When church hymns don’t grieve with us

It’s hard to find solace in church when the hymns are mostly in major keys. In times of grieving, the Psalms can comfort us in the losses we all experience.

(RNS) — Ten years ago, two weeks after Easter, my wife, Phaedra, and I lost our first baby to a miscarriage. For months afterward, we carried around a gnawing pain that slowly ate us up from the inside, leaving us profoundly disoriented.

When our daughter Blythe came into the world a little over a year later, hope again surged in our hearts. Other children would now come easily, we thought. Our dream of a big family — five children! — could still be achieved, our advancing years notwithstanding.

Then, two days shy of Christmas in 2014, after months of fertility treatments, we lost another child to miscarriage. We’ve since been blessed to have adopted our beautiful son, Sebastian, but after our second miscarriage the pain of our losses caused our marriage to suffer. Small hurts flared up into angry conflict, old wounds resurfaced, and each of us resorted to false comforts that we hoped might dull the pain but which only made things worse.

At church, we looked for songs that could help us express our broken hearts and our raging words of protest. 

But that’s precisely what church didn’t have to offer.

In a 2014 essay, Glenn Packiam, pastor at New Life Church Downtown in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and a musician himself, explained why songs don’t speak to the condition of our hearts when we are grieving or lost. Packiam looked at the 104 contemporary worship songs that have made a list of 25 most-sung in U.S. churches over the past 25 years. None of these songs, he found, are in a minor key. Only nine include a minor motif.

A study by Duke Divinity School professor Lester Ruth came to similar conclusions. Ruth found abundant use of verbs like “praise,” “sing,” “lift” and “love.” Verbs that convey negative emotions appear only rarely. “Cry” occurs only six times, “fear” five times, “die” five times. “Mourn” fails to appear even once.

There is, however, a body of songs that Phaedra and I found comforting: the psalms, especially those known as the “lament psalms.”

The ancient songbook of Israel furnished us with edited language to give expression to our unedited emotions. Here were songs that named our sorrow in the company of the faithful, poems that gave coherent shape to our incoherent feelings. The lament of Psalm 5 says, “Give ear to my words, O Lord, Consider my groaning. Heed the sound of my cry for help.”

A two-page spread in Psalms. Photo courtesy of Alabaster Co.

During Lent especially, Christians can take advantage of the psalms as a source of comfort for the heartaches and painful losses that we all regularly experience. In this sense, the psalms show us a truer way to be human.

For starters, the psalms give voice to all sorts of sorrowful experiences. They make space for those who lack meaningful work, who struggle with unmanageable debt, who suffer chronic pain that robs them of joy in life’s simplest pleasures, who experience poverty or who struggle with suicidal thoughts.

The lament psalms remind us that we are not alone in these struggles. We aren’t the first to experience doubt or depression. Our experiences of sadness and anger are not original. Others have been there. Others have crafted words that bear repeating.

Most strikingly, perhaps, the lament psalms invite us to speak daringly to God. Finding himself in acute pain, the psalmist mouths off in Psalm 44, “Awake, O Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!”

In Psalm 13, he cries, “How long will you hide your face from me?” In Psalm 35, he exclaims, “Do not be silent!” 

It should be stressed that this is no faithless cry against the Almighty. This is the wrestling out of faith in the presence of the Lord. For the psalmist, there’s no stiff upper lip or “civilized” speech. There is only more intense address before the face of God.

This is why the lament psalms are full of imperatives. Forgive! Heal! Vindicate! Deliver! The most frequent imperative is: Remember! Remember! Remember!

Whether God responds or not, in the moment or much later, is another matter; yet such cries for help are always signs of an active, not a passive, faith. This kind of visceral honesty belongs at the heart of faithful prayer. 

Ignoring words such as these, as contemporary worship songs so often do, is to believe that God cannot handle our broken humanity. But he can. In Christ he suffers with us. In Christ he shares our brokenness. 

The theologian and reformer John Calvin once said that the psalms give us permission to lay before God all our infirmities, which we would be ashamed to confess before others. The Hebrew scholar Ellen Davis said something similar when she wrote that the psalms “enable us to bring into our conversation with God feelings and thoughts most of us think we need to get rid of before God will be interested in hearing from us.”

This is an incalculable gift. It’s a gift that Phaedra and I welcome almost daily as we mourn all the losses in our lives, alongside a community of those who seek to walk in the way of the wounded Christ.

It’s a gift the psalms offer to all of us who yearn to know that there is a God who draws near to the brokenhearted and who heals the broken in body and mind.

(W. David O. Taylor is assistant professor of theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. This essay is adapted from his new book, “Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life.” He can be reached on Twitter @wdavidotaylor. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)