ISIS. Ebola in West Africa. Syria. The recent Middle East conflagration. Flight MH17. I stand in front of the congregation. How does my denomination’s expression of Christian worship and life together, teased out over 90 minutes every Sunday morning, mean anything really, in the face of these problems that seem epic? Avoidance isn’t the answer. I wonder how to lead us in worship that somehow makes room for the doubt, grief, and confusion we all feel. I cue the worship team and we play the opening bars of “How Long” by Stuart Townend. With eyes wide open we begin to sing our lament.
What Does It Mean to Lament?
When we lament, we cry out—in the midst of the reality of a world tainted by sin and therefore inclusive of sorrow, pain, and confusion—to a good God who has the power to change a given situation. As the majority of psalms reveal, a true lament complains loud and long to God with honesty that leaves no room for polite self-consciousness. As part of that lament, the lamenter asks God to do something and then, having named her request, closes her lament by affirming her trust in God. That affirmation of trust is as much a part of the lament as is the complaint.
There’s much our churches need to lament: the loss of so many of our youth because of our disconnected spirituality; the ecological devastation of creation; the cultural genocide of women around the world; the idolatry of Western culture’s economic worldview and exploitative practices; our need to shape and control our environments—inside and outside the church. Strong words, yet we cannot lament unless we see what there is to grieve. Perhaps we’re too…comfortable. We’re either too secure or we’ve numbed ourselves, we have averted our gaze, we have refused to look the pain of the world (and our own pain) in the eye.
How do worship leaders begin to choose lament as a way of worship and how do leaders choose lament as a key element of their leadership?
They Take the Time to Name Deep Disappointments
Really seeing what there is to grieve assumes we readily name our deepest disappointments. And that demands that we commit to the discipline of stability in our faith communities. Without a leader’s commitment to sink roots into community, lament cannot flourish. It takes time to get at the issues of violence, oppression, poverty, injustice, and death experienced and borne by the people who show up to our services every week. It takes time to welcome and encourage them to regularly pray, in our services, out of those experiences. It takes time for them, for us, to write our own songs of lament.
They Work at Finding the Balance between Grief and Joy
Leaders who lament as a way of worship, and choose lament as a key element of their leadership, work at finding the balance between grief and joy. Many churches with limited experience in practicing corporate lament define and limit its practice to a dirge or an appropriate expression of personal or corporate grief. They use only the grief portions of lament psalms in their services. Lament quickly becomes a spin cycle of heaviness that turns away churchgoers and seekers. Yes, sorrow, pain, disillusionment, and expressions of betrayal infuse lament.
But biblical lament offers more. It addresses God and refuses to shellac the desperation that marks its plea for justice, deliverance, and healing. It joyfully affirms the lamenter’s faith in a God of covenant, a God who has made promises to his creation and can be kept to those promises. The persistent widow kept returning to plead her case. Jesus told her story to show his listeners how they ought to pray, asking them if the Son of Man would find such faith on earth when he returned.
They Hold out the Results of Lament
Biblical lament declares that God is good, regardless of circumstances. When we don’t lament as a community, our faith falters when sickness or evil or pain touch our lives. Even when we don’t feel his presence, we can count on the character of God, who is both powerful and good.
Folks broken up about ecological devastation, geopolitical enmity, genocide, slavery, economic exploitation, and oppression are close to the kingdom. They are close to the heart of God, who also weeps before such brokenness. “It is critical for mission to be authentically incarnational, embodied in and flowing out of the human experience,” says Sam Chaise, executive director of Canadian Baptist Ministries and a worship leader. “Otherwise it is too easy to treat people as projects and to engage brokenness as a problem to be solved.”
It takes humility to not “solve” brokenness in our 90 minutes of Sunday morning; to choose instead to sit or stand with our neighbours in the midst of their pain and join in their cry of “How long, Lord? How long?” even when God’s answers don’t come quickly. Perhaps especially then. When worship leaders lament, we choose to hold the reality of the world’s brokenness and our brokenness and the good, constant God we serve before our communities. We lament and then we get up and creatively participate in the work of redemption that is before us.
Joy blossoms in a church and a community that laments. The majority of laments in Psalms and the minor prophets assert joy—joy in the face of exile, barrenness, and death, joy that expresses our deepest trust.
Joy in lament. Jesus’ story holds them both, and this is the only reason why we can hold both together within our worship and our lives. Jesus celebrated the coming kingdom and yet he wept over Jerusalem and in the garden. And on the cross he cried out: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Matthew 27:46).
The Jews standing near the cross would have known the entirety of the text that followed Jesus’ cry. That cry is the first line of Psalm 22, and Jesus’ words would have led them into David’s assertion of abandonment, desperate suffering, and need for deliverance. They would have remembered David’s expression of trust: “He has not ignored or belittled the suffering of the needy. He has not turned his back on them, but has listened to their cries for help” (Psalm 22:24). They would have recalled David’s final joyful praise: “His righteous acts will be told to those not yet born. They will hear about everything he has done” (Psalm 22:31).
Jesus’ death and resurrection invite us to face the world’s pain (and ours) and move toward that pain, knowing that we will never be overcome by it. On the cross, Jesus’ lament cry became ours…both its grief and its joy. It is finished.
Renee James is a regular contributor to Gifted for Leadership, Today’s Christian Woman, and Leadership Journal. She’s the communications director for Canadian Baptist Women of Ontario and Quebec.