Permission to celebrate

Recently, on this blog, I wrote that it’s not helpful to talk about “going back” to the way things were, as if we could return to some pre-COVID norm. Some things have been changed forever by the pandemic, and we need to think clearly and honestly about what’s needed to “go forward” instead. In part, that means ensuring that the spaces where we gather — school and church, our workplaces and families — are safe for people to tell their stories of suffering and to be heard.

Moreover, in the previous post, we explored Psalm 13, a lament psalm that ends on a note of trust and joy. Such psalms, and there are many, encourage us to bring our complaints to God while also watching in faith and hope to see what God may yet do.

Putting these two posts together, I can now add what I left out of the previous post about going forward. We need more than just safe places to grieve. We need safe places to celebrate.

Celebrate? During a pandemic? Let me explain.

. . .

Once upon a time, when families lost loved ones, they held a “funeral.” Just hearing the word itself made people turn serious and somber. These days, the term “memorial” is preferred; we gather not just to grieve, but to remember. Some of the most joyous moments I’ve known have been in the company of those who came together to tell inspiring and hilarious stories of a loved one who lived well. It’s becoming more and more acceptable to laugh and smile at memorial services, particularly when the family sets that tone. Leaning even further into that stance, then, many families now set the tone in advance: they invite people not to a funeral, nor to a memorial, but to a “celebration of life.”

I like that. It’s particularly fitting for those who hold the hope of heaven. And it teaches us something, I think, what it means to go forward.

Let me say first that we are not by any means in a post-pandemic world. Not yet. If we’ve learned anything in the past year, it’s that we can’t just throw caution to the wind whenever things seem to change in a positive direction. It’s not just about the risk others pose to us; it’s about the risk we pose to others. If we truly love our neighbors, we will continue to make the sacrifices necessary to keep one another safe, especially when we know that a lack of due diligence raises the risk of new variants of the virus that can cause new cycles of grief.

Thus, creating safe places to celebrate doesn’t mean assuming that the pandemic is over. It means paying attention to the grace of God even in the midst of lament.

There is a tension in lament psalms that the psalmists don’t try to resolve: a tension between lament and praise, between sorrow and joy, between fear and trust. Both sides are intrinsic to the reality of biblical faith lived out in a broken world. To let go of either is to lose our balance.

Sometimes, we rush to find the silver lining in every cloud. Listening to stories of suffering can make us anxious, and we are tempted to cut them short with platitudes and unwanted advice. We may not even be consciously aware of doing it. But the Psalms show us a God who hears every complaint and every tale of woe, even when the language is rough and impolite. That should tell us something about how we should respond when someone laments to us.

The other side is that we shouldn’t think that compassionately making space for lament and grief means silencing words of faith. That’s the tension that holds the lament psalms together; without these sometimes faltering words of trust, we would lose our ability to see past our suffering to God. Thus, just as even the psalms of deepest lament often turn to hope and praise, so too should our gathering spaces be places to both grieve our losses and celebrate the goodness of God.

. . .

Where have we seen God’s hand in the midst of the turmoil? These stories need to be told, too. On the one hand, for example, I grieve how the isolation and forced inactivity of the pandemic magnified tenfold what my mother already suffered from her various ailments, and I grieve how the virus itself eventually took her life. On the other hand, her death was mercifully quick. Yes, death itself is an enemy that God will defeat for all time, as promised to us in the resurrection of Jesus. But it’s hard for people who don’t suffer Mom’s level of chronic pain and deterioration to understand the wish to die and be done with it. I consider the way she died to be a mercy. If I could ask her now, I’m sure she would say the same.

On the one hand, I grieve what the pandemic did to churches. Not every church that shut its doors was able to pivot quickly and convincingly to online services, and even some churches that did lost members to other congregations that remained open or re-opened sooner. On the other hand, we have discovered new ways to reach people who simply can’t or won’t attend in person, including our own members who have become shut-ins. That’s all for the good of the gospel, and frankly, few of us would have gone there without a pandemic to shove us headlong into it.

You probably have your own examples. The past months have seen much darkness, but also light. There has been both pain and comfort, despair and encouragement. All stories need to be heard with patience and compassion.

The psalmists teach us that biblical faith is not a choice between praise and lament. We bring our laments to God and to each other to know that we have been heard; this strengthens us in trust and hope. We learn to see what God might be doing, and to be grateful for it. And these become stories of encouragement that don’t displace stories of suffering, but complement them in faithful, creative tension.

What story of yours needs to be told?