Cover Story
01 Jun 2020

The Covid-19 Pandemic and the Prayer Language of Lamentation

Source/Author: Bishop Dr Ong Hwai Teik

We thank our Sovereign God for taking us through the “mortifying valley of the shadow of COVID-19” for more than 60 days of MCO and CMCO. We can be certain that no unwanted and feared earthly terrain, no matter how “unending” it seems, is the final destination for the people of God.

One of the key biblical lessons that we can learn when walking into such unwanted routes and terrain is the prayer language of lament. At least one third of the Psalms have to do with lamenting, whether personal, as a group or as a nation. In essence, these songs, prayers or expressions of lament are honest expressions of groaning and deep emotional expressions of sorrow for the desolation, excruciating pain and suffering currently experienced in an entraped desperate situation.

We live in a fallen world in which the whole of creation is “groaning as in the pains of childbirth” for the time of redemption and “be liberated from its bondage to decay” [Romans 8:18-22]. Hence the Sovereign Maker of heaven and earth has endowed us with the biblical prayer language and practice of lamentation as an acceptable way to express our agony and survive our pain and suffering. The Sovereign God gives us the prayer language of lament – He not only permits it! Our weeping and even emotional “out of place” cries of doubt, accusations and despair – fall on His listening and loving ears. For He knows that in order for us to run towards Him and not away from Him, we must be able to pray authentically, and that cannot happen unless we can honestly express every thought and emotion.

But we must also notice the important distinction between cries of “despair” and that of “lamentation”. At first glance, they appear the same. The critical difference is that “despair” is grounded in helplessness and hopelessness, confined to no higher than earthly realities and reasoning - which can end with cynicism and even suicide. Biblical “lamentation” is rooted in an honest faith of hope in an unchanging and faithful God in spite of a terrible and horrible present. Laments turn toward God, whereas despair tempts the sufferer to run from God. Lament is a permanent solution to a passing problem – even though it seems to last forever! The final reference of biblical lamentation is the God of the cosmos. As a result, the final outcome is different.

There is nothing magical about the prayer of lamentation; it is not a silver bullet to our struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic. Biblical lamenting is a declaration of faith and trust in the unchanging, faithful, good and sovereign God even in the midst of feeling overwhelmed in battling and living in life-threatening evil consequences of a fallen world, and the works of malevolent forces.

The biblical language of the lament prayer in Psalm 13 first turns to God, marked by the cry – “how long, O Lord?” [v. 1] This is followed by an honest-to-God complaint [v. 2], that goes beyond anger – honestly identifying the misery, questions and frustrations – raging and gutting the soul. Then it moves beyond the denial and despair that unremitting sorrow can generate, to daring to hope in the promises of the unchanging, good and sovereign God as personal help is sought from Him [vv. 3-4]. Then it climaxes in an extremely important choice – the “destination” of the lament of the psalmist David – is choosing to trust in God [ESV v. 5 - But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation].

As God’s people living in a season of lamentation of the COVID-19 pandemic and prolonged lockdowns of the Movement Control Order and the Conditional Movement Control Order, let us remember that “to weep is human, but to lament is Christian”. The destination and outcome of our tears goes beyond the earthly to the heavenly. When Christians lament, expressing our misery, questions and deep fears – we do so to the sovereign God Who lets us. Our cries and screams of pain, doubt and despair in an unprecedented season of earthshaking disruption and interruption that has brought a “new normal” to our way of life and livelihood, fall on the compassionate ears of our loving Father.

As a Methodist Family, we continue to pray for the various aspects of the pandemic, appreciating the heroic and sacrificial work of the care givers and service providers from several government and non-government institutions and agencies. Most of them will have to sacrifice the time of festivity with their families during this Hari Raya celebrations. Apart from the many medical and social relief projects implemented by many local Methodist churches, individuals and Annual Conferences – the Methodist Crisis Relief [MCR of CAC] has spearheaded and coordinated these food works in the name of Christ in Semenanjug, Sabah and Sarawak. The MCR has hitherto led the Methodist Church Family in spending no less than RM 1.4 mil clinical and non-clinical supplies to multiple hospitals and frontline agencies, as well as supplying daily essentials to individuals and families among those in need, notwithstanding race, religion and citizenship.

Without a doubt, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a “gamechanger” in terms of changing the “means” but not “the end” of our church life and ministry. “The end” remains the same viz the unchangeable truth of Who God is, the eternal Good news of salvation in Christ, the unceasing work and fellowship of the Holy Spirit, of the infallibility of the Bible and all of the biblical revelations in which the life of the Church of God is rooted in creed and practice!

We must now, with God’s wisdom, have an open heart and a positive and expectant spirit – learn to creatively, innovatively and skilfully “do church” in the new normal as those who worship God in spirit and in truth [John 4:23-24] in the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This era builds and expands the universal and powerful impact of digitalisation in new and unforeseen ways, with rapid and exponential progress in digital systems, computing power and in re-writing communication means and structures.

We thank the Lord that during the last two and a half months of MCO/CMCO lock down, the majority of our Annual Conferences reported that there has been more people attending online prayer meetings and virtual small group gatherings via ZOOM online application etc. Our online Sunday Worship Services have reached substantial new audience as well, including those who would normally be prohibited or cut off from hearing the Christian message of hope and transformation. This will also mean we need to ensure that our online materials and presentations are done “faultlessly”.

As God’s people, we continue to observe physical distancing but continue to be closely connected to God and the fellowship of His people. For we are after all made to be relationally connected as social beings whose spiritual, emotional and mental well-being are dependent upon our guarding and maintaining as much “unseen but necessary” community as we can, in the midst of observing mandatory healthy physical distancing. Remaining in authentic community and not being isolated by staying connected using digital and technological means etc feed the compulsory human connection and bond we all need to thrive wholesomely daily. By God’s help, let us continue to find new and creative ways “to worship, fellowship, serve and witness” – whilst imperatively observing physical distancing, at least until the pandemic danger is officially declared to be over.

We thank our Sovereign God Who is taking us through “the mortifying valley of the shadow of COVID-19” even as our prayers of lament have been heard by the Great Shepherd of the sheep.

Let us remember with expectant faith and hope the words of the man who lived with the language of lamentation – who had lost “inexplicably” family, wealth, health and reputation within a relatively short period of time:

NIV Job 42:1 Then Job replied to the LORD: 2 “I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted...... 5 My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.”

Grace and peace to all in the Lord Jesus Christ.