A Time to Weep: Voicing Lament Through the Psalms

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By Dr. John Witvliet, adapted for our current circumstance from an article written for Reformed Worship[See also, A Time to Weep: Lamenting on Good Friday and At the Cross: A Service of Lament]

How do we help a congregation lament and grieve when they are unable to gather for worship? This moment is pastorally more crucial for spiritual formation than a full docket of church education programs. How we handle it may say as much about the gospel we proclaim as a year's worth of sermons.

James White was fond of recalling a certain Anglican rector, who, after the onslaught of a decimating flood, prayed the prayerbook as always without alteration. The collect of the day read: "Water your earth, O Lord, in due season." Fortunately it's obvious to most worship leaders that the tragedies that surround us require our sensitive and honest attention in worship, whatever form that worship takes today. Injustices must be identified. Enemies must be named. Solidarity with the suffering, dying, and grieving,and deep and soul-searching faith must be expressed.

But how? How can we express our anger, fear, and bewilderment? Let me suggest that we take the biblical psalms as our model. 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.

The Structure of Lament

By proposing the use of biblical laments I do not mean to suggest we should merely pick out memorable phrases or metaphors from particular texts. For too long we have been content to single out a favorite or convenient verse or to assemble what Hughes Oliphant Old described as "collages of dismembered psalm verses" for liturgical use, while totally ignoring the structures and contexts by which these verses gain meaning (Leading in Prayer: A Workbook for Worship, Eerdmans, 1995, 55-76).

I am suggesting that we work with the basic psalm forms we have learned to discern, and then, like a jazz soloist who embellishes a musical theme, that we improvise in the context of our particular tragedy. Most fundamentally, we learn how to structure our lament from the structure of the biblical laments:

  • Our lament begins with invocation, a startling confession that even in times of crisis, we approach a personal and accessible God. In lament, we do not recoil from the tension that this presents, a tension that Patrick Miller has described concerning Psalm 22 as "an almost unbearable sense of contradiction between the roaring cry of dereliction and the address that repeatedly insists that the silent, forsaking, distant God is 'my God'" (Miller, They Cried to the Lord, Fortress Press, 1994, 59).

  • Then, our lament freely addresses this personal God through the picturesque gallery of images used in direct address in the psalms. We pray to Yahweh, the rock, the fortress, the hiding place, the bird with encompassing wings. These metaphors are not just theological constructs, but means of directly addressing God. As we pray them, these metaphors shape and reshape how we conceive of God. They hone our image of God with the very tools that God gave us: the biblical texts.

  • Our prayer continues with bold lament. We bring our most intense theological questions right into the sanctuary. In so doing, we learn from the psalms the value of direct discourse. Our pale subjunctives and indirect speech ("We would want to ask you why this might be happening") is transformed to bold and honest address ("How long, O Lord, will you forget me forever?"). Such honesty in its own way comforts the bereaved and expresses solidarity with the wronged. Their questions and protestations are not illegitimate in the life of prayer. Prayer may well feature question marks alongside exclamation points. Honest worship expresses genuine doubt as well as assurance. The psalms teach us that doubt can be expressed as an act of faith, that prayer may include not just pleas for God's help, but even complaints to God concerning injustice and ever-present evil.

We also learn from the psalms that biblical lament comes in many forms. Some lament is directed toward the enemy; some toward God; some is individual and isolated; some is communal and comprehensive. Lament is a response to the full range of problems in the human condition. The psalms specifically name isolation, shame, despair, danger, physical impairment, and death as cause for lament.

  • Then our prayer continues with specific petition: heal us, free us, save us. We express, with Westermann, that "lamentation has no meaning in and of itself," but leads to petition (Praise and Lament in the Psalms, John Knox Press, 1981, 266). In fact, our lament, our petition, and our eventual praise of God fit together like hand and glove. The very attributes for which we praise God are those we invoke in times of need.

  • Finally, our prayer ends with expressions of hope, confidence, and trust, however muted they might be by the present situation. Lament is eschatological prayer. It always looks to the future. It may not be possible to sing praise in times of crisis. Yet the community anticipates praise, even as they yearn for the resolution of the crisis. Praise is the fully expected outcome of crisis and despair.

In this way the form of biblical prayers provides a model for liturgical prayer in times of crisis. If nothing else, we liturgical leaders would do well to reflect on the stunning and artful ways in which psalmic prayers adapt this structure, with a mind to providing the same sort of imagination and resourcefulness in public prayer today. Both carefully written and extemporaneous prayers can rely on this very structure as a prototype or guide.

Bring the Psalms to Life

An even more direct strategy is to pray the psalms themselves. Take a specific psalm of lament, with its extreme and specific language, with its passionate plea and lament against God, and allow it to shape communal prayer. Choose a psalm because it is a fitting match between expression and experience. Then bring it to life with imagination and passion.

