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Pandemic Grief | Being the Church When the World is Crumbling

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To say that “being the church” is a topic of debate is generous.

There are as many streams of thoughts – raging rapids, in fact, on the topic, as there are about parenting or healthy eating or what makes good barbecue.

Certainty abounds among those who proclaim what people of faith must do to be church. Passionate leaders are variously certain that churches ought to be about evangelism or worship or self-help or charity or justice.

In the best of times, these values are more often divisive than unifying. Those who strongly value one of these may have a hard time seeing why another matters at all.

But the global pandemic requires us to think new thoughts and do new things, and it reminds us that churches are often called upon to lead amid crisis and chaos rooted in smaller, local communities.

This article is the first in a series that will explore how we might be the church while the world is crumbling. Perhaps what we learn can direct our paths for whatever comes next.

Being the church when the world is crumbling requires naming grief. Making space for, and doing the work of, naming grief is a necessary predecessor to almost everything else that a church can do.

When a community is reeling, the grief is palpable and invasive. Churches that have well cultivated practices of naming grief as well as those who tend to focus on praise and worship to the exclusion of grief have a significant opportunity to grieve well.

Significantly, the plea that churches grieve well points to the most important grieving rule: There is never only one right way to grieve.

But there are things that are usually true about grief:

  • Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away and naming it doesn’t make it more real.
  • Some people are able to name exactly what they grieve; others are able to name only that they are sad or angry or that they feel bad.
  • Articulating what has been lost is necessary, and the church can be a part of doing this alongside people who struggle to find the words.
  • Folks may grieve vastly different aspects of a community tragedy.
  • Personality, experience and resources all impact the particular grief of individuals.
  • Grief is cumulative.
  • Grief makes our brains fuzzy.

What then must churches do? How do churches navigate the reality that grief is so tangled and complicated? Both tradition and innovation are critical.

Tradition. The psalms and the prayers of our saints, of those who have gone before us – poetry that undergirds our faith traditions – offer significant models of naming grief.

There are so many psalms that provide words for our dismay. Psalm 69 is particularly poignant and visceral, especially Psalm 69:1-3:

“Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with crying; my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.”

There are many other psalms of lament: those that can be used for communal lament include Psalm 44, Psalm 60, Psalm 74, Psalm 79, Psalm 80, Psalm 85 and Psalm 90.

Most psalms of lament eventually turn toward praise – a model that is arguably helpful. But Psalm 88 is significant because it never does, beginning and ending in darkness, the psalmist never finds light, never expresses hope or salvation.

This model is also helpful: We are not required to always name praise or hope. We have a biblical model of stewing in our grief, and we can be formed by this stewing.

As for the rest of the grand tradition of lament that precedes and undergirds our trudging through difficult days, there are so very many possibilities – both secular and religious.

Look to the great poets, the martyrs, to civil rights leaders, slaves and abolitionists, to the folk tradition and the Book of Common Prayer, to hymns and gospel classics, to the wisdom of popes, priests and preachers.

There is a rich tradition of lament, and you can find those parts of it that will give words to those who struggle to find their own or that will affirm the lived experiences of those who are struggling.

And yet, even with a rich tradition of lament, churches have a significant opportunity to create space for new articulations, for the use of new technologies and new ways of communicating and of being in the world.

Innovating lament will allow for new songs and new creations – and these innovations may be informed by the traditions, culture, competencies and gifts of a particular people.

The particular circumstances of COVID-19 require social distancing, which means that lament will need to be facilitated so that individuals can participate from their solitude.

The particularities of other community crises will require other innovations that are relevant and poignant.

But creating an opportunity for people to lay down their burdens, to deposit their loads and to wail their grievances is critical.

And those who share the griefs in view from their own vantage points will provide markers for others who are disoriented and lost. We have to name our grief to know where we are – individually and together in community.

Amid community crisis, first and foremost, come what may, the church ought to be in the business of facilitating expressions of lament – of naming grief and helping the weary to name their grief.

The risk of getting lost in the tasks of trying to keep programs and ministries and services on track is substantial. But these strivings will be losing if care is not given to the naming of grief.

In our grief, we have the opportunity to be changed by the story of Jesus who came to walk among us in our broken humanity and of God who never grows weary.

In our grief, we face the textures of Holy Week and Easter – a seemingly incongruous story in our broken world.

In our grief, we have the opportunity to claim what we know to be true, which is beautifully articulated in the United Church of Canada’s “A New Creed”: “In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.”

Editor’s note: This article is the first in a series focused on exploring how we might be the church while the world is crumbling.

Mary Elizabeth Hanchey

Mary Elizabeth Hanchey is the Parish Associate for Pastoral Care at United Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. A graduate of Duke Divinity School, she lives in Durham with her family. She is the editor of "Though the Darkness Gather Round, Devotions about Infertility, Miscarriage, and Infant Loss."