A Season for Lament

What a day. I grieved to hear an Ontario grocery store worker mourn her soulmate, only 49, who worked his last day at Superstore on March 16, just a week and a half ago! Now he’s dead. For stocking groceries. We owe our grocery store workers SO MUCH!

I ache for the fear of the airline attendants who are given no PPE and who are, in no small numbers, testing positive, including one now in ICU. We owe them SO MUCH as they work to bring home stranded Canadians from all over the world.

I grieved over that young man, a wonderful nurse, in New York City who just died. His sister is heartbroken. His last text to her was that he was coughing, and then a ❤️. We owe our scared yet BRAVE healthcare workers SO MUCH!

I grieved with the woman crying over no longer being allowed to visit her senior mother — a mom to 3 nurses! — in hospital, dying alone. So many beloved parents and grandparents, having to die alone. Yesterday, it was a veteran of World War II, adored by his grandkids… – Debra Esau Maione (March 28th)

I am grieving today. In fact, I have been grieving for much of the last two months. It was nearly two months ago that I offered my first thoughts on this crisis. On February 7th I wrote:

A week from then the number of deaths will be in excess of 1300. A month from now, 5600. Two months from now, 16,500. I hope these numbers are inflated, but I don’t believe they are. By contrast, SARS killed around 800 people total.

Instead of taking two months, 16,500 were dead after just 45 days. We are still not at the two month mark, and as of yesterday we had passed 1,000,000 cases and 50,000 dead.

I have been grieving, not just for those who have died, but also for the many, many more who will still die. Did you realize that more people have died in the past week than have died in the entire rest of the pandemic? And did you realize you could have made the same statement the week before that, and the week before that, and the week before that?

A friend posted February 7th:

Optimistic news re coronavirus – the plot of total cases passed the inflection point on Feb. 4. Watch for total cases to effectively level off at ~50,000 around Feb. 20.

I grieved, because I knew that there were going to be many more Chinas.

I have been seeing similar comments recently about the status of countries in Europe. Some of them accurate, many of them premature. And I grieve because we are still in the beginning stages of this, and the areas of the world that are least able to cope with this are starting to see their number of cases beginning to climb.

I grieve especially for Africa, the land where my family has its historical roots and where I spent my teenage years. I grieve for what is coming for them. If we look at places like Italy, Spain, France, and New York and are grieved how bad things have been there, imagine my grief for Africa where things are going to be much worse.

I grieve for other reasons too: For those who have lost jobs, and for those who will potentially lose homes. I grieve for our current homeless who are vulnerable at the best of times and especially vulnerable now.

In my time of grief, what really upsets me is the clichés that I have heard from well meaning Christian friends. Chaplain Mike listed many of the common ones in his sermon last Sunday:

  • God will never give us more than we can bear.
  • When the Lord closes a door he opens a window.
  • As long as we’re in God’s will, we will be safe.
  • If God brings you to it, God will bring you through it.
  • God will put a hedge of protection around his people.
  • This is just our cross to bear.
  • God allows bad things into our lives so that he can turn it into good.
  • God has given you this trouble to test your faith.
  • God is trying to teach us something through this trouble.
  • With God, everything happens for a reason.

What particularly upsets me at this point in time is this one:

  • God is in control

I won’t get into a discussion of that theological thought in the post, but will note how this thought runs contrary to scripture.

We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. – 1 John 5:19

Chaplain Mike pointed out that when Jesus arrived at scene of Lazarus’ death, “not once does Jesus answer them with religious platitudes.” Notice what happens instead:

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. – John 11:33-35

Chaplain Mike went on to say:

Here is a primary answer to our human brokenness in times of trouble. We are not alone. The Son of God himself stands beside the grave with us and weeps. The Son of God himself feels our sorrows, our bewilderment, our anger, our sense of lostness. We are not abandoned in our grief. This is what we need most. Not explanations, not platitudes, not pep talks. A friend beside us to reassure us, to put his arms around us, to comfort us.

That’s what we need in this life. That’s why Frederick Buechner wrote his now famous words: “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.”

