Good Grief!

Good Grief!

A guest blog from our partner Christian Aid, written by Rev. Alton P Bell, senior pastor, Wembley Family Church.

Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning: a call for the restoration of the praxis of lamenting.

It’s not long since the church celebrated the ‘Feast of Pentecost’. As the biblical account says: “when the day of Pentecost finally came, they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke with other tongues.” (Acts 2:4)

When Peter preached this message to the gathered crowds that day, he, in turn, was quoting from the Old Testament books of Joel (2:28-32) and Psalms (16 and 110) – so fulfilling their prophecies. Joel had also written: ‘The Lord is calling his people to return to him with all their hearts with fasting and weeping and mourning’ and urged his listeners (us) to ‘rend our hearts and not our garments and return to the Lord.’’ (Joel 2:12)

And so I want us to reflect on the feast Pentecost in the light of this ancient call to lament – this year, in particular, in the light of Covid-19, the Windrush scandal and the death of George Floyd.

Earlier, in Acts 1:4, Jesus had commanded his followers to wait in Jerusalem until the first day of Pentecost, as then they would be filled/baptised in or with Holy Spirit. But what were they supposed to do in that 10-day waiting period?  Luke[1] does not tell us. After the command to wait, the next thing we read in his account is Peter preaching and quoting from Joel that day.

I’d like to suggest that Luke omits what was, and still is, the age-old Jewish tradition of praying, worshipping and lamenting before the Lord for 10 days before ‘the feast’ – a period called ‘the days of awe’. Indeed, Peter himself was probably grief-stricken and full of sorrow after his three-time denial and later restoration by the risen Christ. And now, while waiting for the advent of the Holy Spirit, he was, I think, still weeping and mourning before the altar.

Lament is grief experienced and expressed and it reflects the grief that God feels when we break God’s heart. Jesus himself experienced and expressed grief. And the Apostle Paul knew how to lament. Indeed, weeping for the churches he planted became one of his main pastoral responses. When he heard of the wrongdoing of the Corinthians, for instance, we hear that: ‘Godly sorrow brings repentance and leaves no regret.’ (2 Cor 7:10) 

During the dark days of lockdown, many were not able to attend funerals to pay their last respects to loved ones, friends and colleagues. Many more lost jobs, businesses and careers. And most of us have all had to navigate the supermarkets employing the new norm of social distancing.

What I am suggesting is that the Church should look to this tradition of lament at this time. Recognising that any joy of the Holy Spirit might bring must be preceded by a time of grief and sorrow. The tragedies of the Windrush scandal, the disproportionate impact the Covid-19 virus has wrought on those from the BAME community, and the murder of George Floyd and the re-rekindling of the sense of anger at the racial injustice we still live with might well seem overwhelming. But through lament and struggle, the bible gives us hope to trust that better days are yet to come.

[1] Many scholars believe that Luke was a Gentile physician and a Godfearer who became a Christian and therefore was unaware of many of Jewish traditions.

Alton Bell is the Chair for MJR,  a qualified Industrial Chemist, a pastor, a writer, a community activist and a director of SWAY youth project in LB Brent.

Here’s an archive talk from our back catalogue that connects with the ideas here, where theologian Luke Bretherton speaks about Love, Anger and Lament – the ingredients of a Common Life Politics