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07.08.2020

Look What We’ve Done to Our Songs…

You can tell a country’s culture from the songs it sings.

It’s the same with the church.

Right now, in the midst of a global pandemic with all its resultant emotional, physical, mental, and financial afflictions, you’d expect us to be singing songs of lament – expressing our grief, bewilderment, disorientation, and yearning for God’s intervention. But apparently, we aren’t.

This could partly be because, despite having had quite a lot to lament in our culture over the last fifty years, we don’t really have many songs of laments to sing. As recent research by Steve Scott (a student at the London School of Theology) showed, suffering is almost entirely absent from the repertoire of contemporary worship songs. Similarly, CCLI’s list of the top 100 songs being sung in church only features one song that could begin to be described as including lament. By comparison, 28% of the psalms are psalms of lament. Nor do the prophets seem reluctant to express their grief. So why are we?

Back in 2002 in his book The Spirituality of the Psalms, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann argued that the dearth of lament in our communal worship was a symptom of just how in thrall the church was to Western culture’s triumphalist narratives of health and wealth. We’re quicker to declare final victory and imminent triumph, than mourn present reality. Have things changed? Maybe in your community, but not, it seems, overall.

We need to grieve. We need to name what is before us for what it is. Not to do so is to suppress the truth. And it is to numb the emotions. Those who are not given permission to grieve soon lose their capacity to truly rejoice in what is glorious.

Similarly, I suspect that if we do not mourn what grieves God’s heart we are less likely to be intercessors and champions for the change that the Father sent his Son to bring about, and called us to participate in.

Yes, the Lord is ever on his throne, and all around him the angels sing ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’. Yes, after the destruction of Jerusalem, Jeremiah wrote ‘The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end’. But those diamond verses of hope are preceded by 65 verses of lament.

There is a time to grieve together before the Lord. And now is such a time. Privately. And corporately.

You can find some songs that may be helpful here. For further reflections on lament, read Mark’s review of Aubrey Sampson’s book The Louder Song, and Engage Worship’s Sam Hargreaves’ recent article on grief.

Mark Greene
Executive Director, LICC

Author

Mark Greene

Comments

  1. During the last few months I have written a song of lament, called “How much longer, Lord?”, based on the psalms of lament.
    I’d be happy to share it with anyone who is interested

    By Martin Lees - 7th August 2020
  2. Beautifully put & very true. Without acknowledging our pain & grief we aren’t really surrendering all to God.

    By Claire - 7th August 2020
  3. Good job, Mark.

    In fact, great job over many years. Keep up the good work, faithfully following Jesus who called you so many years ago at TH.

    I rejoice at your consistent witness.

    Neill

    By Neill Fraser - 7th August 2020
  4. Sorry Mark, but this is not quite right. Christian traditions other than the fundamentalist and evangelical traditions do have such songs. There is a whole book of them by Bell and Maule (disclaimer – I have no connection) and I have sung some of these in church

    https://www.wildgoose.scot/product/when-grief-is-raw-bk/

    Perhaps you should change the first line to “It’s the same with MY PART OF the church”

    By Edmund Cannon - 7th August 2020
  5. Mark, thank you so, so much for this. I was thinking and praying about the Lebanese disaster this morning and reading in Jeremiah 8 and 9 as I did so. Years ago, when lament had a currency in the part of the church I was worshipping in, I wrote a song from Jer 8-9 which I have not sung for years. But today, coming across the passage (O my comforter in sorrow…), I realised there were two other songs I wrote from this same part of Jeremiah, oh, about 35 years ago, and in prayer, started singing them all again. Nick Baines has helped me a lot over the years in learning to position myself for lament, but he is hugely influenced, in a great way, by German theology and experience. I think perhaps that Anglo-American cultures have rarely had someone invade and sack their cities and lay waste their land. We have no cultural memory of such a thing: in that context, the two world wars hardly count for the US and the UK. As these two cultures (and Australia, which has had a similar lack of foreign invasion from a white perspective) are responsible for 99% of the songs we sing, perhaps it is no surprise that these do not figure.

    The other thing that I have noticed, at a time when we are struggling to stay in fellowship, is how un-corporate our songs are: we had the chance to run Zoom and YouTube services for our churches and stuffed them full of “I” songs rather than “we” songs. I get tired of changing the I to we and the me to us, when singing! But we need to be in this together, lamenting, and our songs, as you so brilliantly say, must reflect this. Thanks again. Huw.

