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Sunday Mourning

At the start of the year I wrote about the alienation of being bombarded by seasonal jollity when (for personal and/or socially conscious reasons) you're really not 'feeling it', nor sure that you should be. Well, in my church tradition the jollity tends to keep on coming – as, for me, does the disconnect...

         Let’s make a joyful noise before the Lord!
         Maracas at the ready, girls and boys;
         Before we take our seats and Kevin brings a word,
         Let’s make a joyful noise.
         Forget fake news; spurn melancholy’s ploys;
         My friends, have we not overcome the world?
         Then stand together, with triumphant poise!
         There is a time for mourning, we’re assured –
         But Sunday morning caters otherwise.
         So quick, before we hear what cannot be unheard,
         Let’s make a joyful noise.
         Carolyn Whitnall, 2018.

"Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus." (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

Amen to that. I am a firm believer in 'rejoicing always', even (or especially) when it seems most difficult. Doing so (if I manage to) proclaims and increases my faith in God's faithfulness and worthiness; it helps to shift focus from myself; it invites hope into places of brokenness.

And I've no doubt that this godly observance is one of the things going on during that bit on a Sunday morning when Christians of a certain custom get together to 'worship the Lord in song'. Only, I can't shake the nagging misgiving that it's not the only thing going on, and that some of the other things tangled up in it are not quite so godly or observant – indeed, not quite so 'worshipful'.

So, without wishing to be cynical, and without dismissing the good – there is so much good; I glimpse and hear it in the faces and voices of my church family as they forget themselves in wondering praise – here's three of those possible things, and why they get to me.

Grief management

It's trivial to point out that all of us hurt at one time or another – mentality or physically, circumstantially or 'inexplicably', at varying intensity and duration. And even if we find ourselves in seasons of personal joy and fulfilment we are (or should be) painfully aware of an immensity of human hurt, dishearteningly much of which is inflicted by human activity – patterns of abuse and systemic injustice that we all of us help to perpetuate. In the words of Jewish theologian and activist Abraham Heschel: "there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings ... [In] regard to cruelties committed in the name of a free society, some are guilty, while all are responsible." [1]

Church – at least, the expressions of church with which I'm most familiar – generally appears to be intimidated by grief. It is an embarrassment to our claims of victory in Christ; an "act of unfaith"; a problem to be fixed and/or explained away. Praise songs help us race from the place of pain to a platform of cheerful optimism. For the most part, when we speak or sing about anything difficult or negative, we do so from the sanitised perspective of God having already rescued us from it. "I’m no longer a slave to fear; I am a child of God" (Bethel Music). To quote a rather more comprehensive blog post by Matt Lynch, "What a wonderful place to be, and may the number of those who experience this freedom only increase! However, what about those trapped in fear … in pain … in sorrow … in sadness … in sickness? Why not linger lyrically in the unresolved, and from there, cry out to God?" Not to mention a world trapped in fear, pain and sorrow, that – when we fail to make room for lament in our corporate worship – we risk anaesthetising ourselves to in the name of 'rejoicing at all times'.

It is worth noting that the Bible is nowhere near as embarrassed or intimidated by suffering as Christians can be. The book of Job exudes personal pain; the prophets are bursting with corporate anguish. Ecclesiastes reminds us that there is "a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance" (Ecclesiastes 3:4); Paul wants the churches he serves to "Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn" (Romans 12:15); Jesus grieves over Jerusalem, and the hypocrisy of the religious establishment (Matthew 23). And very many of the Psalms – several of which are written to be sung communally (see previously-mentioned blog post) – are laments, even when they also include praise (Psalm 44, 60, 74, 79, 80, 85, 90). As Walter Brueggemann puts it (although in a book that I haven't read yet): "It is clear that a church that goes on singing ‘happy songs’ in the face of raw reality is doing something very different from what the Bible itself does." [2]


More troubling than when church becomes distanced from pain and injustice is when church engages in the world in ways which seem to proactively cause pain and reproduce injustice. Triumphalism reasons that "we know the truth, and the more power and influence we have, the more power and influence we have to spread the truth," without considering whether the accumulation of power and influence itself might contradict the upside-down truth of Jesus' servant kingship; "we have Almighty God on our side and are destined for victory," without looking to the cross to re-define our whole idea of victory; "the world out there is evil and we are a force for good," without reflecting that even the New Testament churches were messy at best, requiring frequent warnings against corruption and distortion, and that it is God's (unforced) goodness that has the power to change and heal, not our imperfect, oft-self-righteous ideals. One particularly stark example of triumphalism at play at the moment – about which I've written already at gloomy length – is the instrumental role of (white) evangelicals in electing Trump and continuing to uphold and promote his oppressive, dehumanising values, all the while celebrating the associated 'bolstering' of the church's position in US society.

