Back in 2020, Michelle Obama wrote in an Instagram post that she was “pained “and “exhausted by a heartbreak that never seems to stop.” She was responding to the news of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police. I don’t want to take anything away from that horrific event, but I think that her words just might echo the feeling that most people in the world are experiencing today. Our theme for Lent is Our Whole Hearts, and the word for today is ‘Brokenhearted.’
So much grief in the world. We thought we might be through the worst of the COVID war, only to be hurled into another maelstrom. The Bible study for today in Our Whole Hearts asks these questions:
- What is breaking your heart right now?
- Where is God in the heartbreak for you?
I’m not having any trouble answering the first question: what’s breaking your heart right now? And I’d bet you’re not either. I mean, just pick a story or a picture. The mom, who was a tech worker in Palo Alto, and her two children killed by Russian forces as they tried to flee the town of Irpin, a suburb of Kyiv. The bombing of a maternity and children’s hospital in southern Ukraine. Meanwhile, the number of known Covid-19 deaths around the world surpassed six million. And just two weeks ago, Oscar Grant would have celebrated his 36th birthday, had he not been shot and killed on New Year’s Day 2009 at the Fruitvale BART station when he was just 22 years old. Sadly, I could go on and on. And we could add our own personal heartaches. What is breaking your heart right now?
That question, unfortunately, has easy answers. The second one: where is God in the heartbreak for you? – maybe not so easy. Or maybe it is an easy answer – at least on the surface. We can surely think of ways we could or should respond. We can certainly turn to scripture:
- You, O God, are a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. You have never forsaken those who seek you. – Psalm 9:9-10
- You are my hiding place; you’ll protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance. – Psalm 32:7
- God will fulfill all your needs in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:19
- We know that God makes everything work together for the good of those who love God and have been called according to God’s purpose. – Romans 8:28
- When evildoers attack me, spreading vicious lies about me wherever they go, they will stumble and fall. Though an army encamp against me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me, I will still be confident. – Psalm 27
These words of scripture can be great comfort to us in times of trial. But when we’re in the midst of it, it can be hard to see how these words of assurance can possibly be true. We might be drawn more to words of lament. Although we might hesitate, thinking that lamenting is a failure of faith. But it’s not; lamenting is part of faith, an act of faith. We cry out directly to God because deep down we know that our relationship with God counts; it counts to us, and it counts to God.
Lamentation, a prayer for help coming out of pain, is very common in the Bible. Over one third of the psalms are laments. Lament frequently occurs in the Book of Job and in the prophets.
- 2 Chronicles, the people cry, “We are powerless before this vast multitude that comes against us. We are at a loss what to do, so our eyes are turned toward you, O God.”
- Jeremiah moans: “Why is my pain continuous, my wound incurable…?”
- Psalm 130 wails: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O God!”
- One whole book, Lamentations, expresses the confusion and suffering felt after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians.
How lonely sits the city
that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces
has become a vassal.
She weeps bitterly in the night,
with tears on her cheeks;
among all her lovers
she has no one to comfort her;
all her friends have dealt treacherously with her,
they have become her enemies.
And of course, Jesus in today’s gospel reading:
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem! How often have I wanted to gather your children together as a mother bird gathers her brood under her wings, yet you refuse me!
It seems to me that in these times, lament is the appropriate response. For some reason, what popped into my head was a video from back when the pandemic had just started, and everything was moving online. This video was made by a very sweet-looking music teacher who said she’d written a song to help her process the transition to online teaching. Smiling, she began playing a little upbeat tune on her ukulele. After a little introduction, she kept on playing, but she also started screaming at the top of her lungs. The video went viral because who couldn’t relate to her screams? Maybe she gave the rest of us permission to scream, too.
And that’s what these biblical laments do, too. Father Michael Guinan, Professor Emeritus at the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley has said, “When we hurt physically, we cry out in pain; when we hurt religiously, we cry out in lament. Lamentation can be described as a loud, religious “Ouch!” I hear that “Ouch!” as the kind you emit when you stub your toe on a rock, or you step on a stray Lego, or when you close the car door on your finger – a long, wailing, “Owwwwwwwwwwwww!”
Another way of expressing this is through the Via Negativa, which is an ancient Latin phrase meaning “by way of negation.” Its origins can be traced to a way of seeking to understand God by negating everything that God is not. Naturally, once you remove everything God is not, you get the definition of God.
