A Time to Mourn

“I can’t breathe.”

Air is free. Oxygen is everywhere. We have to breathe to live.

But some cannot breathe.

In hospital rooms around the globe covid victims on ventilators are trying to breathe. The virus takes your breath away.

On asphalt in too many American cities black men are pinned to the ground, crying out, “I can’t breathe!” Injustice takes your breathe away.

And what should the rest of us say, the ones with the resources to secure our breath? What should we do?

Let us lament.

Lamenting is a deep biblical tradition. The book of Psalms, the longest in the Bible, is a collection of hymns for worship at the temple written in genres for particular “situations in life.” And the most prevalent type of hymn is the Psalm of Lament. Almost one-third of the Psalter is lament, expressing pain, mourning loss, protesting abuse, grieving injustice. Why have so many laments designed for worship? Because the ancient people of God knew that lamenting is as necessary for life as breathing.

But modern American church culture has little tolerance for lament. I can only recall two sermons I’ve ever heard preached on a Psalm of lament that took seriously the lamenting element — and I preached one of them. In the corner of the Baptist church where I’ve been raised and live, we don’t make much space for lament.

I wonder why? Perhaps we prefer to pretend, to ignore the difficult realities.

Another factor is our tendency to define the gospel in terms of prosperity — success according to an American model. Focused on winners and losers. Who’s in and who’s out. Haves and have nots. To be sure, there is some warrant for the prosperity message so popular in American Christian culture. A strong Old Testament theme, centered in Deuteronomy and Proverbs, roots in the idea of divine blessing for the righteous/wise and cursing for the wicked/foolish. Yet the real challenge lies in how one defines blessing. In the American church the notion of blessing often rests on an assumption of some kind of economic success and self-sufficiency. And, again, we have some biblical grounds for such a perspective, as in “I have never seen the righteous forsaken, nor their seed begging for bread” (Ps 37:25).

Except for the reality of those situations when the righteous are starving for food, when they are gasping for air. Just ask Job.

There’s the beauty of it: the scripture also has a deep challenge to the assumption of retributive justice. The Bible recognizes that the innocent and the righteous do sometimes starve to death, are sometimes persecuted, sometimes are even crucified.

Good for us in the American church for celebrating in worship the generosity of God who provides for our needs and wants. That we should do. But shame on us in the American church when we think our prosperity has anything to do with our merit. It’s all grace. And shame on us for thinking, like the friends of Job, that the sick and poor are somehow deserving of their plight.

Jesus didn’t say, “Blessed are the winners.” Nor “Blessed are the comfortable, successful, prosperous.” He said, “Blessed are the poor” (Lk 6:20) and “Blessed are those who mourn” (Mt 5:4). Surely he knew Ecclesiastes, who understood there is “a time to mourn and a time to dance.” Who said, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting” (3:4; 7:2).

If we fail to make space for public expressions of lament in our communities, we fail to acknowledge pain, suffering, human need. And to fail to acknowledge such reality amounts to cruelty toward others, for it devalues the reality of the pain we all suffer in life. Denying the opportunity for lament is dehumanizing.

My sense is that in my version of the American church we are afraid of lament. We fear it will scare off the “lost,” if we don’t constantly demonstrate that following Jesus is the good life. It is the good life, but maybe not in the typical American way of defining it. Following Jesus is the good life because it means we are given over to “Christ living in us and us living in Christ.” That’s the good life. There’s the reality of joy that lasts. And this genuine joy is equally available for the Indian Dalit, the impoverished Black teenager in Detroit, the refugee in Syria, and the financial wizard on Wall Street.

Why did Jesus warn about the danger of wealth? Why did he incessantly call attention to those on the margins? Why were the religious leaders of his day the only ones he judged harshly?

Jesus knew how dangerous comfortable circumstances are. They can desensitize us to the reality of the pain that calls for lament and seeks the healing only Jesus can bring. He knew how easy it is to wear the armor of self-righteousness against the convicting movement of the Spirit. And Jesus knew that people on the margins have lost the defense mechanisms of lying about reality; often they are more readily honest about their need and pain. It takes such honesty, such lamenting, to crack open our hearts to grace.

Only the one who knows she cannot breathe is able to breathe in the Spirit.

Only the lamenter can be comforted.

Only the sick can be healed by the Great Physician.

May we in the American church learn what it means to lament. To see the pain of others. Because that is the only way we can get to the blessing that matters: the reality of our own brokenness and need, a realization that casts us upon the mercy of God.

When we see those who cannot breathe in hospital rooms and pinned to pavement, when we let them take our breath away, then we can lament with them.

It is time to mourn. Time for us to see our brokenness. Because only when we breathe in the grief of others, and when we breathe out lament with them, can we understand the reality of grace — grace that makes us vulnerable to the troubling of the Spirit who will not let us sit still in the face of injustice.

* Photo of side chapel in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge

2 thoughts on “A Time to Mourn

  1. My heart has been heavy with lamentation this week. I have prayed and cried with my family, my friends, and my Sunday School class. I have asked: “Why?” “How long?” Perhaps lamentation will take us to a solution. It will if it takes nearer to God!


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