Lament and the Rawness of Pain - Revd Sheila Melot

First published 13th August 2018

In our latest blog, Revd Sheila Melot, Seniors Minister at B&A Church, explores the experience of grief:

The Christian faith embraces Good Friday and Easter Sunday: grief and death, then joy and new life. But sometimes ones personal experience is only that of Good Friday when it does not feel Good at all. At such a time we need to be held by others who stand in the joy of Easter Sunday and the power of Pentecost.

We need to be given the space to experience the rawness of pain, the numbing coldness of denial, the paralysing darkness of trauma. We need time to find ourselves held and comforted sometimes by those who love us, but especially by God in Jesus Christ. Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted is a promise we discover to be true.

At the same time, if we are part of a church which comes together to praise and worship God from the heart, this can be strengthening. We need to hear the Bible read and expounded, and prayers spoken even if the words go over our heads or just form a peaceful backdrop to what we perceive to be a disjointed and threatening world.

That has certainly been my experience of personal grief, and I have been glad to simply be there, included in the normal Sunday gathering. But then there are times when together as a whole congregation, we want to express our grief or horror. Perhaps through our TV screens or internet we have witnessed a disaster on such a scale that we dont know how to pray. Or a tragedy has occurred within our own community. Alone, we simply might cry or rage, depending on our personality. But how are we to face this together?

Many have commented that the Church no longer knows how to express an authentic response to suffering and tragedy. Whether too influenced by stoicism in Britain the stiff upper lip or by a culture that does not want to face the reality of suffering and death, the Church has lost the tradition of lament.

Perhaps we are afraid to express those deep negative feelings in case it shows a lack of faith in God. But maybe the opposite would be true. By repressing or denying our pain, horror at injustice and distress in face of others suffering, are we replacing a loving relationship with God our Father with a polite restrained relationship with a rather more distant God? Or are we even simply shutting off all this difficult negative stuff, unable to bring it before God, in case the consequence might be a loss of faith?

If we turn to the Bible for guidance on this, we find expressions of lament time and again: people crying out to God in pain, openly expressing distress, dismay, even anger. The book of Job is a clear example; Naomis honesty in the book of Ruth is another. But of course the Psalms are where we can best turn to learn again the language of lament.

Learning this language is important, as our honest grieving needs to find a shape that reinforces our faith rather than leading us to despair. From complaint to petition to praise and reasserting our trust in a faithful God: that is the form of lament found in the Psalms which we can copy in our own 21st century times of distress.

Expressing complaint to God implies taking God's faithfulness and goodness seriously. Speaking honestly about the situation we cry out to God Whats going on? Where are you? Then by bringing our needs to God we show that we believe that he cares and can be affected by our prayers. Psalm 143 is a good example of petitions backed up by reasons for the requests. This is one side of a dialogue a working together. Finally we praise God for all he is, for his work of salvation and his everlasting love. This not only holds reality within the context of our relationship with a faithful God, but can also lead others to begin to believe, because they sense the authenticity of our worship.

As part of a congregations worship, lament can be comforting to those in personal distress, but it might be too short a time for them to wholeheartedly praise God themselves. For a while they will need to be carried by others praise. However, we can encourage this same honesty in pastoral ministry and as we share our stories with one another. Some people will need much longer than others to formulate their complaints and genuinely bring them to God, before being able to really experience that trust and love again. One writer tells of being approached by mothers who had suffered miscarriages or abortions, sometimes years before and who were still suffering. He says They had not been allowed to stop with their pain and walk at the pace that grief requires. All this still needed to happen. There was a need for a place of recognition, of a story heard and received by God in the community of his people of life lost and hearts broken. ('Choice, Desire and the Will of God; David Runcorn)

As a church, we need to encourage this culture of authenticity, where we dont try to hide fear or distress about the world around us or our own problems. Rather we need to follow the psalmist, who knew how to praise God from the heart but still at times cried out How long, O God? We have a faithful God who loves us so we can expect a response to our heartfelt pleas.

And unlike the Psalmist, we are able to encourage those in distress to find comfort in Jesus who understands their suffering because of his own, and to find the basis for hope in his risen life.

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