Experiencing lament during this time of pandemic

July 14, 2020 by Sally Scherer

Dr. Nancy C. Lee shared a story about a longtime family friend who recently lost a friend in a nursing home to COVID-19, the virus that has spread across the world and is causing massive illness and death.

Losses like this are especially difficult right now because many of the restrictions in place to curtail the virus mean family and friends can’t visit in nursing facilities and our usual methods of mourning, such as funerals in churches with loved ones, can’t take place, she said.

Dr. Nancy C. Lee

“These are personal laments I’m sure many people have,” said Lee, an internationally recognized biblical scholar and the Niebuhr Distinguished Professor at Elmhurst University in Chicago.

Lee spoke with the Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty, Senior Director of Theological Funds Development of the Presbyterian Foundation’s Theological Education Fund, in a July 8 Facebook Live about laments and the value expressing them during today’s pandemic.

A graduate of Columbia Theological Seminary and Union Presbyterian Seminary, Lee became interested in lament while studying at Columbia with theologian Dr. Walter Brueggemann.

She was influenced by Brueggemann on the importance of lament in the Bible, in worship and in social justice contexts.

Also, her personal life profoundly influenced her interest in the topic. Her father experienced a debilitating physical illness when she was a child.

It was while working on her Ph.D., dissertation on lament and watching the news about the war in Bosnia that she felt called to go there.

She received a Fulbright Fellowship that allowed her to live in Croatia with people who were experiencing great suffering and the devastation of war and genocide. She taught while there and spent significant time in Bosnia.

The experience resulted in her book, “The Singers of Lamentations: Cities under Siege, from Ur to Jerusalem to Sarajevo” (Brill, 2002).

Lament is central to the biblical text. The majority of psalms, in terms of genres, are laments about suffering and worry, Lee explained. Some end with a plea to God for help. Some end with praise after receiving help from God.

The most prominent laments focus on how someone has been treated badly by his or her enemy, she said.

“One of the purposes of lament is just to be utterly honest and truthful,” Lee said. Lament often focuses on “the things we don’t like to talk about or don’t want to admit in our lives or society.”

Also, one of the big elements of lament in the Bible is a call for justice.

“It’s not just a prayer to God privately, but it’s done in the context of worship. It’s letting everybody know, ‘I’m being mistreated.’ It’s an implicit call to the congregation, the community, to know and then do something about it. Not just God.”

Lee expressed concern about the psalms that deal with someone being sick because it is often linked to them believing their sinful life caused God’s punishment.

“That’s really unfortunate,” she said, giving ministers permission to “use their scissors on those” when referencing such psalms in preaching.

She collaborated with poets and singers worldwide for her book, “Lyrics of Lament: from Tragedy to Transformation” (Fortress, 2010), which surveys lament in poetry and popular songs in 30 cultures worldwide.

Most recently, she is the author of a forthcoming biblical commentary on the Book of Lamentations and Song of Songs.

For those experiencing lament during the current pandemic, Lee said it’s important to acknowledge that the flipside of the sorrows and losses have caused “us to question and ponder what is it we value most in terms of what we’ve lost and what is unnecessary” in our lives.

Sally Scherer is a writer and communications consultant based in Lexington, Kentucky. She is a member of Second Presbyterian Church, where she is an elder and a member of the choir. Send comments on this article to Robyn Davis Sekula, Vice President of Communications and Marketing at the Presbyterian Foundation, at robyn.sekula@presbyterianfoundation.org.