We might choose to simply pray the psalm as it is, without embellishment, with a deliberate pace that allows the worshiping community to enter into the pathos of the text. Or we might improvise on the psalm text, speaking the words of the psalm, followed by our own very specific application. One problem in liturgical lament is that we move too quickly, skimming through pithy cries of lament that conceal deep and brooding afflictions. Though it is not a final solution, consider expanding this improvisation on a lament psalm so that it encompasses an entire service. Take a full hour to pray through a given psalm of lament. Use silence, quiet hymns, and brief spoken meditations to unpack the meaning of each section of the psalm. 

Lament and the Cycle of Prayer

With such prayers of lament, we have only begun the process of prayer on the occasion of crisis. The prayers of the psalms do powerfully express lament. But then they move on, as faith demands, toward praise. What about us? Do we seek to shepherd worshipers over time through disorientation to reorientation, through lament to praise?

Often, we must acknowledge, we leave worshipers behind hastening too quickly to return to normalcy, to songs and prayers of well-being. Or, conversely, we are content to linger in lament, praying week after week concerning a given crisis with a sense of despair that fails to sense the magnetic pull of Christ-centered hope.

Liturgical prayer in times of crisis is not complete with the expression of lament. Lament is one step on a long journey back toward praise. Thoughtful worship leaders will be eager to lead a congregation slowly but surely from lament to praise over time, all with a specific moment of crisis in mind. And specific lament can and should only be practiced in a congregation with room for specific praise and thanksgiving. If we are to lament with startling specificity, we also need to give praise with startling specificity, with declarative hymns of praise that name particular gifts of God to the worshiping community.

Lament in Community

All of this is not to say that every biblical lament is equally suitable to take as a model, nor that this is the only way to lament. Yet this strategy of structuring our liturgical prayer after particular biblical texts, and combinations of texts, has several advantages. 

First, it provides ample warrant for saying such strident things to God. This reduces the need to provide an elaborate justification for doing so in the context of the liturgy. It gives us permission to do what our religious culture might not permit us to do otherwise. Similar liturgical advice was perhaps best expressed by Richard Baxter more than three centuries ago: "The safest way of composing a Stinted Liturgie is to take it all, or as much as may be, for words as well as matter, out of Holy Scripture." Why? Because "all are satisfied of the infallible truth of Scripture, and the fitness of its expressions, that are not like to be satisfied by man's" (Richard Baxter, Five Disputations of Church Government and Worship, London, 1659, 378).

Second, this practice provides a plumb line to test our pastoral instincts. Walter Brueggemann, following Peter Berger and others, has observed that structured language serves both to enhance and limit our experience of despair (Brueggemann, The Psalms & the Life of Faith, Fortress Press, 1995; see also his article in RW 30, p. 2). For example, the church can help a grieving family by providing language to acknowledge honestly their feeling of helplessness. At the same time, such language provides a limit for that experience. For those who suffer, biblically-shaped liturgical laments convey three important and interwoven themes: their suffering is real, it is spiritually significant, and it is not the last word—all without a theological treatise on the subject.

Third, this strategy provides a structure for guiding genuinely spontaneous prayer. We free-church Protestants should cherish our tradition of extemporaneous prayer. Yet what we consider to be entirely spontaneous prayers are often nothing more than long sequences of cliches. Without structure, we forfeit the possibility of genuine spontaneity—something every jazz soloist knows. The psalms teach us the value of spontaneous prayer. Many psalms clearly arise out of immediate experience and reflect unrestrained expression of guilt, fear, or anger. Yet they also teach us the value of form. Many of the most immediate and personal psalms rely on tried-and-true phrases and structures of speech. Improvising on fitting psalms is one of the simplest ways of judiciously balancing freedom and form.

Fourth, this strategy of structuring liturgical prayer in times of crisis lends integrity to our praise. Brueggemann has spoken about the ambivalence of descriptive praise, the way in which songs of well-being can be smooth cover-ups for wishing to maintain the status quo, for ignoring the cries of the poor. But if songs of praise are sung subsequent to and in full awareness of God's help in time of crisis, they take on a new and powerful integrity.

Fifth, this strategy provides a way for individuals caught up in isolated and lonely struggles with tragedy or injustice to find a voice in a community of worshipers. Lament is often so deeply personal. How can an entire community ever hope to empathize with the isolation and individuality of the victim? Perhaps finally it cannot. Yet praying the psalms in this way may allow, again by God's grace, a particular victim or sufferer to sense an unacknowledged solidarity with women and men of faith who have prayed these canonical prayers through centuries of pain and violence. This is one distinct advantage of the purposeful use of ancient prayers.

Finally, this strategy allows biblical texts to shape us in an immediate and direct way. In such prayer, these texts burrow into our bones, as it were, and become part of our spiritual identity. In this way, we are formed not by a general theology of lament, nor by a vague notion of God's action, but by particular texts. This strategy gives us worshipers, especially suffering worshipers, biblical landmarks to anchor personal prayer and worship. It gives us a place to put a bookmark in our Bibles. It gives us texts to recall at family reunions and anniversary commemorations. This is a tangible gift that thoughtful liturgy can provide in times of crisis.

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