2020, Trauma, and Lament

Earlier this month I attended an online seminar on trauma and spiritual direction, sponsored by Grafted Life Ministries. The presenter, Dr. Genalin Niere Metcalf, noted that recently we have all experienced trauma caused by COVID-19 and the racial tensions brought to the forefront in the United States. We are all dealing with the effects of this trauma.

No matter how brave of a face we put on, or how we try to distance ourselves, these events have affected everyone. Regardless of what we may say or think, they have left no one is untouched, and according to Dr. Metcalf, traumatic stress is a normal reaction.

In truth, the events of 2020 should traumatize us. We have experienced the global transmission of a new virus strain that has caused irreparable harm. People have died, lost their jobs, and suffered unimaginable economic harm. Child and intimate partner abuse is on the rise as people are quarantined with abusers.

During all this we have seen before us, front and center, the murder of individuals at the hands of those who are supposed to protect them. We have seen the African American communities’ pain up close and personal in ways we never have before. The United States is continuing to wrestle with an issue that has defined it since its inception. People are divided about what, if anything, needs to be done. Families and communities are being torn apart as they struggle with how to respond.

And, let us not forget, murder hornets.

Amid all this our governments have told us that we cannot gather with friends, families, faith communities, those we would normally turn to during traumatic events. Even if the emotions of these traumatic events have compelled some to break quarantine and march in protest, we are still alone in our homes. Even if we have been able to continue meeting with our pastors, families, friends, therapists, and churches it has been via the Internet. Through video conferencing, live and pre-recorded streaming we have tried to create some sense of connectivity and normalcy. Yet, it has not been enough.

And 2020 is only half over.

In the United States we still have a presidential election season to look forward to. If this is anything like the past three years of political strife, it is bound to be another event that tears us apart rather than brings healing and unity.

Amid all this, and whatever other unknowns 2020 decides to throw at us, how are we to respond? What are we to do? How can we deal with all the trauma we have experienced? In the seminar I attended, Dr. Metcalf reminded us that as Christians we have a powerful biblical tool with which to respond to this trauma. We have examples in the laments in the books of Psalms, Lamentations, Job, and many other places in scripture.

These laments are not the pretty, made-for-public-consumption sound bites we would expect from religious people. They are not nice, and they are not safe. They are the full-throated cries of desperation of a people to their God. The laments are messy: full of anger, suffering, and even calls for violent vengeance that are uncomfortable to modern ears.

These laments were also not something that people simply prayed quietly in their prayer closet or under their breath in gatherings of the faithful. Scripture tells us that many tore their garments, poured ash over their heads, and cried aloud to God. Lamenting, it seems, was full-bodied, full-throated, acts of worship to God.

Not just any god. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The God who delivered the people of Israel from Egypt, protected them through their wilderness journeys, and gave them the promised land. The people were crying out to the God who had a sustained relationship with them for hundreds of years. The God who covenanted with them to be their God. And those who lamented were not shy about reminding God of this. Notice as you read the laments, the people are always reminding God of His great deeds in the past and His promises for the future as the reason they are lamenting to Him at all.

Jesus tells us to bring our burdens to Him: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Like the Israelites who lamented to their covenanted God, as Christians we lament to Jesus, the same God. This Jesus is one who is not far off, but through the power of the Holy Spirit is extremely near. We are called to lament to Jesus, who understands our trials as one “who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 5:15b-16).”

Like the Israelites who lamented, we who follow Jesus today should not be shy about offering our laments to Him. They should be full-bodied, full-throated laments. While I do not recommend tearing your clothes or covering yourself in ash, do not hesitate to prostrate yourself before Jesus. Do not hesitate to stand and raise a clenched fist in anger. Weep, wail, moan, cry, shout, scream at the top of your lungs to the God who hears your cries and has promised to respond. God already knows you feel this way, so be honest about your pain before the God who made you, counts the number of hairs on your head, and stores your tears in a bottle.

Not only is the physicality of this act of worship consistent with the biblical witness, it can also be extremely cathartic. It will help our bodies release the stored up traumatic stress that 2020 has thus far heaped upon us with no end in sight. It may be that through these very physical acts of lamenting that Jesus responds to us and allows us to experience the rest He promised.

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