A Simple Call For Honesty

Posted by Sally Morgenthaler on 5 September 2016

I write this on a cold, snowy day in Denver, Colorado. After a glorious, unseasonably warm autumn, I can personally relate to Christina Rossetti’s Christmas hymn: “In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan. Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.”

Actually, that hymn seems like a good starting place for what I have rumbling around in my head. Christina Rossetti wrote poetry and song lyrics 150 years ago. I’m interested by her use of that strange word, “bleak”. Perhaps her world was more despairing than ours, and that’s why she used it. But, considering the world events of the past few years, I doubt it. If anything, the “bleakness” factor seems to be going up, which makes the lack of songs relating to things bleak all the more glaring an omission. Why is it so hard for us in the Church to sprinkle “bleak” into our worship repertoire? Perhaps Barry Taylor at Fuller Seminary is right: “The spiritual conversation is going on, but the church is not invited.”

Jesus knows all about bleak people and spiritual conversations that happen outside sanctuaries and worship spaces. In John 4, the Samaritan woman who approaches the well where Jesus was sitting was anything but ecstatic or “positive”. (I’m not sure she would have done very well in most praise and worship settings.) She was alone and bereft. (Her first husband quite possibly had cast her aside for another woman.) No wonder she longed for the life this stranger said He could give—unending, unlimited, overflowing.

Jesus gave the woman at the well an incredible gift: the opportunity to bring her real self to a spiritual exchange. He gave her the chance to simply be who she was—sin, loneliness, doubts and all. Thus, in the privacy of her encounter with the Son of God, she was nurtured into naming her reality. And Jesus unflinchingly acknowledged that reality. He did not ask her to be happy, to adopt religious behaviours for the sake of image or to look in any way “together” when she clearly was not. No. Instead, He gave her the treasure of a completely honest relationship with herself and with God. Bottom line, Jesus knew who this woman was from the outset: a human being decimated in body and spirit. He knew she was a woman emptied of purpose, sapped of esteem— rejected and despised in a way that goes to the very epicentre of a woman’s being. And He loved her in the midst of exactly who she had become.

Now, fast-forward two millennia. How intriguing that the first-century woman of John 4 and the postmodern woman in Evanescence’s “Bring Me to Life” have such strikingly similar, image-peeling encounters with God. “Where I’ve become so numb without a soul, my spirit sleeping somewhere cold.” Now these are what I’d call “visceral” lyrics. They literally grab you from the inside. Can you imagine poetry this vivid in a worship song? You want bleak? That’s bleak. Check out the digital backdrop created for the music video and you’ll see bleak taken to yet another level.

Still, this is MTV, not church. You can get by with extremes in pop culture. People who watch that stuff expect dark. They expect to be shocked. The more realistic and edgy it is, the better. But it won’t work for worship. Interesting. The psalmist David got by just fine with dark, edgy, bleak, real-life, cynical and downright ironic in some of his worship songs. And he wasn’t writing for MTV. Check out what he had to say in Psalm 77:

I yell out to my God, I yell with all my might,
I yell at the top of my lungs. He listens.
I found myself in trouble and went looking
for my Lord; my life was an open wound that wouldn’t
heal. . . .Will the Lord walk off and leave us for
good? Will he never smile again? (Ps. 77:1-2,7, THE MESSAGE).

If David can write worship songs like this, dare we follow in his steps? T. S. Eliot has often been quoted as saying that Christians tend to make life neater and tidier than it really is. In reality, we live on an increasingly fractured planet, and, regardless of what we may have been taught, that fracturing encompasses the lives of Christian and non-Christian alike. Though Christ, by His blood, has forever opened to us the doors of heaven, we still live out our lives in the shadow of the Fall and are not, in the here and now, delivered from the temporal effects of it. (Perhaps this is what Jesus meant about experiencing tribulation.) Why is it, then, that our worship services so often mask the very tribulation Jesus acknowledged? Why do our songs and sermons become exercises in denial, rather than avenues to affirm the God at the centre of the hurricane? Somehow, if we just don’t acknowledge the darkness—if we don’t admit to addictions, fears, regrets, doubts, questions, confusion and disorientation—we think they don’t exist.

Theologian and historian Walter Brueggemann has a cure for denial: lament. In his stunning foreword to Ann Weems’s Psalms of Lament, Brueggemann unpacks the essence of biblical lament, offering not only an alternative view of Hebrew worship, but also a new and crucial window on the worship of the Early Church, which clearly adopted Hebrew psalmody— including lament—into its gatherings.

Nearly one half of the Psalms are songs of lament and poems of complaint. Something is known to be deeply amiss in Israel’s life with God. And Israel is not at all reluctant to voice what is troubling (her). . . . The lament-complaint, perhaps Israel’s most characteristic and vigorous mode of faith, introduces us to a “spirituality of protest.” That is, Israel boldly recognizes that all is not right in the world. This is against our easy gentile way of denial, pretending in each other’s presence and in the presence of God that “all is well,” when it is not.

Dare we imagine a genre of new millennial worship—songs that don’t gloss over the doubts, the cynicism or our own humanity? Songs that refuse to minimize pain, but rather, lend voice to it? If we refuse this challenge, I fear that even our Gen-X evangelicalism will become uninhabitable by real people.

[Taken from ‘Inside Out Worship: Insights for Passionate and Purposeful Worship’ by Matt Redman and friends, published by Kingsway Publications, reused with permission.]

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