Brief Book Review: When Tears Sing

When Tears Sing: The Art of Lament in Christian Community
By William Blaine-Wallace

Who’s it for? This book is for those who have abandoned the illusion of sufficiency and face into “life-as-it-really is” as vulnerable and often wounded and suffering human beings. As those who suffer lean into the patterns of lament in a listening community of relationships, they learn to trust and testify to their own experience and to bear witness to the suffering of others.

What’s the main point? Human experience is relational. We are not meant to bear suffering alone. We have responsibility to care for the well-being, sorrow, and pain of family, friends, and neighbors. Most of us are ill-equipped to help each other find a path that leads from wailing and grief, through lament and solidarity, to joy and justice. Blaine-Wallace uses his experience to help us find a way.

Why does it matter? The healthcare industry, the therapeutic counseling business, and especially the church fails to listen to, care for, and address the suffering of people in their care. Much healing work is left undone by professional caring systems and congregations because facing suffering does not fit into the accepted narratives or models of health.

Why is this book practical? Blaine-Wallace distills seven relational qualities that characterize the quality of presence that can invite lament to be openly shared. He offers the outline of a relationship-based witnessing process that engages individuals and groups in honest listening to the testimony of one who suffers or whose experience is silenced. That promises to change everyone’s understanding and capacity to respond.

What will get you (the reader) thinking? This book is an invitation to consider the qualities, disciplines, and processes that you and your community could cultivate to listen to, learn from, bear witness to, and be present with anyone who wails, grieves, and laments in hope of finding new life.

Kudos. Blaine-Wallace combined elements of memoir from his over 30 years of ministry, theoretical framing, and theological reflection to show us what he learned about being in relationship with people in the midst of profound suffering. He learned the humility and honesty that comes from discovering that there are no rescue plans, no therapeutic agendas, no treasure trove of wisdom that would relieve the pain of the human beings in front of him. He learned he had only himself and his commitment to be present in relationship with those who suffer.

Two contributions in this book emerged from the ten-year period that Blaine-Wallace dismantled his theological framework and eventually embraced faith in a cruciform God. 1) God suffered with Jesus in his suffering, as a human parent suffers when their children suffer. God went crazy in that suffering, rending the veil of the temple. Yet, through that suffering, God, who saw Jesus and sees us in our pain and vulnerability, showed us the way to be in radical, loving, and enduring relationship with those who suffer.  2) Faith-filled ecclesial relationships play a significant role in supporting those who suffer by helping them lament and then find their way – in their own time – from the shadow of death to the shadow of paradise and hope.

Applications and implications. Individuals, small groups, and congregations can become competent in the process of bearing witness by placing the testimony of the sufferer in the center of their care. They can learn to practice humility and curiosity in their conversations, continually learn from the testimony of those who suffer, and be fully present to the testifier who is journeying to new life.

Becoming a witness in relationship with a suffering person can result in more patience, more ease with others’ tears and our own, more curiosity, less judgment, more learning, more humility, more honesty, more openheartedness, and more faith to live life-as-it-really-is. Witnesses must be prepared to change in heart, mind, and spirit ways that they cannot begin to imagine.

Suggestions. Read this book through the first time carefully. Take notes. Underline statements, turns of phrase, metaphors, or images that stick out for you. Then read the book, or most sections of the book, again. Blaine-Wallace’s themes and images reecho through the text; their significance compounds as they reappear in different chapters. The book asks us to absorb its wisdom slowly, letting it settle in – much the same way we would bear witness to anyone who testifies in tears about the sorrow, grief, pain, and suffering of their lives.

Blaine-Wallace, William. When Tears Sing: The Art of Lament in Christian Community. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2020. 35 + 177 pages. $24.00. ISBN: 9781626983670.

REVIEWER: Rebecca Slough
Rebecca Slough is Academic Dean Emerita and Professor Emerita of Worship at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana.

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