At a conference (for leaders of small churches) that my husband and I attended in October, one of the workshops was about the use of the Psalms in worship. That got me not only looking for ways to use them in worship (such as using them for the readings with the lighting of the Advent candles) but also to know them better personally. When the Bible study I lead finished a study on Jonah, we started looking at some of the Psalms.
So when I came across a book for sale about “inhabiting the world of the psalmist,” and noticed that the author was one of the keynote speakers from that conference in October, naturally I was interested. In the House of the Lord: Inhabiting the Psalms of Lament by Michael Jinkins explores first the world of the psalms in general, and then the psalms of lament in more depth.
I have always been somewhat uncomfortable with the psalms of lament. How do I identify with someone who has gone through such suffering as some of these describe? And to the extent I do identify with someone crying out, “How long, O Lord,” how does that shared sense of anguish help me deal with it?
I’m not alone in that discomfort. Jinkins notes that mainline Protestant churches rarely use psalms of lament in their worship, and if they wanted to sing hymns based on them would have trouble finding more than a few in their hymnals. Many people go to church to hear positive messages, and interpret complaints addressed to God as contrary to faith and thanksgiving.
When I mentioned this in a Bible study recently, someone’s response was that when times are hard, you’re supposed to focus on the blessings in your life and on God’s goodness. Why would you want to encourage people to bring up complaints to God?
Because, Jinkins says, “praise and thanksgiving divorced from lamentation, divorced from heart-felt observation of social injustices and the cries of the oppressed, divorced from a critical assessment of our role in human society, become expressions of vanity.” And because they can mask the voids in our spiritual lives, and give us fewer resources for working through some of the really bad stuff, the stuff we don’t talk about in church.
I remember a few times in my life when I found it difficult to go to church, when I was dealing with grief and found it hard to express emotion without breaking down in tears. There were no hymns we sang that gave voice to my grief, and when I tried to sing songs like “There Is Sunshine in My Soul Today” or “O Happy Day,” the words stuck in my throat.
There are churches that use the psalms of lament much more, and Jinkins explains that these are generally made of of people in the lower socio-economic strata of society. They can identify with the psalmist when he speaks of suffering oppression, of being treated unfairly, of anger at seeing people prosper from their wickedness and of longing to see justice done.
For me, those are abstract ideas that I can understand but not really identify with from my own experience. (Not that I’ve never been treated unfairly, but not in any ways that significantly changed the course of my life.) Perhaps greater use of psalms of lament would help to identify with those parts of the body of Christ who do suffer in these ways.
Depending on how one classifies the psalms, forty to fifty of them are considered psalms of lament. So nearly a third of them. They include expressions of faith and praise and thanksgiving, but these are arrived at by going through the complaint and the grief.
We often find that spiritual growth comes that way in our lives, by going through trials and troubles. So why not have our worship services make more use of such psalms, as the ancient Israelites evidently did? As I am on the worship committee at church, this is more than just food for thought, but something to look for practical ways to use sometimes neglected parts of Scripture.