Sightings in Christian Music

by Glen Wiberg

In a recent issue of Pietisten I described a Service of Lament I was asked to lead on the evening of 9/11, remembering the hundreds who perished in the Twin Towers. Because of the resources in the Covenant Hymnal; I was grateful for the inclusion of Psalms of Lament, prayers and hymns of lament.

In the journal Liturgy, David Bjorlin, a recent graduate of North Park Seminary who plans to do further graduate study in liturgics, shared with me a remarkable, insightful essay on The Courage to Lament: An Analysis of Mainline Hymnody.

While Bjorlin gives high water marks for the Covenant Hymnal for how lament is offered through the Psalter and written prayers, he concludes that “true lament proved lacking in hymns.”

“Most hymns that were labeled hymns of lament focused on worshipers’ sinfulness or…the assurance of God’s faithfulness. While there is no doubt that lamenting one’s sinfulness and remembering God’s faithfulness are necessary themes in hymnody, the hymnal does not offer the type of lament that is so prevalent within the Psalter.”

Bjorlin wants to discover whether this lack of hymnic lament is simply an Evangelical phenomenon or if it represents a wider absence of lament within mainline Protestant hymnody. As one who in long stretches has joined the psalmists in lamenting my own losses before the face of God, my counsel to Bjorlin has been: don’t be too literal or critical of hymnody, for many of its composers have found at the bottom of their own personal laments and losses an expression and witness of enduring faith. For me, the joining of Bible and hymnal, lament and praise has been of greatest comfort — in finding my way from doubt to faith, from despair to hope.

I am so glad in his conclusion that David mentions the hymns of Lina Sandell. Out of her illness and family tragedy with its loss there was something close to lamenting in a way fitting of the Psalms. In a lovely way he speaks of her hymn “Hide Not Your Face,” with poetic grace and brazen honesty.

Hide not your face, O my Savior be near me
Comfort and bless—while I pray, you will hear me?
Blessed Redeemer, my Savior and Comforter,
Are you coming soon? Are you coming soon?
Still far removed from my homeland I wander;
Here but a pilgrim and stranger, I ponder.
While you now tarry? my path would you brighten;
Sorrows and cares of my heart would you lighten?
Grant then, O Lord, that I fear and adore you;
Humbly in spirit I bow down before you.
Help me the burden to bear you have given;
Give me at last, Lord, a crown in your heaven.
— Hymn 769

Blest are those who have the courage to lament and still believe!