Songs of fantasy … Songs of reality — Hugh Wetmore

[notice]Hugh Wetmore is a songwriter and student of worship trends. He invites you to join the worship conversation by commenting on his monthly column.[/notice]

A close friend wrote to me asking for prayer as he faces a crisis of rejection and slander-gossip. A former pastor had publicly attacked him over some years, undermining his ministry. It affected his credibility as a Christian leader. He is promoting God’s truth — and now has many “enemies”. This common situation is not adequately addressed in the usual songs we sing. But it saturates the Psalm-songs. Allow me to share my response, in the hope that it will encourage all of us who lead worship to include real-life Psalm-singing in our services. (I’ve removed all personal references to preserve his anonymity.)

“Your email comes at a time when I am reading through the Psalms in my daily devotions, and am just over a third of my way through them. This time round, I’ve been impressed by a dominant theme … the psalmist (usually David) seems to be always under the attack of  ‘enemies’, and continually turns to the Lord for relief and sometimes for vindication. Here’s a random selection of psalms that use the word ‘enemies’: 21, 23, 25, 27, 30, 31, 38, 41, 44, 54, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60. Sometimes these enemies are his close friends who betray him (Psalm 55:12-15).

“Your email came when I had begun writing my Worship Column for Gateway News along similar lines. You are suffering, and I believe you need the message of the Psalms in their totality.”

The absence of the ‘enemies’ theme
I have been pondering this phenomenon for some days now. With my special interest in congregational singing, I’ve been struck by the absence of the “enemies” theme in current contemporary worship songs (and even in the traditional hymns). I’m convinced now that our churches, especially in the songs we sing, are depriving Christians of God’s empathy with His persecuted and suffering children. No doubt you, as well as I, have been so deprived.

Yet Ephesians 5:18-20 and Colossians 3:16 specifically instruct us to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. I remember how my Baptist dad wisely exposed us, in our teens, to other churches … Salvation Army, Methodist, Church of England. In the latter, I remember being surprised to be singing Psalms word for word, just as I’d read them in the Bible. (But I admit, I didn’t like the chant-tunes!) Recently I’ve been re-writing some of the Psalms, rhyming them into well-known tunes. My New Year sermon was an exposition of Psalm 90, and we sang Psalm 90 twice — Watts, then Wetmore versions. Some commented afterwards how good to sing them as well as read them. Two actually asked for more such song-psalms.

The paucity of Psalm-singing today is probably due to two reasons:

  • Most hymns, songs are written by Christians in the relatively comfortable West where outright persecution by enemies of the faith is rare.
  • There is a tendency to separate our Christian experience from the harsh realities of the hostile world in which we live. We live in a fantasy world where, after “I saw the light … (there’s) no more sorrow in sight”, where “heaven above is softer blue, earth below is sweeter green, something lives in every hue Christless eyes have never seen.” (I have a friend who actually used this hymn as a reason, among others, for rejecting the Christ he had once served. Its hypocrisy caused him to stumble.)

Fantasy Sunday-world vs reality Monday-world
Then after our fantasy Sunday-world, we hit the real Monday-world. Here there are many enemies, who drop trouble on me, and in anger they bear grudges against me (Psalm 55:3), where there are snarling dogs (Psalm 59:6, 15) yapping at our heels, …. and we find our cloud nine religion has not equipped us for this real world. Because we’ve not sung the Psalms in church! (I speak simplistically to make my point!)

This is especially true of some evangelical churches where the lie is preached that “when you come to Christ all your troubles are over”; and of some charismatic and faith churches where, if you “speak negatively”, you are not enjoying your Christian privilege of living above troubles. Rather, they say you should speak positively in all circumstances, because this will actually change your circumstances. They misinterpret Proverbs 18:21 about the tongue to justify their unrealistic optimism. I spoke to an 86-year old friend who is going through a torrid time, but won’t admit it. “I’m always fine” he said, “Everything is going hunky-dory” … as if by being in denial of reality the reality does not exist.

Even if our Sunday Song does source itself in the Psalms, it cherry-picks the comfy upbeat verses, and ignores the realistic verses in that same psalm. As a deer pants for the water … revels in Psalm 42:1, but then ignores the rest of the Psalm which admits depression, and laments about the tears of loneliness among unbelievers who mock those who have faith in God. It’s as if we mustn’t sing about such things today, even though they are in God’s own Song-book!

Censoring the real-life context
Another popular song sings Be exalted O God above the heavens! Let your glory be over all the earth! (Psalm 57:11). But it has been ripped out of its biblical, real-life context. These words are a repeated refrain (v5, 11) of a believer who openly admits to being buffeted by the storms of destruction (v1), whose soul is in the midst of lions and is surrounded by men whose tongues are sharp swords (v4). His soul is bowed down because they’ve dug a pit for me (v6). It is out of this context that he cries out to the Lord for mercy and salvation (v1, 3) for which he will give thanks to the Lord among these people (v9), and sings his refrain in v5, 11. We choose the praisy refrain, but censor out its real-life context.

What does this say to us who choose the song-list for our Sunday worship? It says we must include some psalms, together with hymns and spiritual songs. It warns us not to edit out the lyrics which describe negative experiences — depression, loneliness and the slander of our enemies. It says we must bring God’s good news of deliverance into the real, tough experiences of our 21st century lives. It calls us to be real, honest and transparent — and not live in denial of daily reality. It requires us to be practically relevant in our Christian living.

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