Healing Through the Lament Psalms
By Richard Bruxvoort Colligan
This article is a multi-media experience. Click on whatever links you desire to experience audio recordings and lyric videos as examples of community lament songs.
In the life of the church, the psalms have always been a deep well of renewal. Most of them are laments.
Wait. Don’t hang up.
I want to make a case why right now the lament psalms might be just what we need to recover, grieve, and heal in this pandemic.
As a composer and liturgist, I’ve been surprised by the psalms. I certainly wasn’t prepared to be immersed in them for the last 18 years. Yet these songs of ancient Israel have become my central spiritual practice and the crux of my vocation. I’m enthralled with them! It may not be too dramatic to say these ancient songs have swelled my heart, wrecked my faith, reconstructed it again, and saved my life.
They’re here for us now as we help our communities navigate one of the most intense global moments of grief many of us have ever witnessed.
Listen to the Music
It may go without saying that the psalms are musical, but it’s worth a pause.
Among the other documents in the Bible— history books, wisdom collections, epistles, gospels, etc.— the psalms are songs. That’s why when they show up in worship we sing them. Merely speaking the psalms is kind of like trying to enjoy Beethoven’s Ninth or Dark Side of the Moon by reading the lyrics. Lovely, but only 14%1 of the intended experience. The full revelation must include the musicality.
It’s possible that as a musician, no one at your church cares about this fact as much as you do. This is part of what you offer in worship planning sessions, you beautiful nerd, you.
You know that music, like life, is in continual motion; it flows through time and sets time. As a result, music is able to represent the human emotional process and engage our whole attention.2 What’s more, for the singing assembly the experience is all at once physical, intellectual, emotional, and social.3 Because singing is a holistic immersion, music has what it takes to integrate lost or injured parts of us.
Lyrically, as you probably know, the laments are about full, courageous lives. Some sing of surviving illness or depression. Many have the intensity of foxhole prayers and courtroom dramas.
Whatever their situations, the psalmists sing of these awful situations like an explorer keeping a field journal, documenting depths of emotion with a nuance of vocabulary that even translates well into English. What a passionate art form! It’s as if the psalmists were enthralled with the long arc bending slowly toward justice, hope slowly breaking through, and the miracle that gratitude can sometimes replace agony.
In this way, laments speak the language of human psychology.
I was in college when I was diagnosed with clinical depression. The worst part was identifying myself as having body chemistry that was off. I struggled to accept that I was deficient in a way that I couldn’t improve. (Thank the Maker for prescription meds, ongoing therapy, loving friends and family, and Monty Python movies).
Psalms 42 and 43 (best read together as one) is the voice of someone speaking gently— maybe shakily— to her life: “Why are you so cast down?” The God of the psalmist’s experience is like a melody in her heart at night and present in memories like mind-films. All the while, what is the palmist’s three-time refrain among all this wondering?: “There is hope in the Living One. I will again praise God.”
For me, psalms like this affirmed my life experience, as intensely emotional as it was. In the company of the psalmists, I discovered the possibility of wholeness and even a path toward it. They showed me my questioning and wondering was faithful, not faithless. The psalms began to train me in resilience.
The Lament Form
Let’s get workshoppy for a moment.
The lament psalms follow a formula by which you can you can set your clock. Just like the literature of poetry has haiku, limericks, and sonnets— each with their distinctive conventions of rhyme, meter, syllable count, line number— lament psalms move through a predictable pattern. That’s what makes them a dependable meeting place for healing, and why it can be a spiritual practice to immerse in them.
Every psalms scholar has their own way to describe this formula. The last ten years, I’ve been teaching the form thusly:
1 Salutation (how God is named)
2 The Trouble (e.g.: illness, endangered livelihood, threat of enemies)
3 The Big Ask (what the psalmist wants God to do)
4 Declaration of Trust (remembering God’s help in the past)
5 Promise of Praise (imagining a lovely future)
You’re a church musician thinking that people in the pews don’t know this. True: often the lectionary carves up the texts, so it’s impossible to see the whole arc of the literature.
You’re thinking your congregation don’t care about this stuff. Could be, but education energizes proclamation and spiritual formation.
Psalm 13 is a great example of the lament formula because it’s concise and orderly. Watch the data points as the formula unfolds.
To the leader. A Psalm marked for David.
1 How long, O Living One? (SALUTATION: an address to trusted authority)
Will you forget me forever?
2 How long must my life bear such pain,
3 Consider and answer me, our covenant God!
4 and my enemy will claim victory;
5 But I have been trusting in your unfailing love; (DECLARATION OF TRUST)
6 I will sing to our covenant God,
Every lament psalm but one (Psalm 88) follows this pattern: desolation to praise, with some complicated stuff in between.
Listen. What would happen to us if we immersed in this kind of prayer?
What Would Happen To Us?
