May 2020 Pulse
Our world is shrouded in darkness. Since December last year, a silent, deadly and invisible enemy has been ravaging it, disrupting society, destroying lives, and plunging everything into chaos.
Epidemiologists, scientists and doctors scramble to find a cure for this mysterious contagion, or at least a vaccine that can keep it at bay. But alas, success has hitherto eluded them, and we can’t yet see the light at the end of the tunnel.
In the meantime, the number of infections is rising exponentially each day, as are the number of fatalities. Hospitals and national healthcare systems are overwhelmed, bustling cities have become ghost towns, and the global economy is nose-diving into a recession, if not a depression.
Families who have lost loved ones to the disease are unable to properly say their goodbyes. For the first time funerals have to be conducted online, via Zoom or some such electronic platform.
Christians are certainly not immune from the onslaught of Covid-19. Like everyone else, they are vulnerable to the infection. Like everyone else, their lives have been disrupted. And like everyone else, Christians have lost loved ones to the disease.
The Bible provides Christians with a language for times of great distress such as these, the language of lament. From the pages of Israel’s hymnbook, we read these heart-wrenching words:
O Lord God of hosts,
how long wilt thou be angry with thy people’s prayers?
Thou hast fed them with the bread of tears,
and given them tears to drink in full measure (Psalm 80:4-5).
Modern Christians do not understand such language very well, although deep in their souls they can tacitly resonate with the sentiments it conveys. Perhaps it is because contemporary Christianity has become too triumphalistic, or too superficial. Or perhaps it is because our reading of the Bible has been too skewed, too one-sided.
Whatever it might be, lament is part of the language of Christian spirituality. It is the language of believers who live in a broken world that awaits the consummation of the kingdom of God.
What is a lament?
Perhaps it would be helpful to begin by making clear what it is not. Lament is not an embittered ranting of someone who is angry or disgruntled with God. Lament should never be confused with a grumbling complaint, an irate venting, an impious and blasphemous shaking of the fist at the Almighty.
Lament is a believer’s cry of agony before God. Lament can be said to be a form of protest; but it is not a protest against God.
Rather it is a disconsolate recognition that the world as it is, is not the way it should be, not the way it is meant to be. Lament is a cry of impatient unease, a persistent discontent with the way things are. It is therefore a protest against the current state of affairs, an outcry against the tragedies, the injustices and the suffering that mark human life outside Eden.
In the Bible, the believer’s lament is always made in the context of his conversation with God. Lament, in other words, is in essence a prayer. But it is a conversation that is so intimate that it is marked by unalloyed honesty. All pretensions are cast aside as the lamenter comes before God and expresses his pain, his disappointments, his perplexities, his sorrow, his anger.
In his lamentation, the lamenter wrestles with God. He struggles with his Creator. He refuses to entertain simple answers and trite explanations. But he contends with God in reverent fear of his Creator, seeking to comprehend his mysterious ways. In all his frustration and angst, the lamenter seeks to understand the heart of God.
Lament is the believer’s intimate and difficult conversation with God.
The lamenter is a realist and a person of faith. He cannot deny is pain and anguish, and refuses to sweep the mess and chaos of his world under the carpet. Yet, he also cannot deny his God.
Because of his faith, the lamenter’s protestations against the injustices that he sees and experiences, and the pain his suffers do not lead him to despair. Instead, they bring him closer to God, the God of the covenant, whose steadfast love is new every morning, and whose mercy and grace are sure.
Thus, in the Bible lamentation is never the ultimate mode of speech, it is never an end in itself.
Lamentation always leads to doxology. This because amidst the pain and the anguish, the chaos and the confusion, the believer sees the faithful and sovereign God. Thus, the laments and songs of praise and thanksgiving always belong together in Israel’s worship.
In the Bible, lament is always undergirded by faith in God – a faith that dares to question, a faith that is not blind to the harsh realities of the broken world, but a faith that always returns him to God.
And because the lament always ends with surrender, it always opens the path to hope – hope that is sure, because it is hope in the immutable God.
On 8 April, Trinity Theological College conducted an online Holy Week chapel service. Two students read their lament prayers during the service. It was a truly moving experience.
I would like to share these lament prayers with you as I bring this article to a conclusion.
The first lament prayer is penned by Qiu Danru, a first year Master of Divinity student from China. When the epidemic broke out in Wuhan in December last year, she was still in Singapore and did not return to China to celebrate the Lunar New Year with her family.
A Lament for Wuhan
My God, my God, why have you forsaken China?
Why do you turn your face from those struggling with the virus?
Do not be far from us,
for the virus is swallowing our hearts and there is no light of hope.
Late at night, I see the evil mock.
Deep in dream, I hear the virus laugh.
I am so weak and small,
I can do nothing but see people die.
I know all of us have sinned against you.
There is no one righteous, not even one.
Yet you are a God full of compassion and kindness,
You will always be our light and strength.
Forever I will declare your name;
I will sing the praises of your glory, O God Almighty!
The second lament prayer is by Arlina Wiguna, a first-year student at TTC, from Indonesia. She was put under Quarantine Order and moved to a government facility when her friends were diagnosed with Covid-19.
Why God? Why did you let it happen to me?
Why didn’t you protect me?
This vile disease has brought down my friend,
the same enemy will soon lay its grip on me.
I’m stuck in this room,
taking temperatures three times a day
Imprisoned in my mind and fear,
as the virus took down one more friend, and then four!
Save me, O God, have mercy on me,
rescue me ‘cause I’m trembling with fear of the unknown
Look on me with favour,
remember me according to your steadfast love
I keep my eyes on you, Lord,
I keep on praying while holding on to you
May this pandemic be blown away
Let them disappear and be no more!
You, my God, are my rock,
Your unfailing love sustains me
I praise you Lord, who was and is and is to come
In the midst of chaos, you are the only unchanging God.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.