Many Christian song lyrics read extremely uncomfortably with all of this in mind. "Our God is greater ... our God is stronger ... "; "He's roaring with power, and fighting our battles"; "Every giant will fall, every mountain will move ... Your love is my battle cry"; "I am a conqueror and co-heir with Christ ... God is my victory and He is here". It's perfectly possible to sing them without triumphalism – from what I know of my own church's worship team, they are a passionate and humble bunch who probably have no difficulty making such proclamations from a place of God-centred awe and adoration rather than an us-focused sense of aggrandisement. Nor are the imagery and language that they use inconsistent with imagery and language found in the Bible. But what about congregation members without the Biblical literacy to put into proper context and perspective a few short-hand rhyming one-liners? What about visitors and 'outsiders' whose frame of reference for interpretation is Christendom's visible (not always Christ-like) influence in history and current affairs? I have no complaint against military metaphors and declarations of victory and reassurances that we have overcome the world as long as adequate time and attention is given during the service to responsibly unpack those scriptural concepts so that nobody leaves with the impression that we are seeking to establish some sort of martial theocracy with Franklin Graham as chief politico-theological advisor. But if we want to fit in all the other things we usually fit in to our usual 90 minutes, perhaps we'd rather simply draw our inspiration for sung worship from the many parts of the Bible that haven't become loaded with those potential associations to begin with(?)


Those of us on the favoured side of capitalist globalisation can be so immersed in consumerism that we don't even see it. To borrow from David Foster Wallace [3] it is 'the water that we swim in'. And local church can (I worry) be just as engaged in the business of supply and demand as (e.g.) your local coffee shop – which, as it happens, is competing for the same Sunday morning slot in your schedule with a temptingly-original, locally-sourced, reasonably-priced brunch menu. Would-be congregants need to be catered to; they need to have their expectations met; they need to walk out satisfied and keen to come back next week for more. Bums-on-seats is the obvious success metric, and in order to get and keep those numbers up, we need a program that is more appealing than sleep, more appealing than the brunch menu, and more appealing than the Sunday morning service 200 meters down the road.

And there is no doubt that people would rather be cheered up than brought down. Music is a powerful tool to that end – research has shown that communal singing improves health and happiness. And yes, worship music is more than just singing, and yes many Christians (me included) report experiencing the presence of God more tangibly in that context, and no I am not saying that the general enjoyability and benefits of singing 'explain away' this experience. But I don't think it diminishes the experience to suggest that the act of singing helps to make one more receptive to it, and I do think it needs to be acknowledged that one can have a positive experience from singing which is not divine in any unusual way (though all good things are from God, and God is always there whether we 'feel' that presence or not, so there's lines I prefer not to draw).

I tense up at any talk of 'great worship'. Maybe I am being over-sensitive, but there is a very real danger of approaching praise like a personally-gratifying fix which, like all fixes, keeps people coming back for more – each time with certain expectations and requirements, and the temptation to feel dissatisfied if those aren't met. Not only does this commodify what is supposed to be an act of self-forgoing giving, but our relationships with one another acquire a transactional aspect –  rather than family together, we become content/service providers and recipients.

Then again, the bottom line is folks do keep coming back ... the numbers are healthy and growing ... so our existing strategy must be working, right? Surely that's the main thing.

It is hard to argue with such reasoning. Of course I want to see more people knowing and following Jesus (assuming that Sunday morning headcounts are a meaningful proxy for that). And yet – as per those oft-quoted words of Mother Teresa – I don't believe we're called to be 'successful', rather to be faithful. By my understanding, a faithful, Jesus-centred community is one which models a profound alternative to the dominant (and dominating) culture, not models itself on it. "[O]ffer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind..." (Romans 12:1b-2a). This takes courage, because we may well end up losers according to the obvious metrics – but we have been set a compelling precedent (1 Phil 2:1-11). Besides, if our confidence in God is as sincere and steadfast as we sing it to be, we should have no problem trusting Him to do what He will with our faithfulness. "If you remain in me [Jesus] and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing." (John 15:1-8). I'd like to think that's all the 'strategy' we need...

[1] Abraham Heschel, "The Reasons for My Involvement in the Peace Movement" (1973). (N.B. I'm currently reading, and loving, The Prophets).

[2] Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984. p. 51-52.

[3] I am also reading Infinite Jest at the moment. It's impressive, if problematic in places, though I'm tempted to joke that it lives up to its first promise more than its second.

[Thumbnail image: "Maraca" by LadyDragonflyCC; is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.]


Graham said…
Very well written. Those that dare to venture in will find it heart-warming and uplifting. You provide a platform for honest debate and help restore a sense of reality in the church. It's right to push the boundaries of the Evangelimould in which so many of us are unwittingly trapped.