Lamenting the Loss of Lament

By James Waddell

American flags outside in the sun

Every year, my church, Open Door Fellowship, has a Grief Remembrance Sunday. We provide a space for members to grieve and lament together through prayer and worship. For some worship leaders, focusing Sunday worship on grief and lament seems like it could diminish a worshipful experience. Yet every year I stand amazed at the power of grief remembrance to lead a community into the depths of God’s love that celebratory worship alone cannot achieve. The light of God shining into the darkest of times reminds us that “faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13, ESV).

The Loss of Lament

Much of the contemporary worship music focuses on celebration. Perhaps this focus has arisen due to too much emphasis on amazing worship experiences or difficulties in communal lamenting or entertainment selling better than grief. Whatever the cause, the lament has notoriously vanished from the worship life of much of the American church.

Tragically, worship that lacks lament excludes those who have lost most. A dear woman in my church lost her adolescent son to a drug overdose. Another woman lost her husband to heart failure just as he was about to affirm their son for graduating high school. Both had to stay away from Sunday worship for a season because of their grief. In both cases, comfort came outside the worship life of the church, which is tragic in light of biblical worship’s emphasis on lament.

Biblical Lament in Worship

The biblical authors, particularly the psalmists and prophets, understood what it meant to worship the Lord in sadness and not only in gladness. Many of the Psalms exist in the form of a lament, such as Psalm 22, which Jesus cites from the cross (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). The book of Lamentations, as the title suggests, records a painfully beautiful and tragic lament of Jerusalem’s destruction. It would seem, then, that grieving and lamenting are integral elements of biblical worship.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said of the language of the Psalms, “The child learns the language of the parent. So we learn to speak to God because God has spoken and speaks to us” (“Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible”). The worship that God has modeled in his word contains much lament. The American church therefore needs to learn the language of lament for its worship life.

The Need for Worshipful Lament

If grief and lament need expression through contemporary worship, where do we begin? Obviously, one could start with the laments in Scripture. Worship leaders can incorporate biblical laments into worship through readings or music. The church can also search its history. Worship leaders can mine “The Book of Common Prayer” (e.g., Ministration to the Sick) or the Church Fathers (like Chrysostom’s “Letter to a Young Widow”) or hymns (like Cowper’s “God Moves in a Mysterious Way”). Finally, the Holy Spirit’s inspiration can provide words and expressions of lament. Worship leaders can write their own music that will express grief and lament in worship.

In all of these ways and others, worship leaders should offer creative expressions of the necessary worship of lament. In so doing, they will provide both a more biblical and a more robust experience of the love of God in Christ Jesus, who was himself referred to as “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). In imitation of the Word written and the Word incarnate, the American church must reclaim the lament in worship or risk losing “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40) who is grieving.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.