But Episcopal priest Matthew Fox has a bit of a different take on it. In his system of creation spirituality, he describes a spiritual process consisting of four paths. I’ve probably spoken on this before – and probable will again because I’ve found it so helpful. I’ll get to the Via Negativa in a second, but I want to start with the first path: the Via Positiva. To put it very simply, Via Positiva is the path on which we befriend Creation in a positive way, not from a place of a fallen humanity but as recipients of original blessing. It’s a place of awe, wonder, and delight. Listen to Fox’s description: “The experience of divinity is light. Awe is what triggers our intuition and wakes us up; it ignites and surprises us – like falling in love with another person or with music, science, flowers, poetry, and the earth.”
Think of the most upbeat, celebratory church service you’ve ever attended – maybe Christmas, or Easter, or Pentecost. Or a child’s baptism, or a wedding. Maybe your own personal encounter with the amazement and overwhelming delight in the Divine Presence – the ocean. That’s Via Positiva.
The second path of this spiritual process is the Via Negativa. Via Negativa is the path on which we befriend uncertainty, darkness, suffering, and letting go, in which we recognize those things that sometimes get in our way, such as pain, emptiness, silence. When we don’t deny ourselves the opportunity to feel, and express, and lament our griefs, we can recognize how powerful they are – and also how connected we are to one another, to the earth, to God. It can be painful, yes, but it can also be powerfully cathartic.
In a worship service created by Matthew Fox, the Via Negativa is experienced by literally weeping and wailing, expressing through the body the suffering of the world. And not for just a few seconds, either. You do it long enough to get over your self-consciousness and allow yourself to go deep and wrestle with those truths you’re willing to find. I tried it once in a congregation. It went over like the proverbial lead balloon. Sunday morning church probably isn’t the right setting. But I hope you’ll think about trying it some time. Make a video, like the music teacher. She found a way of catharsis that went viral.
Somehow, we need to find our way into a gut-deep, full body lamentation for the sorrows of the world. Frankly, right now, as we watch the news from Ukraine, this is what is needful. It’s where Jesus was when he cried over Jerusalem, when he screamed words from Psalm 22 from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent.” Or as Fr. Guinan puts it, “I call to you, O Lord, and all I get is your voice mail!”
This is where we try to answer the question: Where is God in all this heartbreak for you? Part of it is knowing that God is with us in times of suffering and heartbreak. It might not feel like it; we might lament the silence of God, the seeming absence of Divine Presence. But we do not go by feelings alone. We rest on the foundation of what we have learned and what we have experienced in the past.
I often think of Psalm 51 in the midst of Via Negativa, where the psalmist pleads, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation; and uphold me with your free spirit.” Via Negativa can be seen as being part of a theology of the cross.
And then, in this spiritual process, through our lamentation and soul-searching, we eventually move into the Via Creativa. Via Creativa is the path on which we befriend Creativity, exploring how we bring beauty into the world, how creativity is a form of birthing something that wasn’t there before. Via Creativa can be seen as part of a theology of resurrection, which is the most elemental, inner-most and deeply spiritual aspect of our beings. This is where we begin to imagine a better way. Fox says, “Imagination brings about not just intimacy but a big intimacy, a sense of union with the cosmos, a sense of belonging and being at home, of our knowing we have not only a right to be here but a task to do as well while we are here.” Through our creativity – whether that is nurturing children, making art, gardening, writing, teaching, building houses – we connect to the Divine in us and bring the Divine back to the community.
Going back to Michelle Obama who lamented, “I’m exhausted by a heartbreak that never seems to stop,” but continued, “if we ever hope to move past it, it can’t just be on people of color to deal with it. It’s up to all of us — Black, white, everyone — no matter how well-meaning we think we might be, to do the honest, uncomfortable work of rooting it out . . . it starts with self-examination and listening to those whose lives are different from our own and ends with justice, compassion, and empathy that manifests in our lives and on our streets.”
Another example is the late Phyllis Tickle’s response to the 2015 Pew Research Center’s report, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.” The report verified what we already know – that the religious landscape is dramatically shifting as more people move away from organized church. And there’s a lot to lament about that. But if we stay stuck there, we won’t get to the creative and transformative stages. Phyllis Tickle, who wrote the landmark book, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why, responded to all the anxiety produced by the report by saying, “Christianity isn’t going to die. It just birthed out a new tributary to the river.” She also said, “Christianity is reconfiguring. It’s almost going through another adolescence and it’s going to come out a better, more mature adult. There’s no question about that.” That’s Via Creativa!
