My first encounter with the lament tradition was when I was living with my family in Cyprus. We had a Cypriot university professor called Andreaus in our congregation who’s young son had brain cancer and eventually died. As his extended family were still in the Greek Orthodox church he wanted to honor them, and have a traditional Orthodox funeral. For me it was a memorable experience. Even before the service began the loud wailing and sobbing started, and it continued throughout the service. I noticed that Andreaus himself was wailing uncontrollably throughout the service. After about forty minutes I was emotionally rung out and quietly slipped out of the church to pray outside. I was concerned for Andreaus. With such a weight of grief I wondered how he would cope with the future.
Much to my surprise, after the funeral was over Andreaus came up to me, smiling, composed, and asked me why I had left the service. I explain that I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of grief, and concerned for him also. He smiled again, and said, “Ray, you don’t understand, the sobbing and wailing is deliberately initiated by certain members of the congregation, and then we all join in. The idea is to vent our grief as much as we can during that hour. The loud wailing and sobbing is socially acceptable and even expected. And after it is all over, my pain has not gone, but some of my grief has been expressed in the presence of God. It is therapeutic and healing. This is how it works for us.”
As a European I had misread what was going on. Andreaus was still a grieving father, but there had been a context in which he could make lamination with his family. I realize that, sadly, in the West we had almost totally lost the lament as a means of vocalizing grief in the presence of God.
After Nicholas Wolterstorff lost his son in a climbing accident and subsequently wrote his highly acclaimed book, Lament for a Son, a friend told him that he had given copies to all his children. Nicholas was surprised and asked why, and the friend replied “Because it is a love-song.”
Wolterstorff remarks that this opened his eyes to realize that every true lament is a love song. We only lament because we love, because we have lost something of great value, and it merits that we pause, that we reflect, that we weep and grieve. If we do not then what was lost could not have been of much value. And so true lamentation is not self centered, it is to testify to the great value of that which has been lost.
Lamentations pepper many of the books of the Bible, but for the sake of time I will only focus on the Psalms as they are the richest legacy we have to draw on. It is important for us not to forget that they were sung. And although songs are not the only mechanism for releasing grief, in traditional societies they have always had a central role, particularly among oppressed people where singing was a way of vocalizing suffering and ongoing grief. And the Negro spiritual would be a well known recent example.
Just as in a worship service, poetry put to music in a praise song has the mysterious ability to draw out from my heart gratitude and thanksgiving that I was not consciously aware of when driving to church, in a similar way, poetry put to music in a lament, which is what many of the Psalms are, also has the mysterious ability to draw out from my heart grief that I was not consciously aware of before coming into the presence of God. Much of our grief is
unresolved because we have lost the art of lamentation, which is one of the primary biblical mechanisms of dealing with it.
Personally I believe that the fact that we can now doze untroubled in front of the TV with tragic footage of the Asian tsunami running on the six o’clock news is symptomatic of a generation that is paralyzed because we no longer know how to make lamentation. And if we don’t know how to lament, to survive we must either go into denial or harden our hearts simply to emotionally survive the level of trauma we are exposed to each day.
There are basically two types of Psalms: Psalms of praise and psalms of lament—and some, of course, contain elements of both. However, what is so striking is that over half the psalms are psalms of lament, which is astonishing when we compare this, the ancient song book of Israel, with our modern song books.
Scholars do, of course, make more technical distinctions between the psalms than simply psalms of praise and psalms of lament. Many distinguish between about seven different types of psalms, and even the lament was a broader category than defined by our English word, but few would disagree with the basic twofold categorization of psalms of praise and psalms of lament.
One of the great theological works that has come out in recent years is the multi-volume New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis. In it R. W .Moberly has a major essay on the dimension of lament in the Psalms. He asserts that “the single most numerous type of psalm, more numerous even than hymns of praise, is the lament. Such predominance of laments at the very heart of Israel’s prayers means that the problems that give rise to lament are not something marginal or unusual but rather are central to the life of faith. Moreover they show that the experience of anguish and puzzlement in the life of faith is not a sign of deficient faith…but rather is intrinsic to the very nature of faith. [And] these problems are made central to the very act of prayer and worship [in the lament itself].”
