Rev Caroline Taylor from St John’s Hoxton explains why the oft-forgotten practice of lament is so important
There are signs of spring all around. The tree planted in the pavement outside my study is blossoming again and a pair of magpies are building a nest in its branches. Spring this year seems somehow more spring-like, vaccines and the easing of restrictions bringing with them a sense of new beginnings.
Yet this spring is more bittersweet, too. Last year I watched this tree blossoming from my flat window in lockdown. I did not expect to still be living with restrictions when it blossomed again. How little we knew. This spring, we carry the weight of the last year. We can perhaps see where we are headed, but we are not there yet. Our souls and hearts are heavy and worn out.
What do we do with this weariness, with the sadness, anger and disappointment that sits inside us? The searing grief of lost loved ones, gone without goodbyes, mourned behind masks. The cumulative grief of a hundred little losses; missed hugs, lost days out, an absence of freedom, significant life celebrations muted to almost nothing. How do we give voice to all this pain when many of our usual means of dealing with grief have not been available to us?
A question of grief
This was the question that our team at St John’s Hoxton, London, decided to tackle. After months of being implicitly told that being in community can kill you, we wanted to offer a space for the community to come together (in a Covid-secure way) to start to heal. The idea of a Garden of Lament, hosted in the church grounds, in the heart of our diverse urban community, started to form.
Lament has not - until recently - been a particularly popular topic, but it is there throughout scripture. Biblical authors freely and regularly give voice to their pain, most notably in Psalms and Lamentations. The writers of these books speak directly to God: ranting, accusing and demanding that he notice and act: “Wake up Lord! Why are you sleeping? Get up! Don’t reject us forever!” (Psalm 44:23, CSB).
We can be hesitant to be so blunt with God but this honesty speaks to a continuing relationship. The Psalmist is still talking to God, still trusting that God can do something. Lament recognises that God is in control. If not, why bother crying out to him? Lament also forces us to pay attention to our emotions. Our emotions often draw attention to what is wrong with the world but too often, we rationalise or dismiss them. Yet lament allows us to give voice to our emotion in the sight of God. Lament happens in the gap between what is and what should be.
Creating space for lament
With all this in mind, the Garden of Lament team wanted to offer a space where the whole community could access simple, tangible actions to start to tell our stories and process our emotions.
Lament recognises that God is in control. If not, why bother crying out to him?
The response has been profound. Bowl after bowl has filled with stones representing lost loved ones. The large blackboards have been filled again and again with phrases and pictures reflecting on what has been lost and what people miss. Different coloured ribbons representing sadness, anger and fear fill the fence.
Being a people of hope
But lament also looks ahead to what should be. We are a resurrection people, so there is space for hope too. The ‘I hope’ board is full of desires for a better society, a better way of living, and expressions of people’s faith. There are more yellow ribbons of hope on our fence than any other colour. This itself gives me hope for my community as we start to recover.
Like blossoms unfurling their petals in the sun, as we offer our loss to God, may the Son bring warmth and joy to our hearts, and the Spirit breathe new life into us.
The Garden of Lament at St John’s Church, Hoxton, is open now. For more information see stjohnshoxton.org.uk