Holy Ground by Sarah Scott, January 8, 2023

I saw this Instagram  post the other day from a person celebrating their 32nd birthday. It read: “Today is my 32nd birthday. Over the last month, I asked several 90 year olds what advice they would give to their 32 year-old selves.” Listed were 32 short proverbial-type sayings, things like

“Treat your body like a house you have to live in for another 70 years”

“The “good old days” are always happening right now.”

My favorite one from the list was “Do not fear sadness, as it tends to sit right next to love.”

One of my favorite classes from this last semester in seminary was Old Testament Exegesis. During one of our lectures, we had a panel of pastors come in to tell us about their experience preaching the Old Testament passages. Inevitably, a student asked: “What do you do with the passages that are scary, angry, violent, or traumatic?” To which one of the pastors replied, “You preach them. And you do not leave out the part at the end of the verse about death and defeat. The hardest passages for most congregants to wrestle with aren’t usually about war or bloodshed, but infertility.”

The pastor went on to talk about how Scripture encompasses the expanse of human emotion and experience and that we shouldn’t be afraid to explore the parts of the Old Testament that force us to confront pain – because much like a physical doctor, much of a pastor’s role in a congregation is pain management.

Scripture says much about pain.

I had the honor of being asked while I was still in New Jersey to do the memorial service for a boy who ended his life at 13. He was a close family friend of mine and worked with me at the cherry orchard in the summer. When I met with his parents about what they wanted for the service, they had already picked out the passages in Scripture that made them feel hopeful. Psalm 139, Romans 8, John 10. They needed help finding passages that honored their grief and pain, echoes of God’s voice that made them feel known in their affliction.

American Christianity has become very accustomed to ignoring pain for the sake of numbers and attendance. Frankly, most people don’t want to wake up early on a Sunday to hear a sermon about bloodshed and anguish. But I would also say that in every congregation there is at least one person who is actively ensnared by grief and loss.

I pointed the family that lost their child to Lamentations, specifically the 3rd chapter.

Lamentation was written in the 6th century BCE. It is traditionally attributed to Jeremiah, but it is more likely that it was written by a collection of scribes all trying to encompass the grief of Israel mourning the loss of the temple that fell in 586. Lamentations is an acrostic, which means each line of Hebrew begins with the same first letter in each stanza and ends up going through the entire alphabet. The imagery is very intense.

I’m going to read the entirety of chapter 3 and the first verse of chapter 4. Feel free to close your eyes if you would like, or assume a posture of worship that is comfortable. Hear now the word of the Lord from Lamentations.

Lamentations 3

I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of the LORD’s wrath.

He has driven me away and made me walk in darkness rather than light;

indeed, he has turned his hand against me again and again, all day long.

He has made my skin and my flesh grow old and has broken my bones.

He has besieged me and surrounded me with bitterness and hardship.

He has made me dwell in darkness like those long dead.

He has walled me in so I cannot escape; he has weighed me down with chains.

Even when I call out or cry for help, he shuts out my prayer.

He has barred my way with blocks of stone; he has made my paths crooked.

10 Like a bear lying in wait, like a lion in hiding,

11 he dragged me from the path and mangled me and left me without help.

12 He drew his bow and made me the target for his arrows.

13 He pierced my heart with arrows from his quiver.

14 I became the laughingstock of all my people; they mock me in song all day long.

15 He has filled me with bitter herbs and given me gall to drink.

16 He has broken my teeth with gravel; he has trampled me in the dust.

17 I have been deprived of peace; I have forgotten what prosperity is.

18 So I say, “My splendor is gone and all that I had hoped from the LORD.”

19 I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall.

20 I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.

21 Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope:

22 Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.

23 They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

24 I say to myself, “The LORD is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.”

25 The LORD is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him;

26 it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD.

27 It is good for a man to bear the yoke while he is young.

28 Let him sit alone in silence, for the LORD has laid it on him.

29 Let him bury his face in the dust— there may yet be hope.

30 Let him offer his cheek to one who would strike him, and let him be filled with disgrace.

31 For no one is cast off by the Lord forever.

32 Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love.

33 For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to anyone.

34 To crush underfoot all prisoners in the land,

35 to deny people their rights before the Most High,

36 to deprive them of justice— would not the Lord see such things?

37 Who can speak and have it happen if the Lord has not decreed it?

38 Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come?

