One time, Sara and I were leading worship for a small conference. We had planned a particular early morning session ahead of time - choosing songs, shaping the journey, creating the PowerPoint. But as we arrived to make our final preparations that morning one of the leaders approached us, his face stricken. “Have you seen the news? There has been a bomb in Manchester.” 

What do you do in these situations: carry on as you’ve planned? Re-arrange things to sing even more joyful, happy, hope-filled songs? The same questions can be asked when we are leading for a funeral, or another service where there is a note of sadness, tragedy or disappointment. How do we respond in our gathered worship? What songs can we choose? Is it even appropriate to connect musically to emotions like pain, doubt, anger, hopelessness?

The Bible seems to think so. Pete Scazzero writes that Job gives us a great example of a human expressing grief before God:

“He shouted at God. He prayed wild prayers. He told God exactly what he was feeling. For thirty-five chapters we read who he struggled with God. He doubted. He wept. He wondered where God was and why all this had happened to him. He did not avoid the horror of his predicament but confronted it directly.” Pete Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, (Zondervan, 2014) page 126. 

Of course Job is not alone - look at the book of Lamentations, or the grief of David, Ezekiel or Hagar. If it is songs you are looking for, the book of Psalms is full of laments. Walter Brueggemann writes that in the Psalms:

“The prayer life of the speaker is filled with anger and rawness. There is no attempt to be polite or docile. Psalmic prayer practices no cover-up. Real prayer is being open about the negatives and yielding them to God... they are never yielded unless they be fully expressed.” Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms, (Fortress Press, 1985) page 66.

Brueggemann’s final line sums up the problem I think we face in the modern, Western church - we fail to yield our feelings to God, because we are afraid to express them. We smother them with praise, or smiles, or quoting positive passages of Scripture. And yet the more we press them down, the more they fester inside of us, waiting to come out in inappropriate moments. Healing requires the wound to be given air. Scazzero writes:

“Turning toward our pain is counterintuitive. But in fact, the heart of Christianity is that the way to life is through death, the pathway to resurrection is through crucifixion. Of course, it preaches easier than it lives.” Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, page 123.

Jesus provides the ultimate expression of grief. He cries with Mary at Lazarus’ tomb. He laments for the people of Jerusalem. And he gathers up every experience of anguish on the cross, crying out with Psalm 22 ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

Now you may well agree with a lot of this, but the question remains - how can we include this in our gathered worship? It takes some digging, but there are resources. Helen Bent recently wrote an excellent Grove Booklet called Celebration in Times of Grief and Sorrow, based on her own experiences of losing a child. I have many times turned to the Iona Community book When Grief is Raw for songs and hymns which express a range of emotions around grief and loss. And the Rend Collective song “Weep With Me” is a much needed addition to any contemporary church’s repertoire.

Recently, I have tried to add a couple of songs of my own to resource churches for this. “There’s a Time For Tears” draws on Ecclesiastes 3, Jesus at Lazarus’ tomb and 2 Corinthians 1 to allow space within sung worship to grieve. We can bring our problems into church, we can express them before God and his people. We can show what we’ve tried to hide, and as we do so we can find God drawing alongside us, weeping with us.

The other song, “The Stone” came out of engaging with Easter Saturday. If you enter into the story across Holy Week you find yourself on Saturday with Jesus dead, and not yet resurrected. Living in that tension is painful, and yet it makes sense of so much of our human experience. I intentionally left the lyrics of the song unresolved, with just a glimpse of the resurrection to come.

If you want a song which holds grief and future hope in tension, Joel Payne has released a song called 'O Sisters and Brothers', which grew out of our Resound Worship Songwriting Podcast 12 Song Challenge (see episode 53). We were encouraging each other to write songs for funerals, and he came up with these excellent words:

Though weeping may come in the night
there’ll be joy in the morning,
when the taste of our tears
is replaced with the feast of the Lord,
and our enemy death
is consumed in the blaze of God’s glory,
and our grief will be no more.

Aside from funerals and services following tragedy, it is also possible to press into these themes at other times of the year, such as Lent. Our Worship In The Wilderness Church Pack has a week on Sorrow, with ideas for readings, prayers, sermons, songs and more.

Leading worship with these kinds of songs is not about making everyone feel depressed. It is about creating spaces for people to express themselves honestly before God. As the tears flow in the mourning, so comes joy in the morning.