From Grief to Renewal via Lament
How God is reshaping the Uniting Church for mission
Written by Rev Dr Apwee Ting, Assembly National Consultant
I will remember 2020 as a year of grief.
As we approach Christmas, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the deaths of more than 1.6 million people and 72 million infections worldwide.
Personally I am mourning the loss of four Indonesian friends who contracted the virus.
Many more people around the world will die in the weeks and months ahead.
When I think about the scale of that suffering, I am profoundly sad.
When I think of my own grief and multiply it by several million, it’s overwhelming.
In our own ways and across our different cultures, we are all experiencing some sense of grief this year.
Some grieve their loss of freedom to travel, the opportunity to meet family and friends and the ability to embrace others. For others there is the additional loss of income, employment and perhaps even a place to call home.
In Australia, even though we are blessed with a well-funded, well-organised public health system to respond to the pandemic, sooner or later grief catches up with us. Especially if, like me, you live in Melbourne and were confined to your home for months on end.
This year has given us all a lot to lament – and I’ve been reflecting a lot about the role of lamentation in Christian and other cultures.
The Old Testament Book of Lamentations has become an important book for me during these COVID times.
The Book of Lamentations expresses the humiliation, suffering, and despair of Jerusalem and her people following the destruction of the city by the Babylonians in 587 BCE.
Traditionally attributed to the prophet Jeremiah, Lamentations was more likely written for public rituals commemorating the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and its Temple.
Lamentations is notable both for the starkness of its imagery of the devastated city and for its poetic artistry.
It reminded me of the importance of poems, songs and rituals in giving shared, public expression to our private sorrow.
Lamenting together is a key part of that cycle in all cultures.
One of the most difficult things about this pandemic has been our inability to lament together face-to-face, due to the need to limit attendance at funerals.
Here in Australia and around the world, people are finding lots of ways to lament.
In Indonesia, where many of my friends and family live, two Indigenous musicians from Nusa Tenggara Timur, Nunung Garyas and Oswald Piga, captured the national mood with a hit song titled Dunia Berduka (The world is grieving).
Dunia sedang berduka
Manusia sedang bertaruh nyawa
Ribuan nyawa melayang
Jeritan tangis dimana-mana
Tuhan kami tak berdaya
Tuhan kami tak mampu berkata
Tuhan kami kehabisan cara
Kami kehabisan air mata
Tuhan kami telah bersalah
Ampunilah kami ya Tuhan
Mumpung masih ada kesempatan untuk berbenah
The world is grieving
Humans are risking their lives
Thousands of lives are lost
Crying screaming everywhere
Lord we are helpless
Lord we are speechless
Lord we are running out of ways
We're running out of tears
Lord we have been wrong
Forgive us O Lord
While there is still a chance to repent
before it's too late
The heartfelt lyrics expressed the desperation felt by many in Indonesia, where the vast majority of people don’t have that sense of security or agency that most Australians have in response to the pandemic.
The song tells a story of grief and loss, the vulnerability of human life and longing for renewal. It also served as a wake-up call to those Indonesians who had been complacent about the virus.
Again, it reminded me of the strong human need to name our grief and lament as we seek renewal.
Through all of this year, I’ve felt an even greater appreciation of the Eucharist – a core Christian ritual that has sustained the church. In the heart of suffering, grief and loss, Jesus Christ came and shared his own life with us. Just as the bread is broken, we too are broken this year. But through the Eucharist, the Spirit of God is present with us in our vulnerability.
This year, I recalled a time when I was in great sorrow and in a very difficult situation. Through my participation in the Eucharistic rite, I felt Jesus embrace me with his tender love and care. The Spirit of God restored and renewed my life.
Of course, God’s love and care is not for us alone. Like the bread that is broken, it must also be shared.
As members of the body of Christ, we are called to seek out a continuing renewal in which God will use our common worship, witness and service to set forth the word of salvation for all people (BoU para 1), and all creation.
Ritual lament and its importance as a pathway to renewal is something present in the wisdom and laws of many Indigenous cultures.
