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Honest Sadness: Lament in a pandemic age, by John Holdsworth

30 April 2021

Anthony Phillips finds beauty as well as pain in this plea to lament

THE most striking characteristic of the Hebrew Scriptures is their fearless confrontation of God with the ugly facts of life about which he seems heartbreakingly indifferent. Psalm after psalm bewails the success of the wicked; Job wrestles with an utterly unresponsive God; Lamentations describes unimaginable degradation that no God worthy of worship should sanction.

It is with the latter that Holdsworth is concerned: not just as an academic study, but from his own searing pain after the death of his wife after six years’ caring for her as the most virulent form of dementia gripped her. For the author, lament should be an integral part of worship, “an embrace of incoherence”, and (he draws on on Brueggemann) the worshipping community should be one of “honest sadness”.

Earthing each chapter in incidents from his own diverse ministry, Holdsworth examines both Old and New Testaments concluding each section with an autobiographical reflection before listing questions in response to which readers are invited to dig deep and, above all, be honest.

While the book of Lamentations accepts punishment, it questions whether it is proportionate. There is both memory of God’s love and a brief expression of hope, which disappears as present reality engulfs the poet in “faithful incomprehension”. Nowhere does God speak. What the Hebrew Scriptures of lament show is that God is not subject to a system. Like Lamentations itself, as his personal world collapses, Holdsworth asks the question “How?” — never “Why?”

Turning to the New Testament, where lament is absent, Holdsworth is rightly, in my view, sceptical of theories of atonement. Rather, the Church is “called to be a body responsive to lament, as a comforting, witnessing, loving and forgiving community”. He notes how lament has been replaced by endurancem with the dangers of both the easy acceptance of others’ suffering and the embracing of “Christian masochism”.

Holdsworth goes on to consider the place of lament in the life of the abused and the Church. A “robust confrontation of God is part of what Lamentations calls us to”. Lament gives permission for rage, which can lead to healing and in the liturgy can be placed before God. Lamentation needs to find a place in the life of the Church, which has found it easier to deal with praise and thanksgiving rather than pain.

Nevertheless, congregations of “honest sadness” must also be congregations of honest joy, not expecting the impossible (we need to be reminded of what God can and cannot do), but seeing the potential for each day.

For a world currently ravaged by sadness, this profound theological study could not be more apt. It is greatly enhanced by the author’s lived experience, which, though harrowing, has about it a real beauty, not least in his “bloody-minded refusal” to allow his wife’s situation to be regarded as tragedy.

Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.


Honest Sadness: Lament in a pandemic age
John Holdsworth
Sacristy Press £12.99
Church House Bookshop £11.70

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