This is also what I need these days. I feel like the prophet Job, who, while mourning the loss of his family and everything else he has, has well meaning friends come up and offer poor advice. It is not what he needed then, it is not what I need now. Instead, come sit beside me in silence. Let me know that you care. Avoid theological debates that are just going to get me upset.

Exactly six years before I wrote my first post on the Corona Virus, I wrote these thoughts on “Job’s kids” on Internet Monk.

Sometimes life is tougher than we can manage. When I see others in that place I need to learn to sit and listen, and not be so quick with the clichés. I also have to be willing to take off my own mask and admit to others when I am having a miserable day, or week, or month, or year. For some “life is tough, and then you die.” I find it really hard to call that “good.”

I will conclude with these thoughts shared by N.T. Wright this week:

“Be gracious to me, Lord,” prays the sixth Psalm, “for I am languishing; O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror.” “Why do you stand far off, O Lord?” asks the 10th Psalm plaintively. “Why do you hide yourself in time of trouble?” And so it goes on: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever?” (Psalm 13). And, all the more terrifying because Jesus himself quoted it in his agony on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22)…

It is no part of the Christian vocation, then, to be able to explain what’s happening and why. In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain—and to lament instead. As the Spirit laments within us, so we become, even in our self-isolation, small shrines where the presence and healing love of God can dwell. And out of that there can emerge new possibilities, new acts of kindness, new scientific understanding, new hope…

As usual, your thoughts and comments are welcome.

56 thoughts on “A Season for Lament

  1. I’m listening to the Saturday Morning Coffeehouse on WERU. Just heard Stan Rogers. They also play a lot of Leonard Cohen, occasional Bruce Cockburn, a lot of Neil Young, Joni Mitchell. I wouldn’t mind hearing more KD Lang, though I’m not much on country. Canadians are cool.

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  2. We got to hear a lot of it
    because of Canadian Content regulations

    But trust me, we tend to get overwhelmed by American Culture.

    Fun fact. If you are a female singer in Canada, and your initials are A.M. you get a lot of play on the A.M. dial.

    Anne Murray
    Alanis Morisette
    Alannah Myles

    Except for Saturday night.
    Then we listen to hockey.
    There is a reason why the Leafs drafted
    Auston Matthew over Patrick Laine.

    The initials A.M.

    Coincidence. I think not.

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  3. Thanks chris s and robert f! Nice of you to say. I’m just grateful, i’d been unemployed for a long time…

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  4. I hope you stay safe, will f. Thanks for the work you’re starting today; it’s crucial.

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  5. Thank you! “Anthem” is my second-favorite Leonard Cohen song, right after “Hallelujah”.

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  6. Amen. And as you imply, after we defeat the disease, we’ll be in a different era. We’ll be in a cultural place we have not been before. Everyone’s ideologies will be tested and I hope, suitably corrected.

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  7. I think this concept only takes on tangible meaning when spoken by someone who is present with another, providing the kind of solace and reassurance being expressed. “Jesus is with you” as an abstraction is a cliche, I agree. “Jesus is with you” — and I am here to put flesh on that statement — really means something.

    I take my cue from 1John 4:12 — “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”

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  8. I’m starting my first full shift stocking groceries at the walmart supercentre in stoney creek ontario TODAY. It seems like they’re taking it seriously, a lot of protocols in place…

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  9. Oh, I don’t know. As I posted on FB yesterday, history repeats, and this is nothing but a history repeats. Black plague, Spanish flu… history is loaded with people living through awful stuff.

    Our problem is, we didn’t want to have to live through one, too.

    Yet, here we are, in the midst of History Repeats.

    My main issue right now is that I’ve been involved in a Christian school that hasn’t seen good days since the 2008 recession. Over the past few years, I’ve been telling God, “Hasn’t it been long enough? We are ready for Jubilee!”

    Well, this pretty much kills off any thoughts of Jubilee. The school will be lucky to survive.

    I just don’t get it. (Although deep down, maybe I do.)

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  10. Bruce Cockburn

    When you’re lovers in a dangerous time
    Sometimes you’re made to feel as if your love’s a crime
    But nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight
    Got to kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight

    Leonard Cohen

    Ring the bells (ring the bells) that still can ring
    Forget your perfect offering
    There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
    That’s how the light gets in

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  11. Thanks for the post, Christiane.

