A Time to Weep: Liturgical lament in times of crisis

John D. Witvliet has been appointed assistant professor of worship and music at Calvin College and adjunct professor of worship at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Two future articles will explore the way in which lament can function in the ebb and flow of weekly worship, apart from times of crisis.

Says Witvliet, "I am grateful to Carl Bosma, associate professor of Old Testament at Calvin Theological Seminary, for conversations about this topic, and especially for his discussion of the cycle of prayer involving Psalms 13, 30, and 146."

What happens on Sunday morning in public worship after a young child in your congregation is diagnosed with a terminal illness? Or when an adolescent's extended battle with an eating disorder threatens to rip apart a family? Or when an otherwise upstanding member of the community is shown to be an unrepentant perpetrator of domestic abuse? Or when an earthquake, flood, or tornado wreaks havoc in the lives of fellow worshipers down the street or across the continent? Or when a barrage of suicide bombs threaten to undo peace in the Middle East? That is, what happens in public worship when conventional songs of praise would be nothing more than a bright facade?

These moments are pastorally more crucial for spiritual formation than a full docket of church education programs. And they occur in the life of many congregations with astonishing regularity. How we handle them may say as much about the gospel we proclaim as a year's worth of sermons.

James White is fond of recalling a certain Anglican rector, who, after the onslaught of a decimating flood, prayed the prayerbook as always without alteration. The collect of the day read: "Water your earth, O Lord, in due season." Fortunately it's obvious to most worship leaders that the tragedies that surround us require our sensitive and honest attention in public worship. Injustices must be identified. Enemies must be named. Solidarity with the suffering and deep and soul-searching faith must be expressed.

But how? How can we express our anger, fear, and bewilderment? Let me suggest that we take the biblical psalms as our model. When faced with an utter loss of words and an oversupply of volatile emotions, we best rely not on our own stuttering speech, but on the reliable and profoundly relevant laments of the Hebrew Scriptures.

The Structure of Lament

By proposing the use of biblical laments in crisis situations, I do not mean to suggest we should merely pick out memorable phrases or metaphors from particular texts. For too long we have been content to single out a favorite or convenient verse or to assemble what Hughes Oliphant Old has described as "collages of dismembered psalm verses" for liturgical use, while totally ignoring the structures and contexts by which these verses gain meaning (Leading in Prayer: A Workbook for Worship, Eerdmans, 1995, 55-76).

I am suggesting that we work with the basic psalm forms we have learned to discern, and then, like a jazz soloist who embellishes a musical theme, that we improvise in the context of our particular tragedy. Most fundamentally, we learn how to structure our lament from the structure of the biblical laments:

  • Our lament begins with invocation, a startling confession that even in times of crisis, we approach a personal and accessible God. In lament, we do not recoil from the tension that this presents, a tension that Patrick Miller has described concerning Psalm 22 as "an almost unbearable sense of contradiction between the roaring cry of dereliction and the address that repeatedly insists that the silent, forsaking, distant God is 'my God'" (Miller, They Cried to the Lord, Fortress Press, 1994, 59).
  • Then, our lament freely addresses this personal God through the picturesque gallery of images used in direct address in the psalms. We pray to Yahweh, the rock, the fortress, the hiding place, the bird with encompassing wings. These metaphors are not just theological constructs, but means of directly addressing God. As we pray them, these metaphors shape and reshape how we conceive of God. They hone our image of God with the very tools that God gave us: the biblical texts.
  • Our prayer continues with bold lament. We bring our most intense theological questions right into the sanctuary. In so doing, we learn from the psalms the value of direct discourse. Our pale subjunctives and indirect speech ("We would want to ask you why this might be happening") is transformed to bold and honest address ("How long, O Lord, will you forget me forever?"). Such honesty in its own way comforts the bereaved and expresses solidarity with the wronged. Their questions and protestations are not illegitimate in the life of prayer. Prayer may well feature question marks alongside exclamation points. Honest worship expresses genuine doubt as well as assurance. The psalms teach us that doubt can be expressed as an act of faith, that prayer may include not just pleas for God's help, but even complaints to God concerning injustice and ever-present evil.

We also learn from the psalms that biblical lament comes in many forms. Some lament is directed toward the enemy; some toward God; some is individual and isolated; some is communal and comprehensive. Lament is a response to the full range of problems in the human condition. The psalms specifically name isolation, shame, despair, danger, physical impairment, and death as cause for lament.

