The gathered church sings. That’s what we do. It’s not the only thing we do, but it is what we do.
For millennia, since song joined sacrifices in Israel’s worship at the dedication of Jerusalem’s Temple in David and Solomon’s liturgical reforms, the people of God have sung. In innumerable styles, with words sublimely profound and wonderfully plain, we have sung and offered our sacrifice of praise.
It’s who we are.
We sing to worship the Lord, we sing to bolster one another, we sing to ‘push back the dark’ by declaring the victory of Christ. But, occasionally, we struggle to sing. Especially I think we struggle to sing—or at least I struggle to sing—when it feels like we’re losing.
“Sing when you’re winning”
It’s a truism, for all we’re most likely to think of football stands (soccer for my American readers) and the loud delighted sound of hundreds of thousands of people bawling out their team’s song. I’m not really a football fan, but you can’t grow up in Southampton and not get a little misty eyed at rendition of O When the Saints—the Saints in question are the football team, for the uninitiated. While I doubt anyone grows misty eyed at Vindaloo, there’s still something powerful about the sound of it when the euphoria of an England victory is in the air.
But when the team isn’t doing so well, the singing falters. Some will try to keep it going to encourage the boys, and if some madman has brought a small brass band someone will play The Great Escape, but the sound will deaden and the lustre will dull.
We don’t naturally want to sing when we’re losing.
The Church Victorious
When the church gathers we sing, I hope, because we’re winning. The Christ has conquered Death! The tombs are overturned and the Adversary had been dealt the decisive blow. Jesus has defeated Sin, and Death, and the Devil. The Lord wins. When we gather to worship, part of what we do is declare to each other, and the heavens, and the watching earth, that Jesus wins.
Does it matter that we don’t sing when we’re losing? We’re winning, after all. The gates of Hell will not prevail against the church militant and marching.
That’s true friends, the church will be victorious at the end, because Jesus will be. But what about right now, does it always feel like we’re winning? Does it feel like you are?
Whether we’re talking about a culture that seems to be increasingly hostile to the Christian faith (which is true and not true, but feels true), or our own battles against sin, or friends who’ve let us down, or brutal suffering we’re struggling through, or churches riven by division over horrific abuse and stupid disagreements and everything in between—some Sundays it feels like we’re losing.
Some will tell us that we should remember we’re the victorious people and forget that feeling. I appreciate the sentiment, for all it’s unhelpful advice. That is who we are in Christ. But when our experiences don’t line up with our theology it isn’t always helpful to be told to conform your emotions.
Your emotions are not a statement of absolute truth. They are often mistaken. And yet, they tell us something about ourselves, if not always an accurate read on the outside world. When we’re hurting, being told to buck up our ideas and stop hurting isn’t always so helpful. Especially when our hurts are legitimate.
So we find ourselves in church on a Sunday morning, and a bunch of big triumphant songs are being sung, and we stand there feeling a little lost. We go through the motions but it feels very flat.
Songs of Lament
I’ve been there friends, I’m often there again. Anyone who never feels like this probably has a problem I imagine. Part of our disconnect is that we sing these big triumphant songs and we rarely sing laments. The Psalms aren’t like that, and I’ve found their emotional range very helpful, so it would be helpful for songwriters to write more corporate songs of lament and repentance. Then worship leaders also need to sing them.
I can guarantee that on any given Sunday singing a lament or a song of repentance will help some people, and that those who are not feeling those emotions that particular week will be helped by encountering the full range of emotion in Christian worship.
Especially in my charismatic circles, friends we need to become more comfortable with sadness and not rush to fix it. We need to become more comfortable with worship that wrestles with the dynamics of the human condition. It is unlikely that Bethel, Elevation or Hillsong will write these songs for us. (More of this please).
Sing when you’re losing
So what do you do? You’re there on Sunday and bitterly aware of your losses. What do you do? Sing, friends.
True godly joy and true godly sorrow are always experienced together to some extent. Joy with no place for sorrow, and sorrow with no place for joy, are not from Jesus. We can choose joy without eclipsing our sorrow. Sing the gospel, sing victory won and hold out to the Lord your litany of loss and in your singing pray with Habakkuk, “How Long O Lord?” (Habakkuk 1).
Take your sorrow and if you’re brave enough open your heart and paint your pain on your face with a salted brush. Cry your eyes out while you sing that the Christ has conquered death. Remind your soul that it is true that God is good, and Holy, and beyond your ken. Speak to your friends that the cross has paid the price and scoured the stain so that you can go free.
And do this not to gain perspective, though you might, and not because your loss was false or fake or fades but do it because it’s true. As is your pain. Sing when you’re losing.
These are prayers too.
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