Thursday, August 02, 2018

Permission to Lament

Earlier this year, a band called Bad Wolves released a cover version of the song "Zombie," which was written and originally recorded by The Cranberries in 1993.

The Cranberries' lead singer, Delores O'Riordan, wrote the song in response to a bombing in Warrington, England which killed two children. The band is from Limerick, Ireland, so this tragedy was very dear to them having taken place so close to home. The song expresses O'Riordan's feelings of sadness, anger, and protest in response to this act of violence.

The Bad Wolves version retains the core spirit of the song, with a few slight updates. You can listen below:

This is probably not a song that you'd put on when sitting down to dinner. Or when you're hosting a cookout or big family gathering in your backyard, it's unlikely that someone would say, "Hey, put on 'Zombie!'" Due to its jarring, angry tone, you might not think that that would be the right time and place for such a song.

But there are other times and places when it'd be exactly what you might need.

To state the obvious, there are plenty of songs in the world that aren't very uplifting or joyful. Even if the music seems to be so, a closer listen to the lyrics might indicate darker themes. Many songs have been borne out of heartbreak, loss, despair, loneliness, or indignance. They express sadness or anger about personal issues or about injustice in the world. They're songs that acknowledge that life isn't just a series of jumping from one happy moment to the next. Rather, they give voice to those other moments. And the power of music in general is that they can help name those thoughts and feelings as we experience them.

The Bible has plenty of songs like these, too. Take, for instance, this snippet from the third chapter of Lamentations:
I am one who has seen affliction under the rod of God’s wrath; he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; against me alone he turns his hand, again and again, all day long. He has made my flesh and my skin waste away, and broken my bones; he has besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation; he has made me sit in darkness like the dead of long ago. He has walled me about so that I cannot escape; he has put heavy chains on me; though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer; he has blocked my ways with hewn stones, he has made my paths crooked. He is a bear lying in wait for me, a lion in hiding; he led me off my way and tore me to pieces; he has made me desolate; he bent his bow and set me as a mark for his arrow. He shot into my vitals the arrows of his quiver; I have become the laughingstock of all my people, the object of their taunt-songs all day long. He has filled me with bitterness, he has sated me with wormwood. He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes; my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, “Gone is my glory, and all that I had hoped for from the Lord.” The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall! My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me. - Lamentations 3:1-20
The prevailing theory about Lamentations is that it was written by the prophet Jeremiah, who hardly ever seemed to like his job. In the book bearing his name he is constantly asking God if he can stop doing what he's doing, because he so often is charged with bringing bad news to the people. His overall message is one of judgement, repentance, and calling out unfaithfulness, and to nobody's surprise, it didn't make him many friends.

We hear that in the above verses when he says things like, "I have become the laughingstock of all my people, the object of their taunt-songs all day long." He sings this song of despair, naming his feelings of affliction and wallowing in darkness. He says he's filled with bitterness and that his soul is bereft of peace.

This song echoes those of others that we find throughout scripture. There are many other instances when various writers and characters voice their own objections to their situations, and question how or whether God is present or cares. We hear it from Abraham, Moses, Job, some of the psalms, and even from Jesus. They had no intentions of holding back when voicing their thoughts and feelings to God about their anger or emptiness.

And the thing about passages like this is that they also knew they have permission to sing such songs. God could take it, and still can. Passages like these serve as signals to us that receives our prayers and songs of lament just as much as those of joy. Our times of grief and sorrow are just as important to God as those happy times.

When writing about her story of conversion to Christian faith, author Anne Lamott describes it as more of a process. After a long struggle with addiction and self-doubt, she slowly begins asking spiritual questions, even popping into worship services every so often. She even sets a meeting to talk to a pastor. 

During this time of questioning, Lamott describes a feeling of a presence in her home and following her around. She likens it to a stray cat tailing her, following her home, where she knows that if she sets out a saucer of milk, it's never going to leave. She resists welcoming this presence in, because it's too strange for her to do so.

Then she finds herself in the back pew of a church yet again, hungover, not really getting anything out of the music or sermon, wondering why she even showed up. Then during the last hymn, something comes over her. She doesn't even name what the hymn is, but there's something about the way the music soars and lifts and the emotions of her fellow churchgoers as they sing that causes her to rush home, open the door, and rather unceremoniously say, "I can come in."

After the verse quoted above in Lamentations 3, Jeremiah's tone shifts:
But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” - Lamentations 3:21-24
In times of lament and anguish, God's steadfast love is still present. We may not always realize it, or acknowledge it, or even want it around. But it nevertheless follows us around, waiting to be let in, and in fact is already in, granting permission to express ourselves fully even in times of struggle and heartache.

We may not always need to sing a song like that, but we can when we do.

(Image via Pixabay)