TIME Magazine recently published a short piece by N. T. Wright about Our Current Moment. The title says it so well: Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To. “That’s not supposed to be true,” you might found yourself saying, as Christianity is supposed to have the answer for everything. And it does, but not in the way that we often think. Wright begins with context:
For many Christians, the coronavirus-induced limitations on life have arrived at the same time as Lent, the traditional season of doing without. But the sharp new regulations—no theater, schools shutting, virtual house arrest for us over-70s—make a mockery of our little Lenten disciplines. Doing without whiskey, or chocolate, is child’s play compared with not seeing friends or grandchildren, or going to the pub, the library or church.
There is a reason we normally try to meet in the flesh. There is a reason solitary confinement is such a severe punishment. And this Lent has no fixed Easter to look forward to. We can’t tick off the days. This is a stillness, not of rest, but of poised, anxious sorrow.
All of that, for most of us now, is confounded. And it leaves us asking questions, questions we should always be asking but that get brushed to the side when life hums right along, Wright continues:
Rationalists (including Christian rationalists) want explanations; Romantics (including Christian romantics) want to be given a sigh of relief. But perhaps what we need more than either is to recover the biblical tradition of lament. Lament is what happens when people ask, “Why?” and don’t get an answer. It’s where we get to when we move beyond our self-centered worry about our sins and failings and look more broadly at the suffering of the world.
There’s the word: lament. We don’t use it often, and definitely don’t regularly visit the slender Old Testament book that shares its name. But it’s there, a deep tradition rooted in history because it is rooted in the human experience. And it’s not something we’re comfortable with, not sure about because we use those muscles rarely if ever. And yet it’s right there in front of us.
At this point the Psalms, the Bible’s own hymnbook, come back into their own, just when some churches seem to have given them up. “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).
Wright ultimately points to moments in the biblical story where God is grieved and Jesus weeps and the Spirit groans, suggesting that “[t]he ancient doctrine of the Trinity teaches us to recognize the One God in the tears of Jesus and the anguish of the Spirit.” Wright concludes:
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. New wisdom for our leaders? Now there’s a thought.
Lament can be difficult, particularly for those who lead. Even this morning, as our faculty and staff gathered to prepare for a month of online learning, it was easier to nudge towards the positive side of things. That’s probably a big draw for how these last two Sunday mornings have gone in living-room churches across the country. Lament, though, might ultimately be a doorway to humility, which should always be a welcome virtue and a step in the right direction.