They That Mourn: Ten Thoughts on the Lament Psalms and Your Church

The more I reflect on the Psalms, sing the Psalms and read about the Psalms, the more I see that needs to be done: emotional work within the church community, scholarly work on questions of biblical and historical research, collaborative artistic work of creatively crafting musical Psalm settings for the worshipping body of Christ to sing, and more. The following thoughts seem to me to be at least a few of the stones needed to pave the path forward for us to walk at this time. “Make straight Thy paths for my feet.” (Psalm 5:8)

1.     Many of us remember at some point discovering the breathtaking gamut of emotions from exuberant rejoicing to intense sorrow that is found expressed throughout the Psalms. Many worship musicians, pastors and students that I know practically live in the Psalms. American society, in stark contrast, has been described as a “grief-poor culture.”  How did this come about? Western psychology as well as our culture have too often “privatized the individual’s grief,” according to grief psychologists Goss and Klass. [1] When loss or trauma rips open our private world, we close it back up again before the inner work can be done, observes prominent grief therapist, pianist and church musician Berger in Music of the Soul. Then we make ourselves sing the same worship songs the following week in the same way we did the week before.

2.     We in the evangelical church have not helped our own members, much less the secular culture, to encounter grief honestly; we have exacerbated the problem. Evangelical Protestantism, particularly in some worship traditions, has tended to default to a “rush to rejoicing”[2] before we have lived through lament.[3]  Around ten years ago, Michael Card’s book A Sacred Sorrow came on the scene as a cry in the wilderness. As he put it trenchantly: “American Christianity presents a ‘numb denial’ of our need for lament.”[4] We have been reaping the fruit of decades of “celebration worship.”

3.     Until recently, evangelical worship has restricted the role of the Psalms in corporate worship to a fairly narrow bandwidth, rarely using whole Psalms or teaching on the entire Psalter canonically. In the sixties and earlier, long before the contemporary worship movement, the use of at least select whole Psalms had been customary in Southern Baptist worship in the form of responsive readings from the hymnal, but that practice also fell into a slow decline.[5] The genres of Psalms most used beginning in the eighties were those of rejoicing, trust, and praise—Psalms 95, 100 and of course, 150. Evangelicals generally avoided lament in corporate worship except for grief over one’s sin, as expressed in songs, hymns, and psalms of confession such as Psalm 51. Confession seems to have been the only negative or painful emotion we were willing to countenance, despite the spectrum of individual and corporate experiences in the Psalms--suffering, affliction, loss, illness, war, bereavement, persecution, and grief--that cry out for responses of lament.

4.     At last, American evangelicalism is now seeing a rising interest in the Psalms, unprecedented perhaps in the past century—a deeper interest in the Psalter as a whole and in singing the Psalms congregationally. Recently some reformed evangelical churches have adopted the historic practice of reading a whole Psalm each Sunday in worship.

5.     Scholars in the biblical counseling discipline have been producing important new work on the Psalms. Some work at the intersection between counseling and worship studies acknowledges that Christian soul care, individual and corporate, occurs in the context of biblical worship, particularly over an extended period of time, in which the Psalms play an important role. The Psalms provide “God-centered interpretations of human experience” that can be the basis of soul care within the body of Christ.  To put it more fully, the heartfelt expression of painful emotions within the canon of Scripture in the context of God’s sovereignty and care demonstrates the validity of those emotions to God as well as the value and necessity of repeatedly and corporately placing these most anguished emotions before God. The lament Psalms are given to the church as prayers and as models for our own responses to and processing of individual and corporate grief, loss and suffering. They can be more gut-wrenching and honest than the grittiest country song. Yet however deep the despair, they never become cynical, because the Psalmist or Israel are calling Yahweh to account within a close “I-Thou” or “we-Thou” relationship, as Walter Brueggemann calls it, that is rooted in His unshakeable nature and covenant.[6] They are God’s words for us when we have neither words nor strength to stop the emotional bleeding, given to us to protect us from going to all the wrong places (from Nietzsche to Job’s wife) for ungodly or secular alternatives to assuage our pain.

