Monday, March 21, 2011

When Lent Meets “Contemporary Worship”

One of the debatable challenges of “contemporary worship” is providing the depth and breadth of human responses necessary to address the negative baggage that accumulates in people’s lives.  In my experience, at least, most “contemporary” worship is filled with songs  that praise God for this or that positive attribute: grace, mercy, forgiveness, majesty, sovereignty, etc., but I have rarely, if ever, seen a contemporary song that really addressed the vicissitudes of human living.  In other words, it’s easy to find lines from the Psalms in contemporary songs that are “Give thanks to the Lord” or “Holy is the Lord” or “You are My King,” but it is difficult to find the verses “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22) or “My eyes are weary from my grief” (Psalm 6) or “My friend and neighbor you have put away from me and darkness is my only companion.” (Psalm 88)

The liturgical effect of this discrepancy is that when we get to Lent, our contemporary options for music are pretty limited.  Of course, Sundays are always celebrations of the resurrection, so we can make room for a kind of subdued joy, and since Lent continues to point us to the cross, there are plenty of contemporary options for unpacking themes of redemption and Christ’s death and resurrection.  But when it comes to communal or individual laments, in Lent or otherwise, words and music are sometimes disconcertingly absent.

To help me explore this a bit more, I turn to a video over at Clayfire Curator posted by Linda Parriot:

In the video Mark Pierson points out the danger in trying to gloss over the uncomfortable moments that are created by the very real and emotionally charged experiences of the absence of God.  Had Mark given into this temptation, glossing over the moment left by the parishioner who was speaking, he would have silenced the cries of lament of several other people and reinforced an image of God and the Church as a place that did not, would not, or could not make room for them in its midst.

This is the perpetual danger of worship that does not make room for lament, whether we’re talking about “contemporary” or “traditional” or “blended” or “alternative.”  This is the lesson of the Psalms, and we would do well to heed it: to lament is human, and to deny our humanity is inhumane.  Silencing the voice of the oppressed and marginalized is neither helpful nor Christ-like.  But even though the problem is not limited to “contemporary worship”, I firmly believe that we need a wider palate of contemporary expressions of lament and anger toward the absence of God and the injustices of the world.

How have you encountered these same limitations in worship?  Is the palate widening?  What possibilities exist out there for contemporary songs that allow the community to voice its complaints to God?

8 comments:

christian scharen said...

Thanks, Travis, for this thoughtful post.
One reason I like U2 is their mastery of the lament genre. Their song "Wake Up, Dead Man," from Pop, is version of Psalm 44 with a bit of Jesus asleep in the boat from Mark's gospel. Their Christmas lament, Peace on Earth, from All That You Can't Leave Behind, is another favorite. They often use one of these as a lead-in to their song Walk On. Is the wisdom there that we sing lament, but don't leave people there?http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nBwrX1MingU
It is interesting that Bono speaks of the key intersection of faith and the blues as 'truth-speaking'. James Cone says the same in his book The Spirituals and the Blues. Nick Wolterstorff, the philosopher and theologian wwritten powerfully about worship and lament in a new book out by Eerdmans (Hearing the Call: Liturgy, Justice, Church and World). His older book, Lament for a Son, is about his own struggle to deal with the death of his young adult son. As I think about this, the best people writing at the intersection of faith and lament are bands like U2 that are not in the Contemporary Christian Music fold but are Christians trying to sing life and faith. Switchfoot comes to mind. Their song Yesterdays from Oh! Gravity has the chorus "every lament is a love song" a line taken from the introduction of Wolterstorf's Lament for a Son. Here's that song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tysi3g-UYzk Thanks for the post.

SJ said...

Chris, it's somewhat sad that we have to turn away from "contemporary christian"music in order to find lamentation in a pop/rock song, but thank the Lord we have that in other genres.
Later this week, I'll review a cd that has song guitar-led laments, too.
Thanks for the post, Travis.

tim said...

