While I wouldn’t normally do this, I’m posting a paper that I wrote for my Psalms class. I’m not posting this because I think it is particularly exceptional, but for the subject matter. Lament is categorically excluded in Christian worship. This paper explored why lament is absent, the effects of its absence, and how to reincorporate lament into worship.
Admittedly, it is rather legnthy. Feel free to read what I’ve put in bold print and the conclusion to get the main points from the paper, or to read Bringing Our Pain to God, an interview with Michael Card and Calvin Seerveld done by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. I reference both this article and these men frequently.
When you visit a “typical” worship service in contemporary America, you will discover certain trends. The absence of lament in worship is a prevalent trend. While laments account for roughly forty percent of the psalms, they only make up nineteen percent of the Presbyterian Hymnal and a paltry thirteen percent of the Baptist Hymnal. Furthermore, according to Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI), as of August 2012 only five of the one hundred top contemporary worship songs could be considered lament, and it would be a stretch to categorize any of the current Top 25 songs as lament. Lament is categorically absent. The absence of lament has negative effects on the American church, is caused from anemic theologies of worship and suffering, and can be incorporated in a variety of ways.
But what is lament? According to singer, songwriter, and author Michael Card, lament is an essential ingredient of honest faith; it’s the deep sense that something is wrong, with yourself or the world. “Lament is larger than feeling sorry that you’ve sinned. It encompasses pain, hurt, confusion, anger, betrayal, despair and injustice. It goes beyond your personal relationship to consider how all creation groans to be restored by God.” Furthermore, lament is not about getting something off your chest, but about true worship—offering your brokenness as a sacrifice to God. According to Card, lamenting is the truest experience of worship. How one worships determines what we prioritize, and the American church avoids lament. We place a low value on lament as suffering is construed as weakness. The narrative of suffering and the value therein is lost in a church obsessed with joy and triumphalism. This absence of lament in place of triumphalism has several effects on the worshiper. It appeals to only part of a person through making Christianity one-sided, isolates suffering individuals and community though diminishing vulnerability, and fosters an apathy to injustice through silence of pain.
Why We Need Lament
Foremost, removing lament from contemporary worship only appeals to part of an individual by making Christianity one-sided. Pain is intertwined in our humanity. People face the rigors and struggles of life throughout the week, but are expected to leave their pain at the doorway, enter “authentic” community, and rejoice with other believers. We can no more leave our pain in the parking lot than we can set aside our intellects. Brueggemann asserts that laments give expression to “the real experiences of life.” Therefore, the absence of lament in worship is an incomplete expression of man’s relations with God and others. “Worship is not merely animated religion; rather, it is the dynamic expression of our core relationship with God. Our relationship with God includes the sharing of the trauma of loss” (Reid).
Meaningful worship, in contrast, must engage our whole selves and our whole lives. “Authentic worship must mirror and reflect authentic life. In it the human/divine drama is ritually enacted in all its splendor and complexity. It speaks of tragedy as much as triumph” (Thomas). We bring our minds and our hearts to worship, our success and failure, our laughter and our tears; we bring our whole humanity. We bring our pain and our praise together just as we hold crucifixion and resurrection together.
Consequently, the absence of lament makes Christianity woefully one-sided. The American church as a whole avoids laments. The underlying narrative of suffering and lament is lost in triumphalism. “It may be suggested that the one-sided liturgical renewal of today has, in effect, driven the hurtful side of experience either into obscure corners of faith practice or completely out of Christian worship” (Gardner).
The absence of lament isolates suffering individuals and community though diminishing vulnerability. Individuals do not feel free to express true emotion at church but to conform to a false unwritten prerequisite of worship—joyfulness. There is “pressure to respond to the question ‘How are you?’ by spouting some platitude like ‘Blessed.’” (Thomas). Often, lamenting is equated with immaturity and is construed as weakness, but nothing in the Bible forbids mourning. Jesus wept over the death of a friend, the prophets mourned the spiritual state and downfall of Israel, and the psalmists cry out in anguish to their God. Given this subtle prohibition, those who are suffering cannot experience fellowship with other believers out of pressure to appear “blessed” and cannot experience fellowship with God out of inability to express painful emotion.
Individual lament is entirely excluded, but there is some room spared for communal lament. Funerals would be the most common example of accepted mourning. It is a brief opportunity to engage with fundamental reality that the world is painful and broken. Natural disasters or national tragedies are also accepted periods of lament. But in these unexpected times of tragedy, lament is often so foreign that people do not know how to express their pain to others or to the Lord. In these rare moments, the church is paralyzed.
The reality that the world is broken does not seem adequate an answer to those who are mourning. Michael Card proposes that many churches are “embarrassed, almost panicky, that there are situation to which they have no answer. We want to present Jesus as the answer man, and we don’t want Jesus to look bad. And if that’s your theology, Jesus can look very bad at funerals.” Furthermore, author David Power adds “If there is no place in worship for lament, there is no way churches can wrestles with God over human suffering and hence no accepted reaction to suffering other than to endure it with resignation” (Power).
This place for lament is evident in Old Testament literature. Mourning and lament in scripture is repeatedly communal. This is in contrast to what we see in scripture however. There are collections of communal laments in the Psalter (Psalms 44, 60, 74, 77, 79, 80, 85, 90). In Ezra 9 the author explains a picture of Israelites worshipping and mourning the erection of the second temple together. Lamenting spirituals have a place alongside contemporary praise choruses.
