Sunday, August 2, 2015

Counting Blessings, Naming Pains

I grew up and continue to worship in church communities where the phrase “count your blessings” is said in response to a wide variety of circumstances. When the storms of life are troubling you, you are reminded to “count your blessings” and know that the blessings always outweigh the problems. In worship, you are urged to “count your blessings,” helping you to realize that you could never count all the many blessings God has bestowed upon you: each breath; each day of life; each need met. Because of God’s grace, our blessings are as numerous as the stars and so with triumphant voices, we often sing: 

Count your blessings, name them one by one;
Count your blessings, see what God hath done;
Count your blessings, name them one by one;
Count your many blessings, see what God hath done.

None can deny that counting your blessings cultivates a spirit of gratitude, a spirit of appreciation for a God who has numbered the very hairs of your head. Whether in song, or in sermons, or in bible study, I received the message that part of the task of being a good and faithful Christian is counting the blessings of a compassionate and loving God. But in this season of my life, I have often wondered: can we make room to name the pain, even as we count our blessings?

I was in need of a place to lament, a space where I could name my pain. I needed a safe place to admit that God has not supplied all my needs. I needed a place to say that God has not done increasingly and abundantly above all that I could ask or think. I needed a sanctuary to offer my lament before God, to confess that I felt forgotten and abandoned. I did not find that place at church on that Sunday morning: every musical selection ended on the high note of praise; each scripture reading chosen was joyful; and the sermon ended on “early Sunday morning” and the joy of resurrection. My heart was not in a resurrection moment, but rather, I sat in the silence of a Holy Saturday season – that period of time when the disciples of Christ had to contend with their doubts and fears and grief. I made myself vulnerable to a sister I knew, who could tell from my body language that something was wrong. I admitted that I was struggling, that joy eluded me. She listened patiently, and then told me that what I needed to do was to feel better was simply to “count my blessings.”

I recognize that we barely know how to sit with our own pain, let alone someone else’s pain. We resort to clich├ęs because we feel we must say something, even if it does more harm than good. At church that Sunday morning, I felt the tension: the admonishment to “count my blessings” was this sister’s way of reminding me that God has come through before and God will come through again. But in my suffering, what I heard was: “there is only room to speak joy, to celebrate, to praise.” I have a theology that makes room for us to name our pains, even as we count our blessings. It is a theology that both allows and insists we ask the tough questions before God. It is not an easy season for me to be in; a season where the questions and the doubts seem to outweigh the answers and the blessings. But if God knows my innermost parts, God already knows that I am struggling.

Zora Neale Hurston once wrote: “if you are silent about your pain, they'll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” I think of the scores of other black women I know who, like me, are afraid to name our pain. We are choosing to be silent. And our superficial theologies are silencing us. And so we are dying. We’re dying from the unrealistic expectations of being “strong black women.” We are dying of loneliness and lack of pleasure. We are dying of being “too much” for some and “not enough” for others. We are dying as we press down and ignore the pain and indignities of life. We wear the mask and loudly count our blessings so that others won’t know our vulnerabilities and sorrows.

Yes, count your blessings and name them one by one. But if there are days when all you can do is name your pains instead, know that this is also holy unto God. God longs for and hears the cries of the brokenhearted and not just the praise of the blessed.

 © Yolanda Pierce