You know one of the best songs ever recorded? ‘Hurt‘ by Johnny Cash. In it you can hear every regret, every mistake, every sin of an old man as they eat away at him. It’s devastating, and it rips your heart out every time, but the world’s better place him having recorded it. Sometimes we need the sad songs. ‘I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing‘ is fine, but Billie Holiday needed to record ‘Strange Fruit‘; the darker shades of human experience need expression too.
So why does no-one ever preach on Lamentations?
I mean, if we need to give voice to our less pleasant circumstances, Lamentations has to be the archetype – Jerusalem destroyed, most of the population dragged into exile, the remainder wracked with survivor’s guilt and driven to cannibalism. As an expression of grief, shock, fear and despair it’s hard to beat. There are slivers of hope in there, but on the whole, things are pretty grim.
And yet there it is, in the Bible. I’ve been going to church all my life and I don’t ever recall hearing a sermon about despair, don’t ever recall singing a sad song that wasn’t about the crucifixion, but here in the Bible are five chapters of people dealing with the fallout of a community torn apart. It’s not spaceship religion, it’s the heart cry of a faithful man witnessing his fellow survivors starving in the streets.
It’s 9-11. It’s the Blitz. It’s the Holocaust.
If faith is to be real it has to be able to confront catastrophe. That’s why Lamentations is important – it gives voice to the things we’re too scared to say out loud. I mean, I haven’t had my hometown invaded, looted and pillaged, but look at the following verse:
“You have covered yourself with a cloud so that no prayer can get through.”
I’ve certainly felt like that at times. I bet I’m not the only one. It’s not something we get to say that often, because we think we need to be living the triumphant Christian life, and because sometimes the biggest lie we tell in church is “Yeah, I’m okay”. But the shadow is still there and it needs to be confronted, which can be difficult because sometimes I struggle to confront an overgrown lawn. But I know from experience that bottling things up can be dangerous – better to offer them to God.
Yes, even when God’s the one you’re angry with. He can take it.
That’s why there are frankly messed up passages in the Bible, like Psalm 137 and it’s desire to see the babies of the writer’s enemies smashed against rocks. No-one’s suggesting that this is a good thing – it’s really not – but that’s one of the purposes of art, poetry, to work through the labyrinths of life and find a ‘safe’ way to express them. Here’s a Psalm that starts off as ‘By the Rivers of Babylon‘ and ends up a hardcore metal track. And that’s fine, because sometimes life’s like that.
I heard a quote recently – “All worship bands should have a break-up song”. Because sometimes we need to corporately express sorrow and anger and despair, express them and work through them and find a way to God in the midst of them.
We need more sad songs to help us see the hope behind them.