The Absence of Lament
Writing in Time magazine about COVID-19 early in the pandemic, Biblical scholar N.T. Wright said,
It is no part of the Christian vocation, then, to be able to explain what’s happening and why. In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain—and to lament instead. As the Spirit laments within us, so we become, even in our self-isolation, small shrines where the presence and healing love of God can dwell.
I'm fascinated and a little alarmed at the lingering mental, emotional, and spiritual effects of the pandemic. Of course the many losses and deaths that occurred have had an impact on millions of families. It is understandable that they are still feeling these losses acutely. But there is a trauma, it seems, even for those who didn't experience the death of a loved one directly. I'm reminded of my research on grief in the years following the 9/11 attacks, where a lingering trauma also occurred. One of the problems now, as I see it, is that the current trauma is a nameless one. And, it is experienced by those who deny the severity of the pandemic and those who have been terrified by it alike. Hundreds of mini-losses are all wrapped up into people's everyday experiences: the loss of freedom to move about as one likes, the truncation of social circles, the loss of the illusion of controllability, the loss of personal space when in close compact quarters with others, the loss of the ability to be in large festive spaces with others, economic losses, myriad lingering health concerns. The list could go on and on.
And, as I can attest to as a former grief researcher, ours is not a culture that provides much clarity, support, and direction for acknowledging loss, grieving it, and moving forward healthfully and realistically. So, in times like these, it's no wonder that people feel worse than adrift. And Christians also perhaps fail to do what N.T. Wright recommends: "to be small shrines where the presence and healing love of God can dwell."
To do this, a good place to begin is lament.
Unfortunately, sometimes Christians believe and act out in quite the opposite way. RTS professor and pastor Peter Lee, writing in his book, Joy Unspeakable: Finding Joy in Christ-like Suffering, says,
…these laments remind us that there is nothing unusual or sinful in experiencing sorrow. There is a mindset in the Christian church that says we should not be struggling with pain or distress. Those who do so are viewed as spiritual deviants, ridiculed for their lack of faith in the Lord. The rationale is that if one truly believes in Jesus, they should only know happiness and joy, whatever their circumstances. These laments correct this faulty line of reasoning and show that to struggle with pain, doubt, or sorrow is not antithetical to a Christian life. The laments permit believers to suffer without the fear of being condemned.
Why do we put pressure on one another to hide pain and distress? Or to insist upon a uniformity of what it looks like to be in pain or distress? By these criteria, Jesus was a complete failure of what it looks like to walk the Christian walk. He cried, expressed consternation, and withdrew by Himself frequently. He shows joy, but other emotions as well. Near the end, he tried to share information with his disciples about his upcoming death as well as how He felt about it. Their responses were less than supportive, and He says so in His moment of greatest need, in Gethsemane ("Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake for one hour?" Mark 14:37).
I gain solace from this, and move away from an image of Christ as an ethereal Stoic toward seeing that the Son of God experienced real human pain--both physical and emotional.
I don't live in lament, at least not at this point in my life, thank You, Lord! I choose joy, I live in joy, I am a joyful person. I researched depression, loss, and grief early in my career and am well-aware of the pitfalls of staying stuck, not seeking help when needed, and resigning oneself to rumination and wallowing. Rumination on pain is not lament--which is active rather than passive. From a psychological standpoint, lament is extremely adaptive and growth-inspiring! Instead of avoiding pain, one acknowledges and confesses it. There should also be a communal component to it, in which we join together in the lament.
Richard Foster, in his book, Prayer, describes various under-utilized types of prayer in helpful and specific detail. In the section on the "prayer of complaint," he writes:
Is there any kind of prayer in which we can engage when we feel forsaken? Yes--we can begin by praying the Prayer of Complaint. This is a form of prayer that has been largely lost in our modern, sanitized religion, but the Bible abounds with it.
The best way I know to relearn this time-honored approach to God is by praying that part of the Psalter traditionally known as the "Lament Psalms." The ancient singers really know how to complain, and their words of anguish and frustration can guide our lips into the prayer we dare not pray alone. They expressed reverence and disappointment: "God whom I praise, break your silence" (Ps. 109:1, JB). They experienced dogged hope and mounting despair: "I am here, calling for your help, praying to you every morning: why do you reject me? Why do you hide your face from me?" (Ps. 88:13-14, JB). They had confidence in the character of God and exasperation at the inaction of God: "I say to God, my rock, 'Why have you forgotten me?' " (Ps. 42:9).
The Lament Psalms teach us to pray our inner conflicts and contradictions. They allow us to shout out our forsakenness in the dark caverns of abandonment and then hear the echo return to us over and over until we bitterly recant of them, only to shout them out again. They give us permission to shake our fist at God one moment and break into doxology the next.
Keep in mind, Jacob wrestled with God...and was blessed for it.
