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Lent & Lament

Lent is a season of preparation; 40 days in which we are invited to mark our days not by doing more but by doing less. It’s a season to embrace decrease and the cleansing power of subtraction. It’s a season of repentance, a time when we have an opportunity to change our minds and change direction. We resist this because it’s counter to the most persistent and persuasive voices of our culture. Bombarded by clever commercials every day it’s easy to be persuaded that we need more.  Perhaps we need less . . . and Lent offers us the wisdom of those who have walked the faith journey before us.  Lent helps prepare us for resurrection.

In the John 15 discourse on the vine and the branches Jesus says “. . every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful . .” John 15:2 NIV

For many plants and fruit trees, this is an annual winter ritual. It’s this cutting away that makes room for the new growth that will lead to fruit in the summer and harvest. I don’t know if plants experience this pruning as a ‘pain-free’ process (not likely!) For us humans, pain and suffering is part of all our experiences, whether it’s from careful planned pruning or the careless mistreatment from others that has become so normal in our culture.

If pruning is the prescribed treatment that the gardener uses to restore fruitfulness, I believe that going through a season of subtraction & repentance like Lent is part of God’s prescription for us to be restored to joy. As part of this process we confess the error of our ways and we admit the sadness in our souls that may have come from the mistreatment of others or from our own failures. Acknowledging our sadness is one of the key pathways to joy. One of the reasons for this is the way we as humans work. If we are struggling with some of the more difficult emotions like sadness and grief and we attempt to numb them because they’re not fun and make us uncomfortable we numb joy as well. If we want to experience real joy we need give ourselves permission to experience real grief because you can’t selectively numb emotion[1].

To help us reclaim real joy, and the joy of Easter resurrection that is coming, we need to embrace a Biblical song that is sadly still so rare. I’m talking about the song of lament. Lament is gathering up our pain, our disappointments, our confusion, and bringing that expression to God. I believe He already knows the condition of our fractured heart, but like a good father or mother, he longs for us to trust him enough to share it. Laments are a Biblical way to deal with loss; our culture’s way is through denial and distraction. Denial and distraction lead to alienation and isolation while biblical laments lead to relationship with God and real relationship with others in community. I believe lament is the biblical response to our suffering. Dr. Craig Broyles from TWU in Langley B.C., speaking about the lament psalms said this:

“The petition motif indicates that these psalms seek change and that they are based ultimately on promise, not doubt. They acknowledge that something is wrong and affirm God can put it right.”[2]

Some have likened laments to ‘singing the blues’ and while I get that connection, in my opinion lament is different than the blues, because the focus is on pouring out our hearts to the God who can bring about change.

By never singing laments publically in our worship services we isolate the suffering. When we never sing honest songs of pain, remorse and even anger we make those who suffer feel like something is wrong with them. Perhaps the problem is on our end as leaders. Perhaps it’s us as pastors, priests and worship leaders and any who select songs for our services that are being insensitive to the suffering.

Over the last decade, I have asked this question in worship song leader workshops around the world; ‘How many of your churches have sung a single lament in the last year?’ The answer is consistent: between 0 – 5% can recall a single lament. In case you were curious, a typical church has about 300 song slots in a year, and the Psalms contain 40% lament. If we were singing according to the pattern from the songbook in the heart of the sacred scriptures we would be including over 100 songs of lament per year, but most churches can’t recall a single song of lament. We are shaming and isolating the suffering. Those struggling with confusion and normal human emotions feel like something is wrong with them, when in truth, they are simply dealing with ordinary human feelings and experiences. We need to stop ignoring the emotions of anger, sadness and fear. We need to stop covering over brokenness and weakness and failure. In many churches the leaders believe the only appropriate stories to tell are their stories of victory which can contribute to driving a wedge between the ‘anointed man or woman of God’ and the normal human in the pew. 

We need to repent of the premium we have placed on appearances versus authenticity. We live in a society that is all about image. And the pressure is on all of us to look better and appear like we are always having fun. Think about our Facebook pages and Instagram feeds – they are about presenting the best possible picture of who we are and the amazing life that we have along with the picture-perfect friends we have. These forums are not a good place to share our pain because that’s not what they were designed for. Sadly, many worship services have been influenced with the same culture and that leaves broken, suffering people outside the circle. We are meant to be an alternative. 

If church isn’t for the broken . . . who is it for?

It’s time for us to be courageous in our expression of vulnerability and be leaders in compassion and honesty, and the season of Lent is a perfect time to forge ahead, clearing a trail for those around us, and for those who will come after us.

My hope and prayer is that in this season of Lent, the sound of lament will be heard in our churches, and that will lead us all to the real joy of Easter that is to come.

Brian Doerksen

p.s. Here are a few recommended resources for you to source some songs of lament. One of my favourite groups is a duo called ‘The Brilliance’ from New York. Both of their albums are excellent and contain strong and sing-able songs of a lament. 

Artist: The Brilliance
Albums:   Brother & All Is Not Lost
http://thebrilliancemusic.com 

I’m also part of a band called The SHIYR Poets. We are committed to singing the Psalms in sequence with new folk-rock settings and not editing out the difficult emotions. We are currently working on Volume 3 (Psalms 21 – 30) having already recorded Psalms 1 – 20 which contain a number of laments in Songs For The Journey Volume 1 & 2 www.theshiyrpoets.com

[1] Brené Brown first pointed this idea out in her excellent work on vulnerability.

[2] “Lament, Psalms of,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry & Writings (ed. Tremper Longman III and Peter Enns; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008) 384-99.