The book of Psalms has long been one of my favorites to read and study, to meditate on and sing from. This collection of ancient songs, though inspired by God’s Spirit, were written from the human perspective. These were the prayers of real people who struggled at times. Many were written by David, who was about as flawed as you could get but was still called a man after God’s own heart.
In the Psalms there are songs of triumphant praise, songs of lament and confession, songs of thanksgiving, songs of wisdom, songs that foretell Jesus’ coming, and disturbing songs of revenge—or so it would seem. The song I’d like to look at it in coming weeks is one such song: Psalm 137.
If you’ve seen Godspell, you might remember this song (if I remember correctly) as the one the disciples sang before the Mount of Olives. Stephen Schwartz took some liberties by including Psalm 137 in his musical. Scripture simply says the disciples sang a hymn, not stating what it was. But perhaps Schwartz wrote it in, because the Hebrews found themselves yet again in captivity, this time to the Romans. Psalm 137 was likely composed after the Hebrews returned to Jerusalem by a priest who remembered sitting by the willows and mourning their predicament in Babylon.
By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. —Psalm 137:1 ESV
The Key of Perpetually Happy
For whatever reason, I seldom read forewords but I remember one by Sally Morgenthaler in Dan Kimball’s Emerging Worship. She deplored the state of worship in evangelical churches in the 1990s: we have shrunk
“the divine to the size of a three-point outline and four songs in the key of perpetually happy.”
That has always stuck with me, perhaps because I have to admit we in evangelical churches don’t know how to mourn collectively.
The week after Katrina hit the South, I remember sitting in my office that Saturday night re-planning our services. We just couldn’t worship with the same songs we normally sang. But I was hard pressed to find a set of contemporary songs that fit the mood I was anticipating. In a church where we very seldom used hymns, I had nowhere to turn but the dusty hymnal on my shelf.
I didn’t even know how to use one. Why weren’t the songs in alphabetical order?! But I found some in the topics index in the back. See our set from that weekend at the end of this post.
Abide with me—fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens, Lord, with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, abide with me.
—“Abide with Me”
Mourning with Those Who Mourn
Morgenthaler was right about worship music in the ‘90s and probably still about the music we’re singing more than a decade later. We are not serving our people well if we fail to give them songs to sing when life is difficult, which it mostly is. Certainly, we don’t want all our worship to be lament, because there is great hope in Christ. I’ll write about this soon. But on any given Sunday, there are bound to be men and women—fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, grandparents, widows—who have cried tears of anguish the night before. Do we know how to mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15)?
The 17th century Puritan Thomas Watson wrote:
“There are in music two unisons; if you strike one, you shall perceive the other to stir, as if it were affected.”
What Watson may have been referring to are overtones. A plucked string will resonate with many tones beyond the fundamental tone played. The science of it makes my brain hurt. I don’t think about it; I just appreciate it.
When we mourn with others, we create such tones, and we join together in the song of lament. So, if some Sunday morning we sing a sad song you can’t relate to, remember your brothers and sisters in prayer. Ask God to lead you to those who need comfort. Lend a shoulder and resonate with their song.
What do you think? Are there times for sad songs in church? Should we be so discouraging?