The following excerpt is taken from G. Geoffrey Harper and Kit Barker, eds., Finding Lost Words: The Church's Right to Lament(Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2017), 276–82 (Used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers. https://wipfandstock.com/finding-lost-words.html). The volume is available via the following links in paperback and ebook formats.
(with reflections from Kit Barker and G. Geoffrey Harper)
Can you remember singing a lament with your congregation in church? Your answer is probably no. In fact, there are few examples of lament available for congregational singing. There are some lines in hymns, verses here and there in some modern worship songs, but they tend only to dip into lament before making a quick jump to praise. Very few contemporary songs dive into the pool of sustained lament. Consequently, the church lacks songs that allow us to faithfully and corporately present our pain, grief, doubt, and confusion before God.
Creating, Engaging, and Singing Lament
It is in light of the above deficiency that I set out to write a song based on a lament psalm. I chose Psalm 88 because I wanted to cover the “ground” of this particular psalm and ask the hard questions it contains. The melody was crafted in an attempt to capture the determination of a community to evoke God’s nearness and salvation.
To start the process of creating a lament song, I first sought a landing point for the chorus. Based on v. 1, I settled on “You are the God who saves me.” This became the conclusion, not just of the chorus, but also for the song as a whole. Wherever the lament journeys, it always find its way back to the statement of faith in v. 1— its truth and its challenge. I then decided to bookend the chorus with the strong ending of Psalm 88, which is a challenge regarding intimacy with God. The chorus therefore begins, “Where is your voice in this darkness?” This is close to a summary of the song, and it is the heart-cry that remains unanswered.
With the chorus set as a repeated point of focus, I pooled Psalm 88’ s themes into three verses. Verse one pictures our cry for help in our awful state. Verse two identifies that it is God who is actively sovereign over our plight. Verse three questions why God would allow all this to happen. After grouping these verses, and with rough chorus lyrics in mind, I sought out a set of minor scale steps for the melody, somewhat darker than would normally be used in church songs. I was particularly concerned with the major/ minor seventh on the very first note of the chorus and the instrumental melody. The result is a clash that is familiar to us, but is at the same time unusual and jarring. To counteract the darker harmonic minor-scale steps in the chorus, I added a major for minor chord substitution halfway through each verse. That exchange adds to the feeling of freedom of expression and honesty in the verse melody. Once the song started to feel like it was “together,” I attempted to sing it a few times and commit it to memory. Not until I really let my heart connect with the song did I feel the shock and struggle of it.
As I rehearsed the song I felt a strong urge to “play it safe” and to soften some of the lines. They almost felt wrong as I imagined my church singing them. We are not used to putting frustration, faith, anger, and yearning together in our songs to God. As I hammered out chord, melody, and word changes and the song was finalized, I felt the difference that articulating lament meant for me. While I am yet to share this song with my church, I have already experienced its benefits. I now have a chorus that pounds in my head in dark moments, and a melody that fills my heart amid doubt. To come to the God who saves me and ask him why darkness seems closer than his voice is good for me. It seems healthy to do so, and I had no way to do that in song before. I look forward to the amplification of these benefits when the song is sung together in a Sunday gathering.
Creating this lament song was certainly a challenge, but a bigger challenge remains: how, practically, do we introduce the practice of singing lament in our churches? I think the first step is acknowledging our need to bring a new level of authenticity and honesty to singing in church. Lament contains the most affronting lyrical content. The goal is to engage with, learn from, and take hold of lament in our services. This will require a careful and wise re-introduction of these words within our congregations. We will need to become convinced of both the validity and necessity of corporate lament in song. Lament contributes an essential voice to a “gospel-shaped” repertoire of songs, one that reveals its truth, gravity, beauty, and effectiveness. Lament has a place in our corporate worship. It is our faithful response as the people of God to the brokenness of this world and the hope of the present and coming kingdom.
