I scanned the congregation as we finished our third song extolling the wonders of God and our joy for all God has done. As we started the fourth song with the same spirit of energetic celebration, I glimpsed a friend, sitting in the back, who had told me that week that his wife had cheated on him and wanted a divorce.
At that moment the lyrics kicked in, and we started singing joyful thanks for God's abundant blessings. The words I was singing suddenly felt forced, false, and even mocking. I had to spend the rest of the song looking away from my friend, who stood with his mouth shut, staring out the window.
After the service I approached him and said, "I was thinking about you the entire service; it must have been painful sitting through some of the songs."
"Yeah," he said. "I'm not sure this is a good time for me to attend church. It is painful to observe celebration and not be able to join. It accentuates my loneliness."
I left thinking there was something very wrong with this situation.
Worship is often equated with joy and celebration. It's a kind of pep rally to inspire thanksgiving and excitement about who God is. While this is a legitimate aspect of worship, it is incomplete.
This comes into full relief when we consider the experience of my friend and even more so when we read the book of Psalms as a record of ancient worship and a rich resource for our worship today.
An important pattern in the psalms is that they repeatedly employ a narrative arc, a movement from grief and lamentation to celebration and joy. This pattern is strikingly absent in many worship services today. We tend to deny our suffering in favor of celebration.
Perhaps this is because we mistakenly believe that to acknowledge suffering might mean we are ungrateful or lacking in faith. More likely it is because grief is an inefficient and unpleasant emotion that conflicts with the efficient and entertaining biases of today's culture.
This repression of our heaviest emotions is tragic, and over time it leads to an inauthentic and unhealthy spiritual life.
Authenticity and integrity in worship means expressing both lament and praise. Each element completes the other. Without lament, praise is little more than shallow sentimentality and a denial of life's struggles and sin. Without praise, lament is a denial of hope and grace, both of which are central to our life of faith and to God's promises.
To value one over the other is like suggesting that breathing in is more important than breathing out.
This is not only an issue of authenticity and integrity. It cuts to the heart of hospitality and pastoral sensitivity. For those coming to a worship service immersed in pain, celebratory praise takes on a mocking tone that excludes them. They are unable to join honestly in these choruses.