6.     Lamenting and grief work take time. Suffering and loss have to be grieved, and is grieved, in different ways as we move corporately or individually through the “seasons of the soul,” as Berger has masterfully developed in her paradigm by that name.[7]  Grief researchers Stroebe and Schut confirm the value and necessity of time in the healing journey: “We need varied times to move back and forth, in and out between loss and restoration,”[8] even as research confirms what Scripture reveals—that earthly time does not and cannot heal all. In fact, we can engage honestly in lament only when we live with the awareness that there are wounds that neither time nor our lament practices will “heal,” whether the pain of individuals in our congregations or the grief of family members of Egyptian martyrs killed for Christ. Some healing God will do in the world to come. Yet we must weep in the words of Scripture today with our fellow believers who suffer at home and worldwide, or risk growing ever more callous and jaded as the Western church.

7.     The Psalms give us a voice of prayer not only in times of pain. The Church Fathers understood the singing of psalmody and all-day meditation on the Psalms to be primary tools for discipleship; the Psalter was their new-believer training manual. Rehearsing the Psalms, including those of lament, can be a step toward personal spiritual growth or formation.[9] The Psalms grow and shape us; they both “form and inform us,” to quote ??? [fn] Mature spiritual formation is a natural fruit of biblical worship, and full-orbed biblical worship will speak often in the words of the Psalms. If a key goal of Christian leadership is to “present every person mature in Christ,” then the formation of disciples by every biblical means must always be in view in planning the church’s liturgy and worship.

8.     The Psalms of lament can be misused. Their use requires careful biblical study and wisdom for appropriate gospel application in the corporate worship setting. This will be the topic of the sequel to this article.

9.     Lament is not a church project, program, or methodology. It is not a bandwagon like the church bus movement of the sixties or the family life center/church basketball movement of the eighties. Lament is not appealing, it’s certainly not an evangelistic or marketing tool. It does not go well with coffee of any brand. “Somber doesn’t sell.” [10] The Psalms by their nature resist faddishness and reductionist treatment. Yet laments constitute one-third of the prayerbook of Scripture. We need to make space for them and reclaim them in our worship.

10.  The Psalms of lament, even the most anguished of them, are God’s perfect Word. As such they will never fail “until heaven and earth pass away,” as the Lord Jesus said. But like a stained-glass window that is pitch dark at night, then radiant with colored light in the morning, they are illumined by and will ultimately find their apotheosis in Christ’s own words and finished work. They will be “gathered up,” like all of Scripture and like the Psalmist’s very tears, into the glorious fulfillment of God’s ultimate restoration and healing on the day that He wipes all tears away. They that mourn are called blessed. And they will, as surely as He lives, be comforted.

[1] Goss and Klass, 2005. Cited in Joy S. Berger, Music of the Soul: Composing Life Out of Loss (New York and London: Routledge, 2006), p. 98.

[2] I thank Professor Ann Ahrens of Urshan College and Seminary for this phrase and for her wisdom in our multiple fruitful conversations on this subject. Personal conversation, September 12, 2016.

[3] Grief experts Goss and Klass further note how profoundly our faith, communities of support, and cultural context affect our attitudes toward grief. Goss and Klass, 2005. Cited in Joy Berger, Music of the Soul, 99.

[4] Michael Card, A Sacred Sorrow (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2005), p. 21.

[5] Compare the number of whole-Psalm responsive readings in the Baptist Hymnal (1975) with those in the Baptist Hymnal (2008).

[6] Walter Brueggemann, etc

[7] Joy S. Berger, “Music as a Catalyst for Pastoral Care within the Remembering Tasks of Grief” (D.M.A. dissertation, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1993; Ann Arbor, MI: ProQuest/UMI No. 9406295).

[8] Stroebe and Schut, 2001. Cited in Joy Berger, Music of the Soul, 98.

[9] Use of lament can also be a step toward healing in personal counseling or small-group therapeutic settings, but those are outside the scope of this article.

[10] W. Sibley Towner, “‘Without Our Aid He Did Us Make’: Singing the Meaning of the Psalms,” in A God So Near: Essays on Old Testament Theology in Honor of Patrick D. Miller, ed. Brent A. Strawn and Nancy R. Bowen (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2003), 33.

Dr. Esther Crookshank is a Professor of Church Music at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. She teaches in the areas of hymnology, musicology, applied ethnomusicology, and musical aesthetics. Since 2009 she has also served as director of the Academy of Sacred Music, the seminary’s guest artist and lecture forum.