Returning to the States after serving overseas was a hard time for my wife and me. We were grieving our losses and were struggling with the difficulties we’d already faced and those we saw ahead. We prayed and prayed but didn’t receive clear direction from God. In our spiritual malaise it was hard to slide back into a church service and cheerfully sing praise songs. So we often stayed seated while others stood, and prayed silently while others sang.
While we didn’t hear the audible voice of God in answer to our prayers, we did read the words of David in communion with our prayers:
How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? (Psalm 13:1-2a NIV)
We still sometimes find ourselves sitting and praying during our church’s worship service, and we still sometimes call to God with the opening words of the 13th Psalm. So when I saw syndicated columnist Terry Mattingly’s post at On Religion last month, “Open Bible to Psalms: What Messages Are Seen There but Not in Modern Praise Music?” it caught my attention. And then as I read on and saw him quoting Craig Greenfield, a past contributor to A Life Overseas, I was pulled in.
In his essay, Mattingly discusses Michael J. Rhodes’ analysis of the 25 top Christian worship songs (from a ranking by Christian Copyright Licensing International). Rhodes finds that in their lyrics, justice appears only once, enemies “rarely show up,” and there is no mention of the poor, widows, refugees, or the oppressed, even though those are common themes in the Psalms. “Maybe most devastatingly,” he writes on Twitter, “in the Top 25, not a SINGLE question is ever posed to God.”
Craig, who has spent years living among and working with the poor overseas, responds by lamenting the lack of lamenting in our worship, the absence of mourning with those who mourn over the state of a world that’s “all messed up.” He writes, “Sometimes it’s a broken, evil place and His Kingdom has not yet come in full.”
The Psalms often express lamenting in blunt questions posed to God, questions such as “How long?” Are you familiar with the Irish rock band U2’s “40” from back in 1982? It opens with words taken directly from Psalm 40 and concludes with the refrain “How long to sing this song?” That’s a reference to another of their well-known recordings (from the same album), “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” decrying violence in the world, in which they sing, “How long, how long must we sing this song?” For many years, U2 closed their concerts with “40,” while the band members left the stage one by one and the audience sang, “How long to sing this song?” repeated again and again well after the stage was empty.
Psalm 13 isn’t the only place where the psalmist cries out to God, “How long?” And that’s not the only kind of question asked in the Psalms, either. There are plenty of “whens,” “whats,” and “whys,” as well.
I think, too, of another song containing an outpouring of questions directed at God. It’s Kings Kaleidoscope’s “A Prayer.” I was introduced to Kings Kaleidoscope when I listened to and wrote about the podcast The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. The band and its lead singer, Chad Gardner, came through Mars Hill Church, where Gardner led worship until resigning. Each of the main episodes of the podcast opens with King’s Kaleidoscope’s “Sticks and Stones,” which tells of the band’s disillusionment with Mars Hill. (If you haven’t listened to the podcast, you might instead recognize the tune from a 2019 Lexus commercial.)
“A Prayer” opens with the question, “Will I fall or will I misstep?” It speaks of silence and anxiety, and transitions to an over-and-over-again “Jesus, where are you? Am I still beside you?” Then comes a “bridge” of no words and no music—in the version below, a full 30 seconds long. It’s a powerful moment and makes me wonder if this is what the psalmist’s “selah” might have sounded like. And then the quiet is followed by a solo violin and Jesus’ enthusiastic answer:
These are two song I can stand up for and sing, though I doubt I’ll hear them led from a church stage. U2’s “40” has been around too long, and the group is far from what most people would call a “worship band.” And when Kings Kaleidoscope released “A Prayer,” it came out in two versions: clean and explicit. The clean rendition is embedded above, while the explicit one contains the f-word, as Gardner uses it to describe the violent fear he’s experienced. Some laud his raw authenticity. Others consider it a sinful word choice.
One more thing, though: I don’t want to stray too far from Rhode’s original thesis. While I’m concentrating on the general absence of questions in our church singing, he emphasizes the scarcity of questioning in the context of addressing poverty and justice. I have to confess that my “How longs?” mostly concern my inner turmoil, rather than grieving the hurt occurring around our globe—the grieving and hurt that many of you live among and see firsthand. I, like the church as a whole, have a ways to go to align my thinking with the Psalms, to be able to sing with and for those who are marginalized and oppressed.
Shortly after his tweet, Rhodes, In Christianity Today, wrote,
We’re talking about a revolution in the way we sing and pray, a revolution driven neither by smoke machines nor by the theological flavor of the week but by the very scripts God has given us to use in our life with him. Sounds like a lot of work. But if we embrace it, we might find ourselves singing our way toward the justice that our God loves and our world longs for.
(Terry Mattingly, “Open Bible to Psalms: What Messages Are Seen There but Not in Modern Praise Music?” On Religion, July 25, 2022; Michael J. Rhodes [@michaeljrhodes], Twitter, September 14, 2021; Craig Greenfield, “Worship Music Is Broken. Here’s What We Can Do about It.” Craig Greenfield, September 17, 2021; Rhodes, “Why Don’t We Sing Justice Songs in Worship?” Christianity Today, September 30, 2021)
[photo: “Broken Mirror on Mass Ave,” by essygie, used under a Creative Commons license]