  • Then our prayer continues with specific petition: heal us, free us, save us. We express, with Westermann, that "lamentation has no meaning in and of itself," but leads to petition (Praise and Lament in the Psalms, John Knox Press, 1981, 266). In fact, our lament, our petition, and our eventual praise of God fit together like hand and glove. The very attributes for which we praise God are those we invoke in times of need.
  • Finally, our prayer ends with expressions of hope, confidence, and trust, however muted they might be by the present situation. Lament is eschatological prayer. It always looks to the future. It may not be possible to sing praise in times of crisis. Yet the community anticipates praise, even as they yearn for the resolution of the crisis. Praise is the fully expected outcome of crisis and despair.

In this way the form of biblical prayers provides a model for liturgical prayer in times of crisis. If nothing else, we liturgical leaders would do well to reflect on the stunning and artful ways in which psalmic prayers adapt this structure, with a mind to providing the same sort of imagination and resourcefulness in public prayer today. Both carefully written and extemporaneous prayers can rely on this very structure as a prototype or guide.

Bring the Psalms to Life

An even more direct strategy is to pray the psalms themselves. Take a specific psalm of lament, with its extreme and specific language, with its passionate plea and lament against God, and allow it to shape communal prayer. Choose a psalm because it is a fitting match between expression and experience. Choose Psalm 69 for a crisis of shame, 51 for a crisis of guilt, 38 or 41 for medical crises, 88 for times of utter despair, 71 for the afflictions of old age, and 143 for occasions of oppression or victimization. Then bring it to life with imagination and passion.

We might choose to simply pray the psalm as it is, without embellishment, with a deliberate pace that allows the worshiping community to enter into the pathos of the text. Or we might improvise on the psalm text, speaking the words of the psalm, followed by our own very specific application. Consider the following example of a congregation lamenting a case of domestic abuse. The text alternates between Psalm 13 and a pointed prayer written for the specific occasion.

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Lord, our Lord,
we feel forgotten.
This abuse rips apart our faith.
The victim, our sister___, is alone in despair.
How long must this persist?

Consider and answer me, O LORD my God!
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
and my enemy will say, "I have prevailed";
my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.

The perpetrator of this abuse is winning!
Please, Lord, stop him!
We cannot bear to see this fool—
the enemy of our sister, and of us—
believe he is successful.

But I trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the LORD
because he has dealt bountifully with me.

We long to sing praise,
to have our sister begin to sense your goodness again.
For deep down, we trust in your goodness. Amen.

After such a prayer, the community is not likely to read Psalm 13 the same way ever again. Suddenly this ancient prayer has come to life today. And perhaps, by God's grace, the victim will be able to sense that biblical faith, and the God to whom it is directed, is not hostile to her isolation, but rather embraces her pain.

In many critical settings, this rendering of lament will be too hasty. Indeed, one problem in liturgical lament is that we move too quickly, skimming through pithy cries of lament that conceal deep and brooding affictions. Though it is not a final solution, consider expanding this improvisation on a lament psalm so that it encompasses an entire service. Take a full hour to pray through a given psalm of lament, such as Psalm 13. Use silence, quiet hymns, and brief spoken meditations to unpack the meaning of each section of the psalm. (See the following two articles for more on Psalm 13.)

Lament and the Cycle of Prayer

With such prayers of lament, we have only begun the process of prayer on the occasion of crisis. The prayers of the psalms do powerfully express lament. But then they move on, as faith demands, toward praise. What about us? Do we seek to shepherd worshipers over time through disorientation to reorientation, through lament to praise?

Often, we must acknowledge, we leave worshipers behind in lament, hastening too quickly to return to normalcy, to songs and prayers of well-being. Or, conversely, we are content to linger in lament, praying week after week concerning a given crisis with a sense of despair that fails to sense the magnetic pull of Christ-centered hope.

Liturgical prayer in times of crisis is not complete with the expression of lament. Lament is one step on a long journey back toward praise. Thoughtful worship leaders will be eager to lead a congregation slowly but surely from lament to praise over time, all with a specific moment of crisis in mind. And specific lament can and should only be practiced in a congregation with room for specific praise and thanksgiving. If we are to lament with startling specificity, we also need to give praise with startling specificity, with declarative hymns of praise that name particular gifts of God to the worshiping community.

