by Matt Lynch
The Loss of Lament
And his disciples came and urged him, saying,
‘Send her [the Canaanite woman] away, for she keeps shouting after us.”
Songs for Ash Wednesday
The title of this post comes from Walter Brueggemann’s influential essay ‘The Costly Loss of Lament,’ written in 1986 (repr. in Psalms and the Life of Faith). In it, Brueggemann observes how ‘scholars have only walked around the edges of the theological significance of the lament psalm’ (101). 30 years later, the same could be said of the contemporary worship industry. Worship leaders have only begun to walk around the edges of the pastoral significance of the lament song. To this effect, Michael Gungor tweeted a few years back: ‘Approximately 70% of the Psalms are laments. Approximately 0% of the top 150 CCLI songs (songs song most in churches) are laments.’ This claim needs a few qualifiers (it’s a Tweet, after all). The % of laments is probably lower (40-60%), and most lament psalms include praise.
Nevertheless, Gungor’s contrasting point about the absence of lament struck home for many. Since we’re now a few years on since this Tweet, I thought I’d have a look at where we stand, musically speaking, in the lead-up to Ash Wednesday and Lent. I took a cross-section of various ‘top hit’ worship charts to look at how—and whether—churches in North America/UK/Australia lament. This brief survey bears relevance specifically for those churches that draw from non-hymnal based worship music.
What is lament?
Before we look at whether & how worship music exists today, let’s clarify what lament is. Lament is the brutally honest and confrontational expression of distress before God. It typically included acts that we’d associate with mourning—like wearing sackcloth, basic dishevelment, not eating, putting ashes on your head, and wailing/crying out.
Lamenters often drew attention to their distress (physical, spiritual, relational). The first four verses of Ps 13 provide a good example:
For the director of music. A psalm of David. How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? 2 How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? 3 Look on me and answer, LORD my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death, 4 and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,” and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
Lament drifted easily into protest—also before God—and in this sense, comparing it to the movements we see currently sweeping the U.S. & UK. Individuals or groups gather together to create a scene before one whose responsibility it is to act. This often included quotes of the enemy, as if to provoke God to counter their claims, along with direct accusations. This creates a public relations problem for God, or to use Brueggemann’s language, it ‘shifts the calculus and redresses the distribution of power between the two parties, so that the petitionary part is taken seriously and God … [is] put at risk’ (101). A crucial difference between lament and protest, however, is that the lament-er eventually gets around to expressing some kind of trust that the responsible (and powerful individual)—namely, God—will act, and that it is in God’s character to do so on behalf of the weak. Thus, the normal pattern of lament ran something like this:
Invocation -> Complaint -> Appeal -> Vow (I’ll praise you later) -> Praise
There’s one last point about lament. In many cases, laments were often set to music for the community to sing. We see this in Ps 13:1 above. Even Ps 88, the darkest of all psalms, is written ‘for the choir director.’ Israel had some pretty dark tunes.
Top-selling Worship Music – A Non-Exhaustive Survey
To that end, let’s look at how and whether trending contemporary worship music draws from this rich tradition found in 50% of biblical psalms. Here are a few probes:
CCLI Praise Charts – Top 100 – 3/100
From this aptly named list I identified three that have elements of lament, but none that linger there for very long:
‘Lord I need You’ (Matt Maher; has a few lines that might qualify as lament)
‘Man of Sorrows’ (Hillsong) This tune, likely inspired by the old P. P. Bliss hymn, has a few elements of lament, but none that identify the singer with the ‘man of sorrows’ himself.
‘Give me Faith’ (Elevation)
Churchrelevance – Top 50 Worship Songs – 1/50
There were a few lines that might qualify as lament, if found sitting on their own, but nothing sustained. Again, ‘Lord I need you’ made the list, but I don’t think the song even remotely approaches the depth of expression found in the mildest lament.