Which leads us to the fourth path where we bring all of our grief, love, and creativity together. The Via Transformativa Via Transformativa is the path on which we befriend New Creation, which shows the way of the future as a time that can be present, images of God in motion in the world and at work in people everywhere. It’s about justice, healing and celebration. Via Transformativa has been called part of a theology of the Holy Spirit and provides a way for our creativity to move into areas of compassion and justice.
Creativity by itself isn’t enough. Obviously, we humans can take our creativity to negative places. Creativity can make bombs, for example. So creativity needs direction. That’s where our spiritual teachings come in: to channel our imagination into ways of compassion, healing, justice, and gratitude. That’s the purpose of being Church, to move into these ways together – honestly wrestling and confessing, grieving and letting go, visioning together how to channel our corporate creativity for the sake of the world.
So how does all this relate to the chaos that is all around us today?
1. It gives us permission to celebrate – even with bad news all around. You know that Sundays don’t count as days in Lent because each Sunday is a service of resurrection, Easter. So even amidst our lamentations, we can find joy. I call on each of you to take in as much awe and wonder as you possibly can. Stare into a child’s beautiful face. Marvel at a cat’s paw or the perfect symmetry of a flower. Or how about this – look at your own face with delight. Ignore the imperfections; we all have them. See the unique masterpiece that is you. Say “Wow!” out loud.
2. It gives us permission to grieve. We have so much to lament; it can indeed feel overwhelming. One place we can go is the Psalms. Find the psalms of lament. Be aware of all the feelings the psalmist expressed. And then don’t be afraid to express all your feelings in your prayers. Surely God’s heard it all and knows how you’re feeling anyway. Allow yourself to be immersed in the Via Negativa. Cry and scream for Ukraine, for George Floyd, for the earth, for 6 million COVID deaths, and all the other heartbreaks on a list far too long. People in biblical times would cover themselves in sackcloth and ashes. We’re too civilized for something like that – or so we think. Maybe a good collective, national cry or scream is what we all need about now.
3. Here’s where it gets pretty radical. By following this path, we are choosing to open up some space in the world, in our church, in our hearts for a new thing to be born. It’s a radical kind of faith that trusts in the creative power of God to bring it into being. The Via Creativa is the path that can find solutions to conflicts, better ways of living together in harmony. Maybe you’re part of a group working on something right now. But even if you’re not, don’t wait. Let Via Creativa work in you. The Holy Spirit will take the seeds you plant, however small, and make something of them.
4. Then Via Transformativa is the promise of Easter. We’re not there yet, even though it’s Sunday. It’s still Lent; the ‘alleluia’ is still buried. But resurrection is real. It is ours. It is what will channel us into those paths as yet untrodden, into ways of mission and ministry that will contribute to the healing of the world. This is no pie-in-the-sky naiveté. God has done it before and will do it again and again, despite how the powers of this world rant and rave.
I’m under no illusion that things will suddenly get better, that Putin will give up and go home any time soon. But as they say, it’s a marathon not a sprint. It’s no reason to give up.
Via Negativa is not depression; it is not despair. It’s an honest part of faith, part of the spiritual process. We have to take it seriously, be honest about it, while at the same time knowing that it’s not the only part of the process. We’re in this for the whole race. Or as the great African-American pastor S. M. Lockridge preached it, “It’s Friday. But Sunday’s comin’.” Violence, oppression, death and destruction will have their day, but they will not have the last word.
“It’s Friday. But Sunday’s comin’.”
Just then, some Pharisees came to Jesus and said, “You need to get out of town, and fast. Herod is trying to kill you.”
Jesus replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘Today and tomorrow, I’ll be casting out demons and healing people, and on the third day I’ll reach my goal.’ Even with all that, I’ll need to continue on my journey today, tomorrow and the day after that, since no prophet can be allowed to die anywhere except in Jerusalem.
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to you! How often have I wanted to gather your children together as a mother bird gathers her brood under her wings – yet you refuse me! So take note: your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is the One who comes in the name of our God!’ ”
“Make Art Not War” by street artist/social activist Shepard Fairey