We don’t like sad songs. The power of music and poetry tilts our hearts in their direction, and so we avoid sad songs. We lean toward that which is happy, or at least not sad. We foolishly think that joy and tears are enemies.
The body of poetry and songs we know as the Psalms does not allow us to make such a mistake. These songs, the songbook of ancient Israel and the Early Church, boldly sing sad songs, with neither shame nor regret. One-third of the psalms are what we call laments, poems that confront us full-on with the reality of human loss and pain.
We don’t like these psalms. We rarely read them. But we very much need them.
Last week, three people I know were diagnosed with cancer in three different parts of the country. I need songs that sing about that, songs that are real and raw and strong. Songs that admit life is sometimes terribly disorienting. “Sing and Be Happy” would be a farce.
But we live in the land of Disney World, where things are always supposed to be happy and bright. Where men all grow up to save the damsel in distress, and the girls eqall grow up to be princesses.
The Psalmists knew better. They knew that distressed damsels do not always get saved, and princesses have real enemies. And so the psalms of lament model for us how Israel, and the church learns to have faith in the midst of disorientation and pain and loss.
We avoid these psalms at great risk to ourselves. If we ignore these songs of pain and honest emotional distress, then we risk getting stuck in the mire of guilt. If we don’t have a way to express the pain and struggle of real life, then we end up in the dead end thought: if my life stinks, it must be my fault. Or, we have the other risk, the risk of denial. We gloss things over, pretending all is well. But it is not.
The lament psalms free us from this double trap of guilt and denial. We can be honest with God: “I don’t understand!” “I’m I’m angry!” “I’m beaten down!” “I’m in pain!” “I’m brokenhearted!” These psalms keep our heads out of the sand, to face the reality that life can be very, very hard.
But the also free us from the guilt. They allow us to acknowledge that we struggle in this fallen world. And they allow us to process this struggle with God, among God’s people. The lament psalms bring our pain and questioning out of the theoretical, and land them smack dab in front of God. They are communal cries of pain and anguish that we sing together because God hears his people.
But crying to God in our distress is not a lack of faith, it protects our faith. Crying to God allows us to be honest with God, and to trust him. We trust him. He is the only one who can bring lasting change to our messed up lives and tear-drenched hearts.
And so we sing and read these songs. We lament. We grieve. We shout in anger and pain for the injustice of life. And in the company of all God’s people who for millennia have read the psalms, we cry out. And we trust.
[Many thanks to one of my favorite authors, Walter Bruggemann, for sharing his thoughts in this video.]
In 1984 I was heavily attracted to a particular college because it boasted the largest number of representatives to the annual World Missions Workshop. There were bigger schools, but this one seemed to have found a way to make missions permeate through the student body. I wanted a Christian college, so it seemed like that number was a good indicator of that school’s authentic desire to be Chrisitan.
This year that same school, my alma mater, hosted the World Missions Workshop, and I was blessed to be part of a group traveling to Oklahoma Christian University for this special weekend. (Ironically, the group I was with, from Ohio Valley University, was the largest single group represented.)
It is pretty exciting to be with so many young people who are seeking God’s direction in their lives. Most won’t become missionaries per se, but all will have a broader vision of God working around the world.
Global missions is at a critical point in the history of Christianity. Missions is expensive. Missionaries are harder to find. The old ways of mission work don’t work, or at least they don’t appeal to younger generations. Commitment to winning people to our “brand” of church is waning, and it takes some of our zeal with it. Missions is always a challenge, but the changes facing missions are at least as deep as the challenges facing all Western churches trying to be Jesus in a world with no basic understanding of God.
The challenges are real. And that’s why this weekend was so exciting. Three hundred college students came together to seek God in worship, study, prayer, and planning. Not all will become missionaries. But some will. They will continue the millennia-old call to take the gospel to every nation.
Jesus only had twelve men and changed the world. I got to spend the weekend with three hundred on-fire students. Look out world! Here they come!