Official Charts – Top 20 Christian/Gospel Albums (not all here are worship albums)
I didn’t scour the lyrics of all 20 charts, but will note a few observations here about some of the albums that self-identify as worship albums.
‘Have it All’ (Bethel – 49 weeks on charts). Contains no laments. The song ‘Have it All’ contains the lyrics:
This song valorizes this state of brokenness and undone-ness, something echoed in the first worship album Jenn and Brian Johnson of Bethel released, called ‘Undone’ (2001):
I’m assuming that ‘undone-ness’ refers to a mix of vulnerability and neediness. In these lyrics, some language typically associated with lament (or threat, cf. Isa 6) has been romanticized and subsequently spiritualized in some worship lyrics. I found this theme of idealized brokenness across quite a few songs. Being ‘broken’ or ‘undone’ is pitched as an ideal state. This is not lament
‘You Make Me Brave’ (Bethel – 112 weeks on chart, currently #6). No laments. One song contains the lyrics:
These lyrics express a reality that many experience. However, there seems to be a discomfort with negative emotions in and around this phrase. The preceding line ‘I won’t be afraid’ and the following ‘And [I] lose all my doubt’ shed all negative sentiments.
‘The World’s Favorite Worship Songs’ (Mixed – 99 weeks on chart, currently #9). This 3 disk box set draws from worship songs from the last 25-30 years, all the way back to ‘Lord I Lift Your Name on High’.
Of the 51 songs in this box set, only a few contain lament. A few songs draw again from lyrics that mention brokenness, but don’t present that as a state from which to lament (quite the contrary):
Brian Doerksen’s line ‘I call out to you …’ in ‘Faithful One’ probably come closest:
However, even these lyrics aren’t uttered from a place of lack, or desperation, at least overtly. The potentially needy call ‘again and again’ comes instead after the affirmation of faithfulness—even peace.
A few other songs have a line or two to lament (e.g. ‘Breathe’ – Vineyard; ‘Oh to See the Dawn’ – Townend).
None of the songs nominated for ‘Worship Song of the Year’ included lament. Nor, to my knowledge, did any of the songs among those nominated for ‘Worship Album of the Year.’ One song in the ‘Urban Worship Album of the Year’ category (are the others rural?) is clearly a lament. Briana Babineaux’s song ‘I’m Desperate’ (from the album ‘Keys To My Heart’) begins with the lines:
The song never shifts away from this theme of distress, which sets it apart from most top hit worship songs I found. Other songs on Babineaux’s album sound similar notes. Another song on Travis Greene’s ‘Urban Worship Album of the Year’ nominated ‘The Hill’ riffs on Ps 121, but with darker tones:
In Ps 121, ‘looking up’ refers to the source of the psalmist’s help, which the song goes on to invoke with these lines (drawn also from Ps 20):
It wouldn’t be wrong to categorise ‘The Hill’ as a lament, since it both acknowledges and expresses the reality of sin/pain/stress. Its predominant notes are hope and trust. In scholarly terms, this would be a ‘Psalm of Trust,’ a sub-set of lament.
It’s interesting that the songs with at least mild lament lyrics fall into Dove’s ‘Urban’ worship category, which stands alongside the generic ‘Worship Album’ category. I’m not clear on how that determination was made. I suspect that the presence of such lyrics is a carryover from the rich history of blues and lament in gospel music, though this would need further study.
Several songs include what might qualify as ‘lament teasers’ (or ‘lament lite’). In other words, they dangle the raw emotions of pain, disappointment, and complaint before the singer, only to draw them back. Here’s an example from ‘Whom Shall I Fear’ by Matt Redman:
The phrase ‘darkness fills the night’ is too brief to feel, let alone enter, since it’s pre-empted poetically by ‘though …’ and then superseded by ‘It cannot hide the light.’ One is not encouraged to journey through the darkness of night. Matt Maher’s ‘Your Grace is Enough’ says:
This song evokes the wrestling match between Jacob and the angel of the Lord (or God) in Gen 32, a dark and mysterious episode of profound importance for Israel’s self-understanding. But the song then skips—as if getting nervous—to the ‘still waters’ of Ps 23.
