week, and sees it as a chance for Jesus followers to reflect on the significance of the last week of Jesus’s life as he goes to Jerusalem, falls foul of his enemies and is then captured, tortured and executed. It’s a grim story, seemingly at odds with the joy and hope that is characteristic of most of the New Testament and which marks a lot of Christian worship.
After the story of the Passover celebration by Jesus and his disciples in Mark 14, the group are said to “sing a hymn,” before headed out to the Mount of Olives and the terrible train of events that was to ensue. I wonder what they sang? Was it a song of triumph and expectation? I suspect it would have been a Psalm, Israel’s hymn book. The Psalms are a great resource in times of trouble, helping to express both the sorrow and fear that we feel, but at the same time a trust in God. As the story moves on, it gets to that point of Jesus’s utter desolation and sense of abandonment, when he cries from the cross, quoting Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
That sense of utter hopelessness gets to the heart of human experience. It reminds me of one of the slave songs remembered from anti-bellum days, which eventually resurfaces in the spirit of the blues:
Oh My Good Lord! Keep me from sinkin’ down . . .
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen . . .
I’m bowed down with a burden of woe
O who will deliver po’ me?
Good Friday is a dark day, for sure. But it’s one where we get to see the participation of God himself in human pain and despair. It’s where we see God in Jesus sharing our pain, crying our lament, bearing our burden. And that’s something all of us need to know at one time or another.
Of course, as the old preacher said, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s comin’.” Good Friday’s not the end of the story.