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Jis’ Blue, God: A Pandemic Lament

Yme Woensdregt
Barry Coulter photo

Yme Woensdregt

I wrote about this poem just over five years ago, and as I was reflecting on the fact that we’ve been living in this pandemic for a year now, I found myself praying this lament again.

Many of us are tired. We’re hanging in there, mostly, but we’re tired. It’s been hard when we can’t get together with folks we love. It’s been not to be able to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries. It’s been even more difficult when we can’t gather for funerals. We long for closeness and hugs, for connection. We are impatient with the delays. It’s been especially tough on those who have lost jobs and income. They hate not being able to provide for themselves and their families.

This pandemic has exposed the differences that exist in our society. In some ways it has made us even more divided.

At the same time, there have been remarkable stories of hope and kindness. We are learning new ways of doing things. We’ve offered and received support. We have heard stories of remarkable courage and devotion over the course of the year. We stand in awe of medical personnel who have given deeply of themselves in service to the sick among us.

We’ve managed, mostly. We’ve tried to make the best of it, mostly. But oh, it’s been hard. And we’re tired.

On Ash Wednesday, Diana Butler Bass posted a reflection in which she lamented that “the entire year has felt like Lent, and today is just another ashy day … for most of the year, all I’ve done is reflect, pray, and read, mostly alone, all while worried that I might die, someone I love might die, or I’d unwittingly contribute (by my own carelessness) to someone else dying. Every time I put on a mask, I think of death and dying. In a year of a half-million deaths of other Americans and millions of people around the world, the Lenten discipline of contemplating mortality seems like one more painful day.”

This Lent, we’re surrounded by pain and self–denial and weariness.

I remembered this poem, written almost 100 years ago, called “Jis’ Blue, God” by African American teacher, poet, and children’s book author Henrietta (“Etta”) Oldham (1888–1975).

“Jis’ blue, God,

“Jis’ blue.

“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—

“Jis’ blue.”

In this remarkable and powerful lament, Etta gets real with God. She lays all her frustration out before God, giving voice to her depression and pain, her doubt and sorrow. It struck me again how powerful it is to give vent to our lament, to give voice to our pain and sadness.

I believe this is one of the ways in which we heal from sadness and depression. We give it voice. We speak it out loud. But it’s hard for us 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, to focus on the upside of whatever is happening to us.

Or we just give up. I know all of that from my own experience. Sometimes it’s just too hard. In truth, this pandemic has been really tough on people who are dealing with mental health issues.

A lament like this can help us share the burden of the sorrow we are feeling, even as we see the light at the end of this tunnel. We can work together, stand together, support each other as we continue to do the hard work of holding on until this pandemic is truly dealt with.

“Jis’ Blue, God” gives voice to the pain. It falls in the tradition of the biblical practice of lament, of praying out our sorrow and giving it voice. God desires this kind of emotional honesty from us. God delights in our forthright relationship, whether we sing with delight and praise or give voice 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 abandoning him. Sometimes we are guilty of thinking we have to be polite with God.

At the heart of lament, writes J. Todd Billings, 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 and sadness and worry. “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. After a year of pandemic, I lament, even as I celebrate the possibility of it coming to an end.

Yme Woensdregt is a retired Anglican Priest living in Cranbrook