Lament, yielding and enriched faith ... how to approach Easter this year
With help from N.T. Wright and Walter Brueggemann
Easter will be different this year and I, for one, am only just coming to terms with it.
Until now, I’ve been lost in the busyness of getting my family organised to work and study from home. It has been hectic, frustrating and all-consuming. And it’s taken 100 per cent of my brain up till now.
I can sense God calling me to slow down …
That’s not to say I’ve avoided reality. I’ve watched all the Prime Minister’s media conferences and read more articles than most people. I’ve found it heartbreaking to see how the evil coronavirus is devastating people’s lives right across the world.
But it’s all felt a bit at a distance – a result of my privilege, I know, – and I’ve felt somewhat insulated from it all personally. I’ve simply been self-absorbed, if I’m honest.
But now it’s nearly Easter and I’m being forced to face the fact that this year really is going to be very different.
We won’t be meeting physically in churches and sitting alongside our church families to be led through the Easter traditions Christians have engaged in for thousands of years. We won’t be meeting with extended family and friends to celebrate on Easter Sunday.
And the truth is, I can sense God calling me to slow down and give my wholehearted attention to what Easter means in theses broken and chaotic coronavirus times.
Learning to lament
The first thing I’m sensing the need to confront, is the need for us all to lament.
For some Christians, this isn’t a difficult ask. It’s a part of their regular practice. Some of us, though – like my Pentecostal tribe – are a little less practised.
Popular biblical scholar N.T. Wright took on the subject of lament just last week in a powerful article published by Time magazine with the provocative headline Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus.
“It is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain – and to lament instead.” – N.T. Wright
“The point of lament, woven thus into the fabric of the biblical tradition, is not just that it’s an outlet for our frustration, sorrow, loneliness and sheer inability to understand what is happening or why. The mystery of the biblical story is that God also laments,” he wrote.
For anyone who was unconvinced, Wright then provided a quick catalogue of God himself lamenting:
“God was grieved to his heart, Genesis declares, over the violent wickedness of his human creatures. He was devastated when his own bride, the people of Israel, turned away from him. And when God came back to his people in person – the story of Jesus is meaningless unless that’s what it’s about – he wept at the tomb of his friend. St. Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit “groaning” within us, as we ourselves groan within the pain of the whole creation. The ancient doctrine of the Trinity teaches us to recognize the One God in the tears of Jesus and the anguish of the Spirit.
It is therefore “no part of the Christian vocation,” Wright asserted, “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.”
Wright’s article brought to mind a sermon delivered by influential American theologian Walter Brueggemann at Duke University Chapel in North Carolina on Palm Sunday in 2009, which I had watched on YouTube.
In the sermon, Brueggemann teaches from Psalm 31:9-16, which he describes as “a complaint to God about the experience of unbearable suffering and a sense of social isolation.” A complaint expressed with notable candour. In other words, an honest lament.
Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress;
my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also.
For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing;
my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away.
I am the scorn of all adversaries, a horror to my neighbours,
an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me.
I have passed out of mind like one who is dead; I have become a broken vessel.
For I hear the whispering of many – terror all around! –
as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life.
Throughout the sermon, Brueggemann imagines the Psalm being prayed by a young woman who attends his church called Jenny.
“She sits in a wheelchair close to the pulpit. She cannot control the movement of her legs, and mostly not her arms either. She groans and occasionally shrieks,” he says. “My priest tells me she is fed only with a feeding tube. One of her parents must sleep on the floor of her room every night. She takes a fragment of the Eucharist every Sunday.”
What happens next? Do we simply stay in the despair?
Yet, he says, it’s a Psalm not only for Jenny and her parents but “a complaint now that belongs to our society with its dismay and bewilderment and anxiety and rage.”
“We live in a world where there is, as the Psalm says, ‘terror all around,’ sorrow, sighing, misery, anxiety. And if it keeps on long enough, the negation will reach even folk like us in our privilege and entitlement. And even before it reaches such as us, all around us the sounds of abandonment and dismay are loud and insistent.”
