This article was originally published on Sojourners, April 12, 2019.
Each spring Lent is a season on the church calendar, beginning on Ash Wednesday and concluding on Easter, which prepares Christians for Easter. The believer prepares his or her heart to celebrate Christ’s resurrection by embracing practices of prayer and repentance.
An important part of experiencing Lent is walking through lament.
Most of us don’t lament well, including me. As the eternal optimist, pushing away negative emotions had always come naturally to me. When I was first diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer, I was constantly trying to put a positive spin on what I was facing, despite the glaring statistics. But in numerous instances, the positive slant I assigned to the worst circumstances amid my cancer experience did more harm than good.
Eventually, though, idealism about what one is facing — when it doesn’t match up with reality — will give way to weariness, trauma, grief, and suffering. This is exactly what happened in my experience.
I became overwhelmed emotionally by a benign conversation with a friend or a television show that wasn’t particularly emotionally charged. I noticed myself mourning that my wife and I might not go gray and hobble into old age together. I grieved that if I didn’t make it, some of the memories my young girls would have of me would be from stories told by others and not their actual memories.
Being a psychologist, I suspected I could be experiencing a major depressive episode, and even gave myself a depression screener. To my surprise, I didn’t meet the depression criteria. I was perplexed by what I was going experiencing.
When I decided to meet with another psychologist about my concerns, she reflected, “It doesn’t quite sound like depression to me either. That’s not what I’m hearing. It sounds like you’re experiencing lament.”
I was caught off guard and wasn’t entirely sure what she meant.
She helped me understand that a sufferer laments when he or she experiences and expresses the sorrow he is feeling. When words fail, lament helps those who’ve endured suffering express their pain, sorrow, and grief.
This rhythm of lament is built into the Christian calendar leading up to Easter, and each year as it comes, I find myself facing the invitation to recognize my grief and suffering, and anchor it in hope.
One story from the field helped me comprehend lament even better.
About a year after Hurricane Katrina, I was asked to evaluate a large denomination’s response to the disaster. As part of that research we learned that when members of one Mississippi congregation returned to their community after the storm, they discovered that the building where they’d once worshiped was gone. All that remained of their house of worship was a concrete slab. During the week, the pastor spread the word that they would still meet for worship like they did every week. Because that bare concrete foundation was all that remained, the church still referred to that moment as “Slab Sunday.”
Those in attendance witnessed the power of lament on the slab where that church once stood.
Without the accompaniment of an organ or a single guitar, those gathered sang songs confirming their confidence in a merciful God. The pastor also provided a time for members to name what had been lost, in their lives and in the community.
Throughout the morning, the congregation’s longest worship service to date, members wept with each other, leaning on one another and on God. Long after the service had ended, they talked, hugged, and prayed for one another, feeling and expressing to each other and to God all that they’d endured. Together, they lamented.
And together, during Lent, Christians lament.
As folks in that Mississippi congregation would discover, and as I would eventually discover as a cancer survivor, the experience of lament is not a once-and-done event. There would be countless more moments of weeping and lament for members of that church, as there would be for me, too.
Oftentimes, “lament” comes unscheduled, refusing to slip into convenient time slots on my Google calendar. Feelings like to come when they choose.
But other times, like the annual season of Lent where we devote ourselves to reflect on what happened on the Cross, we intentionally gather together as a Christian community and we lament.
Lent is a time where we can stop resisting our negative feelings and thoughts. Lament makes room for a group or a person to grieve what ought rightly to be grieved. When responses to suffering, like despair or rage or anguish, naturally bubble to the surface, choosing lament is deciding to honestly experience our suffering. Just as Jesus embraced the anguish and the cross, Lent reminds us we too must “go there” as we take up our own cross and follow him.
Resisting difficult emotions is often our default defense. It’s not easy to endure those feelings let alone welcome them. It’s hard to allow ourselves to feel the hurt. But that is what lament is all about, and the season of Lent invites us into. Before we step out in strength with determination to fight, we must allow and create space for our pain and our tears. For it’s in these places we find true strength to bear the unbearable.