I was struck by the fact that Moberly points out that the Psalms show that “the experience of anguish and puzzlement in the life of faith is not a sign of deficient faith.” In other words, anguish and puzzlement have been the experience of God’s people down through the ages, and God, rather than condemning us, legitimates our doubts and fears by giving us songs to express them. And then makes these songs part of inspired scripture.
The goal is that we stand strong in faith, but he knows that sometimes the way to get there is first to verbalize our doubts, our grief, and our disappointments—in the presence of the Lord. Therefore the Psalms of lament are given to us by God, to allow us to legitimate our bewilderment and disappointment with God, as in the life of faith we often find ourselves in this place. And friendship with God means that even though we know he will never let us down, we sometimes feel he has let us down, and—amazingly—he encourages us to tell him so and lament our grief and loss.
Another features of the lament Psalms that Moberly points out is the theological conflict contained within the Psalm itself. The lament Psalm often contains a conflict between our present experience of suffering and God’s promises. The shock in the text is that the Psalmist is announcing to all who read the psalm that his present experience stands in complete contradiction to what had been promised by the Lord himself. And this tension is often not resolved. Plain and simple, God does not seem to have kept his word.
And when you come to think about it, it is amazing that such statements—that most of us would never dare to write—should be part of inspired scripture. Lamentation, however, is the
rare and wonderful gift of being able talk (and sing) to God ahead of this tension and perplexity being resolved.
Wolterstorff describes it as the tension in a bow between wood and string. He observes that in many psalms “lamentation and trust are in tension, like wood and string in a bow.” [and the Psalm is] a window where we see this “back and forth, lamentation and faith, faith and lamentation, each fastened to the other” taking place. (Lament for a Son, p. 70 & 71) And this is what brings such comfort and healing.
The tension is still there, the grieving is still taking place, but in the midst of it the lament psalms are gifts from God, songs for singing when one walks in darkness with a broken heart crying “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” and yet now strangely comforted in the midst of one’s desolation.
However, as Christians living in the West, embedded in a culture of radical autonomy, we must not forget that lamentation is not only personal, it is also done as a community of faith. At times an event happens in our community or in the nation and we need to make corporate lamentation, just as at times we need to make corporate repentance. We need to bring some resolution to corporate grief just as we do to corporate guilt.
The Psalms were sung corporately as singing in unison is a powerful expression of community. And one that—thank God—we still retain as we worship Sunday by Sunday. And this is where our songwriters can help us. Over the last twenty years they have done a phenomenal job in writing new worship songs. However, because we have lost the tradition of the lament not many of them have turned their skills in this direction.
As I write the Asian tsunami of 2005 has just taken place and the death toll is up to about 250,000. We have done what we can as a local church. We have collected about $85,000. and sent two teams to build houses in Sri Lanka. But inwardly I still want to make lamentation. Theologically I can frame the event, as far as one can within the mystery of evil and suffering, but for personal closure I need to make lamentation. But I have no song to sing. And this is where our songwriters need to help us. If half of Israel’s hymnbook was made up of lamentations then our songs are deficient in this area and there is much work yet to be done.
However, in closing it is important to say that in emphasizing the lament tradition one is not promoting a tragic view of the Godhead or of the creation project. The Trinity is a community of extravagant self giving love, overflowing joy, and superabundant vitality and life. The creation project begins with all the sons of God (the angels) shouting for joy (Prov 8), and concludes with the redeemed of the Lord returning with singing to Zion with everlasting joy upon their heads (Isa 51:11.) Biblically, joy both predates and shall outlast grief. We only lament to bring closure to our grief so that the most fragile fruit of the Spirit, joy, can flower more abundantly in our lives.
G.K. Chesterton was fond of saying that man is more fully human when characterized by joy than when characterized by grief. And he was right. Jesus was a man of sorrows and aquatinted with grief—and we should be also if we are to represent his interests in a broken and wounded world. But he was also anointed with the oil of joy above his fellows. And the fruit of his Spirit is joy. And we are those who although sorrowful are always rejoicing, simply because we know that in Jesus God’s tomorrow has already broken into mankind’s today, and this now means that every lament is not only a love song, but a song for singing in the night that contains within it the hope and joy of the coming new day.