My friend Dr Marx Mahin, an Indigenous leader of Dayak Ngaju in Central Borneo, explained to me how his people when faced with the epidemic of infectious diseases, perform rituals, either individually, in the family or communally with the residents of the same village.
Through this ritual, the Dayak Ngaju people get an understanding of the source or origin of disease outbreaks and how to deal with them spiritually. Underlying the ritual is an understanding that healing and wholeness come through the restoration of relationships between people and the whole of creation.
It reminded me of Part 3 of the UCA’s Preamble to our Constitution in which our church acknowledged that:
The First Peoples had already encountered the Creator God before the arrival of the colonisers; the Spirit was already in the land revealing God to the people through law, custom and ceremony. The same love and grace that was finally and fully revealed in Jesus Christ sustained the First Peoples and gave them particular insights into God’s ways.
It’s made me think about how First and Second Peoples in Australia might take advantage of 2020’s forced downtime to reflect again on our history, about who we are individually and how to seek renewal as a nation.
For First and Second Peoples in Australia to truly walk together, I believe we need to be able to grieve and lament together the loss of land, culture, language, tradition, custom, story and dreaming of the First Peoples of this land.
The Uniting Church has acknowledged through our revision of the Preamble to the UCA Constitution the dispossession, violence and decimation of First Peoples, and we lament the fact that as a Church and as Second Peoples we were and remain complicit.
The UCA’s decision to declare a Day of Mourning annually is a way in which we stand together in Covenantal relationship to honour, remember and acknowledge the truth of our history.
For it is only through our lament and truth-telling that we can together, First and Second Peoples, look with hope to the future.
A growing number of UCA congregations will mark it on 24 January 2021.
I believe the Day of Mourning is one important expression of our lament for our Australian context.
There is no doubt that consistent practice of lamentation reshapes our identity.
So, as I reflect on the year 2020, I am reminded again of the wise words of my friend Prof Rev Dr Joas Adiprasetya from Jakarta Theological Seminary in Indonesia, who said, “the pandemic is disrupting but God is reshaping us.”
In the Uniting Church, God is reshaping us in a number of ways this year.
Firstly to repent and acknowledge the sin of the past (and present) in relation to First Peoples, to lament the lost and to properly commit to walk in justice and building relationship as First and Second Peoples.
God is also reshaping us to rethink our core ministries.
During the pandemic and the lockdown, I have listened to diverse voices through the Church and COVID-19 webinars and the “Let’s Talanoa” conversations organised by our Assembly Resourcing Unit in partnership with the Being a Multicultural Church Circle and young migrant leaders. We were able to provide platforms for those who most likely did not have voices in our pre-pandemic times.
Second-generation leaders from culturally diverse communities shared their wisdom, knowledge, expertise, experience and insight on various topics including mental health, domestic violence, growing in faith, worship, justice, intercultural ministry, climate change and more.
These experiences have reminded us of our calling to be a Church that is both intercultural and intergenerational.
God is reshaping us to reorient our mission.
Mission is no longer the programs run by the church. Our daily life is the expression of God’s mission in the world. During lockdown, our loungerooms, kitchen tables and studies became our places for worship, work, community and family relationships. We’ve learned there is no separation between sacred and secular, private and public. Our life is a public witness of faith, whether that is in a meeting space, a place of worship, in our study, in our workplace, on a video conference or at home. Mission is about authenticity, innovation, creativity and generous life-giving wherever we are.
And God is reshaping us to reform our structures in a way that our structures reflect our identity and commitment to justice and equity for all people, and a commitment to revitalising inter-conciliar relationships and responsibility.
The Assembly’s UCA Act2 Project will be an important conversation to this end.
As we hear the call of God reshaping us to be the Body of Christ in every part of our lives, may our grief of 2020 turn into hope, in the confidence that God’s love will never leave us.
As the Book of Lamentations observes in chapter 3:22-25:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”
The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
to the soul that seeks him.
And as we know from paragraph 4 of our own Basis of Union:
“The Uniting Church acknowledges that the Church is able to live and endure through
the changes of history, only because its Lord comes addresses, and deals with people in
and through the news of his completed work.”