We’ve moved into our homes. We bought toilet paper—lots of toilet paper. We’ve stocked up on all kinds of pasta, except lasagna apparently. We brought out puzzles and books. We’ve eaten too many of our quarantine snacks already. We’ve made adjustments to schedules and set up work-stations at kitchen tables. We’ve made lists of what we’re grateful for and shared them with everyone we know—virtually, of course. Even in our stop-gap, we’ve discovered countless ways to busy ourselves with doing, planning, and anticipating. But something still feels off.
We’ve faced this invisible enemy like Americans: prepared, creative, and more than a little bit rebellious towards the rules. Our preparedness makes us feel safe. Our ingenuity makes us believe we can handle anything. And our rebellion is a exceptionalistic chuckle in the face of the danger other countries are experiencing.
But how have we been facing it as Christians?
Sure, I’ve seen posts pithy posts about faith and acronyms about diseases and viruses. I’ve seen others remind their online communities about real hope and good that still exists in the world. It’s going to be ok! We’re all going to be ok—just keep faith and hope alive! But still, for me, something has felt off. I shouldn’t be surprised by the positive tenor of it all though. “The American church avoids lament…,” writes Song-Chan Rah in his book Prophetic Lament, “The absence of lament in the liturgy of the American church results in the loss of memory. We forget the reality of suffering and pain.”
We all start in the stage of denial, right? In kingdom-like reversal, the “have-nots” are more theologically prepared for times such as this than those of us who have experienced fortune and privilege and a sense of control over our own lives—those of us who trust in our ability to power through with schedules and goals and plans only deferred.
Both of my degrees are in the Bible—a fact I’m a bit nervous about in the coming job market—but it means I don’t know much outside of scripture and church history. When Christianity was just a rumor of a religion in most places, two devastating plagues broke out in the Greco-Roman world which were especially hard-hitting within the cities. Sociologist Rodney Stark argues that if it weren’t for the Christians in the second and third centuries who stayed in the cities while others fled, hundreds and thousands more would have died. They didn’t have medicine or cures, but their simple care for the ill—water and food—made possible their survival.
He argues, “Modern medical experts believe that conscientious nursing without any medications could cut the mortality rate by two-thirds or even more.” That’s a beautiful story if we stop there. But the reality was that many Christians who would have made that choice to stay, to care, and to love their neighbors did contract the disease and died as a result. Might that change triumphant theology around “Christ’s Power Over Infections and Diseases”?
Here’s what I remember most about the prophets who heard from God: When God decimates a society—their impressive towers and bustling economies and their food supplies—the prophets often spoke that it would get worse before it got better. They had their own false prophets reassuring the people that calamity would not come to them. In Jeremiah 27, false prophets were said to reassure the people their exile would end quickly, not to worry.
Weep, the true prophets said. Mourn, they told any who would listen.
The book of Lamentations begins at the end—the end of a city of prosperity that thought they were exceptional. “How deserted lies the city, once so full of people! How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations!” We’re not quite there in America, yet, but others are, and it’s increasingly looking like our possible future in some places. “Lamentations 1 reflects a postmortem grief over death rather than an anxiety over the future possible death of a city. It is not the moment to explain or justify. It is not even a moment to plead for a better future. Lamentations 1 provides the space and time to mourn,” Chan writes.
In moments of suffering, well-wishes can sting. Job, suddenly sick and impoverished, told his friends , ““I have heard many things like these; you are miserable comforters, all of you! Will your long-winded speeches never end? What ails you that you keep on arguing?” Their answers for him made his misery worse.
Together with Job, Lamentations is a reminder to us that lament must “run its course,” Chan explains. “Neither the absence of human comfort not the human attempt to diffuse and minimize the emotional response of lament serves the suffering other. It only adds to the suffering. The appropriate response would be to express presence and an expression of lament alongside the suffering rather than explain away the suffering”
I’m not saying God caused this or sent this, but it won’t be our faith in our power over these circumstances that we can cling to. It will be our love and sacrifice for one another and our ability to accept our losses through mourning—not ingenuity or well-wishing—that will get us through. Loss like this is unfamiliar to most Americans alive today and it’s even more hidden within Christian circles. It means we’re unable to cope with the worldwide crisis and trauma of loss we’re all simultaneously experiencing.
Habakuk, another Old Testament prophet, was given early knowledge that God was going to destroy his people through an invading army. I’m not sure if I’d want advance notice or not. He wrote, “I heard and my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled.” Would an American Habakuk write, “I saw the danger and bought up guns and hand sanitizer and then I told the danger to ‘bring it on’”?
Habakkuk knew how bad it was going to get. He didn’t minimize it or puff up against it. Instead, he continued, “Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us. Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.”
It looks bad and it’s going to get worse, he says. The invasion will come and then there will be a total failure of crops and cattle. Yet, he says. Yet.
The final verse in the book of Habakuk reads: “The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to tread on the heights.” This verse is the inspiration for the title of a book called, Hinds Feet on High Places, by Hannah Hurnard, an allegory about the Christian life. In the book, the main character is given two companions to help on her journey: Sorrow and Suffering. The journey becomes easier as she leans on both to help her through.
We’ve experienced shock and bought up all the toilet paper we could get our hands on. We’ve denied the seriousness and reality of the situation and continued business as usual at work and school as long as we could. We’ve gotten angry at everyone—the hoarders who took all the soap, the family we’re stuck inside with, those outside for their complacency, the institutions for their lack of preparation. We’ve bargained with others to help flatten the curve of illness. Now, its time to mourn what we’ve already lost and what we will lose before we can really accept where we are and find out the real hope of “yet.”
We’ll get there. Not because we won’t get sick, not because we won’t need to make sacrifices, and not because we won’t experience loss—world-changing, heart-stopping, knee-shaking loss. “We’ve got to plumb its depths,” Chan says of lament. Following Sara Bessey’s advice on both childbirth and spiritual deconstruction, likewise now we’ve got to “lean into the pain instead of resisting it.” Otherwise, she warns, “Because we are afraid, we naturally hold back and tense up, and then there is more pain, so we experience even more fear, and it goes, around and around, building with intensity on every turn.”
We’ve got to before we can get to our “yet” just yet. We must lament first as a reminder that our hope does not come from our own ability or even a secure defense against disease. It comes from a relentlessly merciful God and though his suffering Son.