Again, what Foster describes is not exactly what I felt this past year. Complaint, yes. Shaking my fist, no. But, what's important is that the Lament Psalms show us what is permissible, sanctioned, and even modeled in the Jewish and Christian faiths. Jesus Himself models praying a Lament Psalm on the cross, when He quotes Psalm 22, saying,
My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?
Maybe I stayed in complaint overly long. It's possible. But what I didn't do is shove my pain down and avoid any reminders. I offered my complaint to the Lord, not just about my daughter having a cancer diagnosis, but regarding all the myriad losses we were going through throughout that process. Doing so allowed me to then get up and go about my work, throwing myself into productive activity in a Life is Beautiful kind of way. Apparently, my approach to crisis, whether it be pandemics or cancer, is to pretty much embody the Roberto Benigni character from that film, clownlike antics and all. So, this is how we ended up coping through Year 1 of the pandemic by celebrating every National Day (of chocolate, of Titanic remembrance, of Scottish heritage...the pictures from that year are entertaining and varied!). And then cancer scans and treatment involved the ubiquitous dinner in the city, library run, or at the very least, ransacking the cheese section of the hospital cafeteria.
This is the way I rolled---lament and then joy. Complaint and then celebration of everything possible that we could celebrate.
I have to say---I'm not sure how many people we know were aware of this whole vibe. What does it look like to go through a difficult trial that comes upon you out of nowhere? Does it look like the 40-something woman filling her arms with Italian cookies and tea sachets in the "Little Italy" section of the city while waiting for her daughter to finish lunch after an oncology visit? Um, yes. Did this same woman spend hours in prayer every morning, half complaint, half praise? Yep.
For those with the interest and patience to ask how we were doing through all this, I eagerly relayed the fun we had in the city and details from the hospital visits. Maybe offering my complaints to the Lord meant I had less to share with others, actually. Most people seemed to want to hear about successes and victories rather than the complaints, so it all kind of worked out, I guess.
But I know the Lord heard me.
We can emulate Jesus by allowing grievers and those in pain to have their laments. To let them speak their pain, and show by our body language that we're OK with receiving and hearing it.
And this is why I feel that many of us have a touch of the Prosperity Gospel, that ubiquitous American twinge that laces our Christian worldview when it comes to how we approach suffering. We seem to have a deep discomfort with our own and others' pain. I know I do, which is why I'm reflecting on this now. In another section of Prayer, Richard Foster describes the prayer of tears, which is one that I've always been attuned to, as a long-time Keith Green fan ("My eyes are dry, my faith is old, my heart is hard, my prayers are cold..."). Foster says,
What is it about all this sorrow and weeping and mourning? It sounds a bit depressing, at least to those of us who have been raised on a religion of good feelings and prosperity. The old writers, however, had a very different view. They saw it as a gift to be sought after, the "charism of tears." For them the people most to be pitied are those who go through life with dry eyes and cold hearts. They actually called this inner heart turmoil "deep joy."
So did C. S. Lewis. Joy, the bittersweet longing and simultaneous perception of inexpressible beauty, was the path that led him to God. It is both painful and exceedingly beautiful to gaze upon the Lord. The prayer of tears is actually much more joyful than merely happy expressions that are surface level and come from the unexamined heart of a person who is simply avoiding pain. In this person's deepest heart, they know that their happiness isn't genuine and is based on transitory experiences-- which the field of psychology teaches us will have diminishing returns on how much joy we get out of them over time.
It is counter-intuitive that we'll experience more joy if we face our problems and lament them. If we join together in our griefs rather than turn away from one another. If we let ourselves weep before the Lord, in a mix of relief and pain. Yet, Scripture, the wise writings of the saints, validation from behavioral science research, and personal experience indicate that this is so.
I have always loved weeping willow trees, and right now the new one in my back yard that we planted last year is bringing me joy by the little pussy willow furry catkins appearing on it. Willow trees have deep symbolic meaning. As this therapeutic treatment site describes (https://willowplaceforwomen.com/symbolism-of-the-willow-tree/):
The willow tree has a long history of symbolism rooted in spirituality and cultural traditions. There are references to the willow tree in Celtic and Christian tradition, among others. One of the most valuable traits of the willow tree is its flexibility. The willow tree is one of the few trees that is capable of bending in outrageous poses without snapping. This can be a powerful metaphor for those of us seeking recovery or a spiritual path. The message of the willow tree is to adjust with life, rather than fighting it, surrendering to the process...
The willow tree’s ability to not only survive but also thrive in some of the most challenging conditions. We can also look at how the willow tree encourages the expression of deep emotions, including grief and sadness through tears and teaching us the value and consequences of love and loss. One of the greatest symbolic meanings of the willow tree is that even through great loss we have the ability to grow and there is potential for something new.