    One of my jobs used to be “chart builder” for a major company. We learned how to build great charts with great graphs that told great stories.

    “Oh, you wanted a DIFFERENT story to be told, Mr. Supervisor? Hold on… we can tweak the chart by tweaking the assumptions…”

    You give me a set of data and I can make it look either good or bad, depending on the story you want told. What you really want to beware of is, what are the assumptions that make up the chart??? And when you know those, you know what kind of data a person can tweak to adjust the story!

    Btw… I’m not sure I could spin any current data into a good-news story, and anyone that tries to is just fooling themselves.

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  12. The words from Psalm 22, echoed by Jesus on the cross:

    “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”

    I’m convinced Jesus used those words to remind himself of these words later in Psalm 22:

    “For He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted;
    Nor has He hidden His face from him;
    But when he cried to Him for help, He heard.”

    BTW… living and suffering while he remains silent, waiting for an answer and not getting one… these all remind me of Philip Yancey’s wonderful book “Disappointment with God.” A definite read during times like this.

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  13. Robert,

    you’re not taunting. I believe God respects honesty; You wouldn’t be where you are if you didn’t know, deep down somewhere underneath the anger and everything else, that “this is not the way it should be.” In the East, doubt is not a symptom of lack of faith; it is an indication that there is actually faith at some level in a person’s soul. I don’t believe this because my tradition tells me to; I really think it makes profound sense.

    Thank you Robert – for so much.

    Dana

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  14. There is no sugar coating this thing. Denial can’t hold out in the face of it. It’s bad. It’s worldwide and it’s going to, by all present appearances anyway, get worse with many, many more people dying. We’re in it. May light shine in the darkness.

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  15. I can’t help it. I don’t see God anywhere in this pandemic. I see animals, humans, and accident. We are confronted with a disease we have never seen before, and it’s making vast numbers of people sick, and killing many of them. Certainly, lamentation is an appropriate response, as is prayer, if you’re a believer. But even more necessary is putting aside the things that divide us and working together–all of us in the world–to find a way forward, both to defeat the disease and to cope with the aftermath.

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  16. God did not ultimately condemn Job for ranting about how unfair He seemed. Jesus did not rebuke Martha and Mary for berating Him for not being there in time to prevent Lazarus’ death. I suspect God has more patience and respect for those who look suffering in the eye and rant at Him about it than He does for those who stubbornly keep to the cliches and trite explanations.

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  17. I never know what to make of Job. I often read it not from Job’s point of view, but that of his children or servants.

    I might just be collateral damage in someone else’s morality tale. That’s the real test of my faith. God help us.

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  18. > How can someone be with you when you can’t….

    THIS!!! 1,000 times this.

    I’ve always ‘struggled’ with this, and eventually just learned I had to ignore it. It is something people say over, and over, and over again. And if you do press them on what that means their response is, almost universally, to just repeat it AGAIN, maybe with more earnestness.

    The only available conclusion to me at this point is that it means nothing at all, it is a shibboleth. Nod affirmatively and you are IN, don’t and you are OUT.

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  19. Sometimes you can hear the spirit whispering to you
    But, if God stays silent, what else can you do
    Except listen to the silence?
    If you ever did, you’d surely see
    That God won’t be reduced to an ideology
    – Bruce Cockburn – Gospel of Bondage -1989

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  20. I agree Robert F. One of the things that I am struggling with as well.

    Readers are free to discuss this here and now (no platitudes please). If not addressed further in the next two weeks, I will raise it as a separate topic in two weeks. (I already have a post planned for next Friday.)

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  21. Robert F,

    I grieve with you today as well. More than a few have pointed out that people like you are our real heroes in all of this.

