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 reach out to those who are suffering with the love of one who will one day wipe away every tear from our eyes.
Lamentation is not a word that is heard very often. Words like sadness, regret, sorrow, and mourning are far more common. But I believe something is lost in the dismissal of lament from our vocabulary.
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 grief and sadness, 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 lament—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.”
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 God who weeps with them.
I was at my father’s funeral when another mourner caught me with tears in my eyes and told me that neither God nor my dad 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 the resurrection of Christ. 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 inside me, even as I clung to hope in the Son, trust in the Father, and comfort in the Spirit.
The Christian season of Lent is a time 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 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 pit of our stomach and the Spirit who helps us groan them, even as we follow the Son who uttered the words in his: “I am deeply grieved, even to death.”
+ Jill Carattini