Permission to Lament
"Lamentation" is not a word that is heard very often. Words like sadness, regret, sorrow, and mourning are far more common. But I wonder if something is not lost in the dismissal of lament from our language and our lives.
The Christian hymn "Great Is Thy Faithfulness" is for me a song of lament. Because of certain associations, it is a song that immediately evokes a sense of grief, and yet it is the sort of mourning that is both held and expressed in worship. Whether the Christian story is one you embrace or not, the connection of these two ideas—worship and lamentation—may seem even more foreign than the word itself. Nonetheless, lamentation as worship was once a significant element in the Judeo/Christian vision and experience of the world.
Worship leader and songwriter Matt Redman was in the United States shortly after the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. Leading worship in several churches in the weeks following, he was immediately struck by the powerful sermons that were being preached, eloquently expressing the love of Father, Son, and Spirit to a shocked and vulnerable people. He was also struck by the distinct lack of songs he had on hand for worship in the midst of suffering. Where were the songwriters for such a time as this? Where were the poets and prophets to help the people of God find a voice in worship? Writes Redman, "As songwriters and lead worshipers, we had a few expressions of hope at our disposal; but when it came to expressions of pain and lament, we had very little vocabulary to give voice to our heart cries."(1)
Tithi Luadthong, Night, digital painting, 2012.
Certainly hope is a needed expression, a gift not afforded by every worldview, and lamentation in this sense is similar. But more so, lamentation is a vital aspect of a life in relation with God. Seventy percent of the psalmist's words are words of lament! "Hear my prayer, O LORD," the psalmist pleads. "Let my cry for help come to you. Do not hide your face from me when I am in distress. Turn your ear to me; when I call, answer me quickly. For my days vanish like smoke; my bones burn like glowing embers." Sadly dissimilar to many public and private expressions of grief, as well as many worship services today, the writers of Scripture identify with the pain of the world and do not hold back in addressing it before a God they believe needs to hear it. For these voices, lament is not a relinquishing of faith, but a cry in worship to the one who weeps with them.
At a funeral once, a fellow mourner caught me with tears in my eyes and told me that neither God nor the one we mourned would want me to cry. Her intentions were good; she meant to encourage me with the powerful hope of the Christian story, which holds at its center a crucified and risen Lord. But I desperately needed permission to lament, permission to look up at the cross with the sorrow of Mary and the uncertainty of the centurion. I needed to be able to ask why with the force that was welling up in that moment of grief, even as I clung to hope in the Son, trust in the Father, and life in the Spirit who holds us.
For anyone who needs permission to mourn, the Christian language of lament invites us to walk the labored steps of Jesus toward the agony of the cross, the reality of its injustice, and the despair of human death and suffering. This is a profound gift for a world in need of permission to ask why, to cry out in pain, and to know there is one hearing. While songs of hope are essential in a world that is not as it should be, lament is often the honest, needed pathway there, just as the iniquitous sufferings of the cross and the darkness of a cold tomb were the way to resurrection. Neither our worship nor our journeys can deny this if they are truly to lead us to hope.
The Christian story holds a unique capacity for tears because the story itself is filled with tears. And thus the Christian can sing through the disorienting sting of cancer and unemployment and injustice, even as it moves us to fight for justice and reach out to those who are suffering with the love of one who will one day wipe away every tear from our eyes. It is this God who gives us permission to utter the words in the pits of our stomachs and the Spirit who helps us groan them, as we follow the risen one who once cried: "I am deeply grieved, even unto death."
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Matt and Beth Redman, Blessed Be Your Name: Worshipping God on the Road Marked with Suffering (Ventura, CA: Regal, 2005), 34.
The Wellspring Symposium: Join us for a unique women's event September 27, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia or pass on the information to a women's group in your church or community: Wellspring International's inaugural Symposium, The Impetus of Grief. What do we do with grief—both our own and the world's? Can lament be something that moves us, a gift that God can meld?
From RZIM’s Wellspring International comes The Symposium, an event that brings in both international advocates and community trailblazers to stir real discussion, honest education, and a meaningful response to the personal cry within our own hearts against injustice, as well as the collective cry of our local community and larger global world. Join director of Wellspring International Naomi Zacharias and some thoughtful guests for a meal and a memorable evening. Spread the word!