Building a Worship Vocabulary of Lament

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by Joan Huyser-Honig

Put yourself in their shoes. The parents across the church aisle had no comment when reporters turned up at their door. Other church members had plenty to say (though not to those parents) about their son who died in a drug deal gone sour.

Nevertheless, worship proceeds as usual with a twenty-minute praise music set and rousing sermon. And you have no idea how to show solidarity with Christians who feel so solitary in their pain.

It’s a messy situation—variations of which dog every life and church. And it explains why Calvin Seerveld, whenever he can, urges worshipers to build a scriptural vocabulary of lament. When offered in genuine humility and trust, lament in worship need not be the last word.

At the 2008 Calvin Symposium on Worship, Calvin Seerveld explained that biblical lament is taking Scripture and trying to hear it for our lives. “Some people who’ve been abused may not be able to reconcile or forgive in this lifetime. But they can ask God to set it right, to take their hurt into a larger context to help someone else,” Seerveld said.

“Live among the psalms”

As a Christian Reformed church elder doing home visits, Seerveld often learned about private troubles. His long academic career includes teaching philosophy and aesthetics, translating Scripture, writing books and songs, and leading worship workshops. “My question has been, rather than talk or gossip about those we worship with, could we sing about it?” Seerveld says.

More than 20 years ago, he wrote “A Congregational Lament” (Psalter Hymnal #576), a hymn that opens with “Why, Lord, must evil seem to get its way?” It’s based on the Genevan tune for Psalm 51 and includes verses referring to imprisonment, illness, divorce, untimely death, and other deep hurts.

After September 11, 2001, when church leaders in the U.S. felt it would be false for worship to ignore the tragedy, many congregations asked Seerveld for permission to use the song. “They needed a song to fit the evil besetting them,” he explained in his Reformed Worship essay “Pain Is a Four-Letter Word.”

During a lament in worship workshop that Seerveld did with musician Michael Card, Seerveld said it takes a largeness of vision to be prepared to lament in worship. One participant asked how churches can “open up worship to genuine lament without making it just another agenda item.”

Build a library of congregational psalmsp

Seerveld suggested, “Develop an existential love for God’s psalms so pastors, elders, musicians, and people all come to love and live among the psalms. Good ones to start with are psalms 13, 22, 39, 51, 56, and 92.

“Build up a thesaurus of favorite psalms. They needn’t be the same for every congregation. Let them become part of your worship vocabulary so you have them ready to read or sing when, suddenly, there’s an unexpected tragedy or a soldier comes home in a body bag.

“If people started to sing whole psalms—not just snippets—it would change us. Don’t necessarily do all verses of Psalm 119 on a Sunday, but you could do one stanza a week,” he said. 

Building a library of congregational psalms might include:

  • Reading psalms in unison or response or listening to a dramatic reading, perhaps from Seerveld’s Voicing God’s Psalms
  • Searching out or composing tunes with “rough-hewn character” that fit pain and anger
  • Choosing choir anthems such as William Billings’ “David’s Lamentation
  • Singing stark songs a capella or accompanied by a single recorder or saxophone
  • Preaching on imprecatory psalms so congregations understand difficult passages (e.g. Psalm 137:7 about dashing infants against rocks is a plea for God to end systemic evil because we can’t do it on our own)
  • Incorporating rituals—of confession, pardon, kneeling, prayer, communion, passing the peace, lamenting during Advent and on Good Friday—that help worshipers give and receive comfort  
  • Preaching on imprecatory psalms so congregations understand difficult passages (e.g. Psalm 137:7 about dashing infants against rocks is a plea for God to end systemic evil because we can’t do it on our own)
  • Incorporating rituals—of confession, pardon, kneeling, prayer, communion, passing the peace, lamenting during Advent and on Good Friday—that help worshipers give and receive comfort  
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