Ah, how Thy grace hath wooed my soul
With persevering wiles!
Now give me tears to weep; for tears
Are deeper joy than smiles. FREDERICK WILLIAM FABER
I confess that out of all the worship songs I’ve written, not one of them could be considered a lament, you know, of the book of Lamentations sort. It’s certainly not because I’m an incorrigibly cheerful guy and never have anything to cry about. I guess it just never occurred to me that sorrowful songs fit very well into my worship experience. But if you think about it, the Bible’s longest book – a songbook no less – is replete with hymns a significant portion of which tilt toward the mournful.
In a previous post I made the point that this sort of song is all but missing in the contemporary worship service “setlist.” (The term “setlist” originated in the entertainment field, which might have something to do with how rare certain types of songs are in our worship gatherings! Not entertaining enough.) It seems to me that this is but one thing that speaks to the depth of our Western Christianity. We evangelicals tend to be allergic to anything that smells like sorrow or grief about anything, least of all about the sin, suffering, and sickness of our world. Even Solomon knew there was “a time to weep,” and I don’t think he was referring to his 900 wives! He knew that the world is not what it’s supposed to be and that we humans don’t behave as we should. I say that if God to grieves – which he does – so should we who claim to want to be like him.
Do you ever feel disingenuous going to church and singing nothing but happy songs after spending the morning reading the Sunday paper about beheadings, trafficked children, and starving people in Africa? Bear with me, here. I am NOT recommending an exclusive diet of dour and defeatist worship services. Of course one of the reasons we go to church is to get cheered up and geared up for the challenges of the outside world. But is it necessary to bury our heads in the sand and switch off what we know is still out of whack in the world? I propose that grieving over our personal losses and failures, as well as over the state of the Church and the world is part of an authentic spirituality and a healthy church.
Granted, adding the periodic lament to worship services will make them look a little less like pep rallies and Amway conventions, and I think that’s definitely a good thing! I for one would like to experience corporate worship that’s a little more holistic and realistic. I heard a certain rich and famous TV pastor say recently that since the world is such a downer that people don’t want to come to church and hear more bad news. His proposed solution was to charge ahead with an unremitting dose of happy songs and sermons, thus avoiding the lament altogether. It appears that many pastors and worship leaders feel the same. Believe me, I’m the first one dancing in the aisle in worship (well, I used to be). I sing and shout with the loudest of them for what Jesus has done for me! But there’s room also to weep over what he hasn’t been able to do for us (do to our resistance), for the suffering of the orphan, the widow, the refugee, and the slave.
Of course there’s plenty of room in our diet for positive and hopeful “spiritual comfort food.” Joy and victory are biblical values too. But, to our own loss, in our effort to avoid despondency, we have mislaid the art of grieving our personal, national, and global losses. Some of us pretend they’re not losses after all, that God’s perfect will is always done, and that if we just wait long enough we’ll see the good in everything. Genocide, millions starving and dying of disease, children abducted and used as sexual slaves. I don’t know about you, but I’m not waiting for the good in those things. The only thing I can think to do about those is weep and pray, and pray with weeping. No, we’re not supposed to drown in our sorrows, but trying to keep our heads above them by buoying ourselves with pockets full of happy verses and victory choruses is not the only option. We must weep with the Father over his broken world.
When we weep over the world’s absurdity and suffering we’re in good company – Jeremiah, David, Jesus to name a few. The Psalms, for instance, contain dozens of emotive cries and outbursts. David and his counterparts included in their prayer and worship diaries descriptions of the whole gamut of God-installed emotions. One scholar estimated as much as 1/3 of the 150 Psalms belong in the category of lamenting over sin and suffering. That seems like permission, more than that, an invitation to include a significant proportion of mourning in our worship and prayers.
These journaled gems were generated from the Psalmists’ own experiences with difficulty and pain. Although we sing many excerpts from the Psalms, in my experience, rarely do we incorporate the ones that include grief, sorrow, and confusion. I think we should take more advantage of the way the biblical songsters dealt with the difficult times in their personal lives and national experience. They wrote poetry and sang songs. In their confusion they cried out to God, wept over the absurdity of the human experience. And then, thank God, they gave us prayers to pray and songs to sing – real prayers and songs that reflect real life. To cite a few…
I am worn out from groaning; all night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears. My eyes grow weak with sorrow; they fail because of all my foes.
I am feeble and utterly crushed; I groan in anguish of heart.
I am about to fall, and my pain is ever with me.
My thoughts trouble me and I am distraught.
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?
My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death assail me.
Be merciful to me, O LORD, for I am in distress; my eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and my body with grief. My life is consumed by anguish and my years by groaning; my strength fails because of my affliction.
Next time we’ll go back to the Bible’s journeyman weeper, Jeremiah… Though this topic is not the spiritual comfort food you’ve come to expect from me (Ha! Ha!), I hope you’ll stay with me as I unpack some more thoughts on this. And if you have a friend (or fifty) that might benefit from this theme, please share it with them. Until then…