Reflections on “What Can Miserable Christians Sing?”

Article
04.23.2014

Of all the things I have written, my little essay, “What Can Miserable Christians Sing?” has provided me with so many delightful surprises over the years.[1] I wrote it in about 45 minutes one afternoon, infuriated by some superficial comment about worship I had heard but which I have long since forgotten. And yet this little piece which took minimal time and energy to author has garnered more positive responses and more touching correspondence than anything else I have ever written. It resonated with people across the Christian spectrum, people from all different church backgrounds who had one thing in common: the understanding that life has a sad, melancholy, painful dimension which is too often ignored and sometimes even denied in our churches.

The article was intended to highlight what I saw as a major deficiency in Christian worship, a deficiency that is evident in both traditional and contemporary approaches: the absence of the language of lament. The Psalms, the Bible’s own hymnbook, contains many notes of lamentation, reflecting the nature of the believer’s life in a fallen world. And yet these cries of pain are on the whole absent from hymns and praise songs. The question that formed the article’s title was thus a genuine one: what is it in the hymnody of your church that can be sung honestly by the woman who has just lost her baby, the husband who has just lost his wife, the child who has just lost a parent, when they come to church on Sunday? The answer, I suggested, was the Psalms, for in them one finds divinely inspired words which allow the believer to express their deepest pains and sorrows to God.

Would I write it differently today? Not in terms of substance. If anything, I would broaden its application since I believe that its message is more important now than it was at the time of composition. As I survey the contemporary church landscape, I am struck at how even the great gospel of sovereign grace is now so often focused on the youth market and consequently packaged with the aesthetics of worldly power, of celebrity, of the kind of superficial approaches to life which mark the childish and the immature. Things that were once (and sadly no more) the exclusive preserve of the proponents of the prosperity gospel now feature in mainstream evangelical circles without comment or criticism. The world has truly been turned upside down when Calvinism has in some quarters become known for its pyrotechnics and its cocksure swagger.

I am also more aware now than I was when I wrote it of how real mortality is and of how short life can be. I wrote the piece with others in mind; now I am older and only too aware of how it applies to me and to those I love. The older one is, the more one is acquainted with the loss of friends and family, and the more one’s own mortality feels like a constant and unwelcome dinner guest. As a father I rejoiced the first time my son beat me in a running race; but my delight in his growing strength was short-lived when in the coming months and years I realized it was also indicative of my own decline.

The world tells us to defy this as long as we can, whether by fitness, fashion choices, or even surgery. But the world is a malevolently plausible confidence trickster who tells us what we want to hear. Weakness and then death ultimately come to us all; and it is the pastor’s task to prepare both himself and his people for the inevitable. Thus, I now believe it is more important than ever that the church embrace weakness and tragedy in its worship. True, we look forward to the resurrection; but we often forget that the pathway to resurrection is necessarily and unavoidably through death. We need to remind our people in both what we preach, what we pray, and what we sing as a congregation that God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness—and, where resurrection is concerned, in and through our total weakness at the hands of death.

Since writing the original piece, I have also become more aware of the power of liturgy to shape the mind of a Christian congregation. I am not talking here only of formal liturgies such as those in The Book of Common Prayer. I mean the form and content of any worship service claiming to be Christian. That which we say and sing as a congregation will over time subtly and imperceptibly inform our thinking about the Christian faith and thus about life in general in a powerful way. That is why an emphasis on the aesthetics of power and youth—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. A liturgy which accurately reflects the expectations we can have for life in a fallen world, one that inculcates and reinforces that week by week, is important as a means of preparing our people for the suffering that must eventually come their way.

And that brings me once more to the psalms. True, there are Christian poets and even the occasional hymn writer who have captured the dark complexities of life; but there are none to compare with authors of the Psalter who set forth the riches and depths of human experience and existence with perfect poetic pitch. The church which makes the psalms part of her regular diet provides her people with the resources for truly living in this vale of tears, just as the church which does not do so has perversely denied her people a true treasure in pursuit of what?   Relevance? There is nothing more universally relevant than preparing people for suffering and death. I have people in my congregation who have very hard lives, lives that are not going to become easier over time. To them I can only say: suffering comes to us all, but there is a resurrection; listen to how the notes of real, present lament in the Psalms are suffused with tangible, future hope and be encouraged: weeping may tarry for the night, and indeed be truly painful while it does, but joy will come in the morning.

When I married a young couple in my congregation a few years ago, I commented in the sermon that all human marriages begin with joy but end in tragedy. Whether it is divorce or death, the human bond of love is eventually torn apart. The marriage of Christ and his church, however, begins with tragedy and ends with a joyful and loving union which will never be rent asunder. There is joy to which we point in our worship, the joy of the Lamb’s wedding feast. But our people need to know that in this world there will be mourning. Not worldly mourning with no hope. But real mourning nonetheless, and we must make them ready for that.

Still, as I look back to the original “Miserable Christians” piece, I never imagined I would still be commenting on it so many years later. I am grateful that it seems to have been a help and encouragement to so many.

[1] “What Can Miserable Christians Sing?” in The Wages Of Spin: Critical Writings on Historical and Contemporary Evangelicalism (Christian Focus, 2005), 157-63.