a worship surgical strike

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.

nice chatting



nemoidian said…
Paul, i couldn't agree more. We have few songs today which acknowledge brokenness. I can think of only a handful in the last few years. Admittedly most of us don't live at the triumphal, born to win, victorious in Christ end of the spectrum but even less of us exist in a worship space where we truly bare our hearts to God and express where we are at.
Blessed Be your name by Matt Redman comes to mind as a song which goes a little way to expressing an honesty in the midst of pain. Some years ago now our church went through a time of lament and mourning and our worship resembled that feeling. those who had not lived through the pain could not understand why so many of the songs we sang back then seemed so sad but for those who lived through it, it brought healing and restoration. i wonder if this is what it means to worship him in spirit and in truth; where our spirit, in whatever condition it may be in, connects with His spirit and worships truthfully.
cheers, Shannon
Paul said…
Yes, I couldn't agree more, Shannon.
Matt Redman's song stands out like a beacon in this area.

The one about "you are my rock in times of trouble" is another that finds a resonance deep within me.

Plus I think Brooke Fraser and that song with the "break my heart for what breaks yours" line in it.

I do think one of the issues is that we do not have enough song-writers who have been through deep, deep pain and express it in song. The ol' hymn-writers were more like this.

The 'blues' tradition is another area to consider.

Then, of course, the worship-beyond-music arena can work here. In our church we have an elderly woman who knows how to pray laments...

Good to hear from you
Alex said…
I feel like such a dunce. Been trying to find a way to deal with these things in church. And I only studied the Psalms 18 months ago for a Masters unit at Seminary! Even mentioned the laments in a sermon on personal devotions. Guess I'm a bit slow. Thanks for the reminder.
Mark Maffey said…
The Psalms provide us with many opportunities to consider how we worship and it was Boney M who picked up Psalm 137 & Psalm 19-14
By the rivers of babylon, there we sat down
Ye-eah we wept, when we remembered zion.

By the rivers of babylon, there we sat down
Ye-eah we wept, when we remembered zion.

When the wicked
Carried us away in captivity
Required from us a song
Now how shall we sing the lords song in a strange land

When the wicked
Carried us away in captivity
Requiering of us a song
Now how shall we sing the lords song in a strange land

Let the words of our mouth and the meditations of our heart
Be acceptable in thy sight here tonight

Let the words of our mouth and the meditation of our hearts
Be acceptable in thy sight here tonight

By the rivers of babylon, there we sat down
Ye-eah we wept, when we remembered zion.

By the rivers of babylon, there we sat down
Ye-eah we wept, when we remembered zion.

By the rivers of babylon (dark tears of babylon)
There we sat down (you got to sing a song)
Ye-eah we wept, (sing a song of love)
When we remember zion. (yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah)

By the rivers of babylon (rough bits of babylon)
There we sat down (you hear the people cry)
Ye-eah we wept, (they need their God)
When we remember zion. (ooh, have the power)

The exiles in Babylon didn't have anything to sing about and I wonder how the Burmese are feeling in the Irrawaddy delta at present?

We struggle with opening ourselves to God and yet that is what he desires most that we are REAL. Psalm 51 is another which iterates how David had to face God after Nathan had outlined that God knew what he had been doing with Bathsheba, and had done in causing Uriah's death. Here is a poem with some thoughts around verses 10-13

Create in me a clean heart, O God
Renew a right spirit within me
You know my wrongdoings, my sin, LORD
I am your child, with you I need to be
You call to me, be honest, don’t run with the horde
Your word, I have come that you might be free
I kneel at your cross, I cry forgive me LORD
Renew a right spirit within me

Do not banish me from your presence,
And don’t take your Holy Spirit from me
Without you I am nothing, you’re my life essence
From you I have no desire to run or flee
I desire to be your child, my praise to you incense
In your presence is where I desire to be

Restore to me again the joy of your salvation
And make me willing to obey you
Mould me and shape me a new Godly creation
Help me to be at one with your view
Pour me out to others as your libation
That I may bring others to know you

Then I will teach your ways to sinners
And they will return to you
In you they can find they are winners
Your desire is to see more than a godly few
To see maturing in spiritual beginners
As they worship, they give you your due.

Mark Maffey October 2005 (NLT)

Heather said…
I must admit this hasn't been my response to the tragedies you mentioned above - partly, I think, because they're so huge that it's hard to believe in them. But in moments of personal tragedy, I have felt compelled to praise God. Not because the thing that has happened is good, but because God is sovereign, and that's vital to hold onto when the world has collapsed.

I first remember doing this when my friend Hamish was killed in an avalanche. I happened to be at TSCF conference at the time, I many of us there knew him. When word came through that his body had been found, it was announced at a plenary session. I remember collapsing onto my friend's shoulder in tears. When the next bracket of worship songs were announced, I was still feeling too shocked to move. But as the first song started I was compelled to stand up, almost whether I wanted to or not. In the face of that loss, I *HAD* to declare who God was and what I believed.

I saw something similar when the son of someone from work was killed J-walking. The Sunday after it happened, at the end of the service, Kevin (the dad) got up and started to sing "I have decided to follow Jesus". Quickly, everyone joined in, and the whole church was affirming, in the face of tragedy, we would still follow God.

I'm not familiar with the songs of ascent, but maybe they are similar. In times of horror, I don't want to sing anything saccharine, but I need to declare the fundamental truths on which my life is built.
Heather said…
Typo, sorry, the person whose son was killed was from *church*, not *work*.

I should be resting now, not typing, but I've had this comment bubbling in me for most of a week waiting for the strength to write it!
Paul said…
Knowing a little of your story, Heather I value these comments from you. I find they do balance what I have written a bit and I am stirred by your testimony of the place of praise in the midst of suffering. Thank-you!
Peter Kirkpatrick said…
Hi, just been referred to this blog. I agree 100%, but there are some lights in the darkness. I'm a local songwriter who loves the psalms and is passionate about expressing their full range of spirituality. Here are the lyrics of one song I've written and seen used in two churches. It's based on Psalm 22 and hopefully will be an encouragement...

O my God, why have you forsaken me?
Oh my God, why are you so far from me?
Why so far away?

Verse 1
Through the day I groan and sigh
but you do not reply.
In the night the tears flow:
Will you never show?

Verse 2
Trouble rears its ugly head,
the days are filled with dread.
My heart aches with deep grief:
there is no relief.

Verse 3
People shoot their barbs of spite,
their words that slash and bite.
Even loved ones fail me -
friends and family.

I recall seasons past,
I remember days of old.
I recall songs we sung,
I remember stories told.

Praise him for his grace and favour
to our fathers in distress.
Praise him still the same forever,
slow to chide and swift to bless.
Why not this time? Why not this heart?
Why not now your faithfulness?

O my God, why have you forsaken me?
Oh my God, why are you so far from me?
Why so far away?
Why so far away?
Paul said…
Yes, Peter - a delightful hybrid of an ancient psalm, contemporary lyrics, and even a few lines from a hymn as well. I like it!

As the infamous Oliver Twist once expressed it, "please sir, can I have some more?"

Popular Posts