On October 2, 2017, I woke up to the news that a single shooter opened fire during a country music festival in Las Vegas, Nevada, killing 59 and injuring over 500 people. I was in shock. It seems like there is a new tragedy every other day; how much more pain, death, or destruction are we expected to endure? For most of the day I could not find words to describe what I was feeling.
Many people expressed feelings of anger, confusion, and sadness. Jimmy Kimmel, host of Jimmy Kimmel Live, bravely opened that night’s monologue in lament. Unsuccessfully fighting back tears, he acknowledged that this is the kind of event that makes you “wonder why,” “makes you want to give up” and is “too much to process”. Jimmy Kimmel said the things so many of us were thinking, but haven’t been able to say. I have friends and colleagues that shared their concern and anger, but admitted they had not been able to cry. They are fearful that they have become numb to such tragedies. They pray, encourage others to pray, and mobilize relief efforts if appropriate, but they do not weep. In the wake of recent tragedies, one pastor friend admitted what he really wanted to do was crawl in his bed, pull the covers over his head and weep. He did not feel he had permission to fully lament the loss of life, the pain, or the state of the country.
For the past two months I have been writing, preaching, and talking about the need to lament. When I was able to find my voice yesterday, I told as many people as I could that it is okay and necessary to lament and to allow others to do the same. Our nation and the world has experienced so much pain that I am convinced if there is ever a time to lament, individually AND communally; it is NOW.
Let’s be honest, since the events of Charlottesville there has been plenty about which to lament: DACA changes, the aftermath of hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, flooding in parts of Africa, earthquakes in Mexico, and threats of nuclear bombing. That is just in the last two months! Additionally, there are the events that are happening in people’s personal lives and communities: lack of employment, failing relationships, depression, police brutality, injustice against LGBTQ individuals, health battles… just to name a few. People are broken and have questions for God. And rightfully so, but somewhere along the line, we have been told that we should not cry out and we certainly should not express our anger toward or question God. When tragedy strikes, we are told to pray and praise through the situation. But what about when something like Charlottesville or Las Vegas happens? Or a loved one dies? Or there is a devastating health report and you just don’t have a prayer or a praise? People in the church do their best to maintain the expectation of the church being a source of hope and encouragement by advising people to accept these events as God’s will. In doing so they discourage anger and questioning, often indicating that expressions of lament demonstrate a lack of faith.
But is that healthy? No.
Is that what the Bible teaches? No.
The Bible certainly points to hope and praise, but the book of Lamentations and the lament Psalms remind us that we do indeed have permission to lament, crying out to God, questioning God, and even yelling at God. For example, in Psalm 77 the Psalmist expresses feelings of abandonment by God. Verses seven through nine is a list of questions posed to God during his pain: “Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable? Has God’s steadfast love ceased forever? Are God’s promises at an end for all time? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has God in anger shut up his compassion?” Have you ever felt like this? Have you felt like everything that could go wrong in life is going wrong and you have prayed and praised and it does not seem God hears you?
I have certainly felt that way. 18 years ago, I experienced a devastating loss; my daughter died during childbirth. I was broken, angry with God, and had questions: “How could God let this happen? Why me? What did I do to deserve this?” I did not know how to move forward, and because I am a “good Christian woman,” I continued going to church, I continued to serve on church committees, attend Bible study, and praise God. But my praise was not genuine and I felt empty inside. It was not until my pastor gave me permission to truly lament that healing began. She assured me that God was big enough to handle my pain and anger. I cried, I yelled, and said all the things I was afraid to say to God before. And guess what? I didn’t get thrown into the flames of hell and God didn’t stop loving or blessing me! In fact, amid my lament I realized God was present in my darkness. God was there the entire time waiting for me to be my honest and authentic self so I could feel God’s love for me. Like the ending of many of the lament Psalms, I could remember God’s signs of favor from the past; light broke through darkness and hope entered.
I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord;
I will remember your wonders of old.
I will meditate on all your work,
and muse on your mighty deeds.
Your way, O God, is holy.
What god is so great as our God?
You are the God who works wonders;
you have displayed your might among the peoples.
Psalm 77: 11-14
Acknowledging pain and hurt does not indicate a lack of faith; being able to engage God honestly and authentically shows profound faith in God’s love for you. During our darkest hour, during the time when we have questions about why a whole island can be destroyed by a hurricane or how a young woman can be run over in Charlottesville while defending the voiceless, God wants us to bring our pain and grief to God. In doing so our hearts will be opened, light will break through the darkness, and hope will reside.
Angela Johnson currently serves as Communications Coordinator for the Emory University Office of Spiritual and Religious Life. She lives in Atlanta with her two sons, who have affectionately named her “Mommy Deacon,” as she pursues ordination as a Deacon in the United Methodist Church. In her spare time she enjoys spending time with friends when she isn’t serving as chauffeur and chef to her sons.