We are living in a time of loss. And so are you, fellow inhabitant of planet Earth. This season is not what anyone predicted. We cannot go where we thought we could go. We cannot do what we thought we were doing. We cannot be with those whom we thought to spend time. We do not know when things will change, which makes any significant planning nearly impossible. Early February has this amazing nostalgia. The glory of that ordinary life - we knew it not. May we know it better when it returns.
Watching people all over the world grapple with this time of loss has shown me two seemingly contradictory responses:
First, there is an increased call for the importance of lament. Articles such as NT Wright's and different books (including my own) have been sources of resonance for a lot of people. Lament is indeed a gift to us in times like our own. We don't have answers, and we don't know yet when answers will be forthcoming. Our normal means of decision-making and anxiety-mitigation have been stripped from us by the utterly unprecedented nature of the global COVID-19 pandemic. We don't know what to do.
Here, lament gives us the words and even the emotional stance that we need. We cry out to God. We pour out our complaint. We ask "How long?" as more than a rhetorical question. We don't understand, but can at least know to whom our complaint is rightly addressed. We do better to take the ugliest thought to God than the most cleaned-up thought anywhere else. "We don't know what to do, but our eyes are on you." (2 Chronicles 20:12)
The second response is one of celebration and beauty. As our normal life becomes restricted, and in many places slows down, there is a need to find some form of celebration. People write notes to each other. You may have seem more longtime friends on Zoom in the past couple of weeks than you have in years. Yesterday, my wife walked through our house loudly singing Les Miserables tunes ("One day more!") and the kids joined in. The joy and the beauty are a defiance of the fear and the darkness, and this is as it should be.
I have loved watching the art and the music that Covid sequestration has already birthed. My med school classmates are posting brilliant dual-piano pieces that they are playing together despite being a time zone apart. Our team intern's watercolors of a beautiful JRR Tolkien quote are circulating on social media. I can't remember when the beauty of American spring was so celebrated in photos. The human creative spirit inside all of us, which is part of humanity's role as image bearers of a creative God, has hardly ever been so evident. We need this.
So we find that we need to lament this loss. And we find that we need to fill the void of this loss with a celebration of beauty. And it feels impossible to do both of these together. Give me one or the other, and some kind of path is laid before me. But both? I can feel my feet sticking to the ground.
Jerry Sittser is a religion professor at Whitworth University in Washington state. He was driving home late one night in 1991 with his family, when they were hit head-on by a drunk driver. His mother, his wife, and his daughter were all killed that day. Three years later, he wrote a beautiful and haunting book called A Grace Disguised, where he says this:
"Sorrow is noble and gracious. It enlarges the soul until the soul is capable of mourning and rejoicing simultaneously, of feeling the world's pain and hoping for the world's healing at the same time."
I have found this idea of sorrow widening our souls very compelling. The pain and the mourning don't disappear, but they cease to cancel out or crowd out the joy and the beauty.
Is this even possible? Well, I think you'd have to suffer greatly yourself to really know the truth. However, as a doctor in Africa for ten years that has walked daily in an environment of ongoing loss, I would say yes with whatever authority that is my due.
We lament. We rejoice. Doing this things together may seem impossible, but it is rather as it should be.
Psalm 126 is a compact manifestation of this:
"When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then they said among the nations, "The Lord has done great things for them." The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad."
Rachel and I used this first half for our wedding. Now note the sudden transition to the second half:
"Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the (desert) Negeb! Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him."
We did not use the second half for our wedding. Is the psalmist rejoicing or weeping? He is doing both, and the result is hope. Once this is seen, it seems that it's all over the Bible, perhaps mostly in the Psalms, though the very person of Jesus exhibits this creative tension as well.
Where is all this loss leading us? By God's grace, may it be to a larger heart where we are able to feel the world's pain and hope for the world's healing at the same time.
Better to give up my quest for control and live in hope. -Jerry Sittser