Bringing Our Pain to God: Michael Card and Calvin Seerveld on biblical lament in worship

Lament is an essential ingredient of honest faith, but what does biblical lament look or sound like in real congregations? A feature story exploring how Christians can bring their pain to God in worship.

“We were created to live with God in a garden, yet we wake every morning in the desert of a fallen world,” says Michael Card, a singer, songwriter, author, and radio host from Tennessee.

College experiences doused him in the disconnect between what Christians are and what they yearn for. Family divorces, deaths, and 9/11 pushed Michael Card to write and sing about lament.

He says that bringing sorrow and suffering to God in worship must start with the preached word. Such worship works only in community, not isolation. Genuine lament in worship often leads to a healing sense of God’s presence. Card and Calvin Seerveld explored lament together at a worship symposium, attended by Kees van Setten, who shared his ministry of musical lament and reconciliation between Jews and Christians.

Preaching lament

Think of lament as an essential ingredient of honest faith. It’s the deep sense that something is wrong, whether with yourself or the world. Card says he experienced biblical lament in worship years before he used the word lament.

He was in college, studying Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christ the Center with friends and being mentored by the pastor of a black Presbyterian church. Card recalls a sermon in which his mentor went through a list of sins that sounded uncomfortably familiar.

“I’d been very proud of the fact that I hadn’t broken certain commandments. Our pastor sort of took that away. He made you feel the weight of sin and pretty helpless. He said if you’re guilty of this sin and that sin and this sin, then this communion table is for you. There was this big sighing in the congregation. People almost rushed the table. The pastor made us realize that we had absolutely no right coming to that table. Nevertheless, Jesus says come,” Card says.

That corporate experience of contrition and longing for grace struck Card as a “transforming moment.” It led him to write the song “Come to the Table.”

“And it began by the preached word. I really think music is best created as a response to the Word and most often a response to the preached word,” he says.

Though creating music in response to the Bible or a sermon is best, Card more often sees “no linkage at all, not even thematically,” between a service’s worship music and Scripture or sermon. That’s why he helped found www.byfor.org, an online site for creating and sharing “sacred worship art by the church, for the church.”

Sacred sorrow

Lament is larger than feeling sorry that you’ve sinned. It encompasses pain, hurt, confusion, anger, betrayal, despair, and injustice. It goes beyond your personal relationships to consider how all creation groans to be restored to God.

“Jesus understood that lament was the only true response of faith to the brokenness and fallenness of the world. It provides the only trustworthy bridge to God across the deep seismic quaking of our lives,” Card writes in A Sacred Sorrow: Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament.

Like Card, you may recall certain funerals as either dismal or shining examples of lament. The funeral for a relative, whom Card describes as a brilliant doctor, still rankles. “It was all triumphalism. The tears were getting wiped away before anyone had a chance to weep. There was no chance to engage with…this fundamental reality that it’s a fallen world and people get sick and die—and that it hurts,” he says.

Card thinks churches are “embarrassed, almost panicky, that there are situations to which they have no answer. We want to present Jesus as the answer man, and we don’t want Jesus to look bad. And if that’s your theology, Jesus can look very bad at funerals.”

By contrast, he remembers a funeral for a six-year-old girl killed by a drunk driver. Though not many people had known her well, there was a huge turnout in her Missionary Baptist Church. “It was so tragic no one even tried to fix it. The best answer we had was to show up. That’s a big part of lamenting as a church together—basically showing up,” Card says.

In a recent workshop on lament in worship, he quoted from his book The Hidden Face of God: Finding the Missing Door to the Father Through Lament. Card said he’s come to “believe and trust and hope that tears of lament are the missing door, the way into an experience with a God whose depth of compassion we have never imagined.”

Redemptive suffering

On any given Sunday, you may come to church glad, mad, or sad. You’re likely worshiping with people struggling to count their blessings. Meanwhile, it’s certain that somewhere in the world, God’s children are going hungry, falling ill, being persecuted, or denouncing each other from pulpits.

Yet it takes courage, and faith, to move from conceptual agreement that lament belongs in worship to actually groaning with fellow believers. “We’re afraid of other people’s pain. Like Job’s friends, we’re afraid when we don’t have answers. Job doesn’t get any answers for his sufferings, but he gets God,” Card says.

He often uses the Hebrew word hesed to explain how entering into others’ pain can bring us into a shared sense of God’s unfailing love and presence. Worship songs, prayers, liturgies, sermons, visuals, and testimonies can leave room to admit imperfection and weep with those who weep. Such worship lets us drop our masks and bathe in God’s compassion.

