I once had a seminary professor who described the vast majority of contemporary Christian music as “la la la fluff”. It’s lots of smiles, joyful praise, beautiful strains of melody, uplifted hands, etc., etc. Of course, music is meant to be uplifting and inspiring. The power of music stirs within the deepest crevices of our souls. Even the most simple melodies can lift us into a near-heaven euphoria.
(I’m convinced there are several earthly things which give us the greatest foretaste of heaven to come: stirring music, savory food, and being loved by another human being. I’m going to be partial here and say that Mozart and Bach, Indian and barbecue, and a child’s hug and kiss bring the veil between heaven and us to its very thinest membrane.)
So it’s no wonder that most Christian music aims to be beautiful, to stir us towards joy, a passionate love of God, and the peace of his embrace. It’s happy music- lush, melodious, and beautiful. The problem, however, is that in some seasons of life, this kind of music sounds all too bland, sappy, and shallow.
Life is not an unbroken chorus of harmonious melodies. There are dissonant times- more often than we care to admit- in which the journey of faith is jagged and broken. We live with grief, anger, depression, confusion, betrayal… the darker things. Indeed they are painful to talk about, much less sing about in Christianity, but they exist. And we ignore this darker side to our peril.
The book of Psalms stand as a constant reminder that worshipping God is not always a pretty affair. One third of all the psalms are lament psalms. These psalms of lament push us to bring our darker, doubting, confused selves into worship, too. It’s not nice. In fact, this kind of worship is rough and ragged and seemingly impolite among mixed company who would rather us focus merely on the good, lovely things, meanwhile ignoring those parts of ourselves not yet healed and reconciled to God, to others, and to ourselves. Again, we simply cannot turn a blind eye to our darkness with any kind of integrity.
Take, for example, one of the more ugly, disturbing Psalms. It’s Psalm 137:
1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
3 for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
6 May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy.
7 Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did
on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
“tear it down to its foundations!”
8 Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
9 Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.
Try putting that into an average contemporary praise and worship song! It can’t be done. Why? By and large that genre of music doesn’t allow for despair, anger, and thoughts of revenge. A prayer for vengeful infanticide doesn’t quite fit into a nice Sunday morning song of praise, does it?
But psalms like this must be sung. At least I thought so.
Over the last three years, I’ve suffered from two bouts of depression. If you’ve ever been depressed, you know that the serene “la la la” music doesn’t always fit where you are. In fact, it can be quite grating.
As I was recovering from depression, I turned to writing music that captured some of where I had been and the determination I had to get better. Here is one example of that:
But I also wanted to capture the jarring feelings I had of feeling stuck in “the pit”- the feelings of despair, feeling displaced, hopeless yet longing, humiliated, worthless, silent but wanting to rage out, and just raw. For this, I had written some music, but couldn’t find a suitable text. Then, I stumbled upon Psalm 137, and with a little adjusting, the music and the Scripture became a perfect match:
Aside from sharing some of my songs (and I thank you for taking the time to listen!), I also want to encourage all of us who call ourselves Christian or any other people of faith to not be afraid of bringing our whole selves to God. There is room enough at God’s altar of worship for every part of us of us– the good and pretty as well as the dark and “unpretty”. Not only can music capture the more rapturous side of faith, but it can also powerfully affirm a faith that sputters and struggles in our brokenness.
We can bring our wounds to the nail scarred hands of God who walks with us on nail scarred feet. In our pain, we walk side by side with a God whose side was pierced and whose head bore a crown of thorns. This God, Jesus Christ, welcomes my pain and my wounds, especially in music.
Only when we’ve been honest with God, with ourselves and others, can we take those next steps to healing and wholeness. As we do, our praise and worship of God will be that much more authentically deep and riveting. It will be unstoppable.