A Lament Song: Lyrics
This song by Nick Freestone is an excellent (and perhaps unique) example of the application of lament to contemporary worship. I (Kit) was recently invited to speak to the creative ministries team at an influential church in Sydney. To open the evening, I asked the group of several dozen leaders to give an example of a contemporary lament song designed for congregational participation. The silence was broken by the tentatively offered suggestion, “Blessed Be Your Name?” I regularly ask this same question in my Psalter classes and the result is the same: “Blessed Be Your Name”* and “Desert Song.”** However, neither of these is a lament and, in fact, both present something at odds with the practice. In both melody and lyrics, each song affirms that, while the situation may be difficult, the proper response is one of praise, as articulated in the refrains. Unfortunately, these songs represent some of our closest attempts at corporate lament (at least in an Australian context), yet when given the opportunity, each avoids the practice. I’m not suggesting that these songs are inherently problematic. However, a problem exists if these are our best (and only!) musical responses to suffering, for rather than moving us to lament, they in the end require us to praise. Consequently, the opportunity to lament is subverted and the practice is implicitly rejected. So from church services to funerals, our collective response to suffering lacks commensurate words. We are told to celebrate, to be thankful, and to praise, when at times the right response is to be honest, to question, and to cry out in pain.
One of the interesting things to emerge as we have discussed the topic of this book in various classes, churches, and morning tea conversations is that singing lament seems to be particularly problematic for people. The idea of preaching on a lament psalm doesn’t raise an eyebrow; that people might pray the words of a lament (especially in private) or read them with someone who is suffering is generally acceptable. But to stand and sing a lament, corporately, in church, raises all sorts of questions. Is it right to do that? What if everyone is not in the “place of lament”? Can we sing these words as Christian people? While questions such as these raise important issues that need to be carefully thought through, they also point to a much more fundamental issue: we have truly lost the notion of corporate solidarity when it comes to situations of distress, along with the words to express our identification with those who are in the darkness.
In light of this, our hope is that Nick’s song might represent a step towards recovering a lost practice in corporate worship. The melody and lyrics he has composed are true to the content and mood of Psalm 88.*** While many biblical laments contain a shift to confidence and an expectation of future praise, Psalm 88 does not. It is not without hope, but it does not move to praise. Nick’s song is similarly relentless. Its minor key and lack of a “change up” leave participants in the darkness of the psalm: sad, confused, and exhausted by the relentless waves of suffering. The final verse concludes with the closing words of the psalm, “And darkness is my friend”; yet Nick returns to the start of the psalm by finishing with the refrain. Here unanswered questions resound, and the first line of psalm is placed before the throne of God— as much a challenge as a declaration of faith: “You are the God who saves me.” This move represents the very heart of lament. It reminds the congregation that the right response to suffering is to place it before God: to confront him with our questions, with our confusion at the dissonance between faith and experience, and with our corporate cry for it to stop. As I (Geoff) discussed in my earlier chapter, Psalm 88 reflects a profound faith, even though the psalmist has experienced a life “full of evils” with no deliverance from his situation. In the midst of suffering, hope is found in the persistent cry of the psalmist and in the word of God that extends an invitation to his people: “When the pain is unbearable, pray and sing like this. I’m here in the darkness.”
While this beautifully crafted song is an excellent representation of Psalm 88, some might argue that it could be improved (a different mood, different lyrics, a quicker tempo, no refrain), and perhaps it could. However, it must be remembered that this is a single example of how we could appropriate a psalm of lament in Christian, congregational worship. It is one song, on one psalm, at one time, in one culture. Much more remains to be done. We need more songs like this, songs that reflect the variety of situation and response found in the Psalter. The reason we asked Nick to compose a lament for this volume was not to present the definitive example, but rather to provide a model and catalyst for the writing of others.
* Matt Redman and Beth Redman, “Blessed Be Your Name.” © 2002 Thankyou Music. CCLI 3798438.
** Brooke Ligertwood, “Desert Song.” © 2008 Sony/ ATV Music Publishing Australia. CCLI 5060793.
*** Such correspondence is not necessary for contemporary appropriation. Nick’s song represents just one example of lament, where the explicit intent was to follow closely the language of the psalm. There is also a place for contemporary congregational laments that are inspired by the psalms but do not follow the wording so closely.