Singing the Dark Psalms

The-Health-and-Wealth-GospelThe cover of the January 8, 2014 edition of Christian Century proclaimed, “Why We Need the Dark Psalms.”  In the cover article, writer Martin Tel reminds his readers of how the Western church has conveniently eliminated the dark psalms from its song repertoire in favor of happier psalms and hymns.

I have to admit that the Psalms are more representative of life than the hymnbook of the name-it-and-claim-it crowd on Sunday morning television.  As much as we’d like it to be otherwise, life is unfair, cruel, unpredictable, and ruthless.

Ask the poor mother whose husband just walked out on her to pursue another woman or drugs or gang-life.  She works two or three jobs in order to put food on her table and can’t afford the extras that would enable her to drive her own car to work or to school and training for better work.

Or the family of university student Lauren Bump who was found stabbed to death in a San Antonio park.  I’ll bet that the Psalms speak more to their hearts than a chirpy health and wealth gospel.  You can’t force irregular grief into that neat round hole that is sometimes, falsely, called the gospel.

At night the grieving cry out to God asking for relief.  Sometimes they even ask, “God, where are you?”

The Psalmists of Israel sang, “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.  I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold…I am weary with crying; my throat is parched.  My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.”  This hymn doesn’t get sung on the Hour of Power.  It doesn’t draw contributors or play well with the Power of Positive Thinking crowd.

The point of this is not to say that there is only one kind of song to sing.  The Psalms also have some wonderful, uplifting praise songs.  “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” is familiar to everyone.   “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” is hopeful.  “I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up…” recalls a time when God came to the rescue.

But I have a problem with folks who say that God doesn’t allow his people to suffer.

Jesus repeatedly warned his disciples about persecution.  And his ministry was most often focused on people who suffered in one way or another.  Jesus said, “You always have the poor with you….” admitting that poverty is a continuing human condition.  And what about all the poor who have profound, enduring faith in God?  Is their faith somehow inadequate?  Unlike the “faith” of Creflo Dollar who has a plane, a Rolls Royce, and mansions in two states.

The Psalms are deeply faithful and realistic.  There is almost a Psalm for every occasion, including when things look horribly hopeless and all you want to do is cry.  The Bible says there is something to be learned in those occasions, and God will walk with us through them, not around them.

“O Lord, God of my salvation, when, at night, I cry out in your presence, let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry.”  The harmonies of that song are comforting and lovely.  At other times the Psalms can be gritty and tear-stained.  But so is life.