Sometime a best first response is lament.
While preparing to preach on the complaints of Psalm 102, I noticed Anglican theologian N. T. Wright published a short article in TIME magazine on March 29th provocatively entitled “Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To.” In this article he invites the reader not to offer long-winded theological explanations as to why COVID-19 has shaken the planet, but rather to consider the Psalms, where the God-hungry poet cries out, asking “Why?” In other words, he calls people to lament, to enter into the suffering of their neighbours, mourning with those who mourn.
We like to use words. I do. But groaning, mourning, tears, suggest deed sounds beyond words.
In fact, Wright adds that “the mystery of the biblical story is that God also laments.” The Spirit groans with us, and with creation, leaning into redemption. What Wright did not know at the end of March was that there would be news erupting that would overtake the headlines of the virus—stories of racism, murder, riots, and protests. Again, there is a temptation to pontificate about what this means, why these horror stories of police brutality flood our screens. We can get picky about the rough edges of anti-racism and have intellectual arguments about systemic patterns and individual responsibility, but these can be different instances of “unhearing and unwelcoming” (see my friend Shiao Chong’s editorial here). Wright’s wisdom about empathy and solidarity once again applies: venture the posture of lament, and enter into God’s lament. It’s a good place to start.
Within every lament is a latent hope: God hears, and God cares. Otherwise why would you bother to shout? The alternative is catatonic despair. Our laments lead us to listen, and to spiritually discerned collective action. They are a protest against the brokenness of the world, against the evil that seems to run rampant at times through the good creation. Laments shout: “This is not the way its supposed to be!”
Come to Church and Cry
Congregations are typically uncomfortable with songs of lament, even though the book of Psalms is at least one-third lament songs. “Too depressing,” one parishioner said to me. We come to church to be lifted up, and that’s why some call the music portion of worship “Praise.” We want to be upbeat; but it reinforces the temptation to pretend we have it all together–our families, our mental heath, our world situation–its just fine, thanks. Just don’t ask me how I’m really doing…
There have been seasons in my life when I’ve been depressed, lonely, and felt betrayed by others, and even by God. Should I have stayed away from church? Or attended anyway and hid my pain by faking a smile? Where should sad people go with their grief, if not to church? Excursions into solitude and silence in nature’s sanctuary can be a grace, and I believe hiking and biking are spiritual disciplines; but groans need an ear to hear them, too. Especially when our hurts involve a community crisis, a social catastrophe. (“The Valley of the Shadow of Death” by Barry Moser.)
I’ve already written about COVID and Psalm 46. But that wasn’t directly a lament poem, although it contained lament.
John Calvin called the Psalms “the anatomy of the human soul” and the church should be a place where all parts of the soul can find a home. I’ve written and preached on the bedrock of joy that animates faith, but its equally true that church should be the best place for a broken heart to find welcome. But few of our worship songs today want to go to the dark places, ask the hard questions, and complain to God. I don’t mean whine and focus on ourselves, our aches and pains or our frustrated ambitions. Some the Psalms are like that. But I think collective laments might be one entry point into the suffering of the world — the places of hunger, hurt and hell where himself Christ gravitated.
Lament Songs can be Justice Songs
The one popular lament song I can think of is by Matt Redman “Blessed Be Your Name” (2002) — which is the story of Job put to song without using his name. But its not only lament, as it jumps from verses of abundance to verses of wilderness and the anthem-like chorus is “Blessed be your name.” Its certainly a testimony of faithfulness, and would be appropriate for times of sorrow, but its not a full-throated lament song.
Yet when you hear Redman’s song mixed with the stories of celebration and devastation in one particular congregation (as in the video from Central Films below), the juxtaposition is an emotional roller coaster. Seeing each congregation member mouth the words “Blessed be your name”–whether in joy or tragedy–suggests the enduring covenant relationship one might have with God, no matter what happens. These are more personal than social crises, but personal issues is often where the Psalmist starts, too.
Less well known, but certainly worthy of increased attention is Glen Soderholm’s work, a Canadian artist with a Christmas album (2008) entitled “This Bright Sadness” that is not leading with “Joy to the World.” It includes songs like “Seamstress” — telling the story of a young woman in a sweat shop juxtaposed with the “children across the sea, [who] will not be denied on Christmas Day.” There is also a cover of “Everything is Broken” by Bob Dylan and another from Julie Miller called “By Way of Sorrow.” Soderholm’s own “It’s Promising Rain” has no “blessed be your name” chorus in it. In the context of the album (for those who still listen to albums!) there is more than rain, or maybe good rain. The final track “Will You Wait For Me?” is a Christmas song that anticipates redemption–by waiting with Mary, Joseph, Simeon, and John.
