Lamentation in a Pandemic

by Susan Henry-Crowe last modified 04 June 2020 07:31 PM
Lamentation in a Pandemic

Photo: Albin Hillert/WCC, 2019.

04 June 2020

Two months ago, I would not have spent a Sunday afternoon driving through a deserted city. There were people out and about, walking with children in strollers, jogging, laughing. Some were driving to do errands and buy groceries. Although it was sunny, there was still a somber pall over the city. I am told the same is true of New York and Chicago, Dallas, Atlanta, and other cities.

As the days and weeks of sheltering (in some form or other) drag on, there is growing awareness of the enormous loss. Over 100,000 people in the U.S. have died from coronavirus—and African Americans are dying at three times the rate of white people. Secondary schools, colleges and universities hold online commencement ceremonies for those who with internet access to participate.

Faith communities have not been able to gather in churches, mosques and temples for the holiest of days of each tradition. Few in-person funerals, weddings, and sabbath services are taking place.  The disease is sweeping through prisons at alarming rates.

People of all ages are isolated and lonely—especially elderly persons who live alone. Many small businesses will never open again. Over thirty million people have lost their jobs and income. Even medical care professionals are losing their jobs. And in many rural areas there are no hospitals. Health care workers and facilities are gravely compromised because of insufficient supplies and PPE. Our sense of time has changed dramatically.

This is a great death.

It is not like the feeling that comes when one dies when one’s life is complete, accomplished, fulfilled and finished. This is a different dying and death.

It is death of life as we knew it. It is death of a world suffering from gut-wrenching loss.

This ravaging death came so unexpectedly. We were not unprepared—but then of course, there is no preparation for sudden death.

This sickness attacks the most vulnerable. It comes like a tsunami that washes away the pretense. It uncovers the things we have neglected. It reveals the pain, the suffering, the sorrow and the innocence of all who have pain. It causes even more pain for those who suffer most. This sickness came where there was no cure. There are no words for this great breath-taking disease.

And now we only feel sorrow. We can only lament. The whole of the Book of Lamentations gives expression to this deep sorrow and is a guide for us—the disaster, the personal and corporate lamentation, the reminder that we are God’s people.

We remember the most vulnerable.
We remember those without health care.
We remember communities of color most ravaged.
We remember children living in poverty.
We remember those in assisted living or nursing homes.
We remember those in prison.
We remember those suffering at the borders.

Reading from Lamentations

How lonely sits the city that was full of people. How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the cities has become a vassal. Behold, O Lord, for I am in distress, my soul is in tumult, my heart is wrung within me, because I have been very rebellious. In the street the sword bereaves; In the house it is like death. Hear how I groan; there is none to comfort me. My heart is poured out in grief…(Lamentations 1:1-2, 21, 2:11)

What are we to do? Where are we to go? How are we to live in this time of unknowing, uncertainty, confusion, mixed messages and chaos? What songs do we sing, what prayers do we pray, how to we express our love for those we know and those we do not?

We are reminded of a Good Friday hymn, “Were You There?” The hymn ends with questions, not answers.

Likewise, the Book of Lamentations ends (5:20-22) not with clarity or resolve. Questioning it ends with a plea for divine remembrance and mercy. [1]

Hear its closing words:

Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us
Behold, and see our disgrace…
We have become orphans, fatherless;
Our mothers are like widows. …

But thou, O Lord, dost reign forever;
Thy throne endures to all generations.
Restore us to thyself, O Lord, that we may be restored!
Renew our days as of old!
Or has thou utterly rejected us? Art thou exceedingly angry with us?

These last few lines desperately reach out to God to ask if everything will somehow be restored, or if it is simply too late. These closing lines depict for us a moment in which it seems that God broke God’s promise to God’s people, and the speakers of Lamentations seem to be in disbelief, unsure whether to accept their fate or hope that God will still prevail in Israel’s fate. [2] Lamentations honors what it means for an entire community to be devastated and think of itself as “God-abandoned.” [3]

In a moment where we ourselves may feel abandoned by God, we can gain strength and wisdom from Lamentations, and reach out to God for renewal and restoration in this world; even if our actions have merited God’s “anger,” we know our God whose “throne endures to all generations” to be merciful and lovingly kind.

But, as the actor, activist, and singer Paul Robeson reminds us, “There is a balm in Gilead.”

[1]: New Revised Standard Version, notes on Lamentation 5:19-22, (999).
[2]: Conversation with Sarah Corrigan, PhD candidate at Harvard University.
[3]: O’Connor, Lamentations and Tears of the World, (7).

Susan Henry-CroweRev. Dr. Susan Henry-Crowe is the General Secretary of the General Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church. She has served as the social justice agency’s top executive since 2014 after 22 years at Emory University.

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The impressions, hopes and ideas expressed in this blog are the contributions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or policies of the World Council of Churches.

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