Psalms 13, 30, and 146, taken together, express the full range of the cycle of psalmic prayer. Psalm 13's concluding vow of praise pivots right into Psalm 30's opening expression of praise. And Psalm 30's thanksgiving for specific divine intervention leads right into Psalm 146's language of all-encompassing praise. This pairing suggests creative ways to structure liturgical prayer. Consider three possibilities:

  • First, if you use Psalm 13 with reference to a specific crisis, then look for the pastorally appropriate time (perhaps days, perhaps weeks later) to pray Psalm 30 and then finally Psalm 146 in the same way, improvising on its structure and phraseology.
  • Second, when praying Psalm 30 and then Psalm 146, explicitly recall Psalm 13 as the prayer of the original occasion of crisis.
  • Third, mirror this structure for liturgical prayer in liturgical preaching. Consider a sermon series, perhaps titled—after Calvin—"Anatomy of the Soul," that begins with Psalm 13 and moves to Psalms 30 and then to 146, encompassing disorientation and reorientation, lament and praise. In so doing, consider the goal of such preaching not to solve the problem of evil, but rather to lead worshipers more deeply into these biblical prayers.

Lament in Community

All of this is not to say that every biblical lament is equally suitable to take as a model, nor that this is the only way to lament. Yet this strategy of structuring our liturgical prayer after particular biblical texts, and combinations of texts, has several advantages. First, it provides ample warrant for saying such strident things to God. This reduces the need to provide an elaborate justification for doing so in the context of the liturgy. It gives us permission to do what our religious culture might not permit us to do otherwise. Similar liturgical advice was perhaps best expressed by Richard Baxter more than three centuries ago: "The safest way of composing a Stinted Liturgie is to take it all, or as much as may be, for words as well as matter, out of Holy Scripture." Why? Because "all are satisfied of the infallible truth of Scripture, and the fitness of its expressions, that are not like to be satisfied by man's" (Richard Baxter, Five Disputations of Church Government and Worship, London, 1659, 378).

Second, this practice provides a plumb line to test our pastoral instincts. Walter Brueggemann, following Peter Berger and others, has observed that structured language serves both to enhance and limit our experience of despair (Brueggemann, The Psalms & the Life of Faith, Fortress Press, 1995; see also his article in RW 30, p. 2). For example, the church can help a grieving family by providing language to acknowledge honestly their feeling of helplessness. At the same time, such language provides a limit for that experience. For those who suffer, biblically- shaped liturgical laments convey three important and interwoven themes: their suffering is real, it is spiritually significant, and it is not the last word—all without a theological treatise on the subject.

Third, this strategy provides a structure for guiding genuinely spontaneous prayer. We free-church Protestants should cherish our tradition of extemporaneous prayer. Yet what we consider to be entirely spontaneous prayers are often nothing more than long sequences of cliches. Without structure, we forfeit the possibility of genuine spontaneity—something every jazz soloist knows. The psalms teach us the value of spontaneous prayer. Many psalms clearly arise out of immediate experience and reflect unrestrained expression of guilt, fear, or anger. Yet they also teach us the value of form. Many of the most immediate and personal psalms rely on tried-and-true phrases and structures of speech. Improvising on fitting psalms is one of the simplest ways of judiciously balancing freedom and form.

Fourth, this strategy of structuring liturgical prayer in times of crisis lends integrity to our praise. Brueggemann has spoken about the ambivalence of descriptive praise, the way in which songs of well-being can be smooth cover-ups for wishing to maintain the status quo, for ignoring the cries of the poor. But if songs of praise are sung subsequent to and in full awareness of God's help in time of crisis, they take on a new and powerful integrity.

Fifth, this strategy provides a way for individuals caught up in isolated and lonely struggles with tragedy or injustice to find a voice in a community of worshipers. Lament is often so deeply personal. How can an entire community ever hope to empathize with the isolation and individuality of the victim? Perhaps finally it cannot. Yet praying the psalms in this way may allow, again by God's grace, a particular victim or sufferer to sense an unacknowledged solidarity with women and men of faith who have prayed these canonical prayers through centuries of pain and violence. This is one distinct advantage of the purposeful use of ancient prayers.

Finally, this strategy allows biblical texts to shape us in an immediate and direct way. In such prayer, these texts burrow into our bones, as it were, and become part of our spiritual identity. In this way, we are formed not by a general theology of lament, nor by a vague notion of God's action, but by particular texts. This strategy gives us worshipers, especially suffering worshipers, biblical landmarks to anchor personal prayer and worship. It gives us a place to put a bookmark in our Bibles. It gives us texts to recall at family reunions and anniversary commemorations. This is a tangible gift that thoughtful liturgy can provide in times of crisis.



What happens in public worship when conventional songs of praise would be nothing more than a bright facade?