At the 2008 Calvin Symposium on Worship, Calvin Seerveld explained that biblical lament is taking Scripture and trying to hear it for our lives. “Some people who’ve been abused may not be able to reconcile or forgive in this lifetime. But they can ask God to set it right, to take their hurt into a larger context to help someone else,” Seerveld said.

Card responded, “I call that redemptive suffering. Lament is not about psychology, about getting things off your chest. It’s about true worship—offering up as a sacrifice your brokenness and pain to God.” In fact, he sees biblical lament as the only way to “reach out to the poor, whom Jesus told us were to be our central concern.”

Calvin Seerveld on Building a Worship Vocabulary of Lament

Put yourself in their shoes. The parents across the church aisle had no comment when reporters turned up at their door. Other church members had plenty to say (though not to those parents) about their son who died in a drug deal gone sour.

Nevertheless, worship proceeds as usual with a twenty-minute praise music set and rousing sermon. And you have no idea how to show solidarity with Christians who feel so solitary in their pain.

It’s a messy situation—variations of which dog every life and church. And it explains why Calvin Seerveld, whenever he can, urges worshipers to build a scriptural vocabulary of lament. When offered in genuine humility and trust, lament in worship need not be the last word.

Building a thesaurus of psalms

As a church elder doing home visits, Seerveld often learned about private troubles. His long academic career includes teaching philosophy and aesthetics, translating Scripture, writing books and songs, and leading worship workshops. “My question has been, rather than talk or gossip about those we worship with, could we sing about it?” Seerveld says.

More than 20 years ago, he wrote “A Congregational Lament,” a hymn that opens with “Why, Lord, must evil seem to get its way?” It’s based on the Genevan tune for Psalm 51 and includes verses referring to imprisonment, illness, divorce, untimely death, and other deep hurts.

After September 11, 2001, when church leaders in the U.S. felt it would be false for worship to ignore the tragedy, many congregations asked Seerveld for permission to use the song. “They needed a song to fit the evil besetting them,” he explained in his Reformed Worship essay “Pain Is a Four-Letter Word.”

During a lament in worship workshop that Seerveld did with musician Michael Card, Seerveld said it takes a largeness of vision to be prepared to lament in worship. One participant asked how churches can “open up worship to genuine lament without making it just another agenda item.”

Seerveld suggested, “Develop an existential love for God’s psalms so pastors, elders, musicians, and people all come to love and live among the psalms. Good ones to start with are psalms 13, 22, 39, 51, 56, and 92. Build up a thesaurus of favorite psalms. They needn’t be the same for every congregation. Let them become part of your worship vocabulary so you have them ready to read or sing when, suddenly, there’s an unexpected tragedy or a soldier comes home in a body bag.

“If people started to sing whole psalms—not just snippets—it would change us. Don’t necessarily do all verses of Psalm 119 on a Sunday, but you could do one stanza a week,” he said.

Building a library of congregational psalms might include:

  • Reading psalms in unison or response or listening to a dramatic reading, perhaps from Seerveld’s Voicing God’s Psalms
  • Searching out or composing tunes with “rough-hewn character” that fit pain and anger
  • Choosing choir anthems such as William Billings’ “David’s Lamentation”
  • Singing stark songs a capella or accompanied by a single recorder or saxophone
  • Preaching on imprecatory psalms so congregations understand difficult passages (e.g. Psalm 137:7 about dashing infants against rocks is a plea for God to end systemic evil because we can’t do it on our own)
  • Incorporating rituals—of confession, pardon, kneeling, prayer, communion, passing the peace, lamenting during Advent and on Good Friday—that help worshipers give and receive comfort

Genuine humility and trust

For all he’s thought about lament, Seerveld hasn’t often experienced it in worship. Memories that still stir him include testimonies heard in African American churches, communion shared with a small circle of Waldensian Christians in Rome, and preaching at the funeral of a younger friend—someone who’d years earlier promised to preach at Seerveld’s funeral.

At that funeral, Seerveld drew words from Psalms, 2 Kings, and the gospels to ask why God let his friend suffer such painful cancer…and how his friend went through the shadow of death certain that the Good Shepherd would not run away.

“I go to services sometimes that feel not in this real world. We need to preach what’s real—the rule of God—not be churchy. Lament has to be genuine, germane, real to circumstances. If you don’t have lament in your publican heart, then don’t make it in your pharisee speech,” he says.