A balanced musical/liturgical diet that includes lament will shape us over our lifetimes. Imagine a community being formed through the music of the psalms:
What has your community been singing this past year that’s been most helpful?
The global pandemic has meant deep change. Navigating the losses has brought grief on a scale unknown to many of us. As individuals, communities and wider society, we have experienced illness and death plus their out-rippling effects on financial, social and mental health.
Models of grief include shock, pain, guilt, anger, bargaining, depression, languish, reconstruction, processing new possibilities, acceptance, and hope.5 Probably lots more. The lament psalms can help us name these complex experiences for ourselves and witness them for one another.
A song like, “Listen to My Sighing” (Psalm 5)" invites comfort for times of longing. As a three-part chant, each of the three lines is a prayer to be voiced as we hear the other two.
The effect, I hope, is to surround one another with the sound of a caring community.
Wait and Hope
Yachal (yah-CHALL) is one of my favorite Hebrew words. It is usually translated into English as Wait or Hope.
It means both, plus a healthy dose of Stay: Something is ripening here that is worth the wait.
Feel it? How resistant our society is to this idea?
Yachal might be the medicine we need to share with each other right now: hang in there, endure, be patient.
Here’s one version we’ve been singing:
The best way I’ve come to understand this kind of waiting/hoping is like a pregnancy.
Pandemic time is longer-than-we-want time of joyful anticipation. But also marked with transformation of body and mind that brings natural disorientation and reorientation by the time the term is up.
The theme of waiting and hoping might be a central well for us in these days. What else can we do?
Psalms like 25, 27, 31, 33, 37, 38, 40, 62, 69, 130, 131, and 147 all use this term or its sibling, qavah (kah-VAH). Drop this article right now and look up your congregational repertoire for any of these psalms (I mean, if you want. Sorry to be bossy). Sprinkle them through the summer.
Here are two songs for Psalm 130 in different styles— one groovy, one meditative. The slow, soft one goes: [Listen here]
When I lead workshops around the laments, sooner of later some brave person will raise a tentative hand and ask some version of: “But the laments are just so sad. If our church isn’t feeling it, do we have to sing them?”
And I smile, look them in the eyes and softly say, “Of course you do.”
Almost always we’re not singing only for ourselves. In community— remember singing together as an assembly?— we’re singing for one another. Your voice is both an affirmation of the reality of the blues and a proclamation of hope that your neighbor needs to hear. And we sing, engaged with a world full of goodness, but also torn with desolation. Dare we join Jesus in his Psalm 22 prayer from the cross?: “My God, why have you abandoned me?” Practicing solidarity with compassion and justice. Hear “My God, O My God” (Psalm 22)
Amid the pandemic, Walter Brueggemann has called on the church to be witness to the persistent, tenacious solidarity of God amid suffering— not to merely look on the bright side, but to acknowledge grief as a normal process that is framed by hope and healing.6
The psalms consistently narrate the faithful life as a full-range experience of joy, suffering and wonder. Just as suffering is normative in the psalms, so is the movement of human experience toward hope and goodness.
What To Sing
Design a balanced diet for your community, with at least one lament at each gathering to balance praise. Liturgical theologian Don Saliers writes that liturgy cannot function without the full emotional range that laments helps establish.7 As high as our praise is, that’s how deep our lament should be.
This week maybe it’s engaging a prayer like,
"Hear my cry, O God. Listen to my prayer" from Psalm 61.
Next week it’s singing “Our God, our help in ages past / Our hope for years to come,” Alan Watts’ paraphrase of Psalm 91.
Also, you could do worse than a moment with Psalm 23 every week of the summer. To name the realities of provision and blessing among death, fear, and evil is what some of us need most. Just because it’s the most well-known bit of the whole Bible doesn’t mean it isn’t brilliant. Ha!
Sing and Heal
In closing, consider that inviting the assembly into psalmic lament is a mode of pastoral care. With the engagement in musical beauty, the community proclaims hope— a mode of resistance to any voice that looks on our experience with simplicity and says, “get over it.”
Sing the lament psalms. Let your community hear the intensity of the movements. Pray together the psalmists’ outrage and worry curving into joy.
Invite all the feels, all the wonderings. Like the blues tradition, it feels good to voice out loud how bad it’s been. Even better when it’s witnessed by others. To sing the psalms’ holy blues as a worshipping assembly is nothing less than identifying with the Christ story.
Thank God for your presence and leadership right now. ■
Richard Bruxvoort Colligan is Cantor of Olive Branch Community in Rochester, MN and a freelance composer focused on community songs for the psalms. He is not ordained by choice and by call, and lives in Strawberry Point, Iowa with his family. M.A. Theology and the Arts, United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. He is currently completing his DMin via Eden Seminary with a research study about processing pandemic experiences in small groups with the lament psalms.
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