    Mike

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  22. Well, I would like to ‘lament’ something that might be unacceptable, but here it is, because I think it really might help, so this: (P.S. I don’t mind if it is removed, I would understand, please know that) (sorry to be trouble)

    A friend had commented this:
    “The COVID-19 death rate is over 2%. Death comes to men more than women, the obese more than the thin, the older more than the younger, and those with pre-existing health conditions more than the healthy among us.”

    some thoughts on the ‘stats’ and ways to look at them

    there ARE subsets where the ‘average’ shows up higher than the TOTAL average of the general population, yes

    but TO BE FAIR, is that average SLANTED ?

    when I was teacher, I had different ways of evaluating my work from looking at unit tests where I felt I had done my best to prepare my students

    1. One way was the total average: add up all of the grades and divide by the total and get a measurement that gave me some concept of ‘average’;

    2. But upon reflection, and knowing I had in my classes students with ‘special needs’ and ‘learning gaps’ and ‘homelessness (living in shelters)’, and with different learning styles and preferences;
    I decided to find a more HONEST WAY of evaluating the strength of my work by calculating NOT JUST THE ‘MEAN’, BUT ALSO THE ‘MODE’ AND ‘THE MEDIAN’ of the WHOLE CLASS,
    and then looking at the sub-groups I had identified as calling from me some consideration of ways of best teaching them based on their specialized situations.

    3. I did a lot of learning about my work, where the weaknesses were and the strengths and I was able to ADJUST my technique professionally on what a closer look at ‘grades’ revealed once my ‘averaging’ was directed away from ‘slanting’ positive or negative, and all the extra evaluation paid off for the ones I worked for: my students

    4. By the time I retired, I had it that ‘mean’ averaging that was ‘slanted’ was NOT a fair measurement of my work or the student’s work;
    and avoiding making decisions and evaluations based on ‘slanted’ averages did in the end pay off with being able to be more intent on what my goals really were.

    Did I want an ‘average’ that made ME look good, as a classroom teacher, even though the mean grade average was slanted upward unfairly because of a handful of gifted students while the greatest number of the class had not done so well?

    Or did I want something more:
    did I want to be honest with myself about whether or not I was evaluating my work and the children’s achievements FAIRLY, according to the REALITY of the actual situations of my student’s great range of abilities and strengths and weaknesses.

    I chose the better way.

    OBJECT: Be careful of saying ‘oh, it’s not so bad’ because the mean average tells us not to get so worried;
    when if we took a closer look at the sub-groups and applied a better evaluation that revealed what was REALLY going on, we would see just how much trouble some of those were in for whom we were RESPONSIBLE TO HELP.

    Are we ‘averaging’ the wrong way in evaluating this pandemic’s effects on our country?
    Have we overlooked some better ways of examining what is going on, and then taken steps to address the results so that the more vulnerable populations have as much chance to survive as the strong?

    If a teacher can take the time to set aside the ‘slanted’ favorable mean average, and take a closer look at what is really happening,
    then maybe our country can find a better way to evaluate and address the work of fighting this pandemic so that the WEAK, the VULNERABLE, the front-line first responders and medical staffs, also have as much of a chance as the rest of us.

    I hope this gives people something to think about. We can do better, a lot better.
    I think it would be the right thing to value our weaker brothers and vulnerable sisters as much as we value our selves and our own.

    For me personally, the medical front-liners and a son with severe medical challenges are the bulk of my family, and you bet I think we can do better.

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  23. “In my time of grief, what really upsets me is the clichés that I have heard from well meaning Christian friends.”

    I am more upset by what I have heard from ill meaning Christians, stipulating that by ‘Christian” I mean those who self-identify as Christian, which may or may not mean they follow Christ’s teachings.

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  24. [Mike’s note: Seneca, you are always welcome to visit at Internetmonk. Today, however I won’t be accepting comments from you.]

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  25. “what really upsets me is the clichés that I have heard from well meaning Christian friends…”

    At least Job’s Comforters had the decency to sit silently and weep with him for a week before they launched into their theological tirades. Most folks nowadays just skip right to the tirades. :-/

    Comparing Mike’s piece to most of what I’ve read in the evangelical channel at Patheos is like night and day. Most of that stuff is… Well, the most accurate way to describe it is *selfish*. What is His doing for US in this? How can WE use this to further our work? What is God telling US? And a very, VERY distinct lack of lament – or even much acknowledgement that a LOT of suffering and death will attend this, even for those lucky enough NOT to get sick.