    By Huw Humphreys - 7th August 2020
  6. Perhaps songs on those topics exist but just aren’t popular. The Christian music scene is, after all, a commercial endeavour “write what sells”. Too many songs are focussed on making me, the singer, feel good about myself. Reassuring lyrics about ‘just how much God really loves me’ – a nod to the prevailing victim & entitlement culture. Who is really the object of worship in those cases?

    I suspect there is a high percentage of Christians who do care for what matters to God (after all what else is the Holy Spirit doing in the life of a believer) and that the ‘well taught word of God’ shapes thinking, change and walking the talk much more than any engineering of song & music to create ‘atmosphere’ into which the Holy Spirit ‘comes’.

    Mark 12 v 30-31 and James 2 v 22 are a helpful & insightful for wholesome perspective

    By Brian Smith - 7th August 2020
  7. Thank you Mark. As we try to “Build Back Better” we can’t do this while pretending that going back to the way we used to work was “normal”, healthy or fair. I find the lament comes in waves, and many people I speak to (Christians among them) find it difficult to talk about or acknowledge. We set up memorials to those who die in war: will we create memorial woodlands, allotments and parks to both remember the dead and redress the huge inequality the virus illuminated (those without gardens are also much more likely to be poor or black, and not have any parks or green spaces in walking distance of their homes)

    By Jenny Cooke - 7th August 2020
  8. Oh, Mark, the Iona Community have been the only people doing this for years, couldn’t you have included one of John Bell’s songs in your list? Probably from ‘When Grief is Raw’, which Sam Hargreaves mentions…

    By Mandy Stanton - 7th August 2020
  9. I agree. At the early stages of the lockdown I wrote this – to be sung to the tune PASSION CHORALE (“O Sacred head, sore wounded”)

    AND YET WE STILL FEEL SAD
    1 We know that we are members
    Of God’s great family.
    We know that we’re invited
    With all humanity
    To celebrate our Saviour,
    To worship & be glad.
    We know that God is with us
    And yet we still feel sad.

    2 At this time of pandemic
    Our lives have changed so much.
    We long to be together,
    For closeness and for touch.
    The things we took for granted
    That we no longer have.
    We know that God is with us
    And yet we still feel sad.

    3 The dedicated carers,
    The sacrifices made,
    The little acts of kindness
    Are God’s love on display.
    Our gratitude is real for
    Each blessing we have had.
    We know that God is with us
    And yet we still feel sad.

    4 With so much to give thanks for
    Why do we still feel pain?
    Why does that crushing sadness
    Oppress us once again?
    We know we should be joyful
    But yet we just feel bad.
    Give us that reassurance
    Whenever we feel sad.

    Stephen Page Easter Day 12/4/2020
    TUNE: PASSION CHORALE

    This hymn, written during the Covid 19 “lockdown”, seeks to address issues of mental health, loneliness and depression in relation to the Christian faith. Many people will testify to these feelings disappearing when becoming a Christian, whilst many others hold on to their faith but still experience times when these feelings come back again. I want to affirm those people and re-state my belief that God does not necessarily take away every difficulty and heal every infirmity. What was Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”? It is deliberately written from a “We” standpoint when so often people will feel it is only “I” who feels this way.

    Additional verse (in place of 2 &3) – for general use–

    We feel that we are different.
    We feel we are alone.
    When others have got company
    We’ve no-one else at home.
    There’s no-one there to talk to
    About the day we’ve had.
    We know that God is with us
    And yet we still feel sad.

    By Stephen Page - 7th August 2020
  10. I so agree. I have felt like a lone voice when speaking of this in front of church as a guest speaker. I am no theologian- far from it- but I work with people who are broken and the continual ‘joyfulness’ in church does not add up to the stories I know when walking alongside others in their pain. we need permission to be sad, angry, ask ‘why Lord’ without being seen as weak or not strong enough in faith. I love Job and the Psalms and these places of grief and anguish in the Bible bring comfort and strength to those who know the dark side of living. I have learned so much about myself by looking pain and hurt right in the eyes and yet knowing God is walking the path too – He never leaves us. Those who walk in pain and brokenness – who can’t see an ‘end in sight’ to hardship in this life- are the strongest of us – they are still standing and holding on despite what happened to them – I salute their incredible bravery and honesty. Let us be brave enough to stay with those who grieve and hurt – not to be too quick to ‘look at the bright side’. I can’t wait for my wonderful Saviour to ‘wipe every tear’, but until then, I am going to have lots of tissues in my pockets…

    By liz Jermy - 7th August 2020
  11. Well said!
    Thank you for this important message at this time. St the beginning of ‘lockdown’ I spent some considerable time lamenting but found it hard to find songs that expressed how I felt- most moved far too soon onto praise and rejoicing for where I was at the time. Only after I had lived with the sorrow for a time and felt God’s heart, was I ready to move forward to hope and praise. ‘Does Your Hear Break’ was especially helpful to me.

