What do we talk about? In Christian circles, some topics receive little attention or thoughtful conversation because of difficult subject matter. We hope this iAt series “Topics Christians Should Discuss” provides meaningful content for you to ponder, and we encourage you to begin or continue hearty conversations following what you read. Leave a comment if there is a topic you’d like us to address.
According to later Jewish rabbinic tradition, Lamentations was the scroll Jehoiakim burned in the fire after Jeremiah’s scribe, Baruch, brought it to the palace (Jeremiah 36)1. It would make sense, of course. Those residing in royal palaces rarely want to hear the kinds of things your everyday, garden-variety prophets have a habit of saying. It tends to be bad PR. The state of the union is always strong. Besides, for the compensated court musicians, it’s much easier to simply sing “Peace, peace oooh—oh” than wrestle with the complex lyricism lament demands. “When we, our wearied limbs to rest, / Sat down by proud Euphrates’ stream, / We wept with doleful thoughts oppressed, / And Zion was our mournful theme.”2
Yet even well-wrought words can prove miserable comforters. Following a set of wonderfully crafted poems by his companions, Job asks what every humanities professor has asked in the week after finals: “Is there no end to these windy words?” (Job 16:3). His question serves as a patent warning for those writers, pastors, and otherwise wise counselors who look to give syntax to the gutturals of grief. There are some realities heavier than words can bear, and we should be wary of asking them to say what can only be worn: sackcloth and ashes.
“There are some realities heavier than words can bear, and we should be wary of asking them to say what can only be worn: sackcloth and ashes.”
With that caveat in mind, however, lament remains, inescapably, a work of words. Lamentations is a book of carefully crafted acrostic poetry. A large portion of the Psalter contains songs of lament. The question is, perhaps, not whether we will open our mouths but—when we do—whether our words will have weight. And this is the most important characteristic of lament. In a world where thoughts and prayers can drift easily across the cyberspace, lament maintains its weight insofar as it is a response to God’s speech. Only possible with a clear idea of what, or, rather, who is absent, lament is the creative, gutsy work of tracing the light of New Creation as it is refracted through tears. Where Job’s friends go wrong is not that they opened their mouths but that they didn’t wait for God to speak first. Their words could be nothing but wind.
It is this responsive work of lament that I want to reflect on more broadly because, if you are like me, we generally speak of lament as an expressive endeavor rather than a formative one. Or, as the memorable end to King Lear puts it, “The weight of this sad time we must obey, speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”
“God gives us words of lament not only to express our hearts, but also to shape our hearts.”
At the most recent Worship Symposium held by the Christian Institute of Worship, I attended a workshop on singing the Psalms with Wendell Kimbrough. As we discussed reasons to make consistent use of the Psalter—particularly the songs of lament—many of the usual reasons were brought up. They enlarge our prayers beyond our particular preoccupations, connect us with the church at all times and places, and provide us with a vocabulary for prayer should we find ourselves in times of awful grief. All good reasons. As Kimbrough shared a bit of his own experience in singing and praying the Psalms, he reflected, “Until I started writing the Psalms for singing, I didn’t know that there were parts of my life I did not know about.” He added, “When I sing the Psalms with people, I hope they will hear themselves saying or singing to God what they did not realize they needed to say.” This is a wonderful line, and it fits with what John Calvin wrote many years earlier where he describes the Psalms as an “anatomy of the soul” where no human emotion is not “here represented as in a mirror.”3 Praying the Psalms, he continues, brings to light those vices and infirmities which would otherwise remain concealed.
Don’t get me wrong, the expressive nature of Psalm-singing—that uncovering of the emotions that hide behind stiff, Reformed upper lips—are true and valuable aspects of the Psalter. As I left the session, however, I couldn’t help but wonder whether we ought to reflect further on how God gives us words of lament not only to express our hearts, but also to shape our hearts. The songs of lament are not merely tools to say what we feel, but also are what we ought to say. God’s word to us does not merely uncover emotions lying latent within us but give us emotions. They train us how to feel and, with the songs of lament, they can teach what people in power and palaces too often have the privilege to ignore: the weight of this sad hour4. In short, that as we meditate day and night on the law of the Lord, we would become those blessed people who mourn unwilling to settle for anything less than true shalom (Psalm 1, Matthew 5:4). Because as we pray them, our hearts—and the emotions that flow out of them—are shaped into the likeness of the God who gives us these words. In them we discover the anatomy of a human heart that beats after perfect justice and restoration. That is, the heart of Jesus.
“… lament is what justice looks like in liturgy… It is the Church’s practice of taking God’s world and holding it up against God’s word.”
Which is why, perhaps, an essay on lament belongs in a series that includes thoughtful entries along the likes of mass incarceration and gun violence. To talk honestly about societal injustices such as these leads naturally to the end of ourselves—which is to say that they lead to lament. If justice, as Cornel West so pithily puts it, is what love looks like in public, lament is what justice looks like in liturgy. It becomes possible only having first heard that God wants a world and he wants it good. It is the Church’s practice of taking God’s world and holding it up against God’s word. The hopeful work in which the still-being-sanctified community of believers—with a confidence rooted only in Christ—says to God: “It’s your move.” The practice in which the Holy Spirit’s double-edged words work to cut away at every false peace that fills the idol-calcified heart and opens, once again, four chambers large enough to fit each syllable of creation’s groans: ma-ra-na-tha5 . We neglect it only insofar as we have stopped waiting.
Rashi, The Metsudah Five Megillot (Lakewood, NJ: 2001), https://www.sefaria.org/Rashi_on_Lamentations.1.1.1?lang=bi. ↩
Nahum Tate, Psalm 137, https://hymnary.org/text/when_we_our_wearied_limbs_to_rest. ↩
John Calvin, “Author’s Preface” in Commentary on the Psalms, trans. Arthur Golding (1571),https://ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom08/calcom08.vi.html. ↩
In a recent lecture at Calvin Seminary, Dr. Esau McCaulley was asked to comment on the disappointment expressed by many young people making their way toward the exit doors of churches across the United States. His answer was sympathetic but cutting. Disappointment with the church, he said, is nothing new for the Black church. In fact, the failure of the White church’s imagination, he seemed to suggest, was in its inability to lament—to name and accept the wrongs and harms of which God’s people are yet capable. The lament of Scripture had failed to adequately shape the imaginations of the majority culture in American Christianity. ↩