• Steve Johnson

Lament in the Midst of a Pandemic

Several years ago our youth took a mission trip to Los Angeles, and on their return our Youth Pastor at the time, Gordie Wetmore, said something that really struck me. He was recalling his feelings as he walked through Skid Row, feelings of despair and hopelessness in the face of all the suffering and poverty he saw. He said that he even began to doubt the faithfulness of God as he was almost swallowed up by all of the hunger and addiction in the area. Some of you may be alarmed by such a statement, but I found myself refreshed by Gordie's honesty and bolstered by his suggestion that such feelings made him desire more strongly to work with God in fighting against such injustices and travesties right here at home. The practice that Gordie had engaged is is called lament, and it is a lost art in the Church.

Worship is essentially an act of communal prayer, and all modes of prayer must be present for worship to be healthy and authentic. We regularly practice thanksgiving, we love to praise, we pray on behalf of one another (supplication) with frequency and we’re even becoming more aware of our need for confession, both public and private. But what about the place of lament? Can we have a healthy communal prayer life without lament? Claus Westermann, a highly influential Old Testament theologian, makes a strong statement regarding this subject when he says, “Something must be amiss if praise of God has a place in Christian worship but lamentation does not. Praise can retain its authenticity…only in polarity with lamentation.”[1] If this is true, it leads to other questions - What biblical precedent is there for the practice of lamentation? What is the place of lament in the Church, and did Jesus sanction its practice?

We don’t have to go far to answer the question of biblical precedent. First, there is a whole book of the bible devoted solely to the practice of lament, a book that is cleverly entitled 'Lamentations'. Lamentations is a collection of psalms which express deep sorrow over the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon. The whole book follows the typical pattern for lament poetry which is also found in the Psalms. Of the 150 Psalms found in the book of Psalms, 68 may be described as some form of lament. There are communal laments (ex. Ps 12, 44 and 123), Individual lament (ex. Ps 3-5 and 22), Penitential Psalms (Ps 51 being the clearest example, as this is an individual’s repentance and request for forgiveness) and Imprecatory Psalms (like Psalm 137 – these Psalms are curses pronounced on perceived enemies of God). So, to refer back to Gordie’s statement, while many of you may have found it a bit shocking to hear such honesty, that Gordie had the audacity to question the faithfulness of God, in fact, he was very much in line with the Psalms and Lamentations. In this regard, Don Saliers, a Methodist theologian, says “If to call God into question is a sin, then much of the psalter (the book of Psalms) is sinful indeed.”[2]

Jesus himself adds validity to the practice by crying out in lament from the cross. Quoting Psalm 22 he asks “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” With this cry of pain, desperation, loneliness and abandonment, Jesus gives the ultimate voice to these feelings. This is precisely how the Psalms function – they give voice to our feelings about our experience of the reality around us. This cry from our Savior is a visceral, heart-broken response to the immensity of the sin, evil and pain of the world. With this cry, Jesus echoes another Psalm – “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord…” (Ps. 130:1) and it is through the cross that Jesus most closely identifies with us in the depths of our pain and suffering.

Through Christ’s willingness to suffer and die for us, we are now invited to share new life with Him. In fact, Romans 8:15-17 tells us that if we accept the adoption God offers through Christ, we may participate in the life of God in Christ: “When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” And this call to suffer with Him is also a call to suffer with the world. Perhaps the most visible reminder of this suffering is to be found in our sharing of the Lord’s Supper: ‘Lament is implied by the broken bread and poured out wine of the Eucharist.’[3] As Christ has offered Himself, broken and spilled out for us, we are empowered and compelled through this meal to do the same for the world around us.

Jesus chose to suffer and die for the redemption of a diseased, divided and decayed world. We must remember that the midst of our lament, Jesus is there, broken and spilled out for us. As we lament over the pain and loss that our world is currently experiencing in the midst of a global pandemic, as we kneel and wail in solidarity with the broken and bowed down, the sick and the sorrowful, we have the opportunity to offer them a glimpse of the slaughtered Lamb who is also the Lion, the crucified Christ who is also the Resurrected Lord. In the genuineness and honesty of our cry of lament on behalf of a world separated from God by sin, we offer a bridge of blessing.

[1] Claus Westermann, Praise and Lament in the Psalms (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981), 267.

[2] Don Saliers, Worship as Theology (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 120.

[3] Saliers, 124.

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Heather K. Barclay & Justin Leonard