Saturday 18th April 2020

I switched on my desktop computer this morning to find that the Church Times was offering me a series of interviews of songwriters. I don’t have a fully-encompassing membership for on-line access to the Church Times so I looked down the selection of interviews in the Church Times email which included writers such as Nick Cave, Michael Kiwanuka, Grace Petrie and Matt Redman, and decided to read just one. The article article about Matt Redman which was first published in 2016 when “10,000 Reasons: Stories of faith, hope, and thankfulness inspired by the worship anthem,” by Matt Redman and Craig Borlase (David C. Cook, £9.99) was published. [1]

In Madeleine Davies interview with Matt Redman, a number of things caught my eye. [2] They chimed with some thoughts that I had been having about the value of the Psalms in our worship.

1. First, some things from that interview ….

Matt Redman

“While undergoing brain surgery in 2015, Reuben Hill was asked by surgeons to sing, to reassure them that the speech centre of his brain was unharmed. The song he chose was “10,000 Reasons”, [1] by Matt Redman and Jonas Myrin. “Whatever may pass And whatever lies before me Let me be singing When the evening comes,” he sang.” – Madeleine Davies starts her article with this very short story. There are songs which get inside our heads, and clearly this one was right at the forefront of Reuben Hill’s thinking.

She goes on to say that, “The song echoes both Psalm 103 in its refrain (“Bless the Lord, O my soul”) and those that find the Psalmist exhorting himself to remember God’s goodness. It also contains a nod to John Newton’s “Amazing Grace” in its anticipatory verse (“Still my soul will sing Your praise unending, ten thousand years, and then forevermore”).” Two powerful passages from scripture and the hymnody of the past.

Speaking of those words, Ms Davies continues to say that the inspiration for this verse, with its reference to failing strength and the end drawing near, was one of Matt Redman’s favourite lines which come from Charles Wesley’s “In age and feebleness extreme”, dictated on his death bed in 1788. She quotes:

In age and feebleness extreme,
Who shall a helpless worm redeem?
Jesus, my only hope Thou art,
Strength of my failing flesh and heart:
O could I catch one smile from Thee,
And drop into eternity!

It seems that Matt Redman found/finds great inspiration in the Psalms: “Pointing to the high proportion of laments in the Book of Psalms, Mr Redman spoke of the importance of songs that address pain. ‘There is no one who escapes pain, heartache, confusion, stress. . . It’s not just relevant to people in church. If you sing honest songs that are raw and real, they will be relevant to people’s lives outside the church’. . .”

“Young people needed to be reminded,” says Matt Redman, that “the Church is an ancient family, and we have this rich family history and heritage. . . It’s best not to write that off as we are standing on the shoulders of giants.”

2. Now, the Psalms

These comments apply to our own historic hymnody, which  still speaks with great power, perhaps because it is rooted as much in pain as in joy. But they apply most fully to the hymnody of the scriptures – the 150 Psalms recorded for us in the Hebrew Scriptures and appropriated by Christians in our Old Testament.

We struggle with the text of some of these Psalms because they seem to be either too negative, or too aggressive. They express sentiments that we feel perhaps should not be voiced out loud. So, we bracket off the parts that upset our sensitive natures – the Anglican church literally does this in its Psalmody. We want to make our worship about love and faithfulness and we want it to be about expressing positive thoughts. ………..

When we do this, we misunderstand what Psalms are primarily about. They are not so much about praying the vengeance of God on our enemies but rather about the honest expression of the depth of our feeling and at times our anger. This is lament rather than aggression. It is the honest expression of our hurt, our anger, our fear, our loss to the only person who ultimately can carry those feelings and who can help us through them – to God.

The Lament is something vital for our times. Something which, for our sanity, we cannot do without.

This week, Jo (my wife) and I have been reading a psalm each morning. [3] We are doing it because we have set these psalms for our church congregations to read as a shared act of prayer each day. Over the past three days we have read Psalm 77, [4] Psalm 82 [5] and Psalm 86. [6] They are psalms which express something of the confusion and fear of the times which our world is experiencing at the moment. Listen to a few of the sentiments expressed:

Psalm 77: 1-3

I cry aloud to God;  I cry aloud to God and he will hear me. In the day of my trouble I have sought the Lord;  by night my hand is stretched out and does not tire; my soul refuses comfort. I think upon God and I groan; I ponder, and my spirit faints.