Could there be a more perfect Psalm for us to pray this year at Easter as we collectively lament the heartache of our world?
But, I wondered, once we’ve begun to lament, what happens next? Do we simply stay in the despair?
Yielding to God
Now, Brueggemann’s message is entitled “Continuing Through the Disruptive Conjunction” – which would be enough to get many Christians I know skip past it to find YouTube’s next offering.
But the title is actually key because it’s really just a fancy grammatically precise way of saying “Praying right up to where the word ‘but’ interrupts your prayer and continuing to pray through it”.
The “but” he’s referring to occurs in verse 14 of the Psalm:
But I trust in you, Lord;
I say, “You are my God.”
My times are in your hands;
Brueggemann explains that there are always two options for those who pray an honest lament to God.
The first option is that we stop our prayer before we get to praying the word “but”. The problem with that, he explains, is that “we are left on our own without anything more than ourselves and our dismay, without any chance of laying down the trouble for a rest and restoration.”
The second option is that we do not end our prayer with our lament, but instead pray all the way up to the “but” and continue to pray through it.
“Either we linger helplessly in complaint or we move to a new acknowledgement that changes everything,” Brueggemann says.
So what is the “but”?
“I trust you [God] … my times are in your hand.” – Walter Brueggemann
Brueggemann teaches that praying the “but” in Psalm 31 is about yielding to God.
By praying, “But I trust you … my times are in your hand”, the Psalmist moves from lament to “yielding” their life God, glad to have their life on God’s terms rather than their own.
It is “the recognition that I am penultimate, that I am not the goal and mission of existence, that my life is situated in a mystery and a gift and a summons that are beyond me and beyond my dismay, that I am not left to my own resources,” he says.
He describes such prayers as “an act of repentance … a repentance of self-enclosure, what a philosopher has termed ‘possessive individualism’ in which I am my own property, derived from nowhere and from no one, indebted to one and answerable to one.”
I don’t know about you, but repentance from “self-enclosure” is exactly where I know I need to be heading this Easter.
From yielding to asking with faith
Having called out to God with candid lament and yielding to God, the Psalmist then begins to petition God with boldness.
deliver me from the hands of my enemies,
from those who pursue me.
Let your face shine on your servant;
Save me in your steadfast love.
The language sounds to me a tad bossy to be directed towards God, but Brueggemann points out that it is no affront to God to petition him in such a way when you’ve gone through the “double risk” of crying out to him with candour and yielding.
“The daring of the Psalmist is not located in her own confidence. She now knows, in her extremis, that there is a God who is stronger than her troubles, who is attentive and who can act. She now believes that the power and presence of this God can shine into the darkness of despair and depression, a ‘kindly light’ that provides a way home. She now trusts that this is a God who can save and lift up and make whole,” he says.
In a similar way, Wright in his article describes the new hope, faith and life, for which an honest lament makes a way.
“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.”
Different Easter, same Christian faith
Finally, Brueggemann notes that the Psalmist’s appeal to God’s steadfast love – “save me in your steadfast love” – are the words of someone who knows and has practised their Christian faith over many years, well before their current crisis arrived.
“She had been doing the drill of steadfast love and solidarity with neighbours, of being inconvenienced by folk who make demands and who summon us in need. She had been part of the company that knew about and lived steadfast love in the neighbourhood,” he says.
“She had been a part of the singing and the reading and the praying, so that communion with the holy one that she required in her trouble was ready at hand for her. She has the text in which she may pray boldly.”
We will call on him who is faithful and present
So, yes, this is a different Easter approaching. Everything is as strange as can be and there will be no physical meeting in churches to contemplate the death of Jesus or celebrating his resurrection with extended family and friends.
Nonetheless, just as Christians have done at Easter for over 2000 years, in our home, we will remember our Saviour, who was hung on a cross to die, was dead and buried, and who rose again on the third day.
We will pray prayers of lament – with candour – that continue up to and through the disrupting “but”. We will repent of our self-absorption and, once again, yield our lives to God. And we will call on him who is faithful and present, and boldly ask him to intervene in this broken world.