Genuine lament in worship depends on trust. Congregations are full of troubles yet “no one wants to show it. Genuine lament will be scarce till you have close-knit trust with God and brothers and sisters in the Lord. You have to be vulnerable—and the setting has to be ‘tears friendly,’ though not sentimental, pietistic, or weepy,” he explains.

Genuine lament also requires humility. Seerveld thinks it’s often hard for middle-class North Americans to be sensitive to others’ sorrow and pain. The temptation is to ignore “our complicity with the evil in society” and to identify God’s chosen people with the USA, Canada, or nation of Israel.

He urges worship leaders to plan messages and music that “give voice to people with handicaps or silenced women” and avoid acting like “the church or America are powerhouses with all the answers on tap.”

Seerveld especially liked Michael Card’s symposium observations that lament is shaped in the wilderness and that Job’s friends tried to get him to talk about God instead of bringing his frailty and complaint to God in prayer.

Does lament lead to praise?

Biblical lament is not complaint that goes nowhere. It’s the people of God planting seeds of hope in the soil of exasperation and despair, expecting that the Lord will come through in the end.

Seerveld interprets Walter Brueggemann and Michael Card as saying that biblical lament follows a sequence that ends in praise. Seerveld sees lament and praise as more intertwined.

As an example, he recalls serving as homilist for a conference of organists in New York. A Roman Catholic organist played the Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) on the foot pedals while playing the Genevan tune for Psalm 51 on the keys.

“We had people there from two traditions, Catholic and Protestant, and all kinds of backgrounds. I felt that somehow, God’s people with all our sins were coming together saying, ‘Lord there are terrible things in this world that should not be going on.’ Yet this tremendous organ music swept us up in awed praise as well as lament,” Seerveld says.

Musically acknowledging fissures in the body of Christ gave worshipers more gratitude for God’s grace and eagerness for Christ to reconcile the entire cosmos.

Learn More

Buy Michael Card’s books A Sacred Sorrow: Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament and The Hidden Face of God: Finding the Missing Door to the Father Through LamentListen to mp3 song clips from Card’s CD The Hidden Face of God. His recent CD Hymns revives Scripture-based songs of yesteryear.

Being willing to talk about the world’s sorrows heightens appreciation for its joys. This comes through in Calvin Seerveld’s work, ranging from books on art and creativity to Voicing God’s Psalms, and a song about weather. View a brief video clip of Cal Seerveld explaining how and why he translates Scripture.

According to John D. Witvliet in Reformed Worship, lament fits into the Christian year (especially Advent and Good Friday) and patterns of Sunday worship. Lament psalms provide outlines for intercessory prayer.

Plan worship that brings all our emotions to God, including a lament service based on Psalm 13. Want to infuse more Scripture into your liturgies, prayers, and “in between words”? You’ll find practical ideas in The Worship Sourcebook and The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship by John D. Witvliet. 

Bryan Borger, co-owner of Hearts & Minds bookstore, writes thoughtful reviews of recent books on lament. Internet Monk has an interesting blog post on Card, Seerveld, and lament.

Bible versions variously translate David in Psalm 55:17 as coming to God evening, morning, and noon, to complain, lament, murmur, cry out in distress, and moan. Gather your pastoral team and small group leaders to read and discuss Terry L. Smith’s insightful address to social workers on using lament psalms to address grief.

Start a Discussion

Making room for lament in worship:

  • David leaped for joy before the ark of the covenant and poured out praise, anger, and questions in his psalms. Ezra led returned exiles in public mourning. Jesus wept in sorrow and frustration. Paul described his Galatian ministry as being in “the pains of childbirth.” Which emotions are worshipers free (or not) to express in your church?
  • Which ideas or anecdotes in these stories ring true or strike a false note for you?
  • In which parts of your church calendar or weekly order of worship could you most easily make room for lament? What obstacles might you face? Which first steps will you try?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to explore or define types of lament in worship that will strengthen your congregation’s praise?

  • Did you catalog the songs used most often in your worship and pair them with themes from the entire book of psalms, including psalms of lament, confession, or anger? If so, how did you help worshipers understand and process these raw emotions?
  • Which methods—including public Scripture reading, music, sermon discussions, drama, visual arts, renewed sacramental practices—have worked best for designing worship that frees people to drop their masks and share their needs with each other and God?

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