    By Janet Wakeman - 7th August 2020
  12. We are told by Jesus to worship the Lord in spirit and in truth, lamentation is truthful worship of God. God our Father in heaven told Jeremiah ‘ Call on me in the day of trouble I wil answer you and show you great and mighty things you do not know’ Jeremiah 33:3. Expressing our grief in song before confirms our dependence on God and acknowledges His sovereignty.

    By Dada Alamutu - 7th August 2020
  13. Wonderful words Mark .. I am forever considering the phrase .. Give US today OUR daily bread .. it was never Give Me today MY daily bread .. Yet the world has allowed and accepted the death of 50,000 innocents and mostly babies and children EVERY DAY for last 30 years .. and yet there is silence from the Leaders Media and People who selectively decide what to hear.
    By the way the UN report on the Poorest of the Poor in July 2020 predicts that 265 million of this ignored, forgotten and as it happens mostly black skinned population of our Brothers and Sisters will die in the next 5 months due to starvation and diarrhoea… virtually all due to the indirect consequences of COVID ..
    My only question is .. Are we bothered ???

    By Kevin - 7th August 2020
  14. Thank you Mark. Right on!

    By Chris Thomas - 7th August 2020
  15. When I read the line “But apparently, we aren’t”, I expected the main point of the article to focus on the prohibition of singing in church, and whether we should accept this restriction to corporate worship. Surely, part of the reason that we do not lament is because we have tried to convince ourselves that meeting by video is actually not that bad, really?

    By CHARLES TAYLOR - 7th August 2020
  16. Mark, I totally agree that contemporary worship songs rarely address this issue, and contemporary worship often offers nothing to people who arrive hurting. However it is also worth noting that (with exception of Psalm 88) all the “lament psalms” end more hopefully/positively, after refocusing on God’s nature and/or his past deeds. The song I referred to in my initial comment (written during lockdown) starts in a minor key but changes to a major key after the bridge section; Words are as follows:

    How much longer, Lord, must we struggle in the darkness?
    How much longer, Lord, need we strive against the foe?
    God we call to You, but we never hear You answer;
    You seem far away when trouble is so near.
    Come Lord come! Come, Lord, come!

    Bring your healing, Lord, for our bones they shake with terror;
    How much longer, Lord, will you hide from us Your face?
    Hear our cry O Lord, don’t abandon us for ever;
    Won’t You save us by Your mercy and Your grace?
    Save us Lord! Help us Lord!

    Night and day we cry, and our beds are wet with weeping.
    How much longer, Lord, till You bring to us relief?
    Rouse Yourself O God – for it seems that You are sleeping.
    Our eyes waste away because of all our grief.
    Save us Lord, Help us Lord!

    We will call to mind the wonders You have done.
    We remember Lord the victory You’ve won………..

    You will hear us Lord, You will rescue us from trouble;
    Through Your steadfast love we will push down on our foes!
    You will not forsake those who trust in Your redemption;
    Great Deliv’rer, You will save us from our woes.
    Thank You Lord! Praise You Lord!

    We will wait to see the victory of the Lord,
    For we know that You will answer when we call.
    And then righteousness will look down from the sky;
    We will see You put our enemies to flight!

    So restore us, Lord! You’re the God of our salvation.
    You’re our fortress, Lord, rise and come to our defence!
    You are faithful Lord, you have heard our supplication!
    You are mighty and we put our trust in You.
    Thank You Lord! Praise You Lord!
    Bless You Lord!

    By Martin Lees - 7th August 2020
  17. Well said!

    By Cynthia Tews - 7th August 2020
  18. Well done for raising this. At times, I have found the church doesn’t want to hear about death and suffering! And yet the gospel deals with the biggest human issue of our broken relationship with God and our mortality – Jesus IS the answer to our deepest needs, pain and brokeness…. how we can not lament until He comes again?

    By Michelle McKail - 8th August 2020
  19. Thanks Mark. A timely reminder in these times of need and difficulty of the resource of prayer and worship that expresses our true emotions and pain and how we bring them to God. Sometimes it involves repentance. Often it is in the midst of grief and loss. But always the still small voice that is graciously a “louder voice” too rings out if we would only listen. Thanks for the additional pages and link to Aubrey Samson’s book. Looks worth a read. God bless you and LICC as you continue to speak to culture and to the church what the Spirit is saying.

    By Hugh Wallace - 9th August 2020

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