Shifting the ground on ‘lament’ in liturgy

In a recent conversation, the following question was asked:

‘One term I hear a lot these days is ‘lament’. What are the ways that a musical liturgical practice of lament can be more than just ‘thoughts and prayers’?

This corresponds to my own experience as a black (not Black) theological thinker and church musician who is also both part of Black Britain and based in the UK. But before I situate myself within that which follows, let me cite just one example of the kind of thing being referenced by the questioner above. Robert S. Smith begins an article entitled ‘Belting out the Blues as Believers: The Importance of Singing Lament’ as follows:

‘The contemporary church, by and large, is neither adept nor comfortable with singing lament. One reason for this is that many churches have long ago stopped singing the Psalter. There are exceptions, of course. There are also numerous contemporary songs based on various biblical psalms or parts thereof. But, on closer examination, most of these are drawn from psalms of praise or thanksgiving, not psalms of lament. Furthermore, a decrease in psalm singing has led not simply to a lack of acquaintance with sung lament but to a loss of appetite for it. The chief reason for this, as Bonhoeffer once observed, is that when “read only occasionally, these prayers are too overwhelming in design and power and tend to turn us back to more palatable fare.” Added to this, there are very few contemporary congregational songs of lament. Again, there are exceptions (the Redmans’ “Blessed be Your Name” or Stuart Townend’s “How Long” come to mind), but they really are exceptions. This is in contrast to the balance of the Psalter, where 67 of the 150 psalms are typically categorised as laments—if not in whole, then in part. Finally, the neglect of many traditional “lament hymns” (e.g., “Abide with Me” and “Be Still My Soul”) has meant that the congregational resources for sung lament are negligible indeed. Not surprisingly, this “absence of lament in our life together has reduced to a dearth the speakers of its language”(Bradbury 2007: 11).  

https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/themelios/article/belting-out-the-blues-as-believers-the-importance-of-singing-lament/

Before taking this apart, let’s take a look at Smith’s abstract (for this article):

‘Many churches seem to have lost the art of singing lament. This article urges a recovery of this forgotten practice, firstly, by demonstrating from within the Psalter itself the importance of singing the psalms (including the laments) and setting them to music; secondly, by exploring some of the obstacles to singing in times of distress; thirdly, by examining the way in which lament enables a singing of pain and sorrow; fourthly, by investigating what can be known of the manifold powers of music and song (for proclaiming and recalling God’s word and consoling and uniting God’s people); and, finally, by articulating something of the important relationship between lament and praise.’

A very British – and very ‘academic’ way of responding to the opening sentence of this abstract might be to suggest that it could be seen as a little bit disingenuous to suggest that churches in the 21st century have ‘lost’ the art of singing lament. As absolutely nothing is gained from this sort of tiptoeing round the proverbial mulberry bushes, I wish to categorically assert that not only is this more than disingenuous, but in fact it constitutes a fine example of what I wish to characterise as both a ‘colonised’ and ‘colonising’ concept of ‘lament’. This post is being written from a hotel room in a foreign country (to the one where I currently reside) with extremely dubious Wi-Fi and at the moment it would seem that I have used rather more of my phone data than is usually the case, which means I have to ration it!  This means accessing various files and documents across multiple cloud storage spaces is especially challenging; but downloading anything is even more challenging. Fortunately, this is a blog post and not an academic article being submitted for peer review; notwithstanding, despite the speed at which I am writing and the lacunae in my argument, this post should be taken as evidence that I am serving notice of my intent to continue my campaign against the coruscating imperialism and paternalism of significant trends of thought in both music theology and theological aesthetics.

~

It is not possible to lose what was never there in the first place. If there is a viable argument for the claim that churches in the vanguard of Western Christianity (and at this moment I am not including those populated by enslaved peoples or indentured labourers or any other related constituencies and their descendants) have ever understood what Smith (and others) characterises as ‘the’ (first major problem: is there a defence for the use of a definite article in this context?!) ‘art’ (second major problem: since when is any practice of lament justifiably characterised as any sort of ‘art’?!) of lament, then I would love to hear it. I first encountered this idea that lament should be playing a much greater part in liturgy nearly fifteen years ago at the very beginning of what was my first attempt at doctoral studies (in theology). One of my follow students was a Christian counsellor and raised the topic of lament in one of our two-person group tasks. I had never heard this issue raised, and it certainly struck a chord (pun not intended). Within one year of the conversation I would lose my sister and only sibling and discover that there was more support for me and my family in the ‘secular world’ than in the church. What made the situation worse was the fact that although my church is not constitutionally a ‘b/Black majority church’, by virtue of our membership we are in effect part of the Black Church in the UK and it was a terrible shock to see that people of the same heritage (this may be broad, but that does not mean it is inaccurate) were bringing more grief and pain to my parents (and I) because we chose to manage our grief differently to that which their notional subcultural norms had contrived to be appropriate. How I would have loved to have been able to experience being able to express lament in church; but it turns out that it might just be possible to cry and not be judged in an Anglican church of entirely white members than in the church of a more ‘Evangelical-esque’ persuasion with entirely b/Black members – and of course, no two churches are the same.

