Posted in reflections

When happy-clappy just won’t do

Weeping JesusBill and Gloria Gaither’s hymn, “Because He Lives,” affirms Christian faith in a powerful way. Other Gaither songs (mercifully) have faded into obscurity, ditties like “Happiness” –

I found happiness.

I found peace of mind.

I found the joy of living,

Perfect love sublime!

I found real contentment, happy living in accord.

I found happiness all the time, wonderful peace of mind, since I found the Lord.

The beloved composers from Alexandria, Indiana have written some amazing songs, but let’s be honest: This isn’t one of them. To assert that embracing Christian faith gives us “happiness all the time,” removing sadness from the believer’s experience, is theological quackery. Two events that made me decidedly unhappy this week were terrorist attacks in Paris and northeast Nigeria, the senseless toll of lives brutally snuffed-out surpassing 2,000. A third saddening occurrence didn’t make the news, but it was important to those who knew her. Karen (38), a loving wife and mother of three, succumbed to cancer after a prolonged, heroic fight. She was a teen in the Missouri church where I pastored. She had so much to live for! Really, God?

The "Minnestota Mission," Sedalia Church of the Nazarene, summer 1992. Karen is the third girl from the right.
The “Minnesota Mission,” Sedalia Church of the Nazarene, summer 1992. Karen is the third girl from the right, standing.

At times of grief, we don’t need another happy-clappy song to make us feel guilty for crying. For times like this, we need lament, the words of King David grieving over his slain son, Absalom:

The king was shaken. He went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went, he said: “O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33, NIV)

Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656) set this biblical text to choral music. As a tenor in the A Capella Choir at Eastern Nazarene College, the song never failed to move me. (Click here for to a moving rendition of the piece with a beautiful montage).

Ecclesiastes 3:4 reminds us that there is a time to weep. But apart from funerals – which these days are as likely to be called a “celebration of life,” further discouraging tears – do we allow lament as one of the languages of our Christian worship?

untitledIn his book, Worshipping Trinity: Coming Back to the Heart of Worship (Wipf & Stock, 2012), Robin Parry devoted chapter 9 to the topic of lament. Unpacking Romans 8:17-25, he notes (p. 140) that by “groaning in the Spirit,” we:

1. Express our “sorrow, pain and frustration at the current state of affairs”;

2. Signal our “expectation for a better future”;

3. Intercede, which is “simultaneously a prayer to God for new creation.”

Parry observed: “So the story of the church and of creation is darkness now but light to come – a story already played out in the life of Jesus” (p. 139). Yet much like Holy Week, are we sometimes on Dark Saturday tempted to fast-forward to the Resurrection?

Don’t do it. To heal, we need lament!

We need to give one another permission to feel the deep, searing pain of loved ones ripped away from us, just like Jesus was snatched from the disciples and laid lifeless in a damp tomb. And while it’s understandable that most of what we sing on Sunday morning is upbeat, positive praise addressed to God, is there not a place for worship music that says: “God, this hurts so bad”?

These reflections began with a critique of Bill and Gloria Gaither’s song, “Happiness.” To their credit, they wrote a more authentic song entitled “I believe, help thou my unbelief.” Make no mistake: This is a lament, a desperate desire to hold on to Christian faith even in our darkest moments. It doesn’t tie things up in a nice little bow, and so in the same spirit, I leave the reader with no tidy conclusion, only this song.


Image credits:

1) Weeping Jesus: Sadlier

2) Worshipping Trinity: Wipf & Stock



Greg is interested in many topics, including theology, philosophy, and science.

2 thoughts on “When happy-clappy just won’t do

  1. Thank you Greg for this week’s thoughts. I like to add that one of the French Police Officer’s was killed in that attack in France and a little know domestic terrorism in Colorado where a NAACP office was bombed. Yes, I am reminded of Michael Card who spoke at NTS and shared that we do not know how to Lament which leads to a lousy celebration later because out of our laments, we are able to celebrate authentically.

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