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Lament in Lent: an antidote to individualism

29 March 2018

Mike Long reflects on the value of lament

The granite statue, Notting Hill Methodist Church

The granite statue, Notting Hill Methodist Church

LAMENT is rarely a feature of public activity or worship in Christian circles. Walter Brueggemann argues that, as our culture has become more self-confident and has increasingly prized self-reliance, the part played by lament has almost vanished.

Yet, as we acknowledge our fragility and dependence on our journey through Holy Week to Good Friday, we are drawn closer to the heart of God. As Jesus was being led through the streets of Jerusalem to be crucified, he called out to the women whose wails of lament rose above the clamour of the crowd. Do not weep for me, he said, but weep for yourselves and for your children. This was surely a lament for their country and for all who cannot see signs of God’s activity.

When I was asked to present Radio 4’s Good Friday Meditation on lament, I welcomed the opportunity, since lament has become an overriding theme for me in recent months. The Methodist church where I minister is very close to Grenfell Tower, where the terrible fire last June claimed more than 70 people’s lives and devastated scores of others.

Elsewhere, terrorist attacks in Manchester and London have not only brought intense private grief, but also wounded whole communities. There has been a great deal of weeping, both for personal loss and for the brokenness of a society in which such terrible events could happen. In their aftermath, many people have turned to lament as a means of expressing their feelings, and to find meaning. This is mirrored by our devotions on Good Friday, when we mourn the death of Jesus and lament all that led him to the cross.

When, on the cross, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, quoting Psalm 22, he was drawing on a long Jewish tradition of lament, found not only in many psalms, but also in the book of Lamentations — whose Hebrew title simply means “How?” This collection of laments was prompted by the capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, who destroyed the Temple and took many of its people into exile. It was a national catastrophe, politically, psychologically, and culturally.

AS PART of the Radio 4 meditation, I interviewed Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand, to learn how Jews today lament the destruction of the Temple — which happened again, centuries later, under the Romans, several decades after Jesus’s crucifixion. She explained that it was not just the loss of the Temple which devastated the Israelite community, but the loss of their relationship with God. Such a traumatic event utterly changed their identity.

Jews today still mourn that event each year, and exercise fasting and self-denial. Even the comforts of scripture are denied, save for the laments. There is much crying and lamenting — something primal, perhaps, that cries out in protest to God.

The community around Grenfell Tower has expressed its grief in many ways. For the meditation, I talked with Jackie Blanchflower, pastor of the Latymer Christian Centre near by, and a local resident for many years, who described some of them. There have been candlelit vigils and silent marches, angry demonstrations and private wailing, flowers, poems, and much graffiti. Our church was even given an evocative, seven-foot, granite statue depicting a tearful woman: it reminded me of the biblical Rachel, weeping for her children who are no more.

In all these expressions, we have found that particular activities help us to process our shock that our view of the world, and of God, has been so rudely shattered. These rituals help us to name what has happened: through lament, we discover a new lexicon with which to address our loss and begin to find meaning.

ON THAT first Good Friday, it was the women who stayed to watch the death of Jesus. Mary the mother of Jesus was among them, watching her son die. Jill Baker (who is this year’s Vice-President of the Methodist Conference) told me her story: she knows what it is like to be confronted with the death of a son.

Jill was on holiday with her husband when the police phoned to tell her that her eldest child, Peter, had just taken his own life. She remembers the first Good Friday after Peter’s death, identifying with Mary holding the broken body of her Son, and finding that to be intensely heartbreaking. Yet she felt strangely comforted that God understood broken-heartedness, because God had been there.

As a thousand cards and messages arrived, Jill realised that her experience was something beyond personal grief — this was a lament — and she began to weep, not just for her own son, but for all the young men who saw no future for themselves. A key part of the Good Friday service, for her, has been the tradition of the Reproaches, in which, as God’s people, together we acknowledge our denial of God’s ways, and all the brokenness that led Jesus to the cross.

LAMENT is, however, more than a mere venting of our raw individual feelings. Through it, we become aware of others beside us who share our pain and longings. As countless Christians have discovered through the ages, we become bound up with others in that shared experience of suffering.

Through the cross of Christ, we are bound closer to God, but also to each other. So the process of lament opens up the possibilities of something new, something unimagined.

Professor Brueggemann says that those who are ashamed of the gospel can never lament. On Good Friday, especially, we are called to have the faith and courage to do so. Like the women at the foot of the cross, we can lament its desolation, but, in so doing, we open ourselves to the possibilities of hope, and the victory of love.

The risen Christ still bears scars. But he is risen.

The Revd Dr Michael Long is Minister at Notting Hill Methodist Church.

The Good Friday Meditation, Good Friday After Grenfell, can be heard at 3 p.m. on 30 March on BBC Radio 4.

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