    I would like to be more charitable about what I’m seeing… But there it is.

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  26. I appreciate that Jesus wept. But there is a level of theological abstraction involved in talking about how he is always with us in our suffering even when we can’t feel it, theological abstraction that I’m just not connecting with right now. How can someone be with you when you can’t see or feel them, when their presence looks exactly like a total absence, an abandonment? I want to yell at Jesus: Stop your silent and invisible weeping, and DO SOMETHING!! If that makes me like the onlookers who taunted him as he hung on the cross, so be it — I’ll have to keep bad company for the present.

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  27. I can’t begin to imagine the coronavirus suffering that is already taking place in India, and that is nowhere near its peak. Will they even be able to count the dead? In Ecuador the bodies of COVID-19 dead lie abandoned in the streets. The poor of South Africa live packed together in hovels, to which they are now quarantined, without sufficient food or water even to drink, never mind wash their hands. The mind reels.

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  28. I will be going off to work soon, at my “essential business” workplace. Uncertain, terrified but having to throttle the terror, angry, afraid even to have a casual conversation with fellow workers, backing off like a cornered animal when someone gets too close, not knowing if they, or I, am an asymptomatic carrier, numb, hearing rumors about people being tested at our facility, not wanting to eat or drink anything at work but having to, on the alert for anyone who coughs or sneezes yet knowing they may do neither and still carry the virus, having to finally come home at the end of the day not knowing if I carry death in my body or on my clothes to my wife who has not left home for three weeks.

    Lord have mercy. Good Lord deliver us.

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  29. thank you for the explanation, Mike . . . I understand . . . . sometimes it’s for the best

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  30. These are epic times we are living in, yes;
    and not at all ‘un-connected’ to ‘the Great Story’

    From the pen of Flannery O’Connor, I am reminded of the mercy of God, this:

    ““He felt his hunger no longer as a pain but as a tide. He felt it rising in himself through time and darkness, rising through the centuries, and he knew that it rose in a line of men whose lives were chosen to sustain it, who would wander in the world, strangers from that violent country where the silence is never broken except to shout the truth. He felt it building from the blood of Abel to his own, rising and spreading in the night, a red-gold tree of fire ascended as if it would consume the darkness in one tremendous burst of flame. The boy’s breath went out to meet it. He knew that this was the fire that had encircled Daniel, that had raised Elijah from the earth, that had spoken to Moses and would in the instant speak to him. He threw himself to the ground and with his face against the dirt of the grave, he heard the command. GO WARN THE CHILDREN OF GOD OF THE TERRIBLE SPEED OF MERCY. The words were as silent as seed opening one at a time in his blood.”
    ? Flannery O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away

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  31. Cuomo’s Lament: ‘IT DIDN’T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY’
    [Edited – Mike’s note: I am going to remove all political comments today. Save them for another day]

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  32. Mike Bell , if this were a baseball you hit it out of the park. Tied in so well with CM sermon on Sunday. There is an old hymn , If Ever I Needed , My Jesus It Is Now, recently heard it with my sister. Always true and the follow up as you pointed out Jesus is always with us. I understand your sentiments on the platitudes and cliches that people proffer, but I also know they mean it with true sincerity and honest thoughts. That they do not have the level of understanding or discernment that you may have does not lessen their empathy and compassion. In my younger days I would have offered the same sentiments thinking that I was helping and offering comfort. We have to meet people where they are, that does not mean I do not agree with you. I have read enough of your articles and comments to know you know of what you speak about the Job like trials we face in this world so your excellent information and thoughts carry a lot of weight. There was a management book years ago that taught about the necessary many and the “vital” few. Looking back how wrong for the general society, almost all in your society are necessary. That includes those who need help and our assistance, they make us human. We can howl at the moon and curse the stars or we can deal with the now as you suggest and do. I do sense a change in attitudes , priorites and apprecation in my small circle of life and I see people changing for the better. Let us all pray for the workers in all fields keeping the ship afloat I am selfish and must admit I miss my small pleasures in life so I needed your article. God Bless

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