An estimated one-third of the Old Testament consists of lamentations.
Yet many believers resist feeling angry at God, or experience guilt when they do. In the wake of a pandemic that made life inconvenient at best and tragic at worst, some have developed a few heated cosmological questions. The Rev. Abby Norman wants to help with her new book, You CAN Talk to God Like That: The Surprising Power of Lament to Save Your Faith (Broadleaf Books, 126 pages).
Norman, a 37-year-old Ohio native, was a Fulton County teacher before changing course and attending Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. She is a pastor of New Hope United Methodist Church in Palmetto. Her folksy, inclusive persona has earned her 9,240 Twitter followers and counting, poising her to become the next Rachel Held Evans.
She sat down with ArtsATL to talk about her book, life on Twitter and some big questions.
ArtsATL: Can you sum up your theology and how you got here? You were formerly an evangelical, right?
The Rev. Abby Norman: I am formally evangelical, though never fundamentalist evangelical. I have started calling it “evangelical light.” I am now a liberal Methodist. I love Wesleyan theology, which focuses on the grace of God and how God’s grace is always pursuing us. The Wesleyan rules are: 1. Do No Harm 2. Do Good 3. Attend to the ordinances of God. I love that. That sums it up for me.
ArtsATL: Please tell us about your book. Did your teenage bout with fibromyalgia play a role in inspiring it?
Norman: I have never ever been able to keep my mouth shut about anything and, if I could, my face tells on me anyway. I was gifted a faith from my parents robust enough to handle being a teenager with a chronic illness, having bad things happen, and I was allowed to be honest about God. I was assured God could take it. As I progressed into my own experiences with the church, I found other people weren’t blessed with that same freedom. As a pastor, I think it is vitally important to lament. I think it is the place where the church is lacking the most.
ArtsATL: Why should we lament?
Norman: It is important because we are designed to do it. It is how we were created.
ArtsATL: The poker-faced church deacons of my youth want to know if lamentation ever crosses the line into blasphemy? Can we cuss God without getting struck by lightning?
Norman: Have you read the Bible? People say all kinds of stuff to God. It is allowed. Jesus did it.
ArtsATL: According to a study, Americans’ membership in houses of worship continued to decline last year, dropping below 50 percent for the first time in an eight-decade trend. What mistakes is the church making and what can be done to address this issue? Or are churches too “obsessed with retention,” as you’ve said?
Norman: I think the church is afraid. I don’t know what we will be in a hundred years, I don’t even know what we will be for my kids or future grandkids. I think we need to say, ‘Hey, the people are asking something else of us and maybe that is a good thing.’ We are the people who believe in literal life after death. We should not be so worried about maintaining our status quo and should wonder what resurrection might look like.
ArtsATL: How about the million-dollar question of theodicy: If God is all-knowing, all-powerful and all-loving, why do we suffer?
Norman: I don’t know. It stinks. I wish we didn’t. This is what I do know: When we suffer God is with us. Jesus, Emmanuel, God is so near to us, so with us, in that suffering.
ArtsATL: You express yourself in a very direct, earthy manner. You’ve said Christians “get their panties in a bunch,” and you’ve been known to drop the F-bomb in a podcast. You have said, “My Jesus comes back whupping ass and breast-feeding!” Can you clarify that contention?
Norman: The Bible is so wild. There is this part of Revelation where Jesus comes back on a warhorse with a sword, on a stallion, but also shirtless and lactating. And I love so much about that imagery. In a world where there is this push to make Jesus manly (whatever that means), I like to remind people that God is subverting gender norms and inviting us to come be nourished at the breast of Jesus.
ArtsATL: You have become a Twitter celebrity. How do you maintain godliness, or even basic civility, in that contentious medium?
Norman: I am not sure “celebrity” is the right word, but I do have a large following. A lot of that is simply from being on Twitter for a decade. Early on I would watch people that I respected on Twitter, Rachel Held Evans and Sarah Bessey especially, and I tried to model my tweeting off of them. It is important to remember that everyone is a whole person, even the ones that are deeply unkind. I do not engage in arguments where it seems to me that people are not engaging in good faith. I don’t have to show up at every fight I am invited to. I can decline. Twitter is what you make it. I have raised thousands of dollars on Twitter for good causes, cheered on so many people, watched people change. You can trace a direct line between me getting on Twitter and me finding my calling. Hate-following is not a fruit of the spirit. If it doesn’t edify me, I unfollow.