good grief

Scripturethon Day 6

Philippians 4:6 tells us to “Not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Today’s Scripture-thon is a reflection of me discovering how to make such requests known to God despite not hearing any response at first.

For the past four days, I was feeling very down.

I was gloomy, unmotivated, and lacked self-control. For three straight days, I descended into a spiraling trap of clicking one news article or youtube link after another. I kept on expecting to find something meaningful but instead I was just being filled with more and more despair by the state of the world. The stream of content never stops yet it also never fulfills.

I would wake up at times from this self-imposed paralysis, read scripture, and preach to myself verses like Romans 8:23:
For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received the spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry “Abba, Father.”

I prayed, telling God that He’s good because he saved me from being a slave to sin. I told myself that I’m God’s son and that my identity was in Christ. But even in prayer, I felt like I was just saying empty words.

Even if on the outside I was giving praise to God, on the inside I was still dejected and unmotivated. (you might have noticed the lack of emails being sent out). I felt tired of trying to put up a front of “feeling good like I should” with myself, God, and others.

During my bike ride yesterday, I listened to a podcast by the Church of the City New York about lamenting, and realized there was another option.

Golden hour during my bike ride in East Austin – June 15, 2020

Professor Glenn Pemberton at Abilene Christian University found that individual and corporal prayers of lament make up 40% of all Psalms (in addition to an entire book of the Bible dedicated to Lamentations). However, in modern mainline Christian Catholic and liturgical Protestant denominations, only 15% of worship songs are focused on lament. In the evangelical church, only 5% of the top 100 worship songs are those of lament.

NYC has a lot of different churches, but they all seem to share one thing in common – packed venues at overcapacity – From left to right: Hillsong Manhattan, Liberty Church Downtown, Brooklyn TabernacleI don’t remember my last prayer of lamentation. During church, all my focus was on praise to God, what He’s done for us, and His awesome characteristics. Perhaps it’s also due to my comfortable socioeconomic status as an upper-middle class Asian living in America that I’ve never felt the need to lament.

But living in New York shattered the happy shelter of my Austin suburbs. In this day of covid, where every New Yorker knows someone who has been lost to the virus, the reality of death and despair is far closer to us on the ground than that of life and hope.

Over the course of just a few months, New Yorkers have become far too familiarized with the sound of ambulance sirens  – Brooklyn Heights – April 23, 2020

I lived two blocks away from the Brooklyn Hospital Center. On my daily runs, I would jog past a line of refrigerator trucks parked in front of the hospital that were filled with Covid-19 victims because the morgues were out of space – AFP’s photo
All too often when I have any feeling of sadness, I immediately say “but Christ!” which is technically true, but it results in a schizophrenic dissociation between what I’m saying and what I’m experiencing. Words of praise seem empty when they are so different from the human emotions I’m feeling.

I was afraid of having negative feelings because they don’t fit in the framework of a feel-good gospel of positivity. But our gospel isn’t one of unadulterated happiness.

In the same chapter of Romans 8, Paul writes that for God’s sake “we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” We’re not promised riches, nor even happiness on earth. Rather, we are promised the “sufferings of this present time.”

So what do I do with such overwhelming despair? Do I let it eat away at me and paralyze me from becoming useful for His Kingdom? What happens when telling myself that “I’m a conqueror because God loves me” doesn’t make me feel loved nor a conqueror?

The answer seems so simple, but it took forever for me to realize that…

I should forget about putting up a pretty front in my relationship with Him and just talk to God with the ugly feelings I felt.

Jesus lamented in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Father if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). He brings his true self to God, asking God to remove the cup of a gruesome death on the cross that he must bear for our sins. Even Jesus didn’t put on a costume of holy has-no-worries. Instead he humbly lamented to his Father of the pain he was experiencing.

I realized that by lamenting, I was actually embracing my identity as God’s child. Like a child to their parents, I was able to bring my deepest sorrows to God. And merely by speaking to Him, I was comforted with His holy presence.

When I lament, I am redirected to God’s mercy. Despite the messed up state of humanity that brings me to tears, God is still merciful to us. His mercy is reflected over and over again in scripture – from using a murderer, Moses, to lead Gods people out of Israel to producing out of an adulterous marriage, King David and Bathsheba, the Savior of mankind.

My friend did a data analysis of the Bible and found that the word statistically closest in association with ‘God’ is ‘mercy’.And through this Son of David and Son of God, Jesus Christ, I can lament in hope. For I know that He’s already saved me from the deepest grave of my sin that threatens to bury me in guilt and depravity for all of eternity. So all these worries of the world do not compare

Finally, Jesus doesn’t just lament for his own situation, but he also laments for the city of Jerusalem. He cries out in Luke 14:21 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!”

In Lamentations, the author also laments for the city of Jerusalem while it is under siege.

When I started grieving for myself, I realized how it’s hardly anything compared to the collective grief of the world. I grieved for the city, I grieved for the nation. I grieved for the racial tensions, the tribalism that threatens to tear apart our democracy, the injustices towards those without power.

And in the midst of all this grief, I felt God telling me that He was still in control. Psalm 62:11–12 says, “Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God, and that to you, O LORD, belongs steadfast love.” I feel so powerless in face of systemic brokenness and my love for God is anything but steadfast. But God fills my inadequacies with His power and steadfast love.

And this is why we cry out to God in lament.

We lament so we come to a place where we can hear God. It’s only when we tear down these walls of artifice between us and God that we’re able to hear His whisper cut through the winds of life. It was only when I chose to come to God, sad, despairing, and desperate, that God spoke to me. Merely being able to send out this email today is a testimony of God’s ‘power’ and ‘steadfast love’ working in my life.

Prayer Points

  • Pray for the world. Lament for those who were already suffering and are now suffering even more in places like Yemen, Syria, and Venezuela. Lament for those who are experiencing suffering for the first time in places like Europe and NYC.Pray to listen.
  • Pray for God to calm the waves of our hearts as it is tossed around by the torrents of news and media. Pray that we’re able to hear Him calm our hearts and replace grief with purpose

Verse of the Day – 2 Samuel 22:2
The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold and my refuge, my savior