Time for lament: a reflection on last Sunday’s service

by | Oct 1, 2021 | Reflections

John writes:

I appreciated the emphasis at Sunday’s service on the fact that as we meet together as a church on a Sunday morning, we can be real, coming as we are.

Coming as we are

In the context of discussing the marks of a ‘healthy church’ Duncan read James 5:13-14, which describes some people being ‘in trouble’, some ‘happy’, some who were ‘sick.’

And I loved the hymn we sang, We cannot measure how you heal written by the Iona Community’s John Bell. It speaks of people gathering to worship, bearing, some of them, lasting pain guilt and fear, the ‘private agonies inside,’  the ‘memories that haunt the mind.’

We are fragile human beings: such brokennesses affects us regardless how strong our faith is.  And we will find a measure of healing in acknowledging our struggles – to ourselves, to those close to us, and to God – and come as we are.

A time for lament

Duncan mentioned chatting with Peter about how few of the most popular Christian songs and hymns express lament – grief and sorrow. There are many songs of exuberant praise to God.  But how can we wholeheartedly sing praises to God when our souls are burdened by pain and a sense of God’s absence.  ‘How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?’  (Psalm 137:4) Lament in contrast faces up to the reality of our pain, and in confronting it we will often find the beginnings of hope.

Lament is at times the only appropriate response for us, not simply as individuals but as a church, as a local community, as a nation.  It is hard to sing praises with an undivided mind, when we are aware of COVID and its consequences – the bereavements, the millions suffering globally, prolonged struggles with ill-health, the inequalities in vaccine provision. It’s hard to sing praises when a world-changing climate crisis has begun to engulf us, and each week brings new national dramas. We do not come to church to hide from reality but to glimpse a higher reality and to reach out to the hand which guides us on the way ahead.

We follow in the footsteps of those who have gone before us throughout the history of the Church and the Jewish people. There are many Psalms of lament like Psalm 137.  Psalm 44:14-17a:

You have made us a reproach to our neighbours,
    the scorn and derision of those around us.
You have made us a byword among the nations;
    the peoples shake their heads at us.
I live in disgrace all day long,
    and my face is covered with shame
 at the taunts of those who reproach and revile me,
    because of the enemy, who is bent on revenge.

All this came upon us,
    though we had not forgotten you.

It’s OK to be real. It’s OK to vent our feelings  in the presence of God.

Cycles of joy and sorrow

In her introduction to a poetic treatment of the Psalms by Malcolm Guide (David’s Crown) theologian Paula Gooder encourages us to see the 150 psalms as a single cycle of poems. She mentions that there are more Psalms of lament towards the beginning of the psalter than in the second half, and it concludes with Psalm 150, a Psalm of pure joy. In most of the laments, joy breaks through before the Psalm’s conclusion.  But there is one Psalm, the turning point in the psalter, Psalm 88 which is sheer lament from beginning to end.

14 Why, Lord, do you reject me
    and hide your face from me?

18 You have taken from me friend and neighbour –
    darkness is my closest friend.

After that rock bottom moment, light once again filters through the darkness increasingly and the book ends with the Psalms sung as pilgrims were going up to the Temple in Jerusalem, culminating in the shouts of joy in Psalm 150.

The point is personally, and as a church we may find ourselves living through the cycle of lament and joy we find in the Psalms as a whole.  There will be times of utter despair; times when joy and sorrow are mixed, when peace in John Bell’s words is ‘entangled’ with pain; and times of sheer joy.

So when we come on a particular Sunday morning, we do so at a particular point in our cycling through joy and despair, and at a particular point in the church’s voyage.

Solidarity with Jesus

But as John Bell reminds us, as Christians we have something which the ancient Jews had not yet glimpsed, for in Jesus God entered into the place of desolation. And, writes Bell, the hands of Jesus ‘though bloodied on the cross survive to hold and heal and warn.’ The Spirit is our healer, bringing body mind and soul relief, disentangling ‘peace from pain’ and in exchange for our brokenness gifting us wholeness.

And those hands of Jesus are, John Bell adds ‘present in the touch of friends.’  And so the challenge for us as a church is to be real, to learn both to weep and to rejoice together to seek healing for ourselves and for one another  as we gather in love, meeting Jesus in each other.