This is a time to lament. A third lockdown announced on Monday has brought another wave of uncertainty, stress and anxiety across a country that was just beginning to hope that the end of the pandemic was in sight. Teachers have to radically change the way they educate their children with only a few hours’ notice. Working parents are again faced with the impossible scenario of home schooling while trying to fulfil their responsibilities to their employers too. Many company directors and managers have to tear up yet another interim business plan they made to try and stay afloat in the most challenging economic conditions they have ever faced. Government ministers and civil servants must design and implement a raft of new regulations in record time to provide fresh support to the groups of people adversely affected by the new lockdown.
And, of course, it’s the huge pressure felt by hospital teams up and down the country, desperately trying to manage the growing influx of Covid patients, which has prompted the government into imposing draconian lockdown measures once again.
This is a time to lament – to grieve again for people who have died from Covid-19, or lost their job or business. For all whose mental health has been tipped into a downward spiral, especially those who live alone or in care homes. For pupils who cannot take the exams they have been preparing for and students whose university experience is so far from what they expected. For all whose hope deferred has left them sick at heart.
We need to lament because there are no quick fixes, no easy solutions – for even the vaccines developed at miraculous speed will take many months to roll out. We must endure more pain and uncertainty for some time longer; this virus is giving us a real beating.
Last month we were reading that wonderful promise in Isaiah, leading up to Christmas: ‘the people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.’ The twelve days of Christmas are over tomorrow, and yet with the pandemic far from being under control, it seems the dawn is still some way off.
Faced with this grim reality, lament isn’t another way of venting our anger and frustration; it’s meant to be constructive. Lament can strengthen us, shape our characters, and in turn shape the character of a nation. Lament can bring many positive outcomes, here are just two:
The first is an appreciation of the prophetic name that Jesus was given: Immanuel. He is the God who draws alongside the poor, the lonely, the sick, the oppressed and the isolated; bottom-of-the-pile shepherds were the first to receive the angelic invitation to visit the new born king. ‘God with us’ really is meant to include everyone – not just the religious, the worthy, the righteous, the successful – but all of us, including those afflicted by the pandemic. He comes alongside people in their suffering, but his comforting presence seems elusive – it can only really be received by faith. That is why God sends a proxy – followers of Jesus who by phoning or visiting or bringing help demonstrate the reality of God’s love for the world.
The second fruit of lament works at a deeper level. It brings us in touch with the truth that all this – the painful reality of a global pandemic – is not what God intended at all. The biblical narrative shows us that God has good, beautiful, brilliant intentions for the whole of creation, but that the wilful insistence of human beings to live autonomously of their Creator (thinking we know better) somehow unleashed a curse on the world that has distorted all of life and society, leaving us a long way from God’s good intentions. The felt gap between ‘what is’ and ‘what should be’ is a powerful prompt to return to God and cherish the best parts of life—our relationships with others—over other idols.
This mocking, microscopic virus has brought us to our knees and shown us that we are not the masters of our own destiny. An attitude of lament is an attitude of humility, and is a place where seeds of repentance can grow—both personally and collectively. Let’s not skip this crucial step, or see lament as simply a wasteland. Instead, in grief, we can find and offer hope.
Image: Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, Rembrandt (1630)