Saturday, December 22, 2007

Singing the Blues in Church - Hughes Oliphant Old

Is the Preoccupation with Positive Choruses Truly Biblical?

-Worship is not simply about positive edification
-The Bible includes the entire gamut of human emotion
-Honest worship also involves lament, confession and supplication

There are those who might insist that whatever we do in church ought to be positive and uplifting. And I suppose such people would have trouble with singing the blues in church. The problem with this is that so much biblical prayer is simply crying before God.

What else did Hannah do when she went to the sanctuary at Shiloh (I Samuel 1:1-28)? She couldn't have a baby and she poured out her tears right there in church where the priest Eli, and everyone else, could hear her. Eli thought it was disgraceful, but where else are you going to cry if you can't cry before God in church?

Emotional Diversity
The Psalms are filled with lamentations, prayers that were used in the worship of the temple to pour out the sorrows of Israel before God: "Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O LORD. Lord, hear my voice: let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications" (Psalm 130:1-2, KJV).

A psalm which so many Christians have committed to memory and have made part of their prayers day after day is Psalm 51: 1-2 (KJV): "Have mercy upon me, O God, According to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin."

This is a prayer of confession which the Church has prayed for centuries. Sometimes it has been sung as a metrical psalm, sometimes it has been read as a responsive reading, sometimes as a choral anthem, but it has been prayed again and again in all kinds of services.

Even Jesus cried before God. It is He, after all, who sets the example of Christian prayer. When He offered himself up on the cross, that supreme act of human worship, He prayed Psalm 22: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" How profoundly Jesus cried before God! There are times when all of us follow Him as His disciples, and cry before our Father.

A Call to Honesty
Singing the blues in church is a matter of honesty. So many of us come to church with a big load of troubles. We want to lay them down in God's presence, spread them out in God's sight and know that He takes them up and sometimes does away with them. We need to be open about our sins, open to God, at least, and we need to hear a word of forgiveness about those sins.

From the standpoint of Scripture nothing could falsify our worship more than coming to church and acting as though everything were just great. The old theme song of Christian optimism, "God is in his heaven and everything is well with the world," is just not very realistic. There are too many things in this world which are contradicting God's rule. There are too many undercover agents trying to break up God's kingdom. The devil seems to be running wild.

Worshiping by Confession
At the time of the Protestant Reformation many churches began the service of worship with a prayer of confession and an assurance of pardon. Prayers of confession and supplication have been characteristic of classical Protestant worship ever since.

A good biblically grounded prayer of confession might take into account the prayer of the prodigal son when he returned home to his father: "Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son" (Luke 15:21, KJV).

There are, of course, all kinds of biblical examples of prayers that pour out our pains before God. There are the lamentations of Jeremiah and the prayer of confession in the ninth chapter of Daniel. Then in the Gospels we find the blind man's prayer: "Son of David, have mercy on me."

A Rich and Full Witness
In my years as a pastor I always found it very helpful to lead the congregation in prayer by means of biblical imagery. I found that people understand the biblical imagery much better than we might imagine. I tried to model my prayers on biblical examples and think them out in the biblical vocabulary. Scripture gives us a very definite prayer language, and those who have the responsibility of leading the church in prayer are wise to study that prayer language, meditate upon it, and adapt it to their congregations.

"Nobody knows the troubles I've seen, nobody knows but Jesus." This is the message of Christians down through the centuries. To make this witness is true biblical worship.

Hughes Oliphant Old, formerly pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in West Lafayette, Ind., currently teaches worship at Princeton Theological Seminary.

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