The Society of the Fragile and Resilient
A Feature Review of
When Tears Sing:
The Art of Lament in Christian Community
Paperback: Orbis Books, 2020
Buy Now: [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]
Reviewed by Rob O’Lynn
There are times when things just seem to work together. I am fairly confident that when William Blaine-Wallace, the author of When Tears Sing (the subject of this review), typed out the final lines of the manuscript that would become this book on his computer in his Maine study and then later signed the publication contract, that he had no idea what shape the world would be in when his book was released.
How unfortunate that a book about lament in Christian living would come out at a time when the world was in a continual state of lamenting. Or, perhaps, how fortunate.
Blaine-Wallace has played many roles in his long ministry experience. He has been a hospice chaplain, a seminary instructor and campus minister, a pastoral counselor, the rector of the historic Emmanuel Chapel in Boston, and the director of a healthcare organization that developed the first acute inpatient unit for persons suffering from AIDS. As he mentions in this volume, his doctoral work was in grief and grief therapy, and also published a previous volume that is similar in its scope entitled Water in the Wasteland: The Sacraments of Shared Suffering (Cowley Publications, 2003). He certainly approaches this subject as something of an expert, which has been honed over decades of practice.
The central thesis of Blaine-Wallace’s book is that while “we belong to the society of the fragile and resilient, we are often slow to embrace God’s invitation for us to bring the more broken dimensions of ourselves into relation” (xv). He continues outlining his central thesis by saying that our relationship with God invites us “to take leave of the inordinate amount of compensatory activity invested in sustaining a thin wherewithal—the polished veneer of an intact self” (xv). In short, when we look at all that occurs around us, our natural (that being, God-ordained) response should be to collapse into God’s loving and sustaining arms, finding that “rest in Thee” that Augustine prayed about all those years ago. What happens instead, Blaine-Wallace argues, is that we put on a brave face and refuse to appear vulnerable at all costs. It is not that we cognitively ignore the emotional and spiritual scarcity around us. It is, however, that in seeing fully this emotional and spiritual scarcity around us that we grab at whatever we can to find meaning in the moment.
The ideas presented here are not new or ground-breaking, as they have been with us since the scribed penned the Hebrew Bible books of Job, Ecclesiastes and Lamentations, not to mention the poets who penned the various lament psalms in the Psalter. Concepts of death, grief and lament have been central to the work of all the founding scholars of modern psychology, including Freud, Jung and Kierkegaard, as well as modern scholars such as Kubler-Ross, Worden and Becker (who was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize for The Denial of Death). There are shelves of books on this subject from scores of scholars. So what makes this book from Blaine-Wallace different or even needed?
The answer is in the question itself: we need books like When Tears Sing because, despite all the evidence to the contrary, we do not know how to lament, to grieve and to live with our grief. This seems true more now than ever, at least in modern history. In this short 175-page volume, the author invites us to see lament as an essential worker in the Christian experience, one that we must learn from if we are to truly experience God’s wisdom, mercy and love.
There are two chapters that articulate this best. In chapter 1, aptly entitled “Toward Sadness: The Arc of Grief,” Blaine-Wallace does not walk the reader through the oft-trampled ground of the stages of grief. Instead, he introduces the reader to the shared nature—and shared narrative—of lament. As I am often reminded in my work as a minister, a professor and a chaplain, no grief is ever the same. Yet there is a sameness to the narrative, the cycle, of grief and lament. Once we have been through a cycle of lament, we can more readily recognize it in others. Additionally, we are more able to hear the words of lament in scripture, most notably the psalms, and more adept to share these words with others.
In chapter 6, entitled “Choir Rehearsal: Practicing Lament,” the author introduces the reader to a number of practices that aid in the expression of lament—practices such as silence, listening, hospitality and marking absence. It was this final practice, that of “marking absence,” that caught my attention. As one who has conducted more than his fair share of funerals, I have spent a lot of time leading a casket to its final resting place. Blaine-Wallace discusses how events such as walking the casket to the grave serves as part of the lament process, assisting us in marking the absence of the loved one, something that I had never really thought about before.
Overall, this is a solid treatment of lament, both articulating what lament is and demonstrating how to engage in lament. One of the book’s strengths is in its use of stories, showing how lament has played out in Blaine-Wallace’s life. It includes an outline for a lament workshop (complete with guided interview handout; chapter 7) and a case study of a time when the Emmanuel Church experienced a significant congregational lament (chapter 8). While this book does have some concerns, most notably a continual sense of disconnect throughout, it is a much-needed resource as we learn to lament in a way that we never have before.
Rob O'Lynn is Associate Professor of Preaching and Ministry, Director of Graduate Bible Programs, and Dean of the School of Distance and General Education at Kentucky Christian University. He has served congregations in Arkansas, Texas, West Virginia and Kentucky. You can follow him @DrRobOLynn on Twitter or Instagram.