What do we do when everything seems to be falling apart? Coronavirus, racial injustice, the climate crisis – these are issues that can seem too big to face. Perhaps what we need to do is rediscover the practice of lamentation, writes Gideon Heugh.
The church is good at praising God. At a typical service (virtual or otherwise), most of the songs and prayers tend to be centred around triumph, joy and gratitude. What the church can be far less good at is lamentation: outwardly, passionately expressing grief or sorrow.
I’ve been thinking about this because Sunday 23 August is an official day of remembrance for the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. This is, of course, a triumph to celebrate – a moment of justice shining like a beacon in history. Yet it is also cause to lament, because the evil of human trafficking lives on: more than 40 million people are trapped in modern-day slavery.
The toxic legacy of the slave trade and colonialism – racial injustice and inequality – continues to cast a shadow over the world and keeps people locked in poverty.
It has been difficult at times to know how to respond to the outpouring of grief and anger around racial injustice that we have seen over the last few months. Like many of the issues facing the world today, it can seem overwhelming, and God can seem far away.
But perhaps our response should begin with lament. Perhaps we should go to our loving God with our sorrow, our confusion, our anger.
A healthy spirituality must include lamentation. Roughly 70 per cent of the Psalms contain laments – David and the other psalmists crying out to God in anguish, fear and uncertainty.
There is a raw honesty of feeling to these prayers: ‘Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?’ (Psalm 13:1-2)
I wonder how much of our prayer and worship is so honest.
God wants prayers of authenticity, not prayers of politeness. If Jesus himself can cry, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Matthew 27:46), then so can we. We serve a God who suffered, and who enters into our suffering.
Perhaps it’s our ‘stiff upper lips’ that prevent us from doing this in the UK. Or perhaps it’s an unwillingness to explore those darker corners of ourselves, for fear of what might happen if we do.
Yet we must not shy away from our grief. If we cannot trust God with our deepest pains, do we really trust God at all?
Only by exposing our wounds, both personal and societal, can heaven’s light begin to fill them. Or, as the writer Robin Wall Kimmerer put it, ‘If grief can be a doorway to love, then let us all weep for the world we are breaking apart, so we can love it back to wholeness again.’
Let us lament:
The God who suffered,
The God who wept, and who weeps.
How long before you answer our cries?
The world is not as it should be.
Injustice is everywhere.
It feels like there is nothing we can do.
How long before you ease our sorrow?
A pandemic rages across the Earth.
People feel tired, trapped, and alone.
Many are grieving.
How long before you heal this pain?
The world groans beneath the weight of greed.
Governments fail to serve the vulnerable.
Not enough is being done to protect creation.
How long before you respond to this anger?
You are good and just, and you take the side of the oppressed.
So do not delay Lord – hurry to help those in need.