Discerning readers may already be suspecting – correctly, as it happens – that the last clause of the previous sentence is in fact a specific reference to a specific situation. I am black, and my fiancée is white. Her journey to Christian faith and acceptance of Jesus as her personal saviour has been genuinely epic, and when she came to the church I attended she found that the expressing of strong emotions did not go down well – and so she stopped coming. Eventually she found a particularly liberal and peculiarly welcoming Anglican congregation where she restarted her Christian journey, and for a long time much of what she did in services was cry.

Or, to use another word: lament.

But this was not the kind of lament expressed by my parents and I as we mourned the death of a daughter and sister. This was a lament for a very long period of deep and profound hurt and brokenness. Devotional writers with significant investment into Christian counselling like John and Stasi Eldredge speak of being ‘undone’ in the presence of God and especially in the context of becoming increasingly aware of how much we human beings are loved. It has only ever been my privilege to be a fully-fledged ‘worship leader’ on a handful of occasions, and it is very likely that I may never experience that particular privilege ever again in my lifetime on this earth. One of those occasions was at a convention with over two thousand people in attendance and (please do not accuse me of virtue signalling; I am just telling you what happened) all too aware of my spiritual shortcomings and my vocal shortcomings (I am not a ‘singer’ despite being a choral director), I undertook a full 48-hour physical food fast prior to that worship service as part of my effort to not go out there and commit spiritual perjury. The time came for worship in song and as I stood in front of a nine-person praise team (and band) that I had rehearsed far beyond their comfort zone and addressed the people, I was overcome with a deep sense of the presence of God and no force of will (despite my fiercest efforts as a Type A masculine type) could stop the tears flowing. Perhaps one third of the congregation were with me. Everyone else (not least the praise team and band) did not quite know what to do, but they came with me anyway and when I found myself changing the set in ways that I have experienced from worship leaders when playing keys, the Holy Spirit kept us together.

Now, of course that was not lament. But it is a simple example of the principle that a church community may struggle with all kinds of deep and profound emotions when personally expressed. And if that is the case, then what are the consequences of this for (a) presuppositions about lament, (b) public discussion about lament and (c) experiencing others expressing lament and/or expressing lament ourselves?

~

Our original questioner (as you will recall) wanted to know ‘how a musical liturgical practice of lament can be more than just “thoughts and prayers”’. An immediate response to this question was as follows:

‘I think…that combining a short, repeated sung lament with visual images can enable truly heartfelt prayer.’

Shortly after this, the original questioner offered the following:

‘More context: “thoughts and prayers” is the common phrase used by public figures in the US when asked about tragedy, violent events and the like.’

~

Since that aforementioned conversation with my fellow theology student, the assertion that lament should play more of a part in liturgy (not just in the context of music) has come up time and time again (I speak of my personal experience). Without exception, those who initiate these conversations and those who participate in them have been white. Part of what has fuelled my growing concern about this plane of thought is the way in which Black Sacred Music forms appear to be consistently taken to be peculiarly emblematic of sorrow and lament, with an ongoing objectification of African-American spirituals having now gotten off the ground in Britain long after this has become an established cultural practice in the US. More often than would be ideal, spirituals and gospel music are conflated. One consequence of this is that there is no coherent musical conversation about precisely how ‘lament’ is to be signified and embodied in the actual sound of music. If one is a sufficiently knowledgeable student of jazz, one knows that in a twelve-bar blues the chords are all major. This can only be confusing if one has bought into the notional idea that ‘major means happy’ and ‘minor means sad’. So the blues are supposed to be sad, but the chords are all major and more to the point, if one wishes to play a quick and easy crowd-pleasing encore at the end of a jazz gig, a seriously up-tempo blues always goes down well. So using these types of short scale linguistic-conceptual clichés is not helping Smith’s cause in this article (‘Belting’ out the blues?! Really?!).

