Hope in Lament
Back in April, my congregation talked about hope one Sunday at Zoom church. We weren’t sure what to do with hope, because it felt like hope was the equivalent of mindless optimism, and no one was feeling very optimistic. About a month into the pandemic and it was starting to become clear that COVID-19 was going to be disrupting our lives for some time. I determined that hope should be practical, because I couldn’t drum up any optimistic feelings. This would look like me exercising hope by donating to the local food bank, as an expression of my hope that everyone in my community would have enough to eat. Donations to food banks are fine expressions of hope, but I was also sure that I was missing something.
Several weeks ago, I encountered hope in an entirely new way. I was giving the peace lesson on lament for a different Zoom church. I’ve been learning about lament in my Hebrew Bible class at seminary and at the suggestion of my professor I’ve been praying Psalms of lament. This exercise had helped ease some of my pandemic-related fear and despair so it felt right to make that the subject of my lesson:
A Path to Peace through Lament
In this present moment, so many of us are grieving. We may have lost loved ones to Covid-19 and we may have been ill ourselves. We may have lost jobs and housing. Quarantine and social distancing and tension over elections and politics may be straining our relationships. Our children might be at home instead of going to school. We are worried about ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities and may feel powerless to fix things. All of this is heaped on top of systemic injustices and natural disasters.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I was trying to stay on top of my grief by naming all of the things I was losing: quiet alone time in my office at work, the physical presence of colleagues and friends, sharing coffee and meals with others, getting to visit my sister and her family, and singing in person with my congregation. I have spent various chunks of the past months feeling my grief and alternatively just wanting everything to be fine. And now there is part of me that feels like I should be used to this by now. Life must go on, I tell myself. I am tired of grieving and so I feel I must be done.
I want to offer that engaging in intentional grieving and lament are practices that can help us stay connected to our empathy. When we attempt to shut off or distance ourselves from our feelings, we shut down empathy for ourselves and have less to give to others. I do wonder if the political polarization in my country is related to this process of disconnecting ourselves from our feelings and losing our empathy in the process.
The Hebrew Bible offers models for grieving. Amid the many psalms of praise are also psalms of lament, which express the psalmist’s grief at God for letting things get so hard. These days, these psalms resonate with my own prayers of desperation. I don’t believe that God intervenes directly in human affairs, but in moments when I am overwhelmed, I wish that God did.
In Psalm 74 (NRSV) verses 21-22, the psalmist addresses God with their concerns
Have regard for your covenant,
for the dark places of the land are full of the haunts of violence.
Do not let the downtrodden be put to shame;
let the poor and needy praise your name.
Rise up, O God, plead your cause;
When we express our grief and lament, we trust God with our vulnerability and make room for a full range of feelings, honoring the humanity in ourselves, which allows us to hold that for others.
Our prayer for peace-through-lament comes from Psalm 102 (NRSV) verses 1-11. Pray with me.
Hear my prayer, O Lord;
let my cry come to you.
Do not hide your face from me
in the day of my distress.
Incline your ear to me;
answer me speedily in the day when I call.
For my days pass away like smoke,
and my bones burn like a furnace.
My heart is stricken and withered like grass;
I am too wasted to eat my bread.
Because of my loud groaning
my bones cling to my skin.
I am like an owl of the wilderness,
like a little owl of the waste places.
I lie awake;
I am like a lonely bird on the housetop.
All day long my enemies taunt me;
those who deride me use my name for a curse.
For I eat ashes like bread,
and mingle tears with my drink,
because of your indignation and anger;
for you have lifted me up and thrown me aside.
My days are like an evening shadow;
I wither away like grass.
God, be with us in our grief and help us find a way to peace through our lament. Amen.
As I was reading Psalm 102 in the church service, I felt the grief of that lament, the loneliness and the feeling of being abandoned by God. I also felt something else emerge from within me: a deep longing for justice. The pandemic and our country’s inability to manage it better have been a tremendous injustice disproportionately born by Native American communities and communities of color, the elderly, and those with disabilities. This longing for justice, I realized afterward, was hope. It wasn’t a smiley feeling that everything was going to be all right but an overwhelming desire for things to be different from how they are. And so we lament in this season of Advent, hoping, through our words and actions, for a better world to come.