Psalm 77: 6-9

I commune with my heart in the night; my spirit searches for understanding. Will the Lord cast us off for ever? Will he no more show us his favour? Has his loving mercy clean gone for ever? Has his promise come to an end for evermore? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he shut up his compassion in displeasure?

Psalm 82: 2-4, 8

‘How long [O. Lord] will you judge unjustly and show such favour to the wicked? ‘You were to judge the weak and the orphan; defend the right of the humble and needy; ‘Rescue the weak and the poor; deliver them from the hand of the wicked. …………………

Arise, O God and judge the earth, for it is you that shall take all nations for your possession.

Psalm 86: 1-4

Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and in misery. Preserve my soul, for I am faithful; save your servant, for I put my trust in you. Be merciful to me, O Lord, for you are my God; I call upon you all the day long. Gladden the soul of your servant, for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.

It is only through the honest expression of what we feel, to a God who hears our prayer, that we will find any hope and peace. I still remember well the time when I was suffering with acute depression and the only part of scripture that I could read was the Psalms. I found in them the honest expression of my fear, my doubts and my confusion.

“There are times when life is so hard, when those who are against us appear to be so powerful that we fall into a state of utter despair. We feel our ……… enemies have such control over our lives and fate that we begin to doubt whether even God has the power to save us from this disaster. ………….”

In these times, when we are losing those we love and respect, to a pandemic that seems to be completely beyond our control; when we are contemplating funerals with few or no mourners; when careworkers and NHS staff have to watch those they are caring for facing painful struggle at the end of their lives, while at the same time risking their own health and well-being; when hospital chaplains stand alongside those who work so hard but can only offer their presence in the midst of that pain; and when we cannot come together physically to worship. It is the Psalms which offer us the opportunity for honest grappling with pain that we most need. No feelings need to be excluded when we express our concerns to God – our anger, our doubt, our anxiety, our hurt are all acceptable, all embraced by the love of God.

And as God sits with us in the pain he continues to point so very gently to the Cross. The place where God, in the person of Jesus, reached out arms of love and embraced all that we could lay on him. The Cross is the measure of the love of God, there can be no hiding from the truth at the Cross. Great pain, unbelievable anguish, harsh actions by those who do not understand, faithless and faithful together in one place. the whole of life caught, trapped in the experience of a few hours. And the hurtful and horrible truth of the words expressed by Jesus who feels so much pain:

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why have you left me alone to die here? Where are you now?”

I like the title of the article in the Church Times about Matt Redman: “Honest songs will be relevant to people’s lives,” [2] but the truth is actually more profound than that. The truth is that we will only be able to handle the deep dark nights of the soul when we bear that soul honestly before God, when wide hide nothing in our worship, when we refuse to pretend that things are OK.

At the moment, in April 2020, they are, clearly, anything but OK. ……………….

References

  1. https://myktis.com/songs/10000-reasons, accessed on 18th April 2020.
  2. Madeleine Davies; Honest songs will be relevant to people’s lives; Church Times, 12th August 2016;https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2016/12-august/news/uk/honest-songs-will-be-relevant-to-people-s-lives, accessed on 18th April 2020.
  3. The Common Worship Psalter; https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/worship-texts-and-resources/common-worship/common-material/psalter, accessed often but on this occasion on 18th April 2020. The booklet we have prepared is in the Appendix below.
  4. https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/worship-texts-and-resources/common-worship/common-material/psalter/psalm-77, accessed on 18th April 2020.
  5. https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/worship-texts-and-resources/common-worship/common-material/psalter/psalm-82, accessed on 18th April 2020.
  6. https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/worship-texts-and-resources/common-worship/common-material/psalter/psalm-86, acessed on 18th April 2020.
  7. https://www.scross.co.za/2014/01/strength-from-psalm-77, accessed on 18th April 2020.

Appendix

Praying together through the month

 

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