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Singing Lament in Lent: A Reflection from Bill Speed

I’ve been resistant to Lent this year.  In Lent, as part of the season of repentance, in many Christian traditions individuals “give up” something for Lent.  A food like chocolate or potato chips; a bad habit like gossiping; a trait that hinders you, such as a sense of entitlement or superiority.  Lent is a time to turn: turn ourselves away from distractions and misplaced priorities, turn from the fear and dread and numbness that the world has engendered, turn toward abundant life in covenant with God and one with another.

by Bill Speed on February 24, 2021

I’ve been resistant to Lent this year.  In Lent, as part of the season of repentance, in many Christian traditions individuals “give up” something for Lent.  A food like chocolate or potato chips; a bad habit like gossiping; a trait that hinders you, such as a sense of entitlement or superiority.  Lent is a time to turn: turn ourselves away from distractions and misplaced priorities, turn from the fear and dread and numbness that the world has engendered, turn toward abundant life in covenant with God and one with another.  Yet I’ve found my churlish self crying out “WE’VE GIVEN UP ENOUGH ALREADY.”  We’ve given up smiling at each other, to maintain masked safety.  We’ve given up hugs and handshakes.  We’ve given up eating out at restaurants with friends, to keep our ‘bubble’ intact and to help stop the spread of coronavirus.  We’ve given up worshipping together for months, we’ve given up singing together in choirs, we’ve given up visiting relatives.  We’ve been prohibited from visiting the sick in hospitals, we’ve been prohibited from holding funerals except for immediate family members, we’ve been prohibited from travelling without days of quarantine.  The word ‘quarantine’ comes from the Italian quaranta giorni, literally “a period of 40 days” – the length of time boats were kept from docking in Venice if they were coming from plague-infested countries.  The 40 days of Lenten fasting seems like a quarantine of 40 days on top of our national quarantine.

Normally, for musicians, Lent is a season of duality.  We sing in worship some of anthems that help singer and listener together to enter Lent.  I’d invite you to listen to some of our favorites on this playlist.  There is ancient prophecy of Isaiah, set by Handel in the Messiah: “Surely He hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows! He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him.”  [The choir spends a lot of time rehearsing Handel’s dotted French rhythms and the words’ vowels: American diphthongs don’t work well in Handel.]  The vision of Amos is amplified by composer Ben Allaway to “My soul is a river, winding through a weary land.  Let justice roll down like waters, righteousness like a mighty stream washing o’er a thirsty land.”  The epistle of St. Paul to the Galatians becomes a gospel challenge to us from composer Ben Kornelis: “Let us not become weary in doing good, . . . as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people.”  We pray in song that Jesus join us, using the spiritual setting of David von Kampen: “I want Jesus to walk with me all along my pilgrim journey.”  It’s not only the texts that evoke Lent: there are dissonances to stress in the Handel on the word “wounded”; there are open harmonies in the Allaway and modal scales in the von Kampen that evoke feelings of emptiness, of longing.  Lenten harmonies leave things dissonant or hanging; Christmas music tends to have sprightly rhythms of gloria joy; Easter music tends to be more bold with chords rooted like a firm faith in resurrection.

Surrounded by our normal church calendar, it was easy to be swept right into Lent.  The somber music of Ash Wednesday signals not only the start of Lent but also the start of choral rehearsing of Easter music.  6 Sundays of Lent before the arrival of palms and Hosannas, followed by Holy Week and Easter, 50 days of Easter, then Pentecost.  In last year’s Lent we were shocked by the sudden arrival of the pandemic.  In what seems like a never-ending Lent, our 2020 church calendar was upended as milepost traditions of Easter egg hunts and Advent wreath making and Christmas caroling and imposed ashes were all re-envisioned with rites for a socially-distanced world.  It feels empty to have not sung together as choir and congregation for Easter and Pentecost and Thanksgiving and Advent and Christmas and Epiphany.

Some clergy have preached and tweeted about letting God “make all things new” (Revelation 21) — find new ways to be Christian in pandemic, casting aside old expectations and habits for new ways to love and seek justice and be the church.  Perhaps this is the thing I should give up this Lent: give up my reliance on the normal church calendar, the one where I and the choir anticipated and rehearsed for every worship service a month in advance. Can we consciously choose to embrace this new nebulous calendar?  Not one in which we await the Advent of Holy Immunity, or the Feast of the Vaccination, so that we can return to our old routines, but a true season of Lent that chooses to turn towards God in spite of the hard, barren, silent places lacking congregational hymns and handbell choirs and choral anthems and pot-luck dinners and talking to the preacher in the narthex and milling around in coffee hour.

I’m not able to do that yet, or maybe ever.  In the words of Bonhoeffer, I’m trying to learn (but not yet succeeding) to take this cup of pandemic suffering thankfully and without trembling, knowing that God is with us night and morning, going with us into each new day.  But for now, a time such as Lent, and a time such as 2020-2021, I continue to find solace in the book of Psalms.  Much of the choral literature for Lent is Psalm based, because the Gospel lectionary is mostly narrative stories about Jesus: Jesus and the Samaritan woman, the parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus at the pool of Bethesda, etc.  A full third of the Psalms are laments.  The words evoke the trials of Job, the Israelites in captivity in Egypt, the words “My God, why have you forsaken me?” that Jesus quoted from the cross.  One of the anthems I wanted the choir to sing this year was a contemporary setting of Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and there we wept . . . How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”  The composition by Arvo Pärt, An den Wassen zu Babel, also in the playlist, uses no lyrics, none of the Psalm’s words, only a sung melody of lament.  Music is mystical in this way: like the song and prayer of birds, it can be melody alone.  A tune can make manifest the words we are unable to speak or sing.

I believe that the choir’s favorite Psalm setting, other than our many settings of Psalm 23, might be Psalm 130: “Out of the depths have I called unto you, O God”.  If you listen to John Rutter’s setting of Psalm 130, you feel the lament played by the cello, descending to the lowest note a cello can play.  The basses and altos start a low voice of lament that is echoed and magnified by the tenors and sopranos.  The chords get jagged and dissonant; the dynamics rise to a shouted plea.  But the sopranos turn us from lament to faith, “but there is mercy”.  The important part of the lament psalms is that they move the singer from despair to expressions of trust and then to words of praise.  Psalm 130 moves to “But there is forgiveness with you, O Lord” after the “voice of my complaint”; the psalmist then puts in our mouths “trust in the Lord, for in the Lord there is steadfast love.” The Psalms help us to heal; they remind us that “I have a complaint” is not enough, and we need to find a way to sing “But I have faith; I remember God’s steadfast love.”

Hopefully some of this Lenten music will help you and I begin to turn, to return, to re-member ourselves with God.  Let’s sing our lament, give voice to our 2021 frustration, and then like the psalmist, find a way to remember, in faith, that God is with us in this valley of epidemic, and we shall fear no evil, for God is with us, and surely goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our life.

Bill Speed, 
Director of Music Ministries

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