Many may remember this: a cinder block, bird egg blue, cold, church downstairs. There was one in a church where I grew up. Another church had a downstairs that was dark, plain, and full of echo. The carpet was new as opposed to the happily worn upstairs carpet. The pastor’s office was downstairs. As a kid it reminded me of the principal’s office. People only went there when there was trouble. Divorce, death, sin, and sadness were often the subject matter secretly disclosed in the bird egg blue basement. There was a conscious and probably sub-conscience effort to keep the lamentations and disappointments downstairs. Keep it locked away in the cold confines of the downstairs basement away from the happy smiling upstairs. The upstairs, in stark contrast, was bubbly, smiling, light feeling, well worn, and warm. Big bellows of laughter could be heard amidst the drum beat and tuning of instruments. Upstairs smelled good and was well lit with hardy handshakes and old men passing out candy to lively youngsters. The music prefaced the opening address. People started clapping and standing even before the service officially started. The congregation was reminded frequently that we have come into this place to worship God so, clap your hands, raise your arms and sing to the Lord with victory. It was implied that troubles can be left outside or in the bird egg blue basement.
This is a caricature of an insidious problem in modern church ideology. An ideology that seeks to limit the worship experience to only sensations of good, glad, and happy and jettison any emotion perceived as contrary to a happy or bust culture. The church has become so inundated with cultural marketing that seeks to peddle various feel good products and self helps. There is an unknowing push to have the church reflect or even “one up” the world in terms of offering the greatest feel good message and ultimate self-help. As a result the church crafts itself into a Disneyland full of wonder and excitement: a perpetual concert of feel good vibes where everything has a happy ending. As a result, the church has lost tremendous doctrine. The church has in many ways lost a true sense of organic, meaty faith rooted in reality. In an effort to attract with positivity, such doctrine as sin, judgment, sovereignty, perseverance, discipline have all been minimized if not discarded. What is left is a concert platform, a countdown screen, popular music, and sensationalized messages or pep talks on creating a better you.
On the contrary, a casual look into the Psalms (the song book of the Bible) will reveal a large portion of them are songs of lament. Yes, songs that actually talk about failure, anger, sin, loss and judgement. The Psalms seek to express all those unsavory emotions that seemingly should have no place in modern worship services. Why is this?
Because the church, in following the culture, places premium on youth and beauty. Carl Truman points this out in his work, Reflections on What Can Miserable Christian’s Sing, when he notes:
“Perhaps we might say liturgies of power and youth—are problematic. They exclude the old or delude them into thinking that they are not old; and they deceive the young into thinking that they are the center of the universe and are destined to live forever.”
Liturgies of youth are seen in churches all over America as the pulpit is populated by church leaders who reflect a culture of youth. They fill the worship teams with youth, highlight youthful styles, and speak on youthful topics. When suffering and death do arrive, the wisdom and Biblical response to suffering are often lost or seriously lacking. This is because liturgy of sufferings found in the psalms have no place in the church, they have been resigned to the bird egg blue basement.
There is an uncomfortable central defining truth about God’s elect: they are chosen to suffer. They will bear crosses and make habit of denying themselves. They will count it a glory to suffer along with Christ. There is a worship in suffering. The worship, I think, is because we identify with the sufferings of Christ. I believe the Psalms help us verbalize our worship in suffering. Notice Christ himself used a Psalm of lament in the darkest time of suffering, Psalm 22. Listen to this worship hymn from the lips of Christ in his suffering:
My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring? 2 O my God, I cry in the day time, but thou hearest not; and in the night season, and am not silent. 3 But thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel. 4 Our fathers trusted in thee: they trusted, and thou didst deliver them. 5 They cried unto thee, and were delivered: they trusted in thee, and were not confounded. 6 But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people. 7 All they that see me laugh me to scorn: they shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying, 8 He trusted on the Lord that he would deliver him: let him deliver him, seeing he delighted in him. 9 But thou art he that took me out of the womb: thou didst make me hope when I was upon my mother’s breasts. 10 I was cast upon thee from the womb: thou art my God from my mother’s belly. 11 Be not far from me; for trouble is near; for there is none to help.
The church has lost the vocabulary of suffering. The Psalms help in this respect. As Truman suggests, a recovering of the language of suffering, the language of the Psalms of lament in public worship will equip the church to have biblical language and thoughts in great seasons of distress.
A faith that does not embrace the whole spectrum of God’s will, including the seasons of suffering is at best a shallow faith and at worst an apostate faith. A faith that incorporates life’s disappointments is refreshingly real. Not a pie in the sky faith. From the heart of real faith springs real worship.
Yes the church basement should find a place in the upstairs. The church should throw off the “feel good only” sentiment of this present age and embrace and even glory in our infirmities. Make way for a time of crying in the service. For if the church worships in lament, I believe the Church’s joy will be enriched and deepened. I believe there will be a return to authentic worship.