The time for lament has come

Saturday May 01 2021 The Times

‘By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept.” Famously covered by Boney M, Don McLean and many others, the opening lines of Psalm 137 must go down as one of the best-known songs of lament. The words express the heartbreak and despair of the people of Israel during their years of exile and captivity in Babylon as they hang their harps on the willow trees and ask “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

The tradition of lament goes back deep in Jewish religion and permeates the Hebrew Bible that forms the Christian Old Testament. There is a whole Book of Lamentations, almost certainly written, like Psalm 137, in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587BC.

Laments make up nearly a third of the contents of the Book of Psalms. Some are individual expressions of anguish and depression, such as Psalm 130, which begins: “Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord”, and continues “My soul waits for the Lord more than they that watch for the morning.” Others are communal laments, such as Psalm 137, voicing the frustration and despondency of an entire people. Lament has continued to be a marked feature of Jewish song and culture to the present day.

Over the past year many across the world have been in a state of lamentation, feeling anxious, weary and depressed, weeping from exhaustion and fear, and mourning lost loved ones, lost jobs and lost dreams. We need to express these very real emotions and not feel that we must suppress them and maintain a stiff upper lip.

Lament allows us to be honest in voicing our frustration with a God who often seems to be absent and oblivious to our calls for an end to suffering and misery, whether from a pandemic, a war or a natural disaster.

Again and again the psalms of lament ask despairingly: “How long, O Lord, how long?” Psalm 13 puts this question particularly graphically and persistently: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?”

Martin Luther appreciated the honesty found in the psalms of lament and what he called “this earnest speaking amid the storm winds of every kind”. Jean Calvin called the Book of Psalms “An anatomy of all the parts of the soul” and wrote: “There is not an emotion of which anyone can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror . . . all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.”

We do not make enough use of this biblical tradition of lament. Our worship tends to be upbeat, often rather shallow, and not to reflect what we are really thinking. Some years ago the American singer-songwriter Michael Gungor pointed out that there was not one single lament among the 150 most often used contemporary English language Christian hymns or worship songs as recorded by Christian Copyright Licensing International. We are selective in our use of the psalms, favouring the “jolly” ones of thanksgiving and praise over the more downbeat and disturbing laments.

Now of all times we need to be honest in our worship and in our private conversations and encounters with God, expressing all our perplexity, our frustration and, indeed, our sense of God’s absence and lack of action, just as the psalmists did. Lament is not a matter of moaning and complaining — it can and should go alongside a sense of gratitude for what we have got. It is about acknowledging that all is not well, voicing solidarity with the suffering and exposing our own deepest doubts, fears and anger in a context of faith, even if it is at times like this a sorely tested faith. It does not mean that we are without faith, which is closer to doubt than either of them are to certainty. But it does involve us in being honest with ourselves, and with God, and not just indulging in the shallow optimism that is the antithesis of real faith and hope.

Many but not all of the psalms of lament turn from initial despair to an expression of hope and trust in God. As Paul Bradbury, a Church of England pioneer minister based in Poole, puts it in his book Home by Another Route: “Lament is God’s gift to us to enable fierce and faithful honesty in the context of suffering. The complaint within lament is not a precursor to faith; it is faith.”

Ian Bradley is emeritus professor of cultural and spiritual history at the University of St Andrews