Adaptation from Hurting Yet Whole: Reconciling Body and Spirit in Chronic Pain and Illness
Chapter 10, “A Community of Wounded Healers”
We are not a few weeks post-Advent, but I am ready to repent and lament again. Call me melancholy, but Advent and Lent are my favorite seasons in the church calendar. The dark purple. The sense of yearning for what has not yet come. The plaintive songs of waiting. The reminders of our sin, our impending death, and the present darkness. Not all Christian traditions observe these seasons, which is a loss. Not being able to bring our darker feelings to church cuts us off from our full humanity, says Barbara Brown Taylor in Learning to Walk in the Dark. It flattens what would be joy into saccharine platitudes.
When I was in the worst of my chronic pain, I felt most at home in church during Advent and Lent. I didn’t feel forced to contort my face into a smile during worship. I could wear my true emotions—my confusion, my sadness—and find their resonance in the somber, brooding mood of the church. I finally felt I was not alone. It seemed normal to struggle and suffer. And that sense of being accompanied led to hope, to courage. Surrounded by the cries of the church—“Come, Lord Jesus” and “How long, O Lord?”—I was able to trust that my own cries would be heard. That I would make it through the tunnel to the other side.
Lament and hope go hand in hand, writes J. Todd Billings in Rejoicing in Lament. We lament that things are not as they should be, that God’s faithfulness is not apparent. But lament, Billings says, is “an expression of trust in his promises.” Lament opens the space for us to prepare—and truly hope—for God’s kingdom to come in fullness. You might say that lament precedes hope.
Not being able to bring our darker feelings to church cuts us off from our full humanity.
Yet in many churches, lament has been largely evacuated from the sanctuary. We sing psalms of triumph and exultation, but shy away from the hard psalms, the ones that don’t have a happy ending, like Psalm 88: “I am shut in so that I cannot escape; / my eye grows dim through sorrow. / . . . O LORD, why do you cast me off? / Why do you hide your face from me?” (vv. 8-9, 14). The psalm ends with, “You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; / my companions are in darkness” (v. 18).
This psalm tells it like it is. It is true to our most wrenching human experiences. We are left hanging, waiting for resolution. Just like it is in life. And somehow, this is a comfort more than any triumphant song that glosses over the grief and tears that necessarily precede the victory. When we do not include expressions of lament like these in our corporate worship, it is no wonder that people drop away from church in the hard times. There is no place for them to bring their difficult emotions to God. No place for them to be honest.
Seasons like Advent and Lent, and their accompanying songs of lament, offer such a place. We can build these seasons of corporate grief work into all our church communities. We can also sit at the feet of marginalized communities who have long histories of injustice and suffering.
Grace, who has lived with chronic migraines since she was three, has mourned for the things pain has taken away from her. As a college student, she has lost opportunities for relationship, spending days when she would have been with peers on retreats or at trainings instead curled up in her bed in the dark. Once, she planned a “Friendsgiving” and started having a migraine as they prepared the meal. She spent the rest of the time upstairs, listening to her friends finish cooking and enjoy the meal she had planned.
We can build these seasons of corporate grief work into all our church communities.
Learning to grieve losses is part of Grace’s spiritual growth these days. Specifically, she’s learned from the African American community (she’s white). “There’s a role and a place and a discipline to it—the idea of crying out to God. There’s space for frustration and anger and verbalizing these things publicly and privately,” she said. Grace has benefited from being in spaces where lament is affirmed and practiced regularly. Her pain from migraines may be different from her friend’s pain that comes from reckoning with what it means to be black in America. Grace sometimes feels like hers is nothing by comparison, not even worth mentioning. But keeping her pain to herself isolates her, while verbalizing it (with wisdom and discretion) brings her in. By sharing in others’ sufferings and allowing others to share hers, Grace understands now that their unique experiences of loss “are all threaded together.”
That is what spaces of lament can do. They take the individual experience of pain to a deeper level. They say, “This is what it means to be human. We are all in this together.” Henri Nouwen writes in The Wounded Healer that this is the call of all who follow in the ministry of Jesus—to deepen the pain:
When people come with their loneliness to ministers, they can only expect that their loneliness will be understood and felt, so that they no longer have to run away from it but can accept it as an expression of the basic human condition. When a woman suffers the loss of her child, ministers are not called upon to comfort her by telling her that she still has two beautiful healthy children at home; they are challenged to help her realize that the death of her child reveals her own mortal condition, the same human condition that the minister and others share with her. . . . Therefore ministry is a very confrontational service. It does not allow people to live with illusions of immortality and wholeness. It keeps reminding others that they are mortal and broken, but also that with the recognition of this condition, liberation starts.
The church does have a role in seeking to relieve pain and suffering. This is part of our call to love our neighbors and affirm life. Yet there is only so much we can do on this side of the resurrection. In the meantime, while we walk “in the valley of the shadow of death,” the ministry of relieving pain must be coupled with the ministry of deepening pain.
Today, in our prolonged pandemic isolation, as we witness how thirst for power has twisted the witness of the church in the United States, we need spaces of corporate lament more than ever. We need to bring the pain down to a shared level. To grieve that things are not as they should be, naming our corporate and individual sins. To cry out, “How long, O Lord?” And somehow, I trust, creating that space for lament will also make it possible to hope.