The popular Bethel song ‘Have it all’ sings:
This song permits brokenness and undone-ness to enter the room, but only accompanied by peace (‘Oh the peace’!) and grace. Sufficiently flanked, the worshipper lifts their voice in yielding submission.
Other songs seem to pick up exclusively on the moments after the pain/sadness/anger have dissipated. They assume that these need to ‘laid down’ or left behind—again, positioning the worshipper at the moment after the bad stuff. These would fall among the ‘thanksgiving’ psalms in the Bible. The ‘song of thanksgiving is … the lament restated after the crisis has been dealt with.’ The beginning of ‘Come as you are’ (Crowder, not Nirvana) says:
Then there’s the popular song ‘I’m trading my sorrows’ (Israel Houghton & New Breed), in which the singer engages in a remarkable exchange:
I’m not making a negative comment on the fact that the trade happens, but simply observing the chronological moment at which the song picks up … namely, at the point of turning fromsadness/sorrows/sickness. By writing lyrics with despair in the past tense, lament is ‘greyed out’.
The same chronology animates the hit song ‘No Longer Slaves’ (Bethel Music):
What a wonderful place to be, and may the number of those who experience this freedom only increase! However, what about those trapped in fear … in pain … sorrow … sadness … sickness? Why not linger lyrically in the unresolved, and from there, cry out to God?
1. Lament is still sorely lacking among today’s most influential and popular worship music in North America, the UK, and Australia. If the 3 CD Box Set of ‘Best Worship Songs’ of the last 25-30 years is any indication, lament has gone missing for quite a while.
2. Some songs present ‘brokenness’ or ‘undone-ness’ as ideal states, and thus not worth lamenting.
3. Lyrics that acknowledge tears, pain, sorrow, or suffering tend to do so (a) for a fleeting moment, (b) juxtaposed by affirmations of trust, or (c) in the past tense. I’m reminded here of Jeremy Begbie’s comments about Good Friday and Holy Saturday, which apply also to worship music:
The near absence of Good Friday music in modern worship leaves praise without one of its primary drivers—calls for deliverance. As my colleague Brad Jersak put it (I’m paraphrasing), ‘Some of our music is Triumphal Entry praise, not Easter Sunday praise.’
4. None of the worship songs contain lyrics even approaching the raw emotion, anger, or accusation of biblical lament. None, for instance, engage in direct accusation (cf. Ps 88). In other words, despite the accent on emotion and experience in much of contemporary worship, only a narrow range of emotions are actually engaged, or deemed appropriate before God. Here are just a few of the many possible expressions in biblical laments: ‘Among the dead no one proclaims your name. Who praises you from the grave?’ Ps 6:1 ‘How Long, O Lord, will you continue to ignore me?’ Ps 13:1; ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’ Ps 22:1; ‘O LORD, why do you reject me, and pay no attention to me? … You have taken from me friend and neighbor – darkness is my closest friend’ (Ps. 88:15, 18)
Even Matt Redman’s ‘Blessed be your name,’ which certainly includes lament, includes only Job’s pious lament of from chs. 1-2, and not the darker outbursts and raging found in chs. 3-31!
I once heard a writer characterize modern music as pathologically happy. While perhaps an overstatement, it could never characterize biblical worship. The contrast is striking. Without it we lose perspective—on ourselves, our world, our neighbour, and on God. Nicholas Wolterstorff writes of this in his Lament for a Son:
People have been talking about the absence of lament in worship for quite a while, and I know that some worship artists now write lament songs. But those songs are not making an impact in the average church using the top 100 worship music songs (usually via a CCLI license). They remain marginalised. It’s time to learn a few minor chords.
Having looked at these lyrics (and I’m sure I’ve missed some!), I’ll look in my next post at a few common objections to the use of lament in worship services, and why still need to lament.