Last year, I did a brief series on the seasons of spiritual experience. One of those seasons we called, “Disorientation.” This is another way of describing what it is like to be in the wilderness.
In that post I wrote about the kinds of songs we can sing as God’s people to accurately reflect our spiritual experiences of disorientation:
“The spiritual medicine indicated for seasons of disorientation is the psalm of lament. Though the Hebrew word for the Book of Psalms is “tehillim,” which means “praises,” it is obvious that these praises are hard won, for the individual lament is the most common form of psalm in the book. “Weeping may last for the night, but a shout of joy comes in the morning” (Ps 30:5). Ultimately, praise is the result of having found one’s way through the wilderness.”
Many segments of Jesus’ family have little or no acquaintance with singing laments. The entire idea of lamentation seems foreign to some, perhaps even contradictory to a Christian perspective. American evangelicalism in particular avoids laments. I suspect “avoids” is the wrong word. Do churches in the revivalist traditions even have a conception of this aspect of relating to God?
Contemporary “worship” music is especially weak when it comes to giving voice to the full spectrum of human experiences and emotions. Even when today’s songwriters make use of the Psalms they tend to transform the raw, earthy language that describes our complex, often messy relationships with God and others into easily digestible spiritual sentiments.
In fact, I can’t think of one contemporary worship song that might legitimately fall into the category of lament. I may be wrong — there is a lot of CCM I’ve never heard. My suspicion would be that, even if there are a few laments that have been penned, they aren’t common, and they certainly are not on the lists of the most popular or used worship songs. I have never been in a church that worships according to the revivalist pattern that made any prominent use of lament in its worship.
If you know of churches that are practicing lament regularly, I’d love to hear about it. It would give me great encouragement.
What I have seen personally, however, tells me that today’s church has largely embraced a theology of glory and resists the way of the cross. It shows in our worship and music.
I could use any number of up-to-date songs to make my point, but instead I will turn to an old CCM standard that provides a crystal clear example — “As the Deer,” by Martin Nystrom (© 1984 Maranatha Praise, Inc.).
You alone are my strength my shield
To You alone may my spirit yield
You alone are my hearts desire
And I long to worship thee
You’re my friend and You are my brother
Even though you are a king
I love you more than any other
So much more than anything
I want You more than gold or silver,
Only You can satisfy
You alone are the real joy Giver,
And the apple of my eye
• • •
Now let me first say that I have used this song more times than I can count when leading congregational worship. There’s a part of me that loves its simple devotional sentiment and pretty melody. I can testify that is well-suited to “creating a mood” of tenderness and intimacy. And I’m sure there is a place for that in our worship. So please hold any comments about musical snobbery — in an appropriate setting, I will still use this piece.
On the other hand, this winsome little song also exemplifies a big problem CCM has when it comes to using imagery from the Bible, especially the Book of Psalms. “As the Deer” draws its opening words from Psalm 42, a personal song of lament. Here are its words, from the NKJV:
As the deer pants for the water brooks,
So pants my soul for You, O God.
2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When shall I come and appear before God?
3 My tears have been my food day and night,
While they continually say to me,
“Where is your God?”
4 When I remember these things,
I pour out my soul within me.
For I used to go with the multitude;
I went with them to the house of God,
With the voice of joy and praise,
With a multitude that kept a pilgrim feast.
5 Why are you cast down, O my soul?
And why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him
For the help of His countenance.
6 O my God,my soul is cast down within me;
Therefore I will remember You from the land of the Jordan,
And from the heights of Hermon,
From the Hill Mizar.
7 Deep calls unto deep at the noise of Your waterfalls;
All Your waves and billows have gone over me.
8 The Lord will command His lovingkindness in the daytime,
And in the night His song shall be with me—
A prayer to the God of my life.
9 I will say to God my Rock,
“Why have You forgotten me?
Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?”
10 As with a breaking of my bones,
My enemies reproach me,
While they say to me all day long,
“Where is your God?”
11 Why are you cast down, O my soul?
And why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God;
For I shall yet praise Him,
The help of my countenance and my God.