The problems continue, not least with the aforementioned idea that lament can be compressed into anything that is ‘short, sung, repeated’. I do not believe that this was meant by the person who offered this idea, but the consequences of the sentence in question include the fact that ‘lament’ has effectively become domesticated into something that can actually be ‘short’ and ‘repeated’. If lament – and especially congregational, collective lament – could be expressed in the same way as the Kyrie, then one could see how that might work. But whereas it is impossible (if one accepts basic tenets of orthodox Christian theology) to be a human being who is not in need of the mercy and forgiveness of God (which means that no-one could be exempt from the text of the Kyrie), the argument that I hope to advance as time passes (so for now, it is simply a statement) is that if collective, congregational lament in music is to mean something, what would be required is a musical framework that facilitates collective response to whatever it is that constitutes the context for the expression of lament in ways that enables every individual to make their own sense (or otherwise) of that particular moment of collective lament. We cannot all mourn the same situations in the same way, and emphasis on collective lament can only run the risk of erasing the specificities of individual lived experience. If one looks at the examples Smith offers, the problems get worse still. The Redmans’ ‘Blessed Be Your Name’ has not ever been understood – much less sung – as ‘lament’ in any worship service I have ever been in or seen. There are a lot of theological niceties to be processed here: it is a seriously good idea that we spend more time reflecting on what the story of Job tells us in liturgy, but the colonising and totalising madness that appears to be obtaining includes the assumption that there is a necessary relationship between lament and doxology. As a graduate student in conducting I once took on the challenge of perhaps one of the most difficult motets in this entire tradition: Brahms’ Warum ist das Licht gegeben dem Mühseligen? in which, as an interpreter, I argued that Brahms starts with nihilism and ends with the type of hope that can only be possible in the context of doxology. One of the comments in the examiners’ report of the performance was that they had not ever heard such an extraordinary choral noise on the opening two entries (both of which are on the same German word warum, which means ‘why’). At that moment, I had absolutely no interest in some effete and anodyne interpretation of Brahms that, re-inscribing whiteness, would easily gain me acceptance to the higher echelons of the chamber choral music guild. This was all taking place at a time when I realised that I was not ever going to wear a bowtie when I conducted classical music, because the two enduring images of a b/Black man wearing a bowtie were in the context of being either an entertainer (and in this context, dangerously close to minstrelsy) or as a servant. [And for those naysayers who make the mistake of trying to argue that Duke Ellington wore bowties, so that should be good enough for me, I hereby respond as follows: Amiri Baraka (as LeRoi Jones) and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. may have both used the word ‘Negro’ in publications of the previous century, but hell will freeze over before I ever do that willingly.] When I conduct Brahms (and Bach, and Beethoven, and Stravinsky, et al), it is as an act of resistance, not compliance – because the last thing I am doing is trying to assimilate as a member of an ethnic minority community. As Anna Bull (2019) has argued very persuasively, ‘classical’ music has been a very important means for the building of a ‘middle-class self’ (in fact, she might actually go further and say ‘white middle class’ but one can consult the book if needed). When I conduct the opening of Brahms’ Warum I have the slaveships in the notorious ‘Middle Passage’ in mind along with many other images and I am leveraging lament as well as protest, so my gestural language will ensure that that is what the singers communicate.

Should you be wondering where this little excursus into Brahms is going when I just mentioned the Redmans: it is impossible to consider the lyrics of Blessed Be Your Name and not think of the book of Job. And the first scriptural reference in Warum comes from Job. But whereas Brahms goes on a journey with Job through an epic fugue that never ceases to astonish when one understands this sort of musical milieu before gear-changing stylistically as well as textually (i.e. the actual opening narrative remains ‘unresolved’), Blessed Be Your Name has declared its intention to get to doxology at the outset, and so the net effect is that it is possible to gloss over the words of difficulty and ‘rock out’ the chorus. Obviously the bridge (‘You give and you take away’) should have pointed congregations to something more serious, but for all the years I have sung and played this song, it is only now whilst writing this post that I am making this connection. And as such, with my musical aesthetics hat on, I think that the current manner in which many of us are used to singing and playing the song may need to change drastically in order for us to get closer to Job.

Tim Challies tells us that when he and his wife Aileen were planning their wedding, they wanted to have ‘Abide with Me’, but many people told them that it was a ‘funeral song’. It is also a song sung at the start of the final of a massive football (soccer) cup competition in England (not Britain). And it is increasingly sung at weddings. But even if it were to be taken as a funeral song, this would not mean that it was and is de facto a song of ‘lament’. And that is certainly not the primary emotion one thinks of when one learns the story of this hymn’s origins.

~

In short, it seems that at present the only people talking about the importance of lament in liturgy are not the ones who are losing their lives for being Christian in countries where that actually takes place in the 21st century. We could argue that there should indeed be more lament in the Black Church, and ideally this would be distinguished from ‘protest’ whilst also being interrelated. And perhaps collective lament for the consequences of sins could actually be an important way to level the playing field of spiritual hierarchies within certain ecclesial contexts – but this would depend on really robust and well-conceived musical frameworks that were idiomatically on-point in their given contexts (so, for example, the sound of the guitar is not the first thing I would be looking to if I want lament as a black Christian). In my own case, music has indeed afforded the opportunity for lament, but it has been playing jazz very seriously indeed as an improvising instrumental musician that has afforded the greatest opportunity for non-sanitised expression of very dark emotions. The fact that unilateral agreement on what constitutes lament in musical sound is as difficult to achieve as it is suggests that this conversation really needs the best level of thought – and technical insight – that we can bring.

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