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How lament can lead to hope in a time of plague

Grieving our losses amid the pandemic

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December 16, 2020

Like so many others across the country, our family has had to make difficult decisions regarding whether to uphold some of our family traditions as the holiday season approaches. While this pandemic persists, do we exercise caution and forego our family gatherings, or do we gather in spite of the virus’s continued spread? With a great deal of disappointment, we chose the former. 

As of this writing, COVID-19 continues its thievery, having stolen away more than 300,000 American lives, nearly every sense of normalcy that existed prior to its global spread, and, tragically, it continues robbing us of precious time, the most valuable of commodities. In many ways, life as we know it has endured its own sort of stay-at-home order while, simultaneously, time continues its forward march.

The paradox of pain

While the country aims to get this virus under control, there are inevitable losses and compromises that we must suffer. Yet, I fear we’ve neglected to address sufficiently the loss of time that being homebound necessitates. From the confines of our quarantine, we’re watching many of the moments and milestones of our lives pass by from an uncomfortable and lonely distance. As restrictions once again tighten, putting our holiday gatherings in question, the hugs, laughs, and quality time that are so much a part of this season’s cultural liturgy will, en masse, go unexperienced. And we should lament this loss. 

In his book Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy, Mark Vroegop says that “lament is the honest cry of a hurting heart wrestling with the paradox of pain and the promise of God’s goodness.” As my family and I have grappled with our decision not to attend our holiday gathering, I can’t help but imagine what that decision has cost us. There are nieces and nephews who will have left for college before we see them again, there are wounds still fresh with grief over the recent loss of grandparents, wounds that could be healed with hugs and shared memories, and there are missed late-night conversations had over cups of hot coffee with family members who we see far too infrequently. These are real, painful losses—losses of life, I would argue—and they should be processed with real lament. 

There is profound pain bound up in this season of pandemonium, and its reaches spread deeper and wider than we can imagine, beyond the loss of physical life and into the loss of experienced life and shared moments. As we’ve been shut up in our homes, and will continue to be for a little while longer, there’s a whole world turning outside our doors. We’re getting older. Our friends and family are getting older, and life continues to happen. Have you grieved the moments that you and your family have lost? Lament, while we’re quarantined in our homes, may be the most faithful and productive way forward.

The promise of God’s goodness

At every end of the spectrum, from the birth of newborn babies to the celebration of new marriage pronouncements to the grief of graveside funeral services, COVID-19 has stripped many of us of our ability to witness these milestones and countless others. As it marches forward and stakes claim on new ground, affecting now our most precious holidays, we’re undoubtedly experiencing a second wave of weariness. A season that functions as a balm for so many now seems spoiled by this persistent and vile little virus. In a year so fraught with heartache, is the practice of lament, an exercise meant to reckon with our deepest pain, really the right remedy?

In this time of plague, and the days beyond, let the pain of your lament redirect your gaze toward the goodness of God in the person of Christ. 

While the pain that prompts lament is real, pain is not its terminus; lament is a practice shrouded in pain but rooted in hope. After all, for the Christian, the cry of lament is not concerned most fundamentally with the experience of pain but with the recognition that “things are not supposed to be this way,” or, as Vroegop alludes to, “the promise of God’s goodness” yet unseen. As much as we may imagine that lament will take us deeper into the darkness of our pain (and in some sense it will), more importantly, staring squarely into the apparent dissonance between our collective experience and God’s fundamental goodness is an exercise in Christian hope. It is a guttural rendition of the language of the Lord’s prayer: “Thy kingdom come.” It is a Godward plea for the lifting of the dark clouds that hover overhead. 

So, have you grieved the loss of life, both physical and experienced, that you’ve suffered during this time of plague? Are you, like me, anticipating a holiday table with seats unfilled? Does it seem that rather than the “knowledge of the glory of the Lord filling the earth as the waters cover the sea,” it is instead a destructive virus taking up that mantle? Cry out. The goodness of God, even in the throes of lament, will spur you on to hope. 

The goodness of God in the person of Christ

Life as a creature in a fallen cosmos is hard. We are vulnerable in more ways than we’re willing to admit, susceptible to the smallest of inconveniences and the largest of calamities, all marching onward to face our final enemy, death. Lamentation, therefore, should be a central part of the church’s shared vocabulary. As children cry out to their parents when in dismay, the children of God should cultivate a greater proclivity for lament.

But even as we develop greater fluency in lament, we should recognize that, because of God’s grace, it is only a temporary practice. At the soon-coming of Jesus, the language of lament will be “un-Babeled” from our lips, when he once for all wipes every tear from our eyes. This is chiefly why hope is so intrinsic to Christian lament: We pour our lamentations out to the One who took on flesh and dwelt among us, the One who modeled lament for us at the graveside of his friend, and who will one day bring all lamentations to their necessary end. When Jesus descends from heaven, planting his physical foot on this physical Earth and making it his physical home, his re-made world will have no place for the cry of lament, only the shouts of ever-increasing joy. 

For now, though, cry for a world in turmoil. Grieve the time lost and the empty chairs encircling your holiday table. Cultivate the language of lament. Stare squarely into the face of your pain and recognize that those deep, guttural groans are hopeful pleas for the coming Kingdom of Christ. In this time of plague, and the days beyond, let the pain of your lament redirect your gaze toward the goodness of God in the person of Christ. 

Jordan Wootten

Jordan Wootten serves as a News and Culture Channel Editor at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. He is a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he earned his Master of Arts in Theological Studies. Jordan is married to Juliana, and they have three children. Read More by this Author