My first thought was, "So Jesus followers in traditions that observe Lent aren't creative enough to write some great contemporary songs that suit the season?" And then I realized that the dominant culture of most liturgical churches are not even aware of much of the non-Lenten contemporary music. Our slice of Christendom tends to be designed to produce what we have: hymnody. We don't really nurture worship leaders and songwriters within our traditions. That may change, but we're so far behind the curve that it's difficult to catch up.

Travis said...

@ christian: I love your examples! In that same vein, you might also enjoy David Crowder's book, "Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven But Nobody Wants to Die: the Eschatology of Bluegrass." Similar sort of stuff going on there.

@ tim: I think you're spot on in your critique. Those traditions are so familiar with hymnody that it's difficult to produce "non-Lenten contemporary music." While we have songwriters like Marty Haugen and David Haas, they've formed their own genre--we don't have songwriters like Chris Tomlin or Twila Paris writing typical contemporary things that can expand our repertoire.

Thanks to you all for the great comments!

Meridith said...

You're right; the contemporary Christian repertoire is definitely dominated by "Yay God" songs. Only "Heart of Worship" came to mind as a Lenten contemporary song when I first read your post last night.

However, having the contemporary Christian radio station on in the car today led me to notice that the contemporary genre wasn’t quite as lacking in lament as I expected. Some “radio songs” cry out in words like we find in the darker Psalms, expressing the painful side of human life.

From “Held” by Natalie Grant:
Who told us we'd be rescued? What has changed and why should we be saved
from nightmares? We’re asking why this happens to us who have died to live. It's unfair.

From “Homesick” by Mercy Me
Help me, Lord, ‘cause I don’t understand your ways … But even if you showed me, the hurt would be the same.

From “Can You Hear Me?” by Mark Schultz
Down on my knees again tonight, hoping this prayer will turn out right … Can you hear me? Am I getting through tonight?


Also, the girl’s story in the video reminded me of a couple contemporary songs with similar stories, likewise reminding us of those who might be marginalized and also affirming belonging for everyone, regardless of past or current circumstances.

From “Does Anybody Hear Her?” by Casting Crowns
Does anybody hear her? Can anybody see?
Or does anybody even know she's going down today?
Under the shadow of our steeple, with all the lost and lonely people
Searching for the hope that's tucked away in you and me

From “We Are the Body” by Casting Crowns:
It's crowded in worship today as she slips in
Trying to fade into the faces
The girls' teasing laughter is carrying farther than they know
Farther than they know

But if we are the Body
Why aren't His arms reaching?
Why aren't His hands healing?
Why aren't His words teaching?


Although likewise less common, there are also contemporary songs that address overcoming sin and how much we need God’s help. A couple are older “Christian Rock” songs but still music that I’d put in the same category.

From "Flood" by Jars of Clay
I feel like I'm drowning. I need you to hold me. …

From “What if I Stumble?” by DC Talk:
What if I stumble? What if I fall? What if I lose my step and make fools of us all?
Will the love continue when the walk becomes a crawl?

From “In the Light” by DC Talk:
The disease of self runs through my blood, like a cancer fatal to my soul.

From East to West by Casting Crowns
Here I am, Lord, and I'm drowning in your sea of forgetfulness. The chains of yesterday surround me; I yearn for peace and rest.

So there are some songs in the contemporary Christian genre that express or at least relate to Lenten themes. Yet the more important question on this blog is how (or if) they should be used in worship. For me, none are songs our congregation has sung, although a couple of them have been done as solos. Some are situation-specific, some are probably too complicated to be practical for congregational singing. What do you think?


P.S. Writing this caught my attention that “Does Anybody Hear Her” connects nicely to this upcoming Sunday’s gospel reading (Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well). Maybe I’ll consider offering to sing it on Sunday. I’ll have to give it some thought, but regardless, it’s cool that reflecting and commenting on a blog post led to an immediately useful idea.

Meridith said...

(Sorry if this ends up as a duplicate post; I tried to comment last night but I don't think it posted.)


You're right; the contemporary Christian repertoire is definitely dominated by "Yay God" songs. Only "Heart of Worship" came to mind as a Lenten contemporary song when I first read your post.

