As believers in a victorious Saviour, how do we respond to today’s social distress and conflicts? Do we sweep them under the rug and chivvy people to buck up and focus on the positive? Or is there a time to lament?
If our life of worship is in any way engaged with the realities of life for ourselves and for our fellow human beings around the world, then it seems to me that mourning and lament have to be part of our worship vocabulary. More and more frequently, broadcast and social media expose us to the ugliness of the human condition and to inhuman patterns from which God sent Jesus to free us. Right now the need to understand and resonate with the pain of the world around us is going to be vital to our ability to engage with the life and concerns of our compatriots.The more we acknowledge and lament these realities the more we understand and resonate with the blessings of Jesus which reach out to the poor, the meek, the mournful and those who hunger and thirst for justice (which is righteousness in the public sphere.)
If our corporate worship engages with these darker layers of life then it will reflect in songs of lament. Earlier this year Carl Tuttle and John Barnett visited us at Yarra Valley Vineyard and spent some time with our worship leaders. Carl and John are songwriters within our movement who keep it real and who manage to avoid the kind of hyperbole and purely aspirational expressions that can detach our songs of worship from anything gritty or grounded. And we greatly valued their input. In our conversations together the question was raised about the poverty of our lament. How we might better express this aspect of our relationship with God? And how can we truly celebrate our hope without engaging with the need for it?!
In fact Christian musicology is rich with the song of lament. Rich – if we are willing to reappropriate Hebrew lament as embodied in the Bible’s book of Psalms. “My heart cries out for you?” “Will you leave us exiled and enslaved forever?” “When will you rouse yourself Lord?” “When can we know your presence again?” “When will your justice rain down?” These are the heart cries of our Psalmody, ready and relevant to be sung by fresh generations.
Our heritage is rich with lament if we are willing to reinterpret some of the hymns of longing – such as Isaac Watts yearning, “Come Holy Spirit!”. It is rich, too, if we will draw upon the wealth of Gospel music.
The need to maintain unity in our congregations can deter pastors from addressing the great and vital issues of the day. Often that is how we become silentenough for wickedness to prosper in the presence of an otherwise vibrant Christian community. Similarly the need to safeguard good morale in congregational church-life often dissuades pastors and worship-leaders from delving too far into other spaces that might expose us to the painfulness of real lament. Yet at the same timewe recognise the disconnect many feel with songs of worship that seem only to skate on the stratosphere of love and elation. Perhaps we are more comfortable with bringing our lament to God, individually in the privacy of our own quiet times. The maintenance of a comfortable private space around ourselves is somewhat challenged if we are expected to genuinely express our lament together – in many cultures, at least.
Of course there have been songs which have brought this note into the mix of “adult-contemporary” worship. But these lamentations sometimes have so dampening an impact on the energy of a meeting that it can be difficult to genuinely engage with them and then move on. And the dour lyric can require just as much of an emptional leap as lyrics that demand that the worshipper be on a high!
So how to bring sincere lament to God, together – and still course with the positive energies of a relationship with God motivated by faith and hope in Jesus? For me, this is where the contribution of Gospel music serves us so well.
The Gospel idiom has always offered a way of holding in one hand an acknowledgement of the pain of today’s sufferings and injustices, while in the other hand firmly holding onto faith, hope and joy in Jesus – as we know him now and as we will know him later in glory. Conisder, “Soon I will be done with the trouble of this world, I’m going up to see King Jesus,” “Soon and very soon,” “We shall overcome,” “I wish I knew how it would feel to be free.”
That dual capacity, essential to Gospel music, is precisely why it was Gospel songs that simultaneously expressed and elevated the spirit of all those thirsting and agitating for justice through the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Keep the language of Mary Mary’s 2000 hit “Shackles” in the present tense and you have a more contemporary expression of that same Gospel sensibility: “From the corners of my mind I just can’t seem to find a reason to believe that I can break free…Been through the fire and through the rain, bound in every kind of pain…let me go right now…I need you to lift this load, because I can’t take it no more…TAKE the shackles off my feet so I can dance…”
At times it is in lamentations that the Church offers the world the songs it needs. Consider the way U2’s “Still haven’t found what I’m looking for” hit and resonated with the yearnings of an audience far wider than that of U2’s own following. Similarly the questioning lament of Black Eyed Peas’ “Where is the love?” sang words into the airwaves that struck a chord around the world.
The Hebrew canon of Psalms and African-American Gospel (and Blues) feed us in this way with a spirituality of lament deeply informed by exile and slavery. It interests me that not only the lyrics but the very musical forms that were generated out of these dark times have a deep resonance with any who pause to listen. Bluegrass also runs rich with the dual themes of suffering and hope. An idiom rooted not in exile and slavery, but poverty. If we will get past the cultural boundaries that sometimes segregate our music and mine the wealth of our diverse heritage then we have a wealth indeed. Perhaps it is no coincidence that times of renewal and awakening in the church are often times where there is a fresh exchange of music across traditions.
Hebrew lament, Gospel, Blues and Bluegrass all reveal the testimony of Psalm 42 – namely that the moment prior to God placing a new song in the singer’s mouth, is life in the slimy pit, in the mud and mire. And all are idioms that still resonate – if we are looking for a language of spiritual and godly lament – if we are willing to long together for those same things for which God himself longs. If you are a musician and a song-writer, rather than impose musical and lyrical conventions on you they might give you a spur and an inspiration to pursue a needed direction.
Because, at heart, when we sing out our lament to God we thereby bring him more of ourselves; more of ourselves to agree with more of himself. And so doing, we make our shared encounter more real, and more powerful.
For some more contemporary inspiration, take a listen to these…
As topically as at any time, LUCKY PETERSON
sings “Why can’t we live together..”
TAMELA MANN sings a song that could speak for many hearts, saying:
“My heart is torn in pieces…Truth is I’m tired…Truth is I’m weak…
I’m all churched-out, hurt and abused.. I’m trying to pray but where are you?…
EARNEST PUGH calls for RAIN – a rich symbol of God’s presence and CHANGE,
bringing purity to the individual’s heart and justice to the public sphere
Protest, solidarity and lament fuse in HUGH MASAKELA’s anthemic “STIMELA”
Because when we cry out as prophets, lamenting oppression and injustice
our song carries inherently political ramifications…