The absence of lament in contemporary American worship also fosters apathy to injustice by silencing those in pain. When we ignore and reject pain and lament, we are going to silence those who are oppressed. If we have no room for lament in our theology (e.g., it makes Jesus look bad), then individuals will rationalize their way past the voices of oppression. Walter Brueggemann wrestles with the idea stating:
What happens when appreciation of the lament as a form of speech and faith is lost, as I think it is largely lost in contemporary usage? What happens when the speech forms that redress power distribution have been silenced and eliminated? The answer, I believe, is that a theological monopoly is reinforced, docility and submissiveness are engendered, and the outcome in terms of social practice is to reinforce and consolidate the political-economic monopoly of the status quo.
Christians lose their faithful witness to the world to make God’s “will be done on earth as it is in heaven” when lament and a proper view of oppression and injustice is lost.
Reshaping Our Theology
Lament can be restored in contemporary America, but churches will have to critically discern what they believe. The concept of “praise and worship” must be reviewed to be inclusive of lament. As it stands, “worship” is equated with “praise” and it entirely exclusive of lament. Worship is seen as a time of rejoicing. But just as a sermon is not an exegetical paper with two legs, worship is not animated religion. “Rather, it is the dynamic expression of our core relationship with God. Our relationship with God includes the trauma of loss.” That said, lamenting may be the truest form of worship. Michael Card asserts that “We can’t worship God without recognizing our own woundedness. We have a worship revolution going on in the U.S., but we’re not worshiping. There’s no woundedness in it…Lament is the lost language of worship.”
In addition to a shifted mindset regarding worship, churches must reconsider their theology of suffering. There is a strong dissonance between what Christians cognitively affirm and affectively feel regarding suffering. Most would never affirm a retribution theology, but there is a temptation to affirm that good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people. This notion in mind, it is easy to become Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar and blame an individual’s suffering on their own iniquities. To otherwise allow suffering is threatening to our own well being; suffering apart from retribution theology is variable and defenseless. Truthfully, suffering is fundamental in a broken world, and is particularly relevant to Christians as Jesus assures his followers there will be suffering and persecution in Him (John 15:18, 16:33). If suffering is God-ordained, and worship is dynamic expression our relationship with God, then lament is the natural outpouring of these two forces together. It is crucial that the church culture incorporates lament.
There are many ways to incorporate laments into church culture. Participation from the pulpit is crucial in changing the temperature of any particular congregation. If the laments are selectively ignored as sermon topics, pastors will only reinforce a lament-less Christianity that idolizes comfort and content, destroy vulnerability, and isolates suffering. Sermons and pastoral support are but a starting point though. The pastor alone cannot change an entire congregation. As a communal whole, a church congregation needs to hear and comprehend what scripture has to say about lament and be committed to vulnerability. “Genuine lament in worship depends on trust. Congregations are full of troubles yet no one wants to show it. Genuine lament will be scarce till you have close-knit trust with God and brothers and sister in the Lord. You have to be vulnerable—and the setting has to be ‘tears-friendly,’ though not sentimental, pietistic, or weepy.” (Seerveld). Apart from vulnerability, there is no real community. Vulnerability is important if we want to give people the opportunity to see us as Jesus does, as valuable in spite of ourselves and our brokenness and loved for who we are. Unless a group of congregants are comfortable being vulnerable each other, they will not lament together.
Additionally, churches should incorporate lament into their time of worship through music. Singing laments is relatively foreign to most churches. Though there are several contemporary songs that may have themes of lament such as “You Never Let Go” by Matt Redman or “Sweetly Broken” by Jeremy Riddle, they lack the musical vigor and depth that would characterize the bitterness of lament. Another prominent contemporary worship song, “Create in Me a Clean Heart,” quotes directly from Psalm 51, though some could argue that it lacks the rough-hewn character of a true lament. Sojourn music of Sojourn Community in Louisville, KY has spent a great deal of concentration on songs of lament quoting Psalms 13, 42, 51, and 57 verbatim. Additionally, Michael Card devoted an entire album to laments with his 2006 production, “The Hidden Face of God,” penning songs such as “Come Lift Up Your Sorrows,” “The Silence of God,” and “Tears of the World.”
Admittedly though, finding music to sing in times of distress is difficult. In the wake of September 11th, Calvin Seerveld was flooded with requests to use his hymn “A Congregational Lament,” perhaps bearing evidence to how rare a song for tragedy is. Our culture lacks the dirges and songs of mourning that other cultures could instinctively turn to. In response, Seerveld suggests building a thesaurus of psalms. He states, “Develop and existential love for God’s psalms so pastors, elders, musicians, and people all come to love and live among the psalms….Let them become part of your worship vocabulary so you have them ready to read or sing when, suddenly, there an unexpected tragedy…If people started to sing whole psalms—not just snippets—it would change us.”
Another practical way to increase vulnerability and to make room for lament is in intercessory prayer. Though rare, there is much value to devoting a time of intercessory prayer on Sunday mornings rather than with the faithful few on Wednesday nights. Church of the Cross in Toledo, OH has a time of prayer before every service in which congregants can bring praises or prayer requests to the altar and the pastor will pray for them personally and invite others to lay hands upon them. Though the formula is simple, it does much to increase community and vulnerability in the congregation and creates space for lament in worship.
Churches will do well to incorporate lament in their worship. Including lament appeals to the whole person by making Christianity holistic, includes suffering individuals and community though vulnerability, and fosters empathy to injustice through vocalization of pain. When we review our theology of suffering and our theology of worship, we see that lament is actually the two forces working together. The aforementioned examples apply many of these principles and may be helpful to add lament in worship. However, each church needs to look upon its own strengths and weaknesses, needs and assets, and consider what practical ways they can create a culture that values lament. While this task may ultimately require creativity and wisdom, we will be greatly repaid by allowing our whole self—our praise and our lament—to worship the Lord.