When life hurts, people of faith lament. We give voice to our pain when we are suffering. We call on God to hear us, to see us, to hold us. There is great power and promise in lament. It’s a deep and necessary part of Christian faith.
But there are some Christian leaders who will tell us that we don’t need to worry because God is in control of everything. Don’t be afraid, they say; God will take care of everything. Don’t grieve; God holds “the whole world in his hands.” Last week, I quoted a blogger who wrote, “Sorry to break up the big panic, but the coronavirus will not take anyone outta this world unless that’s the good Lord’s plan. And you’re not gonna change that no matter what you do or what you buy.”
Now let’s be clear. I don’t ever want to minimize the power of God’s love in our lives as individuals and in the life of the world as a whole. But this kind of triumphalism and passive resignation simply is not Christian faith.
So let me say it as clearly as I can: this pandemic is not God’s will. God’s purposes are not being fulfilled in this crisis. Christian faith does not abdicate our responsibility to work as faithfully as we can to make the world a more loving and just place. Rather, we understand that God is inviting us into a partnership to work together for the healing of the world.
As a Christian, I understand that there is lots we can do about this pandemic. We begin by paying attention to medical officers. We do what they are telling us we need to do, not out of fear, but out of love to make sure that we take care of ourselves and each other. We wash our hands frequently. Practice physical distancing. Reach out to each other by phone and email.
But I want to take this in a different direction. There is another spiritual practice which helps us in this time. We learn to lament.
That’s uncomfortable for many of us. We grew up with the mantra introduced by French psychologist Emile Coué: “Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better.” That became such a part of our psyche that United Church theologian Douglas John Hall named North America as an officially optimistic society.
We no longer believe that quite so strongly. There’s been too much evidence to the contrary. But it is still part of our psyche. When someone asks us, “How are you doing?” we almost automatically respond, “I’m fine, thanks” … whether we are or not.
So let me suggest that in a time like this, we can reclaim the power and promise of lament.
It is a deep and abiding theme throughout the Bible and theology of our faith. Almost a third of the psalms are laments. Psalm 130 is a good example: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!” The Psalmist cries out to God when life is not fair, when life hurts, when it seems there is almost too much sorrow or pain for us to bear.
We also find it in John’s gospel when Jesus’ friend Lazarus has died. Jesus stands at the grave and weeps. He doesn’t seek to explain what has happened. He doesn’t try to minimize the grief of other people. He doesn’t tell them that everything will be okay because God is in control.
He stands at the grave and weeps.
And if you take the Christian doctrine of Incarnation seriously, that God was in Christ, then we also can say that God stands at the grave of Lazarus and weeps. God sees the difficulty of this pandemic and weeps. Wherever and whenever injustice happens, God sees it and feels it in God’s own heart (see Exodus 3, for example).
There is space in Christian faith for grief and lament.
Yes, it is true that Christian faith is a faith which celebrates the power of life. We affirm powerfully that God’s purposes are found in hope and resurrection. “I came,” says Jesus, “that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
But that doesn’t negate our grief when our lives fall short of the fullness which God intends. In fact, quite the opposite. We long so deeply for life that we mourn when we do not feel it. When Jesus weeps when Lazarus has died, he asserts powerfully that it is okay to yearn for life. It’s okay to cling to this beautiful world. It’s okay to feel a sense of wrongness and injustice in the face of death. It is okay to mourn the loss of vitality, of intimacy, of longevity. It is okay to love and cherish the gift of life here and now.
We lament. We pour out our fears and disappointments and pain to God. We don’t bottle up our negative emotions, but we express them openly and fearlessly in the presence of God, who loves us with an undying passion.
That kind of lament is essential to healing. How else can we deal with the fears of a time like this? How else would to be possible to hold on to hope in the face of injustice or suffering in the world?
Lament frees us from feeling guilty (“it’s all my fault”) or from engaging in denial (“everything’s fine, thanks”). In the midst of our pain and suffering and disorientation, we reach out to God. We seek relief. We seek comfort. We seek healing. We seek to be held and loved.
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook