Seven years ago, I cheekily asked my pastor at the time for a songwriting challenge. To my surprise, he asked me to write a lament. A lament? I thought to myself. What’s that?
His request sent me on a journey.
Not wanting to admit my ignorance, I googled “how to write a lament” and started learning what I could. I had spent all those years in church worship and had never heard of the word and didn’t understand the practice or the importance of it.
Two years later, I was in a new city, in an Anglican church, where the singing of the Psalms and a set of prayers called the Prayers of the People is common practice. I spent several months observing these traditions, which were foreign to me. The Psalm changed weekly, but we sang the same refrain each Sunday in a particular season. As we sang the Psalms, I noticed the language more acutely than when I had read them. I felt like it was safe to admit that I got angry, sad, and frustrated in the worship space.
During the Prayers of the People, parishioners ask God to intercede in their lives and the lives of others. The prayers were spoken corporately by a lay leader and responses were echoed by the church in chorus. Parishioners extemporaneously offered up intercessions in between petitions, praying for the sick, for recovery from natural disasters around the world, and for racial reconciliation in their communities.
For months I sat, listened, and watched.
Each week this congregation brought forward to God their emotions, pleading for his intervention with an expectation that he would respond. They freely brought their anger, frustration, and sadness during corporate prayer, and the psalms they sang modeled bringing emotions to God in worship.
The Psalms show us how to bring our emotions into worship. Examine Psalm 88:
But I, O LORD, cry to you;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
O LORD, why do you cast my soul away?
Why do you hide your face from me?
Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.
Your wrath has swept over me;
your dreadful assaults destroy me.
They surround me like a flood all day long;
they close in on me together.
You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me;
my companions have become darkness.
Psalm 88 reminds me of a song I wrote years ago for a sermon on David & Bathsheba. Drawing on my own experiences, I sang,
Where are you?
I can’t feel you,
I am empty,
I am alone.
My sin, my pride
Has led me here,
This pit of despair.
Songwriter Wendell Kimbrough says that, “What we don’t bring into worship doesn’t get formed by Jesus. I want to be able to bring my immature anger to church and have it formed and shaped by liturgy… I’m feeling all this stuff, but I don’t know what to do with it. I needed the container of the psalms, the language, to form this anger into something that wasn’t sinful, rebellious, or distant from God.”
We allow our emotions to be formed by Jesus in corporate worship by singing the Psalms and praying intercessions as a corporate body. Lament softens our hearts towards the objects of our prayers and teaches us to grieve with the community. For as Michael Card says, “Until we learn to lament, we have nothing to say to most of the world” (A Sacred Sorrow).
Catherine Miller is a songwriter in Tallahassee, Florida, serving the local church as an organist and pianist in Thomasville, GA. She really started getting into songwriting when she met Henry. Henry writes poetry and Catherine enjoys writing melodies, and the two have collaborated ever since. Catherine is the Online Team Leader for United Adoration.