• • •
This is a classic example of what today’s Christianity does to the Bible. It takes one image from a rich, profound, complex and realistic description of life and latches on to it because the image evokes a simple devotional sentiment that prompts an immediate emotion. We set it to music, and voila! — people get the idea we are singing “Scripture.”
In the case of “As the Deer,” the sentiment the image evokes is desire for God. We long for God like a thirsty deer longs for water. That’s fine as far as it goes, but rather than meditating on how the Biblical author is actually using this image, we interpret it in a way that is easily grasped in our cultural milieu — in a romantic fashion. God is my heart’s desire and I find my satisfaction in worshiping him. He’s a friend, a brother, and more precious than gold or silver. I love him more than anything.
That is manifestly not what the image refers to in Psalm 42. It is not desire for God in a romantic or intimate sense that the psalmist is writing about. It is desire for God in the context of lament.
The psalmist longs for God not because he has a precious “personal relationship” with God and he wants to celebrate that. Rather, he pines for God because he can’t find him! He’s as desperate as a deer who can’t find water in the wilderness. Do a search of Google images on Psalm 42 and you will get pictures of deer drinking from streams. But that is not the image of Psalm 42:1! The deer in this psalm can’t find a stream. It is dying of thirst and desperately concerned for its very life.
The psalmist goes on to say that thinking about his close relationship with God just makes things worse. He is so far away from God that he sees little chance of being able to find him again. He can’t stop crying. Everyone and everything around him is mocking his belief in a God who loves him. His soul is cast down. His heart is disquieted within him. He fears God has forgotten him. He keeps trying to express his hope, but fears and doubts keep dragging him down into depression, hopelessness, and a pain worse than if someone had broken all his bones.
That’s why he is thirsty for God. He’s dying of thirst for an absent God.
Psalm 42 is a song about spiritual depression and dejection that is teetering on the edge of despair. When was the last time you heard a song with those themes in worship?
• • •
One advantage of being part of a liturgical church tradition is that, by one means or another, the psalms are included each week in congregational worship. The worship books of such churches integrate a psalter among the hymns and readings. Our Evangelical Lutheran Worship book, for example, contains all 150 psalms and gives instructions for chanting them. In my congregation, a cantor leads us in singing a psalm each Sunday. Thus, as God’s people we give voice to a full-bodied, earthy, realistic, and Christ-centered spirituality through singing the inspired laments, songs of trust, hymns of praise, wisdom psalms, historical psalms, and songs of thanksgiving from the Book of Psalms each time we worship.
I am also happy to say that our hymnal has an actual section for songs with a “lament” theme. I’m not sure I’ve seen that before. Here are a few samples of laments available to our congregation from those pages:
Your grace, O God, seems far away; will healing ever come?
Our broken lives lie broken still; will night give way to dawn?
• Text by Ralph F. Smith (verses 1,3), © 2003 Augsburg Fortress
Once we sang and danced with gladness, once delight filled ev’ry breath;
Now we sit among the ashes, all our dreams destroyed by death.
All the willows bow in weeping, all the rivers rage and moan,
As creation joins our pleading: “God do not leave us alone.”
• Text by Susan R. Briehl, © 2003 GIA Publications
This heart of mine is in deep anguish,
I feel so far off, so far from you.
How sad our life, Lord, if you should leave us
If you should leave us without your light.
This night I follow in your footsteps
But cannot clearly behold your light.
You, Lord, must guide us throughout our lifetime,
Throughout our lifetime to that clear light.
• English text by Fred Pratt Green, © 1982 Hope Publishing Co.
Whether churches with these resources make good use of them or not is another question, but at least they are available.
In terms of worship music in evangelicalism and other non-liturgical traditions, it seems to me that the popularity of a song like Matt Redman’s “Blessed Be the Name” reveals a hunger for worship music that enables us to sing about the “wilderness” experiences of our lives. That song is not a lament, but it does at least hint that the Christian path is not all sweetness and light. People know this, but our worship doesn’t often help them know what to do with that knowledge and the feelings that go along with it.
We live in a real wilderness. We do best to acknowledge it and pray for mercy. Sanitizing it helps no one.