Through the Psalter, the traditional liturgy of the Church has been rich with lament and thereby remained pastorally pertinent. Sadly, one must seriously question whether this remains the case within the churches with which I am most familiar. No collection of hymns or songs has ever been flawless, and every generation of the church has managed to produce its fair share of poetic and musical dross. But it is fair to say that the majority of contemporary songs are up-beat in tempo and that the balance between the affective and the confessional and declaratory has swung in favor of the former. This style of worship focuses almost exclusively on praise, adoration, and thanksgiving, with clapping and other expressions of exuberance.
This form of worship renders it difficult to opt out, to observe, to sit, and to pray quietly while the performance proceeds. For the person who comes as this psalmist comes, for the person wrestling with any form of clinical depression, for the person tortured by the breaking down of relationships, for the recently bereaved, all this is unrelieved torture.
Any liturgy that does not include regular and broad engagement with the Psalter could, in these respects, be similarly faulted. Time and again the psalmists put into words, with disarming candor, feelings and prayers that most of us would struggle to express but echo nonetheless.
Am I angry with God? There are psalms that name this anger. Am I isolated and opposed? There are psalms that express this loneliness. Am I despairing of justice in human society or international relations? That same despair finds voice here. Am I fearful concerning the future for myself and for those I love? There are psalms that reassure me that I am not alone in such fears.
I believe that the Resurrection overwhelms the Cross, but not in a way that negates it or obscures it. It is the crucified one who is risen just as it is the risen one who was crucified. The risen and ascended Christ still bears the marks of slaughter.
Despair is not the last word
I have not taken lithium for almost thirty years. As my closest family and friends will tell you, I have certainly not "recovered." I've just spent thirty years developing strategies for coping.
In some respects the depression has eased—I am rarely rendered completely numb and incapable. I rarely now descend to uncontrollable weeping (though it still can happen). But in other respects it is worse; it is more continuous. There used to be periods when I felt entirely "normal," but now, even in the best of times, the darkness is a lingering presence on the margins of my mind, never wholly absent, always threatening. Is this darkness truly unending? Will it endure forever?
In Psalm 22 the psalmist cries out: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" But he also confesses God's faithfulness while knowing no relief from his distress, no light in the darkness, no break in the silence. Christ's cry of dereliction on the cross echoes the psalmist's cry, but we know that his cry was not the last word, nor the end of the story. Our cries can similarly echo the psalmist's cry, and when we struggle to express our anguish, we can make his words our own. But we cannot pray his prayer without coming to his confession, without knowing that, as an outcome of Jesus' unique suffering, our suffering and distress is not the last word. We do not suffer alone and our suffering cannot possibly be final or ultimate.
The Son of Man has suffered, and nothing, not even our despairing desolation, can ever be quite the same again.
Excerpted from Why Have You Forsaken Me? (Cascade, 2012)
John E. Colwell is Minister of Budleigh Salterton Baptist Church, Devon and Honorary Research Fellow at Spurgeon's College, London.
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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