Lament 2: Singing the Lord’s song in a strange land

Posted on January 22, 2009

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Should we sing laments?

Let me first distinguish: I have no doubt at all that there is a place for lament, both in the common English sense and in the technical psalms-of-lament sense (see previous post), in our worship. We should, when gathered before God, weep for and decry the evil in the world; we should wrestle with the disjunction between our confession and our experience. My question is whether we need do that in song. (Marva Dawn, in Reaching Out without Dumbing Down, notes that the Psalms of Lament are excluded from many lectionaries, and so lament is excluded from the whole of worship, not just from song (p. 176); this seems to me indefensible.)

It seems to me that common-lament might most easily find its way into our prayers of intercession, and psalm-lament into our preaching (as noted in the previous post). ‘Ease’, of course, is not a compelling liturgical argument, but nor is it irrelevant. What reasons might there be for insisting that these ideas are expressed in our singing also? Two, as far as I can see: a canonical argument (it’s in the Psalms, so should be in our songs) and a formational argument (singing is what shapes our minds and hearts in worship, and so we should sing these things).

The canonical argument seems more powerful when applied to psalm-lament, but it is perhaps worth noticing that the canonical psalms of lament contain what I have called common-lament; they just do not stop there. Assuming one song is not the whole of our worship, there is potentially space for a song of common-lament, that is moved into the Biblical key by the songs, prayers, readings, or preaching that follows it.

That said, the canonical psalms contain many aspects of human experience that find no place in our hymnbooks (something I notice whenever I find myself at Free Church worship, singing only metrical psalms). Imprecation, in particular, is graphic, lurid and widespread in the Psalms, but probably not something that we are rushing to introduce into our song repertoire. (Back to the lectionaries; the old Anglican lectionary in the BCP omitted only Ps. 58 – whether this omission was right or wrong (‘all inspired Scripture is useful…’ 2Tim 3:16), asking God to break the teeth of our enemies, praying that they will be ‘like the abortion that never sees the sun’, and then looking forward to bathing our feet in pools of their blood, are attitudes that most of us, I trust, would introduce to a service of worship only with a great deal of care!) The psalms – particularly the psalms of lament, perhaps – are also rather good at confident assertions of personal holiness and righteousness before God, which again are not attitudes that populate Christian hymnody through the ages to any great degree.

So, I don’t find a simple ‘the psalms did it, so should we’ argument very convincing. We know neither the origin, nor the redaction history, nor the cultic use(s), of many of the psalms (despite the best efforts of higher critics); nor do we know the reasons for their collection into the Psalter. The psalms of lament, particularly, often read as if they are very personal reponses to a very particular situation, and are not easily generisable to congregational use. I note again that, as far as I am aware, all suggestions of corporate cultic use of the psalter are hypothetical, usually relying on giving far more content to the shadowy new year festival than we can in fact do; one or another hypothesis may happen to be right, but we should not claim canonical authority for the idea. The psalms clearly have a crucial place in Christian worship, but that place might be read rather than sung, and it might be individually (in private devotion, or as a reading in the liturgy) rather than corporately. (My Reformed prejudice: they are Scripture, and so, necessarily, primarily should be preached…)

The formational argument is more interesting. Music gets inside us in a way that little else does. Luther and the Wesleys knew this well. There seems to be a good argument that, if we want the people to internalise certain themes, putting them in regularly-used songs is the way to go. If we want our people to learn to lament, then we should have them sing laments. Do we want our people to learn to lament?

I think another distinction is necessary here, between learning to lament and daring to lament. My observation in odd moments of pastoral ministry is that most people know how to complain to, or about, God (‘common lament’) – they just don’t feel comfortable doing it. If this is right – and I am prepared to be corrected on it – then singing laments may not be the answer; if the pastoral task is to give people permission to do something that comes rather naturally, then it is a task best addressed in preaching. All songs will do in this context is make people feel uncomfortable (as in the sort of song that annouces ‘we are lifting our hands to you’ sung in a congregation which just isn’t…).

What of ‘psalm-lament’? Here, it seems to me, there is a particular place for songs, which take the role, not of the lamenting voice, but of the communal/priestly voice of faithful confidence (to put it in Mandolfo’s terms). Songs can model a faithful response to trouble and lament. This faithful reponse does not deny the reality of trouble, or promise unrealistic answers, but it affirms faith in God’s continued goodness, justice and love, faith in the fixity of God’s purposes, and so reflects, or perhaps engenders, a decision on the part of the believer to continue to live out confessed truth, in the face of circumstances that seem to deny it. Cowper’s God moves in a mysterious way, or the Redmans’ Blessed be your name, seem good examples of precisely this sort of song.

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