the baby and the bathwater


Lament: A people of praise
January 15, 2008, 3:53 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

In the 80’s we used to sing a song called ‘Jesus we celebrate Your victory’.

It went like this:

Jesus, we celebrate Your victory, Jesus, we revel in Your love
Jesus, we rejoice, You’ve set us free, Jesus, Your death has brought us life
It was for freedom that Christ has set us free, no longer to be subject to a yoke of slavery
So we’re rejoicing in God’s victory – our hearts responding to His love
His Spirit in us releases us from fear – the way to Him is open, with boldness we draw near
And in His presence our problems disappear – our hearts responding to His love

Now two things concern me about this song. The first thing that concerns me is that I must be so old that I can talk about songs that I used to sing in church 20 years ago. But the main thing that concerns me is that the theology is total baloney.

OK, it starts out well. The chorus is strong, talking about victory and freedom. The first verse builds on this really well. Then the second verse carries on the theme, and it’s all great, until right at the end it totally loses the plot with a last line that is just plain wrong.

Now some people, with the linguistic dexterity of Bill Clinton in his famous quote on Monica Lewinski, may be able to put some incredible spin on it so they could carry on singing it. But I never could.

Now I know I will have probably upset some people by saying this. The last time I questioned the theology of a song in a sermon I got emails complaining. You know the sort of email: ‘this song was the song I sang as I committed my life to the Lord’. ‘This was the song I sang when I got married to my childhood sweetheart’. ‘This song was sung at my great grand cousin’s funeral’. ‘This song was the single most important thing in my walk with God and you have rubbished it.” etc etc.

But just stay with me on this one for a while.

Our hope is certain. Absolutely. The Kingdom will come completely one day, and from that point onwards there will be no more tears, no more suffering, no more death. We will be in the presence of God and all our problems will have disappeared. But until that day, we live in the times where the Kingdom has come, but not fully come. We live in times of partial sight, times of partial understanding. We may find a measure of understanding why they remain. We may even have enough faith to believe that in everything God will ultimately work things out for good. But a consequence of living in the now and the not yet of the kingdom is that problems will be a part of our lives until the day we die. Or as Jesus says. ‘In this world you will have trouble’.

And so when we gather as a church on a Sunday, we will gather as a people who will have a whole range of problems. Some may be those caused by our own sin or disobedience. Some will be caused by someone else’s sin or disobedience, of which we are innocent victims. Many will seem to have no immediate explanation whatsoever. But as we face up to those problems and situations, at some time or another our hearts will hurt. And when our hearts hurt, we cry, we grieve, we feel frail. And me, for one, wants our church, here in Cheltenham, to be a place where those with hurting hearts can come, and cry, and grieve and ask the question ‘why?’.

You see, to lament is human. The world understands grief and expressions of grief. The world understands pain and expressions of pain. Ever since Adam and Eve, lament in some form or another has been part of the life of every man and women that has walked the earth. Anyone who saw the expression of national grief in the US after 9/11 can see that people lament. Anyone who witnessed the extraordinary outpouring of grief in the UK following the death of Diana, has seen a nation cry. Anyone who has seen the media images of suffering in Darfur, or of hardship in Zimbabwi will have seen people who are expressing pain and suffering. The world knows about lament. And so to me, the thing that marks us out as Christians is not that we know how to lament. The thing that marks us out as Christians is that we know how to praise. Because to lament is human, but to praise is divine.

When I read the Psalms, the thing that seems to leap out of the text is not the words of sorrow, but the expressions of praise in the sorrow. Praise that is stirred by faith and fired by hope.

Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God. (Psalm 43).

The church may well need a few more songs that deal with the now and the not yet of the kingdom. The church may well need worship leaders who are more sensitive to the real situations that people come to church with. We should and must deal better with these issues. But above everything else, praise needs to be on our lips, praise needs to be rising up within us.

Because the hallmark of the church is not so much its songs of lament, but its songs of praise.

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7 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Neil, a great post that I wholeheartedly agree with. To lament is human and to praise is divine. Thanks for the regular entries.

Comment by tim neale

I too am old enough to remember singing that song in church in the 80s. At the church I belonged to at the time, we usually sang it with an altered last line, so that it said, “and in His presence, the darkness disappears”.

Of course, we knew the other version too, and I remember choosing always to sing about the darkness disappearing, even if I was somewhere where the songbook or OHP said the problems disappeared.

I never knew who came up with the altered last line, but I remember thinking that it meant that even though the problems were still there, at least we didn’t have to deal with them alone and without hope. During some difficult times, I sang it with an attitude of “life has troubles but I will yet praise you”, and found it helpful.

Comment by Ruth

Unless ‘disappear’ means that they loose their dominance in the presence of God. Not that the disappear and never return but just for that moment the enormity of the problems are dwarfed by the uber-enormity of God.

That’s how I see it…

Comment by Andy

Andy/Ruth

I know I’m being a bit pedantic – and I know that I tend to err on the side of caution with song lyrics.

And of course the dictionary definition of ‘disappear’ is two-fold:

1. to cease to be seen; vanish from sight:

2. to cease to exist or be known; pass away; end gradually:

but I still think that in most people’s minds, ‘disappear’ has a ‘completely gone’ understanding which, in my experience, is not a result of being in the presence of God.

But there were also a number of other songs around at the time which had similar theology – there was one song – Noel Richards I think – that said ‘it’s easy to live now I’ve given my all’.

And there was (and still is) a theological stream out there that talks in a similar vein about a so called ‘victorious life’ that seems to say that life is all roses with Jesus. And most of us, of course, know that nothing is further from the Truth.

Comment by Neil Bennetts

Neil

“I know I’m being a bit pedantic – and I know that I tend to err on the side of caution with song lyrics.”

And that’s exactly as it should be. But there are two dynamics going on here.

The writer of worship songs should err on the side of caution, should be extra careful and self-critical of the theology of what s/he writes, and should try not to write things that may prove a stumbling block to people’s worship by asking them to sing things they can’t honestly assent to. It’s great that you try so hard with all of that. I can’t think of anything in any of your songs that give me any problems of that kind. Thank you.

But the singers of worship songs shouldn’t approach them with such a critical attitude. They should be looking for the ways in which they can use the songs to meet God. If they can find an interpretation that means they can sing something with integrity, then they should focus on that interpretation.

The same two approaches are necessary in most of what we do in church, I think.

Ruth

Comment by Ruth

Good points both of you guys…

I’m glad I’m not a worship leader/song writer or theologian!!!

Just a plain old worshiper…

Comment by Andy

great post – we used to sing that song at Glenfall and I never thought about it even when I was leading it!! This makes me feel convicted – I should really pay more attention! Thanks for being in tune!

Comment by NaiT




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