Friday, June 25, 2010

Free To Lament

There's been a lot of discussion lately about a return to lament in worship.  Maybe this is a reaction to what some consider "feel good" worship, or maybe it's the reality of all of the tragedies that we experience in today's world.

The Bible is full of lament, but looking to the Psalms is an easy place to start..
  Psalm 42:9-10
  9 I say to God my Rock,
"Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I go about mourning,
oppressed by the enemy?" 
10 My bones suffer mortal agony
as my foes taunt me,
saying to me all day long,
"Where is your God?"

Now what does this have to do with music?  I think the rich history of lament attached to music can allow people to express the pathos of lament, where, in Western culture at least, we don't openly allow ourselves to morn.  We don't raise our voices when we cry. We are taught to find solitude and to work it out on our own.  All of this repression and isolation can't be good,  so why not let it all out together?  Hymn writers have always thought so.

 A Soul Cries Out

Horatio Spafford's hymn "It Is Well with My Soul" was his way of working through grief, like a modern psalmist.  A couple of years before he penned the words, he lost his son and was financially ruined by the the great Chicago Fire.  Then in 1873, after sending his wife and four daughters ahead of him for a vacation in Europe, their ship collided with a sailing vessel and sank, killing his children.  His wife survived and sent telegram with the words, "Saved Alone."

As he traveled to meet his wife in Europe, his ship passed over the spot where the collision occurred, and he was inspired to write the words to "It Is Well with My Soul."

NOTE:  I personally find the theology in "It Is Wll with My Soul" hard to swallow for the most part, but it is a beautiful expression of this one man's grief and struggle to reconcile it with his faith.
When tragedy occurs, humans feel compelled to express their grief, and where else can we feel safe to do so if not in the church?

Why Can't We Just Lament?

The problem can be that, just like the Psalms, there is a tendency to end these lament songs with a "but everything's okay because I love God and God loves me."  It's a wonderul sentiment, but once again, it doesn't allow us just to cry.

At time like these, we can turn to another example: Lamentations
Lamentations 1:20-22
 20 "See, O LORD, how distressed I am!
       I am in torment within,
       and in my heart I am disturbed,
       for I have been most rebellious.
       Outside, the sword bereaves;
       inside, there is only death.
 21 "People have heard my groaning,
       but there is no one to comfort me.
       All my enemies have heard of my distress;
       they rejoice at what you have done.
       May you bring the day you have announced
       so they may become like me.
  22 "Let all their wickedness come before you;
       deal with them
       as you have dealt with me
       because of all my sins.
       My groans are many
       and my heart is faint."

I've been looking for songs that do the same thing. And the challenge will be gauging a congregation's reaction to this kind of "despair only" sort of approach.  I welcome suggestions.

1 comment:

  1. I'm intrigued by your search for lamentations within the voice of congregational singing; a "despair only" motif. I agree with you that the soul's anguished crying out is heard in scripture but seems to be silenced in the Christian community's song.

    If the lament is, truly, one authentic and necessary point on the arc of hurt, healing and recovery then we have every reason to find a place for it within the hearing of our congregations. But, perhaps, unless the congregation as a whole is in anguish, the lament will not be a shared song. Perhaps it is the individual who suffers and, given this, it is most appropriate for the lament to be on the lips of the one and not of the many.

    In order to find a shared song, we would have to presuppose a shared struggle and I suspect that the groups from which our great church music has sprung could not fit that descrption. The music we rely on for congregational singing, found within bound volumes, is, by its very nature, the music of the successful and not of the struggling. If we were to find group expressions of lament - of "despair only"- we might need to go looking for songs from the voices of lesbian, Hispanic or black women - the Sweet Honey in the Rock" sound - or in the cry of “Las Madres de los Desiparicidos” (the Mothers of the Disappeared) or in the voices of cancer survivors or those living with HIV AIDS or in the cries of the elderly, the aged and infirm… These groups share their feelings in song but the songs don’t make it to the pages of the hymnal.

    But even if our congregations do not suffer as a whole in this day and at this place, we do surround those who suffer and might seek a way to be in hearing range for their cries.

    The only venue I am aware of for the voice of grief, despair, and anguish within the context of community worship is the "mourner's kiddish" in Sabbath Services of our Jewish sisters and brothers. The bereaved stand to share their prayer within the hearing of the congregation. The congregation surrounds them as they pray. Even this, though, is not traditional lament but, rather, a blessing.

    One kind of cry does abide within our song-life as Christian communities. Not a lament, exactly. More of a heartfelt, anguished plea. We have the Kyrie.

    Lord have mercy upon us.