Liturgies of Lament. J. Frank Henderson. Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1994. Paper. 92 pp. $11.95.

Three sections provide sensitive advice, sample services, and lists of Scripture, prayers, and other texts.

Psalms of Lament. Ann Weems; Foreword by Walter Breuggemann. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995.105 pp. $12.00.

Poet Ann Weems offers fifty of her own personal and poignant psalms of lament "to those who weep" and "to those who weep with those who weep."

Songs in the Night: Inspiring Stories Behind 100 Hymns Born in Trial and Suffering. Henry Gariepy. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996. 254 pp. $18.00.

Many of our best-loved hymns were born in the crucible of trial and suffering. Gariepy vividly describes the biblical, historical, and contemporary circumstances of those who turned their sorrows into song. The thematic structure suggests devotional use.

The Last Journey. John Bell. Chicago: GIA, 1996.

Songs for the Time of Grieving: 16 anthems available separately or in a packet ($13.50), also available on cassette ($9.95) and CD ($15.95); Reflections for the Time of Grieving: 50 pages of prayers, readings, and reflections by John Bell. $15.95.



When a young mother of three young children died in 1988 after a prolonged battle with cancer, our whole church was grieving and in a great deal of pain. We asked the choir to sing stanzas 1 and 5 of "A Congregational Lament" (PsH 576) at her funeral. Many of the choir members had difficulty taking the song on their lips, because the words indicated anger at God. It took some discussions to indicate to them that their anger was legitimate, and that it was a previously unidentified emotion they were feeling during this experience. There were able to work through both their grief and their anger, and sang the song at her funeral.

Since that time we have had several occasions to use the lament at other memorial services. Sometimes we've had the whole congregation speak rather than sing the text. We have found it to be a wholesome expression of lament that people are normally hesitant to take on their lips, but once they do, they find it to be very meaningful.

—Howard Vanderwell

Why, Lord, must evil seem to get its way?
We do confess our sin is deeply shameful;
but now the wicked openly are scornful—
they mock your name and laugh at our dismay.
We know your providential love holds true:
nothing can curse us endlessly with sorrow.
Transform, dear Lord, this damage into good;
show us your glory, hidden by this evil.

Why, Lord must he be sentenced, locked away?
True, he has wronged his neighbor and has failed you.
Yet none of us is innocent and sinless;
only by grace we follow in your way.
We plead: Repair the brokenness we share.
Chastise no more lest it destroy your creatures.
Hear this lament as intercessory prayer,
and speak your powerful word to make us hopeful.

Why, Lord, must she be left to waste away?
Do you not see how painfully she suffers?
Could you not change the curse of this disaster?
Amaze us by your mighty sovereignty.
We plead: Repair the brokenness we share.
Chastise no more lest it destroy your creatures.
Hear this lament as intercessory prayer,
and speak your powerful word to make us hopeful.

Why, Lord, must broken vows cut like a knife?
How can one wedded body break in pieces?
We all have failed at being pure and faithful;
only by grace we keep our solemn vows.
We plead: Repair the brokenness we share.
Chastise no more lest it destroy your creatures.
Hear this lament as intercessory prayer,
and speak your powerful word to make us hopeful.

Why, Lord, did you abruptly take him home?
Could you not wait to summon him before you?
Why must we feel the sting of death's old cruelty?
Come quickly, Lord, do not leave us alone.
We plead: Repair the brokenness we share.
Chastise no more lest it destroy your creatures.
Hear this lament as intercessory prayer,
and speak your powerful word to make us hopeful.

Why, Lord, must any child of yours be hurt?
Does all our pain and sorrow somehow please you? You are a God so jealous for our praises
hear this lament as prayer that fills the earth.
We plead: Repair the brokenness we share.
Chastise no more lest it destroy your creatures.
Hear this lament as intercessory prayer,
and speak your powerful word to make us hopeful.

Text Calvin Seerveld, I986. c 7 986, Calvin Seerveld. Used by permission. Subscribers to RW may reproduce this text for congregational use provided they acknowledge the author and date.

Note: In stanzas 2, 3, and 5 the words he/she and brother/sister are interchangeable; also, they may be substituted for both he and she. Ordinarily, two stanzas will be sung—the first introductory stanza and one other according to the particular need: imprisonment (st. 2), illness (st. 3), divorce (st. 4), untimely death (st. 5), other times of deep hurt (st. 6).

Rev. Dr. John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin University.

Reformed Worship 44 © June 1997, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.