When Tears Sing (William Blaine-Wallace) -- A Review

WHEN TEARS SING: The Art of Lament in Christian community. By William Blaine-Wallace. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2020. Xxxvi + 179 pages.

We don't do lament well. That is the analysis of North American Christianity offered by William Blaine-Wallace. He is probably correct in that analysis. We prefer positive to negative talk. We believe in the power of positive thinking and American exceptionalism. Lament requires introspection, and we’d rather not do much of that. Even funerals have become celebrations of life. We leave little room for tears and encourage those who grieve to get on with life. Yet, tears are often needed, especially, in the church. If we don't understand this to be true then we might pay attention to Scripture itself, for the Psalms are filled with laments. We don’t do lament well because we’ve been led to believe that we should be self-sufficient and resilient. It’s to this church built on the principles of self-sufficiency and positive thinking that William Blaine-Wallace offers a "spirituality of tears.” This spirituality requires us to embrace both community and vulnerability.

As I read this book the world had entered into a season of anxiety and uncertainty due to a global pandemic that had shut down much of society and led to deaths in the tens of thousands (As I write this review a month after finishing reading the book, we’re still in the midst of the pandemic). We’re not equipped to handle a situation like this, but perhaps a “spirituality of tears” can help us make our way through this difficult time. The pandemic has revealed to us a need to grieve and to cry out in lament for those whose lives are lost, whether friends, family, or even strangers. So a book like this appears at just the right moment.

The author of When Tears Sing, William Blaine-Wallace, is an Episcopal priest and pastoral counselor who has served at times as a parish priest, but also as director of several hospice sites, especially those serving those who were dying of HIV-AIDS at the height of the AIDS epidemic. He has also had experience serving in other mental health contexts. It is out of those experiences that he writes this book.

While he writes as a pastoral counselor when it comes to lament, he suggests that this "is more about how the flock, embedded in life-the-way-it-really-is, gathers for one another, and how such a convivial spirit blesses the world. Pastoral care attends to those who mourn. Lament is the passion that emerges between the mournful Lament is born in the space between" (p. xxv). In other words, lament is something experienced in community, and thus it is different from solitary wailing.

Blaine-Wallace divides the book's chapters into two parts. Part I is titled "Coming Together." In the four chapters of this section of the book, Blaine-Wallace invites us to consider the nature of grief and its relationship to lament. In other words, grief is the starting point, which leads to lament. From there he speaks of a "five-phase trajectory of lament.” This moves from wailing to lament to solidarity to joy, and then finally to justice. He notes here that lament requires witnesses—it is not something done in solitude. The hope is that it leads to transformation. As a Christian, the author wants to make sure we understand the role Jesus plays in this process, and in doing so he explores the nature of the cross and its message. The final chapter in Part I follows Jesus' cry of lament to the one who hears the lament. The one who hears, he reminds us, is God. Blaine-Wallace reminds us that the one who hears is the God who suffers with Jesus and with us. In other words, God shares in our lament, and not from a distance. 

Part II speaks to "Going On Together." Whereas Blaine-Wallace laid out the theological, ecclesiological, psychological, and sociological foundations of lament in Part I, in Part II the focus is placed on application. He begins in chapter 5 exploring how we can keep "open and engaged with the world" when all is not right with the world. In this context he points us to the prayers of the tortured and the martyrs, suggesting that “these prayer partners may teach us to rant and judge less, may empower us to name and address the ways we embody fear, repulsion, and dread. They may teach us to be better witnesses” (p. 99). From there he offers seven dynamics of lament-based relation. These include silence, listening, alterity (experiencing otherness), hospitality, reiteration (repeating the story), marking absence, and curiosity (asking questions that matter). In chapter seven Blaine-Wallace introduces what he calls the witnessing process. This is a process that he believes will aid communities, including congregations, to share in the process of lament leading to transformation. They are intended to create space for healing to take place. This process can be used in several ways, that can bring change and transformation and healing. The final chapter of the book invites us to consider the history of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Boston, which the author once served. He uses the history of the congregation as an example of a congregation that has had as its heart from inception in the nineteenth century a lamentational context. This includes the creation of groups in the church to share in lament and healing without professional help.

Altogether this is a book that helps us move beyond self-sufficiency to the recognition that healing comes in the context of community. This is not a theology of success that so dominates our culture. But we need to hear that it is okay to grieve and lament, even as we remember that God is with us in this process. Indeed, as he writes in the closing sentences, “Church is about relation, lamentational relation, among God and neighbor. God and neighbor, neighbor and God. Pray it both ways, as a litany, over and over. The distinction between them dissolves” (p. 169). This is a word to be heard in difficult times and not so difficult times. We may still struggle with lament, but Blaine-Wallace is a skillful guide for us as we engage in this struggle.


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