When Lives Are Lost What Do We Sing?

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griefWhen we are at a loss for words we must be reminded that a text has been prepared for us in the Psalms.  When disaster threatens to consume us, the psalmist gives words to express our most profound despair.  When our hymns and songs fall short with clichéd platitudes, the psalms provide hope beyond unexpressed emotions.  John Witvliet reminds us that, “when faced with an utter loss of words and an oversupply of volatile emotions, we best rely not on our own stuttering speech, but on the reliable and profoundly relevant laments of the Hebrew Scriptures.”[1]  Walter Brueggemann writes that, “By not using these psalms, we have communicated two messages to people:  either you must not feel that way (angry with God, for example) or, if you feel that way, you must do something about it somewhere else – but not here.”[2]

We have been conditioned to believe that it is more spiritual to avoid expressing grief or despair in worship.  Our public questioning of God is often considered irreverent or maybe even blasphemous.  Our song selections and sermon topics have conveyed that church must always be a happy place and that a positive appearance is less threatening.

If authenticity is a goal of our worship we must honestly and publicly admit that circumstances of life can contribute to hopelessness, cause us to cry out to God in despair, and even demand answers.  We must persistently remind one another that God expects our language of lament and is not threatened by it.

In An Open Letter to Worship Songwriters, Brian McLaren offers the following commentary, “Pain should find its way into song, and these songs should find their way into our churches.  The bitter will make the sweet all the sweeter; without the bitter, the sweet can become cloying, and too many of our churches feel, I think, like Candyland.  Is it too much to ask that we be more honest?  Since doubt is part of our lives, since pain and waiting and as-yet unresolved disappointments are part of our lives, can’t these things be reflected in the songs of our communities?  Doesn’t endless singing about celebration lose its vitality (and even its credibility) if we don’t also sing about the struggle?”

Authenticity grants us permission to admit that events can shake our faith.  Catharsis begins when we understand that asking and even singing our difficult questions is acceptable and that God can handle our anger and despair.  Freedom to cry out to God in worship will only be realized when a community becomes more comfortable with the belief that a transparent life is not narcissistic or self-absorbing.  In fact, this honest transparency is a life of humility enabling worshipers to realize they are not struggling on their own in the resolution of this despair.  Martha Freeman reminds us that, “Tears can enhance our vision, giving us new eyes that discern traces of the God who suffers with us.  There is comfort in those tears.  They bring fresh understanding that God is nearby, sharing our humanity in all its bitterness and all its blessedness.”[3]


[1] John D. Witvliet, “A Time to Weep: Liturgical Lament in Times of Crisis,” Reformed Worship 44 (June 1977): 22.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, “The Friday Voice of Faith,” Calvin Theological Journal 36 (April 2001): 15.

[3] Martha Freeman, “Has God Forsaken Us?” The Covenant Companion (November 2001): 8.

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7 Responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Jonathan Riggs on 16.12.12 at 11:32 am

    David,

    Excellent points here. I subbed yesterday for a piano player at an Anglican Church I do not regularly attend. As part of their liturgy, they have responsive readings and prayers. After the scripted prayers, they opened it up to the congregation to add their own prayers. I was so moved by one man who said bluntly, “I don’t see a star leading to a manger. I only see madness and insanity. Not only in the events in CT, but everywhere I look. All over the world and in me. … Your star looks pretty dim right now….”

    His prayer resonated with me and to the priest’s credit, he didn’t correct the man or attempt to comfort with unhelpful words. He just let the sentiment have a voice. It was beautiful and a lesson for all of us who lead worship.

  2. Posted by Jeremy Yarberry on 16.12.12 at 11:32 am

    Very true. Thanks David. Our service last Sunday dealt with authentic belief. The song leading into the message was “We Still Believe” by Kathryn Scott. We took a moment to discuss the Connecticut shooting and took some time to grieve. Two things pop into my head when I think about this article. The song “Reason to Sing” by All Sons and Daughters and 2 Samuel 12:15-23 where David fasts and prays for his child to be healed, but after he dies David rises, purifies himself and worships.

  3. Posted by Patty Felker on 16.12.12 at 11:32 am

    I wrote a lament to God called “Heal My Broken Heart”, shortly after the 9-11 tragedy. It is a plaintive cry to God, does ask universal questions, but then, like the psalmists, pledges belief in God to show the way through the pain. I would like to share it with you. You can find the song/lyrics/sheet music/MP3 on my website’s free streaming music page and in my catalog of songs.

    Here’s a direct link to the MP3: http://www.reverbnation.com/tunepak/3448480

    Here are the lyrics:

    Heal My Broken Heart
    Patricia W. Felker (ASCAP)

    What could you be thinking, Lord,
    to allow this tragedy?
    You must have some confidence instilled in me
    Only you can see what lies
    deep within this wounded mind
    An overwhelming pain I look for You to bind

    Chorus:
    Because You’ll heal my broken heart
    Calm my spirit, stand my guard
    Soothe my troubled fears
    Remind me You’re here
    And heal my broken heart

    There are days I make it through
    O, but Lord, don’t ask me how
    If there’s a lesson for me to learn, then show me now
    I believe no tears that fall
    could be wasted in your plan
    But, Lord, I need some help here,____ Help me understand……….

    In time You’ll heal my broken heart ……(Chorus)

    You know how I’m fighting these feelings inside
    My hope isn’t dying_ it will be revived (it will be revived)

    ……..Because You’ll heal my broken heart ………
    Calm my spirit, stand my guard
    Soothe my troubled fears
    Remind me You’re here
    And heal my heart, my broken heart
    Yes, You will heal……… my heart

    Copyright © 2003 by Noteworthy Christian Music (ASCAP).

    I pray that we songwriters can meet the needs of Christians all over the world who struggle when tragedy and loss, grief and despair seep into the church. I agree these are all natural feelings, and David was so good at expressing them to God. God never condemned David for his feelings, but led him through the pain and out to the other side, where there is a deeper sense of security in the One who holds our lives in His hands.

  4. Posted by Ros Barrett on 16.12.12 at 11:32 am

    Great truths here. I have found When Trials Come (Getty), My Hope is Built (Paul Baloche) and I will rust you in the darkness (Rob Smith) to be a few good songsthat allow us to express disappointment and grief, and yet still find hope in Christ. Also It is Well (Todd Field’s arrangement).

  5. Posted by Ros Barrett on 16.12.12 at 11:32 am

    That should be….. I will trust you in the Darkness

  6. Posted by Stacey Gleddiesmith on 16.12.12 at 11:32 am

    Thank you for sharing these words. Too often we shy away from pain and try to separate pain from joy in Christian life. The great lament psalms, however, never separate these two concepts. The psalmist arrives at a place of trust and praise THROUGH his circumstance. Even if his circumstance has not changed. The structure of the lament psalms show us that the basis for trust and praise is God’s character and person, rather than even his answer to our prayer. I won’t write an essay here – but if you’re interested, you can read more here: http://thinkingworship.com/2012/01/26/joy-is-not-the-opposite-of-pain/

  7. Posted by David Manner on 16.12.12 at 11:32 am

    Great article, Stacey. Thanks for sharing it with us. My wife and I also went through years of infertility and understand completely that season of lament. I appreciate your vulnerability.

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