However, listening more closely the contemporary Christian radio station in the car, I’ve noticed that the genre’s not quite so lacking. Here’s a list of some of the songs that cry out from the “ashes” for God, express feelings that God’s abandoned them, lament specific circumstances and/or otherwise seem fitting to Lenten themes, with some of the most notable lyrics that seem especially similar to the emotions of the darker Psalms.

Who told us we'd be rescued? What has changed and why should we be saved from nightmares? We’re asking why this happens to us who have died to live. It's unfair.
(From “Held” by Natalie Grant.)

Help me, Lord, ‘cause I don’t understand your ways … But even if you showed me, the hurt would be the same.
(From “Homesick” by Mercy Me)

Down on my knees again tonight, hoping this prayer will turn out right … Can you hear me? Am I getting through tonight?
(From “Can You Hear Me?” by Mark Schultz)

Here I am, Lord, and I'm drowning in your sea of forgetfulness. The chains of yesterday surround me; I yearn for peace and rest.”
(From East to West by Casting Crowns)

Tell me what's going on inside of me. I despise my own behavior.
(From “In the Light” by DC Talk)

The disease of self runs through my blood. It’s a cancer fatal to my soul.
(From “In the Light” by DC Talk)

I don't care if I break, at least I'll be feeling something. 'Cause just okay is not enough. Help me fight through the nothingness of life
(From “Motions” by Matthew West)

Also, the girl’s story in the video reminded me of the songs “We Are the Body” and “Does Anybody Hear Her?. Their similar stories remind us of marginalized and affirm belonging for everyone, regardless of past or current circumstances.


Although it’s not a Psalm – it’s the lyrics of a contemporary worship song – could this one even pass as a believable “darker” Psalm?

Rain, rain | on my face
It hasn't stopped | raining for days.
My world | is a flood
Slowly I become | one with the mud.

But I can't swim after | forty days,
And my mind is crushed by the | thrashing waves,
Lift me up so high that I | cannot fall,
Lord, | lift me up.
Lift me up when | I am falling
Lift me up - I'm weak and I'm | dying.
Lift me up - I need | you to hold me
Lift me up - Keep me from | drowning again

Downpour | on my soul
Splashing in the ocean, I'm | losing control.
Dark sky | all around.
I can't feel my feet touch | ing the ground.
Calm the storms that | drench my eyes,
Dry the | streams still flowing
Cast down all the | waves of sin
And the guilt that | overthrows me.

Lift me up when | I am falling
Lift me up - I'm weak | and I'm dying
Lift me up - I need | you to hold me
Lift me up - Keep me from | drowning again.


Even with identifying these, are they usable in worship? Some are so situation-specific, some are probably too complicated to be practical for congregational singing, etc. What do you think?


P.S. Writing this caught my attention that “Does Anybody Hear Her” connects nicely to this upcoming Sunday’s gospel reading (Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well). It probably wouldn’t be wise to add it in with what’s already planned, but it’s still cool that reflecting and commenting on a blog post led to an immediately useful idea.

Travis said...

Meridith,

Thanks for the great examples! I don't stay on top of the latest contemporary songs as much as I used to, so I'm admittedly out of the loop as to the current state of affairs. But ultimately, you're right--even though "Can You Hear Me?" by Mark Schultz is a great example (and one of my favorites), I personally wouldn't use it for congregational singing. So while it's nice to know that the repertoire is expanding a bit, I don't find that enough contemporary songs (lament or otherwise) are truly fit for congregational singing.

And it's humbling to know that this blog has been helpful to at least one person in spurring some worship ideas! I think I can speak for all three of us here at Old Worship New that it's been our hope that this wouldn't just be a place for academic and theoretical discussion but a place that could inspire, to use your words, "immediately useful ideas."

Thanks for your feedback, and for demonstrating that the contemporary genre isn't as lacking in lament as it used to be (or at least as I thought it was...).

Meridith said...

Interesting observation now that I'm focusing on this week's themes with this still recently in mind ... DC Talk's In the Light would be extremely well-fitting for this coming Sunday.

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