I’m a hospital chaplain. I’ve been around grief. Some people deny what is happening. Others get angry and lash out, blaming, for example, a physician. Those of northern European decent may try to keep a stiff upper lip. Those of African or Latin decent may fall on the floor in loud wails. The only wrong way to grieve is to try to force yourself not to grieve.
The iconic painting by Norwegian Edvard Munch that he titledThe Scream of Naturedepicts the blending of uncertainty and uncontrollability in nature with human anxiety. The chaos of nature has invaded the human psyche. The painting perfectly depicts a panic attack.
Today, nature appears to have run amok.
The United States leads the world in COVID-19 infections and deaths. At last count, there have been about 100,000 coronavirus deaths in the USA.The US has 4% of the world’s population and over 25% of the COVID-19 deaths. One hundred thousand souls; 100,000 moms, dads, sisters, brothers, children, parents; 100,000 souls created in the image of God; 100,000 human beings for whom Christ died. And that’s just in this country.
The most vulnerable are the hardest hit. The homeless, those living in poverty, those who must go to work at jobs where they have to be around others, those who live in crowded spaces, those with underlying health conditions and little or no access to healthcare. The 22% of US counties that are predominantly African-American have 52% of the COVID-19 cases and 58% of the COVID deaths. Systemic institutionalized racism.
If my heart does not break, if I am not deeply moved by those statistics, I must question whether I am in touch with Jesus at all. It is time to grieve. It is time to lament. It’s the only way to get to hope. There are no shortcuts.
Had cities and states not been practicing public health measures (wash your hands, stay social distant, wear a mask), the situation would have been far worse up to this point. Out of 331 million people, only 13 million have been tested. The virus is airborne and easily transmitted. Simply by saying hello, a person with no symptoms can infect dozens of others.
As much as we long to “go back to normal,” we never can. We are in a liminal space.
“Liminal” comes from a Latin word meaning “threshold,” so liminal space is that place we get into when we have left the familiar, but we haven’t yet entered the new thing ahead. It can lead to disorientation, anxiety, confusion, a feeling of displacement, and depression. A woman has worked her entire adult life when advancing technology makes her job skills obsolete and she is unemployed. An unwanted and uninvited divorce occurs. A baby dies in utero. A man becomes a widow at the age of 60. The economy that was humming along is suddenly in depression. Many find themselves unemployed. The shop goes bankrupt. A deadly virus is all around us with no treatment and no cure. Anxious feelings arise. “What’s next?” “Now what?” Without hope, humans fade and die.
It is a mistake to despair; it is a mistake to latch onto simple answers; it is a mistake to sink into self-preservation at all costs. But we cannot jump directly from liminal space to hope. First, we must lament. A lament is a passionate expression of grief, sometimes set to music, or expressed in poetry. It is the wail of The Scream.
Richard Rohr writes: “Liminal space, or the place of waiting, is a unique spiritual position where human beings hate to be but where the biblical God is always leading them. It is when you have left the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are finally out of the way. It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait, you will run … anything to flee this terrible cloud of unknowing.”
We try to flee that “cloud of unknowing” in various ways. We scheme and plan. We call on all our resources to get us out of this liminal space. We distract and deny. Some of us go numb. Some of us pretend the whole thing is a hoax. Some of us promote magical cures. Some of us try to exploit the vulnerability of others to make a buck. We are tempted to try and pin the blame on somebody somewhere. Some of us get depressed. Most of us feel anxious, like we’re living in The Scream of Nature.
Jewish people have been forced into liminal spaces at various times in their history – the Babylonian exile (circa 586 BC), the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman army in 70 AD, wholesale slaughter at the swords of crusaders, the Holocaust. Displaced from all that was familiar – homes, families, friends, careers – where was God?
Jeremiah wails in the Book of Lamentations. In the first four chapters, he speaks in the first person. His is a personal lament. In chapter five, the pronouns shift to plural – he is lamenting with the entire nation.
There are many psalms of lament in out Bible. Some are individual laments, like Psalm 22 – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Others are psalms of communal lament. Communal lament is entering into what our neighbors are feeling, putting ourselves in their shoes, feeling their pain, expressing their pain, weeping with this who weep.
Here’s the kicker:
We hate being in liminal space.
We will try anything to get out.
Distract. Deny. Blame.
God always leads us into liminal space.
It is only there that we learn that God is all we need.
Without hope, we perish.
There is hope on the other side of liminal.
BUT, we can only get to the hope by going through first individual, then communal lament.
Lament is gut-wrenching. Lament means weeping, wailing, pouring out our hearts in complaint. Lament means reviewing what God has done in the past, expressing regrets, asking for answers (that rarely come), and crying for relief. Lament means venting to God. Lament can never be rushed or bypassed.
Most of us seek to avoid, deny, distract, blame, ignore, or despair. Pop a pill. Have a drink. Buy some stuff. Defy the authorities trying to keep you safe.
God has a better way. We so want to do something. God says, first, join with your sisters and brothers and pour out your hearts in lamentation, wailing. Let yourself grieve deeply.
Then, do nothing. Nothing but look at Jesus. Just look. Wait.
Wait. Wait. Sit with the uncertainty, the ambiguity.
“Restore us, O Lord God of hosts! Let your face shine, that we may be saved!” (Psalm 80:19)
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:29-31)
The reason to wear a mask is not to protect us. Face coverings other than medical grade PPE like N-95 masks do little to protect the wearer. The reason to wear them is because it protects others from a virus you may have without knowing it. Wearing a mask and practicing social distancing is a way we love our neighbors like Jesus told us to.
Psalms 12, 44, 58, 60, 74, 79, 80, 83, 85, 90, 94, 123, 126 & 129 are community lament psalms.
The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®). ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Posted on May 24, 2020, in anabaptist, apologetics, Bible, Bible Teaching, bodily resurrection, Christianity, creation, Jesus, Kingdom Life, kingdom of God, parables, Peace Shalom Hesed, Poetry, Prayer, Prophecy, Spirituality, The Cross, Theodicy, Worship. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.