39 Why should the living complain when punished for their sins?

40 Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the LORD.

41 Let us lift up our hearts and our hands to God in heaven, and say:

42 “We have sinned and rebelled and you have not forgiven.

43 “You have covered yourself with anger and pursued us; you have slain without pity.

44 You have covered yourself with a cloud so that no prayer can get through.

45 You have made us scum and refuse among the nations.

46 “All our enemies have opened their mouths wide against us.

47 We have suffered terror and pitfalls, ruin and destruction.”

48 Streams of tears flow from my eyes because my people are destroyed.

49 My eyes will flow unceasingly, without relief,

50 until the LORD looks down from heaven and sees.

51 What I see brings grief to my soul because of all the women of my city.

52 Those who were my enemies without cause hunted me like a bird.

53 They tried to end my life in a pit and threw stones at me;

54 the waters closed over my head, and I thought I was about to perish.

55 I called on your name, LORD, from the depths of the pit.

56 You heard my plea: “Do not close your ears to my cry for relief.”

57 You came near when I called you, and you said, “Do not fear.”

58 You, Lord, took up my case; you redeemed my life.

59 LORD, you have seen the wrong done to me. Uphold my cause!

60 You have seen the depth of their vengeance, all their plots against me.

61 LORD, you have heard their insults, all their plots against me—

62 what my enemies whisper and mutter against me all day long.

63 Look at them! Sitting or standing, they mock me in their songs.

64 Pay them back what they deserve, LORD, for what their hands have done.

65 Put a veil over their hearts, and may your curse be on them!

66 Pursue them in anger and destroy them from under the heavens of the LORD.

Lamentations 4

How the gold has lost its luster, the fine gold become dull! The sacred gems are scattered at every street corner.

“Do not be afraid of sadness, as it often sits right next to love.”

My time in New Jersey has been generally good but overwhelmingly hard. It feels like my life out there functions on a lot of extremes.

I hate the state, it is hideous and mostly concrete (except for the fall time).

I adore my roommate, he is an anchor for me.

I love my classes and my program.

At this time, I do not know how to engage with my peers. They are very very different from me. I do not fit in with them well. They are uninterested in engaging with me.

I work brewing beer at a brewery in Hamilton Township called River Horse. I am the first woman on their team since they opened in the 90’s. I love it.

I am lonely a lot of the time and miss my friends.

I am dating someone for the first time and it’s going really well.

I did not fit in at the large Presbyterian church in town that all my classmates go to, and I still don’t fit in at the small Evangelical church I currently attend.

All of these extremes bubble up in me as a sort of deep melancholy. On a particularly rough Sunday, I decided to try and attend a Friends meeting in Trenton. Trenton is the capital of New Jersey and is facing serious problems regarding poverty, homelessness and unemployment. Princeton is less than 20 minutes away and is wealthy and elitist.

The Friends Church in Trenton was built in 1739 and has been in use since then.  I decided to attend after realizing I would never be able to go to Princeton Presbyterian – one of the head pastors had made a comment about my outfit and how I would no longer be able to wear my yellow floral sundress after Labor Day. I am completely uninterested in my appropriate church clothes being policed based on color. Plus, I found the worship to be too formal to feel familiar to me. So, I went to see the Friends in Trenton because I was wrestling with the pain of feeling excluded and alone. 

I arrived and was instantly greeted by a couple – they commented about how much they liked my shoes (Doc Marten oxfords). About 6 people attended the meeting in-person. The meeting was an hour and a half long and I was the only one who was moved to share that day. I talked about acceptance and used my shoes as a metaphor. I shared a scripture that was on my heart.

After the meeting, we shared an entire meal together. Like a full breakfast meal. We talked about everything and they shared some potential churches that would be a good fit for me, if I chose to not attend their meeting. I found myself, (Presbyterian Doc-Marten-Wearer) seated at their table laughing with strangers in an old meeting house in the poorest zip code in New Jersey.

God’s presence is not afraid of pain, as Jesus Christ has experienced our pain for us. It seems that the Trenton Friends are not afraid of pain, because their trust in God’s love makes them unafraid of anything.

Do not be afraid of sadness, as it tends to sit right next to love.

This message was given to Spokane Friends by Sarah Scott during Sunday worship service on January 7, 2023.

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