The COVID-19 pandemic has changed how Italian Christians pray and live their faith, amid a nation reeling from more than 10,000 deaths—the highest tally in the world—among 92,400 confirmed cases, second only to the United States [as of March 28].
During lockdown, we can no longer gather on Sundays or in home groups. Social gatherings, travel, and weddings are suspended, as are most businesses. If someone is caught outside their home without a valid reason, there can be a heavy fine.
But this season of exile has helped us discover three facets of prayer we often neglect in times of abundance.
1) Prayers of Lament
Psalms of lament often felt hyperbolic a month ago. For example, Asaph’s complaint that God has made his people “drink tears by the bowlful” could seem overdramatic; David’s cry to God of “How long will you hide your face from me?” was a distant feeling.
But as humanity struggles to contain a fear- and anxiety-provoking pandemic, lament feels newly relevant to all of us. In March 2020, Psalm 44 sounds pitch perfect:
Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.
Why do you hide your face
and forget our misery and oppression?
We are brought down to the dust;
our bodies cling to the ground.
Rise up and help us;
rescue us because of your unfailing love.
Few Western Christians have experienced poverty, injustice, or persecution. Consequently, our worship usually reflects the moods of resourceful individuals in times of prosperity and peace: composed and mainstream. We do suffer individually; however, seldom is our corporate worship fueled by protest and mourning before God.
Lament is suffering turned into prayer. It’s the worship of people who feel out of balance and out of place. Historically, it has been the prayer of minorities, the poor, and the persecuted—of Chinese pastors in prison cells and of black slaves singing of justice and Christ’s coming.
If lament felt foreign to most Italians a month ago, pastors have found eerie echoes of biblical stories in what is currently taking place in the country. “To see wives who can’t perform rites or bid farewell to their dying husbands reminds me of how Jesus was hastily buried and women returned to the tomb to anoint his body,” Gaetano di Francia, director of the Union of Christian Biblical Churches in Italy, told me. “Their lack of closure will produce a deeper grief.”
The language of lament may prove to be one of the bittersweet lessons Christians learn from this crisis. It can help believers unlearn a spirituality of the center and learn a spirituality of the margins (as pastor Abraham Cho reminds us).