By Sue Magrath
Face it. We are all more than ready to put the COVID nightmare behind us. We want normalcy! We have lived and done ministry for over two years during one of our history’s most harrowing, grievous times. And it wasn’t just COVID; it was the political upheaval, racial turmoil, personal crises, and losses that were made more complicated by the pandemic. Trying to do ministry safely meant learning new skills on the fly and the loss of the connections we usually would rely on when times are hard.
And because life marches on even during times of worldwide change, you probably experienced more than your share of “normal” crises and losses—family illnesses and/or deaths, relationship issues, financial troubles, kids struggling with school, juggling the demands of work, family, friends, et cetera, all against the backdrop of crippling fear. And because of your profession, people in your congregations naturally came to you for emotional support from all those same struggles and fear in their own lives. You probably listened to a lot of hurting people whose troubles were a reminder of your own. During this time, it’s probable that you also became even more aware of the groans of a hurting world. And it’s been too much! The litany of troubles has been overwhelming, and many of you carry far too much pain to ignore, no matter how hard you try.
During my years as a psychotherapist, I would often get overwhelmed with the pain I was carrying for my clients, but I became practiced at shoving it all into a mental closet at the end of the day. Over time, the pressure of holding it in would build up and up until I found myself losing it over the most ridiculous things. I didn’t take time to lament and let go of the big things but found myself crying over the little things—a sad song on the radio, a poignant scene in a movie, a sentimental commercial. And so, I have some idea of what you’ve been carrying from this unparalleled time in your life and ministry and also how much you’d rather turn a blind eye to your pain and try to forget about it. We want to avoid truly feeling that pain. The problem is that the pain takes up more and more space until there’s no room for joy, delight, or peace. It becomes a festering wound. When we fail to attend to our own pain and the pain of the world, there’s no room for healing to take place.
So, what do we do? Sometimes I think that we need to go back to the biblical tradition of sackcloth and ashes, the practice of lament, of traveling to the wailing wall and leaving pieces of paper that hold our sorrow in the cracks of the wall.
Maybe it’s time to turn to the laments that are such an important part of the psalms but are often ignored in church. Perhaps we need to acknowledge our pain by crying out to God as the psalmists did, offering the lament, “How long, O Lord?” The words from Psalm 6:6-7 convey some of the sorrow we have carried through long days, months, and years of struggle:
“I’m worn out from groaning.
Every night, I drench my bed with tears; I soak my couch all the way through.
My vision fails because of my grief; it’s weak because of all my distress.”
Perhaps it is time to acknowledge to God our weakness, our deep need for consolation, and our longing to be comforted. I remember at one point during the direst part of the pandemic how desperately I longed for a blessing, how much I wanted to feel someone’s hands on my shoulders, praying for me, acknowledging my pain. I wanted to be the weaned child of Psalm 131, resting on the lap of the Beloved, who “stilled and quieted my soul.” And then, I created an image of myself as a child, sitting on the lap of God and receiving the blessing of feeling completely and utterly heard and loved. Gradually, I felt my anxiety ease, and I was able to breathe again. I could put the world’s ills in God’s hands for a while.
As you guide your congregations back to a new normal, as you move through the Advent season, as you move into the realities of a post-pandemic world, I pray that you are able to make room for the new thing by practicing the age-old tradition of lament, knowing that God will meet you there and offer the comfort and peace of being held in the Beloved’s arms.
Sue Magrath is a spiritual director and the author of several books. Her previous career spanned fourteen years in the mental health field. She is passionate about clergy wellness and has authored the book, My Burden is Light: A Primer for Clergy Wellness.