This may seem out of character for Christmas, but there are many, many people who know the sorrows of the blues at Christmas, and will appreciate the voice of lament in these songs.
Next is an example of a lament that has been put with images, including those suggesting the COVID pandemic situation we are now in. Listen to this music video made by Ken deBoer of a song simply called “Congregational Lament.” The text is by Canadian aesthetics professor Calvin Seerveld from Toronto (1983) and its sung to the tune of Genevan 51 (Psalter Hymnal #576). It is a raw protest, a soul bared before God. The Genevan Psalter–and any Psalter that covers all the Psalms, will give voice to a cry from the pit. You can’t sing Psalms and miss the pit.
This song is not shy with the messiness of our lives. One verse speaks of sickness, another of death, and more of a friend in jail, and a child in pain. Another verse speaks of a wound that stress measurements say is the top of the list of hurt: divorce.
Why, Lord, must broken vows cut like a knife?
How can one wedded body break in pieces?
We all have failed at being pure and faithful;
only by grace we keep our solemn vows.
We plead: Repair the brokenness we share.
Chastise no more lest it destroy your creatures.
Hear this lament as intercessory prayer,
and speak your powerful word to make us hopeful.
This echoes the raw emotion of the Psalms, and brings our contemporary tragedies to worship. As Calvin Seerveld has said in a conversation with musician Michael Card, “the biblical psalms apparently approve of steadfast believers in the Lord voicing their unstinting complaints to God. They lament sickness and the threat of untimely death, enemies, and even God’s silent treatment and severe punishment for sin.”
Before the anti-racism rage was COVID on the headlines. Before COVID, was climate change, which continues to unsettle our planetary home. Later in the article, Seerveld invites the reader to groan along with a polluted creation, saying “We groan because we see how we are ruining the praise God’s environment is created to bring to the Lord. It hurts to pick up oil-slicked birds and dead fish washed onto beaches.” We groan, creation groans, and God’s Spirit groans, too. Lament and justice weave through each other.
(I have since writing been reminded of “We lay our Broken World” and “How Long” by Stuart Townend).
Lament as a Sign of Friendship
Church, worship, prayer, should be a place to both laugh and cry. The problem with prosperity theology–the health and wealth gospel–which rightly proclaims the rewards of pursuing righteousness and justice–is that it overlooks so much of Scripture–and most significantly the cross.
Complaining to God, sharing our deepest pains with him, can be a sign of maturity in faith. Canadian Roman Catholic theologian Ronald Rolheiser in his book Wrestling with God writes: “We must trust that God understands our humanity… God can handle our anger, self-pity, and resistance… as I’ve aged, I’ve come to realize that being with God… is like being with a trusted friend… God wants us, with all of our wandering weaknesses, to be human in his presence, with ease, with comfort, and with the feeling that we are home…” And later in life, we can become “intimate enough with God to precisely be ‘bold,’ as friends who have known each other for a long time have a right to be.”
Friends with God, but not peers; and the kind of friends who sometimes shout. Bono (from the band U2), in an introduction to the Book of Psalms (Grove Press, 1999), writes:
“That’s what a lot of the psalms feel like to me, the blues. Man shouting at God… Abandonment and displacement are the stuff of my favourite psalms. The Psalter may be a font of gospel music, but for me it’s despair that the psalmist really reveals …”
I’m not sure its the kind of despair that gives up and wallows in its own misery. But its surely a kind of melancholy, but a kind that protests the darkness, as another Canadian musician said, kicking at it “until it bleeds daylight.” That’s another poet, Bruce Cockburn.
The church should follow the lead of the musicians, artists, and poets when it comes to expressing our pain and protesting the hammer of evil that never seems to stop pounding and shattering the landscape of our lives. When victims of injustice only hear silence from friends, or get resistance and “unhearing” in return for their cries like Job, lamenting shows some understanding, some empathy. Mourn with those who mourn. Psalms of complaint guide us into a place of honesty, and into a way to be more fully alive and generous, before the face of God.