Dr. David W. Manner is the Associate Executive Director for the Kansas-Nebraska Convention of Southern Baptists. He blogs at http://kncsb.org/blogs/dmanner . You can follow him on Twitter: @dwmanner.
When we are at a loss for words we must be reminded that a text has been prepared for us in the Psalms. When disaster threatens to consume us, the psalmist gives words to express our most profound despair. When our hymns and songs fall short with clichéd platitudes, the psalms provide hope beyond unexpressed emotions. John Witvliet reminds us that, “when faced with an utter loss of words and an oversupply of volatile emotions, we best rely not on our own stuttering speech, but on the reliable and profoundly relevant laments of the Hebrew Scriptures.”1 Walter Brueggemann writes that, “By not using these psalms, we have communicated two messages to people: either you must not feel that way (angry with God, for example) or, if you feel that way, you must do something about it somewhere else – but not here.”2
We have been conditioned to believe that it is more spiritual to avoid expressing grief or despair in worship. Our public questioning of God is often considered irreverent or maybe even blasphemous. Our song selections and sermon topics have conveyed that church must always be a happy place and that a positive appearance is less threatening.
If authenticity is a goal of our worship we must honestly and publicly admit that circumstances of life can contribute to hopelessness, cause us to cry out to God in despair, and even demand answers. We must persistently remind one another that God expects our language of lament and is not threatened by it.
In An Open Letter to Worship Songwriters, Brian McLaren offers the following commentary, “Pain should find its way into song, and these songs should find their way into our churches. The bitter will make the sweet all the sweeter; without the bitter, the sweet can become cloying, and too many of our churches feel, I think, like Candyland. Is it too much to ask that we be more honest? Since doubt is part of our lives, since pain and waiting and as-yet unresolved disappointments are part of our lives, can’t these things be reflected in the songs of our communities? Doesn’t endless singing about celebration lose its vitality (and even its credibility) if we don’t also sing about the struggle?”
Authenticity grants us permission to admit that events can shake our faith. Catharsis begins when we understand that asking and even singing our difficult questions is acceptable and that God can handle our anger and despair. Freedom to cry out to God in worship will only be realized when a community becomes more comfortable with the belief that a transparent life is not narcissistic or self-absorbing. In fact, this honest transparency is a life of humility enabling worshipers to realize they are not struggling on their own in the resolution of this despair. Martha Freeman reminds us that, “Tears can enhance our vision, giving us new eyes that discern traces of the God who suffers with us. There is comfort in those tears. They bring fresh understanding that God is nearby, sharing our humanity in all its bitterness and all its blessedness.”3
1. John D. Witvliet, “A Time to Weep: Liturgical Lament in Times of Crisis,” Reformed Worship 44 (June 1977): 22.
2. Walter Brueggemann, “The Friday Voice of Faith,” Calvin Theological Journal 36 (April 2001): 15.
3. Martha Freeman, “Has God Forsaken Us?” The Covenant Companion (November 2001): 8.