noun - a passionate expression of grief or sorrow
One of the most famous expressions of grief and sorrow found in Christian hymnody is the timeless "It Is Well With My Soul," written by Horatio Spafford. Spafford's wife and four daughters were making a trans-Atlantic crossing in the 1800s when their ship collided with another and sank within 12 minutes. Tragically, all four daughters drowned. Spafford's wife was, miraculously, one of very few survivors. While making the very same trans-Atlantic crossing to be reunited with his wife, Spafford experienced a sustaining comfort from God as his ship passed the approximate place his daughters drowned that allowed him to write these words:
"When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll - Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say, ‘It is well with my soul.’"
These beautiful lyrics, penned in the midst of unimaginable grief, serve as a powerful reminder that God’s love and comfort can indeed be found within the trials we face and beyond our sorrows.
Today, as we reflect on the events of September 11, 2001, where we were and how we felt, we are starkly reminded that we all experience trials and sorrows that, as Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann puts it, cause us to descend into states of “disorientation.” In our disorientation, we lament and have raw conversations with God, where we articulate our hurt and anger as we raise to Him the cries of our wounded hearts. We sometimes even question our faith. King David, who is responsible for most of the Book of Psalms, was fearless in his expression of hurt and anger with God. In fact, Eugene Peterson estimates that around 70 percent of the content of the Book Psalms is based in lament.
Still, most of the time, the lament expressed in many of David’s songs are followed by thanksgiving and praise. Why? Well, herein lies the beauty of the lament. The lament, the cry out to God, invites Him into our circumstances. Brueggemann writes this:
“Where the cry is not voiced, heaven is not moved and history not initiated. And then the end is hopelessness. Where the cry is seriously voiced, heaven may answer and earth may have a new chance.”
Seriously voicing our cries becomes an act of worship that also leads to remembrance of God’s faithfulness to us in the better days of our past, which in turn serves to remind us of where our hope is found. Thus, we too are able to move from lament to praise, from a state of disorientation to orientation.
I wonder though if worship music in the church today has lost sight of the lament. The market is saturated with songs of “orientation.” Songs of joy, hope, peace, love, and assurance of God’s continued presence in our lives. Upbeat songs like “How Great Is Our God” and “Our God Is Greater” and “Oh Happy Day.” Not that these songs don’t bear important truths, mind you. But aren’t churches filled with broken people suffering under the weight of hurts, habits, and hangups? And if they are, should they really be expected to sing “You are good all the time, all the time You are good” when they’ve just lost a job or are losing their house or are fighting with their teenagers or are going through divorce or are mourning the loss of a loved one? I would argue, no.
But we can acknowledge that sometimes the sun shines down on us and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the world is all it should be and sometimes it’s just not. Sometimes we walk roads marked with suffering. With that in mind we help people learn to sing:
“Every blessing you pour out, Lord, I’ll turn back to praise. When the darkness closes in, Lord, still I will say, ‘Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
That song is a modern lament, a real gift to the church, written by Matt and Beth Redman well over 100 years later than “It Is Well With My Soul” but written from a similar place. It was written from their grief and loss associated with numerous miscarriages. It also happened to be written a few short weeks after September 11, 2001. In a sea of countless songs about the sovereignty and majesty of our Almighty God (of which we certainly MUST sing), this song stands out as one of very few reminders that in the often harsh realities of human life we also need to know how to lament.
Singing songs like “It Is Well With My Soul” and “Blessed Be Your Name” and praying the psalms of David teach us how to lament. It would be a tragic thing indeed if we ever find ourselves in emotionally dark places we would rather not be, like 9/11, and be unable to truthfully say, “It is well with my soul.”