Jis’ Blue God – A Lament
Jis’ Blue, God—A Lament
Rev. Yme Woensdregt
I came across an amazing poem published some 90 years ago. It’s called “Jis’ Blue, God”, and it was written by African American teacher, poet, and children’s book author Henrietta (“Etta”) Oldham (1888–1975). It is written in African American Vernacular English, which according to Wikipedia is “a variety of American English spoken by urban, working–class and middle–class African Americans.
“Jis’ blue, God,
Ain’t prayin’ exactly jis’ now—
Tear–blind, I guess,
Can’t see my way through.
You know those things
I ast for so many times—
Maybe I hadn’t orter repeated like the Pharisees do;
But I ain’t stood in no market place;
It’s jis’ ’tween me and You.
And You said, “Ast” …
Somehow I ain’t astin’ now and I hardly know what to do.
Hope jis’ sorter left, but Faith’s still here—
Faith ain’t gone, too.
I know how ’tis—a thousand years
Is as a single day with You;
And I ain’t meanin’ to tempt You with “If You be …”
And I ain’t doubtin’ You.
But I ain’t prayin’ tonight, God—
It’s a remarkable lament in which Etta gets real with God. She lays all her frustration out before God, giving voice to her depression and pain, her doubt and sorrow. The poem struck me all the more forcefully this week because of my column last week about my own depression many years ago.
One of the healthiest ways to deal with depression is to give it voice. To speak it out loud. But it’s so hard to do that. Our natural inclination is to keep it to ourselves, to try and tough it out, to work it out on our own. Or to just give up. I know that from my own experience. The shame can be so very deep, not to mention the fear of being stigmatized.
But if we’re ever really going to deal with the epidemic of depression and suicide in our country and around the world, we are going to have to speak up. In Canada, death by suicide accounts for 24% of all deaths among 15–24 year olds. It is the second leading cause of death for Canadians between the ages of 10 and 24.
Statistics like this show just how important it is for us to work together and speak of this pain, this hurt, this sense of absolute impotence. We need to stand together and provide a safe place where people who are at the end of their rope can simply fall, knowing that someone is there to catch them.
“Jis’ Blue, God” gives voice to that pain. It falls in the tradition of the biblical practice of lament, of praying out your sorrow and giving it voice. God desires this kind of emotional honesty from us. God delights in our forthright relationship, whether we give voice to delight and praise or to sorrow and complaint.
Etta’s language sometimes may seem sharp. Her language is much milder, however, than some of the laments we read in the Psalms (read Psalm 88 and 109, for example). Or read some of the passages in which Job wishes he were dead, and ends up blaming God for the horror of his life. Or remember the words of Jesus on the cross when he quotes Psalm 22 and accuses God of having abandoned him.
At the heart of lament, writes J. Todd Billings (professor at Western Theological Seminary), is a deep trust which “throws God’s promises back at him when it seems as if God is not keeping those promises.” Because of their deep faith in God, the Psalmists and Etta have high expectations of God; they take God’s promises seriously, and so they lament and protest and complain and accuse when it seems that God has broken the promise.
If you are a person of faith, it is perfectly acceptable to simply give voice to your depression and fear. “Jis’ blue.” “So blind with tears, I can’t see straight.”
Lament is one of the ways in which Christians pray their suffering, their pain, their depression. It’s a necessary and helpful way to be. Lament takes God about as seriously as you can.