In my lifetime I have never experienced a period of time when there has been such a convergence of unspeakable pain among the peoples of the world.
Here in NZ - just as we were negotiating our way through the Mangatepopo flash flood tragedy, there came word from Austria of a man who reminded us of how evil the human heart can become. Then it was Burma - and if the cyclone was not bad enough, there is the rage we feel towards the heartless leaders in that country. And then China - and an earthquake made all the more piognant by the fact that it struck when frail school buildings were full of children in a land of one-child families...
Where do we go with this stuff? What difference should these things make to public worship? No, I am not just talking about generosity to aid agencies. I am talking about public worship.
This is when I go back to the Psalms of Ascent - that CD of tiny spatially-challenged worship songs lost so often today in the shadow of Psalm 119. Back then it was a best-seller, a perennial chart-topper, because these are the very songs filling their ipods on the way up to Jerusalem for the major worship festivals each year.
So what would you expect from the lyrics on such a CD by today's standards? Easy peasy. Uninhibited and boisterous praise?! Wrong!
Most of these songs are borne in pain. Most of them start with suffering. As they ascend to Jerusalem they sing about their experiences of lying, fear, war, hatred, anger, insecurity, despair, emptiness, independence, injustice, guilt, pride, hardship, division...
How odd?! How can such deep pain be given such profile when anticipating such high worship up on Zion? But if this seems odd to us today maybe instead of asking questions of the text, we should ask questions of ourselves? Why does this seem odd to us?
May I suggest a reason?
It seems odd because for us suffering is something to escape when we worship. Its a time to take a breather. We park the pain with the car. Or if we do bring it through the doors with us the only place for it is to drain into some hidden catheter under the seat as we distract ourselves with songs. In the worship traditions which I experience we have forgotten the art of lament, of weepy wailing intercession for suffering peoples. And yet we know about them... Yes, we find ourselves snookered by being a global village with multiple media outlets gushing out the information about this suffering. We are responsible for what we see and hear and know. And it must break God's heart to see His people in one part of the world in full knowledge of a tragedy afflicting His people in another part of the world and yet still be consumed with trite 'God is here to meet my needs' songs and testimonies.
These Psalms of Ascent are a surgical strike deep within this worship tradition. Not just in content - but also in form. Again and again there is a symmetry here. Because deep though the pain here may be there is Someone deeper still in these songs. Read on to the verses further down the psalm...
In the pain and below the pain we discover the God who saves, who protects, who peace-keeps, who shows mercy, who helps, who surrounds, who restores, who blesses, who judges, who forgives, who stills, who inhabits...
This is authenticity. Because this is worship in real time. There is no fast-forwarding to praise here. There is lingering with lament and sadness.