August 16, 2016
Throughout my life I have attended worship services in a variety of traditions, but they tended to have one thing in common--they began with praise to God and then moved to confession. This is an appropriate model to follow with much merit. When we see how holy and good God is, we see more clearly by contrast that we are not, and so we confess.
In all my years of churchgoing, however, I don't think I have ever been to a service that began with lament, with a cry to God about a terrible situation. The only possible exceptions have been funerals and requiems. This should be surprising for several reasons. First, in the Bible's songbook, the Psalms, there are more laments than of any other kind--more than psalms of praise or of thanksgiving. Over sixty psalms of personal and corporate lament give voice to acute anguish and suffering.
Second, neither our lives nor the world lack for reasons to grieve and cry out in distress. Cancer, job loss, loss of faith, natural disasters, wars, persecution of believers, multigenerational poverty, ethnic persecution, institutional greed and more.
An unfortunate and unbiblical idea is widespread that Christians aren't supposed to be sad or negative in any way. This is not new. A hundred and thirty years ago Ralph E. Hudson added a refrain to an Isaac Watts hymn that expressed this wrongheaded notion that lives on in the minds of many.
At the cross, at the cross where I first saw the light,
And the burden of my heart rolled away,
It was there by faith I received my sight,
And now I am happy all the day!
Well, Jesus for one was not happy at the cross. The Son of God had no hesitancy expressing deep anguish as he died. Quoting Psalm 22 he cried, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me."
In his book Prophetic Lament Soong-Chan Rah offers a powerful meditation on the book of Lamentations which reveals the consequences of ignoring this vital dimension of the Christian life. Withdrawing from the world (ignoring the pain around us) or accepting simplistic answers (naive quick and easy solutions so we can get on to being happy) shows a dependence on "human effort or human problem solving, while lament acknowledges who is ultimately in control. In the midst of a crisis, Lamentations points toward God and acknowledges his sovereignty regardless of circumstances. . . . The lamenter talks back to God and ultimately petitions him for help, in the midst of pain. The one who laments can call out to God for help, and in that outcry there is the hope and even the manifestation of praise" (pp. 43-44).
As the psalms of lament are both personal and corporate, Prophetic Lament does not shy away from the more difficult corporate problems of our day that are worthy of lament such as ethnic divisions, entrenched power groups, individualism, materialism, and reliance on methods and know-how instead of God.
Not every worship service nor every moment of personal prayer needs to be one of lament, just as not every one needs to be focused on praise. But lament in our personal and corporate worship can balance our view of the world, of ourselves and of our God.
Adapted from Mark Through Old Testament Eyes, Andrew T. Le Peau (forthcoming 2017, Kregel Publications).