Hugh Wetmore is a songwriter and student of worship trends. He invites you to join the worship conversation by commenting on his monthly column.
The other Sunday I listened to the world news before coming to our worship service. The news told of those destructive fires in Australia, of floods in Italy, of the corona-virus in China, of schoolchildren abducted in South Africa. Then I entered another world: In church we sang a hymn with these lovely lyrics: “In all the world around me I see His loving care”. Somehow I couldn’t sing those lines. They described a fantasy world disconnected from the real world I was living in.
Are our songs rooted in reality? Or do they describe a make-belief experience created by our wishful imagination? Is our Christianity real?
You know someone who has been treated unjustly by a heartless employer. Or someone who has been charged unjustly, but the court rules in favour of his oppressor. You ponder why you must pay, via your taxes, for the criminal’s board and lodging in jail, when that criminal stole your life savings and you can hardly pay for your own rent and food.
So Psalm 58 speaks to you in your situation: “Rulers do not speak justly. In their hearts they devise injustice, their hands mete out violence. They are like snakes spitting venom.” Can you think of a worship song that sings about this kind of injustice? Such a song still waits to be written!
Maybe you, yourself, have enemies who conspire against you, though you have not wronged them in any way. Psalm 59 speaks to you directly: “See how they lie in wait for me! Fierce men conspire against me for no offence or sin of mine. I’ve done no wrong, yet they are ready to attack me. O Lord God Almighty, rouse yourself to punish them.” But you wish that you could sing your experience, your feelings, in church on Sunday! Those super-spiritual worshipers live in their fantasy world where real things don’t happen to real people.
Many of those who’ve been buffeted by trouble feel that God has rejected them, and they must fight their battles all alone. God is far away. Then they find comfort in the fact that King David himself can identify with their God-forsaken feelings. He even wrote a song about this: “You have rejected us O God, you have been angry. Now restore us!” (Psalm 60) Why do we not sing such songs in our churches today?
The Psalm-songs in the Bible are gutsy, they are real. Triggered by the psalmist’s own life experiences, they do not sing about a fantasy land where everything is hunk-dory because God is perpetually blessing us. They sing about the bad times as well as the good times. They complain to God that He is treating them unfairly, while others praise God who has smothered them with good things.
In every congregation there will be some who are bursting with joy, while others are groaning in suffering. These congregations will identify with Psalms of gladness as well as with Psalms of sadness. Our song-lists should encompass all these moods so that everyone will identify with a song that fits their circumstances.
Contemporary songwriters tend to avoid sad songs of gloom. They are biased in favour of upbeat songs that reflect the Christian life as a permanent feel-good experience — “I’m happy all the day!”.
If God’s inspired songbook, the Psalms, can freely reflect life’s realities, let’s make sure that our current life realities give honest substance to our singing in church next Sunday! Let’s give hope to our congregation that God understands and meets us in the tough realities of everyday life.