COVID-19 reveals how unprepared we are in the face of anxiety, fear, and grief.
In a matter of weeks, the cultural icon of rugged individualism crumpled under the weight of self-isolation. That happens when we are defined by our doing before our being. Losing our jobs, freedoms, and routines strips us bare and many are struggling to dwell in the uncertainty.
In the search for ways to process loss, one healthy expression is through lamentation — a spiritual expression of sorrow that reveals and affirms the truth about what we are seeing and feeling. But it’s hard to lament if you’ve never been taught how. How you practice lament and experience sorrow has a lot to do with the faith tradition you come from. Traditions that lack distinct stories of shared suffering will have a different capacity to make sense of corporate grief.
Some of the ways we lament together include contemplative reflection, communal prayers, organizing against injustice, or singing songs. Each reveal how different traditions approach lament. Take for example worship music and its role in weekly gatherings. Be it liturgical or modern, music is central to Christian formation. Yet when it comes to lament, many traditions are missing songs that can match our current pandemic reality. In contemporary evangelicalism, worship music is entrenched in a style called “praise & worship.” This produces a culture exactly as the name suggests, which means one critical feature is largely missing from the repertoire — sad songs.
To be fair, contemporary evangelicalism (largely dominated by white artists), or even the hymnal, include a few sad songs. However, they come in a subtle yet distinguishable theme that ends up forming a particular approach to sadness and loss — lamentation spoken through the individual experience. Take for instance popular song refrains that include: God as my refuge (Psalm 46 says God is our refuge), Lord weep with me, you are my rock, you lift me up, help me see my sin, my grief, my pain. There’s no doubting the importance of introspection.
That God cares to know my name and offers me salvation is a gift. However, redemption is not built for me alone. Rather, it’s part of a grand rescue plan for all of creation.
Lament, much like our understanding of salvation, ties my suffering with those around me. Christian traditions too distant from experiences of collective marginalization will have trouble penning laments about deliverance from shared sorrow. We need practices of solidarity that reveal those who are unseen in our world — starting with the cries in our worship and followed by the witness in our deeds. Yet laments that do not incorporate the collective experience fail to produce practices that could help us survive in spaces of vulnerability and communal loss.
But COVID-19 may be changing how we see the world and situate our laments. All of us are forced through a new rigour of both self-reflection and truth-telling. Those who never thought about their mental health are now paying closer attention because it’s a matter of survival. We are looking more at our internal needs and matching responses to cultivate good health. This includes lamentation, which involves looking at what's going on inside and reporting out loud those findings — I'm not okay, I'm sad, I’m feeling grief, and I don't know what to do with the insurmountable loss of the life I once knew. That's what we're dealing with. No solution, just a space to grieve loss. But like the songs of worship or the breadth of salvation, lament doesn't end with me.
Now more than ever, we understand how much we rely on each other. The essential store workers stocking shelves in the middle of the night; the risk taken by delivery drivers; the front line health care workers caught in the middle of death and destruction. As we notice others, we are shown how things are broken. Not just for me, but for us.
COVID-19 has shown us a truth that we overlooked before: I’m not okay, and I can see we are not okay as well. When we can say this out loud it’s a moment of solidarity. We link our cries with each other over all that’s not right in our world. But as Christians, we cling to hope, even if it does not seem evident in the here and now. We await God’s promise of restoration now, not yet, and yet to come. We venture together with lament as our compass, pointing to the time when all this wrong will be swept away. Lament is our guide affirming the truth about what we are seeing and feeling in us and those around us as we wait for God’s deliverance from this danger.