About a year and a half ago, I threw our congregation a shocking worship curve ball. We kicked off the fall of 2008 with a service of lament and mourning. We devoted the entire liturgy to songs, Scripture readings, and preaching based on lamentation. We read lament psalms corporately. We sang another lament psalm in a chant-and-response format. Those who were willing put ashes on their heads and came forward to kneel at our chancel to pray and lament…lament for the brokenness of the world, our country, and ourselves. In the process of preparing for and leading this service, I learned two things about our people: (1) we fear and run from lamentation, but (2) we need lamentation.
That we fear lamentation was obvious from the decline in attendance which occurred that Sunday. We knew it was going to be a “different” type of service, so we announced what was going on ahead of time…and oh my, the behind-the-scenes uproar. We had people angrily vowing to their friends they would not attend: “Who wants to go to such a downer of a service? Christians aren’t supposed to do such things!” Others were just fearful of being uncomfortable (check out the heart-idols exposed there!). I now have some hindsight-relationships with folks for whom it was their first or second Sunday visiting our church (ouch!). Needless to say, they were freaked out, and obviously were not interested in “that” kind of church. What I learned from all of this is that Americans are not equipped to lament. We struggle with humbling ourselves. We are uncomfortable with prolonged expressions of grief. When problems arise, we Americans are able to fix and medicate. Pain is not a regular part of the cultural ethos. We’re sanitized, wealthy, and two steps removed from the type of earthy suffering with which the two thirds world and ancient cultures are all too familiar.
That we need lamentation was evidenced by the positive results emerging from our congregation after that Sunday. Some exclaimed, “For the first time, I felt like I could be real with God in worship.” Others said it was relieving and cathartic. A few confessed that it brought up conviction in their hearts. Others spoke as though it made the gospel more real to them. Some rejoiced over the fact that there was now a place for lamentation in their lives. Still others talked about how the lament psalms could now be incorporated into their spirituality. It is as though our people were, for the first time, unlocking a large, unused room in the mansion of their soul. It would be like discovering a new room in your small, cramped house. Imagine the elation: “I have more space! I’ve got relief from all the clutter!” This was the overwhelming sentiment of souls at Cherry Creek that Sunday.
I don’t feel the need to marshal a defense of lament as a part of the life of the people of God. Unless we’re painfully blind, we can’t read the Bible without encountering lament. But perhaps American culture has laid a thick cataract over our spiritual eyes when we read those portions of Scripture—the Psalms, the prophets, the Gospels, the Historical Books, the Pentateuch. We distance ourselves: “Oh, those poor, primitive Israelites.”
Ultimately, the fierce knee-jerk reaction against doing such a service was enough proof to me that evangelicalism’s worship equilibrium is out of whack. I agree that worship should be characterized by joy, hope, and a gospel-infused glory in salvation and the resurrection. But when we are uncomfortable with lament in a corporate worship setting, we’ve gone dreadfully wrong, because lament has been a part of the worship-language of the people of God for thousands of years. God, help us.
Evidently, in mainstream evangelicalism, there’s been a controversy over Matt Redman’s great worship song, “Blessed Be Your Name.” I’m part of an online worship forum of worship leaders that recently alerted me to this. I guess I had my head in the sand. The controversy stems from the (biblical) phrase in Redman’s song:
“You give and take away, You give and take away.
My heart will choose to say, Lord blessed be your name.”
I know that part of the controversy is rooted in the classic Calvinist-Arminian debate. I’m a Calvinist, so I believe that the concept of God “taking away” is biblical, part of His sovereign prerogative, and fully compatible with His infinite and perfect goodness. But I sense that the discomfort with this phrase goes deeper than Free Will Theism vs. Compatibilism vs. Molinism vs. Hard Determinism vs. every other -ism. I sense it is an American discomfort with pain alongside an inability to express that pain honestly to God, resulting in spiritual impotence in our lamentation system. The issue is that if we’ve lost the ability to lament, we’ve shut down an important part of what it means to relate to God as authentic human beings.
I know other blogs are closing 2009 and opening 2010 on happy notes. I hope to enter the new year on a sober note. Personally, I know I need sobriety. There’s so much hype out there vying for the affection of my heart.
Make lament a (maybe new) part of your worship life this year. Lent’s just around the corner, you know…