Wolterstorff: the liturgy & worship of lament [quote]

job-silohetteLast week, I was in Michigan again for my seminary program. Tomorrow I will post some reflections on my time there. Today, I want to offer you this amazing post-length excerpt by Nicholas Wolterstorff from an amazing piece of his called, “Trumpets, Ashes, & Tears” (pdf):

I suggest that there is yet one more thing which the believer experiences in his life of dispersion and which he brings with him to the liturgy….

As we human beings travel through life we experience pain and suffering–in part our own, in part that of others. Some of this pain and suffering is non-innocent suffering; it is punishment for, or the consequence of, moral evil. But not all of it is that.

The suffering of the Israelites in the brickyards of Egypt was not the consequence of their sin, nor was the suffering of the Jews in the camps of Auschwitz. Some of the suffering of our world even resists our seeing it as the counterpart of anyone’s sin–the accidental death of a child, for example.

My question now is this: How does the believer experience such suffering?… Is the suffering of the world also some sort of epiphany of God? Or is our experience of suffering just separate from our experience of God?

There is yet another possibility, a possibility rarely grasped in the Christian tradition and seldom grasped in the tradition of rabbinic Judaism, but present in the Bible. Nowhere has it been better expressed than in Isaiah 63, verse 9. Speaking of lsrael and of God the writer says: “In all their affliction, he was afflicted.” In our afflictions, God is afflicted. Over our suffering, God suffers. Over our mourning, God mourns. Over our weeping, God weeps.

I suggest that what the believer sees in beholding the suffering of the world—the thought makes us tremble, I admit—is no less than the suffering of God. What the believer sees when beholding the rabbi from Nazareth on the cross is not only human blood from sword and thorn and nail, but the tears of God over the wounds of the world.

So the suffering of the world is also an epiphany of God–sometimes of the anger of God and sometimes of the gift of God, but always, I suggest, of the suffering of God. ‘The God who has covenanted himself to humanity suffers over our suffering. The suffering of the world is not to be experienced as just other than God but as the suffering of God.

To this epiphany, how else can we respond than with lament and intercession, crying out “How long, O Lord, how long? Deliver yourself, and us your children.”

As you and I leave our places of dispersion and travel to our assemblies, we carry with us our experiences of the suffering of ourselves and of the world. But most of us do not experience God in this suffering. Most of us do not see it as an epiphany of God. And so, though we bring our experience of suffering to our assemblies, we do not know what to do with it there.

Though praise and confession play large roles in our liturgies, lament plays only a minor role. We skip over those desperate psalms and songs of lament from ancient Israel. And our intercessions, which ought to be grounded in sorrow over the sorrow of the world, give voice at best to muffled cries of pain. The lament, “How long, O Lord?” is scarcely heard.

Though we bring our tears of pain with us to our worship, we don’t know how to cry them there. Tears in the assembly are regarded as liturgical failure. I suggest instead that a liturgy without tears is a failure. We must find a place for lament.


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