I believe that I am an optimist. One of the key characteristics of a mentally healthy person is optimism, and I like to think that I have it in spades. I was raised to believe in the power of positive thinking and to always look on the bright side. After all, nobody likes a Debbie Downer! I also come from a Christian faith perspective in which Christians are supposed to live in the hope of Jesus Christ’s resurrection. We are supposed to have hope for something better and just “give it all to God”.
Still, for the past few months I have been restless, anxious, conflicted, angry, in denial, and depressed. Hmmmm . . . that kind of sounds like grief. Of course, we’ve had a lot to grieve over of late: a deadly pandemic, a devastating economic collapse, racial injustice, the shut-down of many of our social institutions, not to mention all of the usual stuff—environmental degradation, climate catastrophes, war, famine, human rights abuses, political unrest, racism, etc, etc, etc.. I don’t think that American culture does grief very well. When someone dies, we have a funeral or memorial service and then we expect people to quickly get over it, bouncing back to normal. Well, “normal” no longer exists, if it ever really did in the first place. We need to grieve; we have to grieve.
While grief is the experience of suffering, lament is the opportunity to proclaim grief, to name it. In at least the Judeo-Christian tradition, of which I am the most familiar, it also happens to be a key first step in the healing process.
Last week, Whitworth University’s Office of Church Engagement hosted its annual Ministry Summit (virtually, of course) on the theme of “Lament and Hope”. The theme and speakers were chosen months before coronavirus had entered our collective conscious. I have heard many sermons in my lifetime telling me to “cast all of my cares on God”, but, until last week, I can’t remember a message that encouraged me to cry out to God in despair—to lament.
The ordering of the conference theme was important; lament first. In the Hebrew Bible, lament is all over the place. We often describe the psalms as “songs of praise”, but over one third of them are actually songs of lament. Several of the books of the prophets are laments, as is the aptly named Book of Lamentations. Lament is all over the Bible, yet it is often glossed over and ignored. Christians want to get to the good news of Easter while bypassing the grief and anguish of the betrayal and crucifixion. We want a happy ending or to at least feel like we are working productively towards it. As someone committed to climate action, racial justice, and a healthy world for all people, I want to do something and take action RIGHT NOW! The clock is ticking; who has time for grief?!?
Yes, we have a climate crisis on our hands, and crises are, by definition, urgent. However, over the past week, I have come to see the value of acknowledging grief through lament. This world is messed up, and we run the risk of becoming disillusioned, disenfranchised, and hopeless if we don’t take the time to name our grief through lament. Lament isn’t limited to Christians. No matter one’s faith persuasion, lament can help us focus our activism and stay grounded in compassion.
What does lament look like? For me, it is crying out, naming collective and personal suffering or anguish. There is no one way to lament, but I think that the following verses from the prophet Joel are a good place to start. We aren’t supposed to live in lament forever, but it is a healthy first step to hope.
The fields are devastated,
the ground mourns;
for the grain is destroyed,
the wine dries up,
the oil fails.
Be dismayed, you farmers,
wail, you vinedressers,
over the wheat and the barley;
for the crops of the field are ruined.
The vine withers,
the fig tree droops.
Pomegranate, palm, and apple—
all the trees of the field are dried up;
surely, joy withers away
among the people.
-Joel 1:10 – 12 (NRSV)