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Christopher Jackson on Downbeat Songs for the Downtrodden
“Things have been really difficult lately” is the most frequent reason my parishioners give me for their absence from worship. Sometimes this means, “Because I work sixty hours a week so that I can afford to put my six-year-old on traveling soccer teams, which in turn saps my energy, I am so exhausted by Sunday that I cannot get out of bed.”
More often, it means illness, family disharmony, or financial problems. I always encourage them to come and receive God’s gifts, promising that these will aid them in their troubles. Yet I understand their impulse.
She’d Better Be Happy
Consider, for example, a woman who has discovered her husband’s sexual unfaithfulness. Going to church would require flashing fake smiles at the greeters, and exclaiming, “Oh, I’m great!” to everyone who asks, “How are you?” Who could blame her for avoiding the faces and questions that all say, “You had better act happy! Don’t be a downer!”?
Sadly, many American churches unwittingly encourage their members to pretend to have it all together and be perfectly content. Even churches that vocally reject the prosperity gospel implicitly confirm that heresy. A kind of health-and-wealth theology has infected many churches, promulgated not so much by preaching or catechism as by the manipulative “How-are-you’s,” backslapping, and vigorous handshaking before and after services.
I suspect that those in the midst of difficulty avoid services not out of disdain for God’s Word, but out of great respect for the command against dishonesty. They know how their fellow Christians expect people at church to speak and act, and they know that they would be lying.
Unfortunately, this theology has crept into the liturgy as well. The recommendations of church-growth experts and the aesthetic desires of parishioners press churches in all places and all Western theological traditions to tout “worship experiences” that are positive, encouraging, and inspirational. Congregations readily assemble praise bands, but none form lament bands.
My fellow Lutheran pastors are not immune to these American gods, which seduce and infiltrate churches. Many avoid good hymns because they are “Lutheran dirges,” songs with melodies and subjects that are not upbeat. The “worship experience” such hymns provide remind us of realities we would rather forget.
The practice of excluding hymns with somber texts and tunes in order to provide upbeat and positive “experiences” rejects both the goodness of our present age and the goodness of the coming one, with the result that those who are weary and beaten down must put on airs not only in the narthex but also in the nave. We would be truer to the truth, and better pastors and friends to our friends who are suffering if we gave them the classical liturgical music and hymnody, even the “dirges.”
All that is has been created good. Sadness, yearning, discontent, and even anger are all good things in their proper place as reactions to the sin, evil, and difficulty of our world and in our lives. We American Christians have forgotten this.
While the eschaton is both now and not yet, churches overemphasize the now in our expectations for the lives of the faithful. Christians do indeed experience the Messianic feast today, but our current joys and victories are but crumbs that drop from the table we will enjoy fully upon the Lord’s return.
Yet we often expect the fullness of joy and the absence of sin in our fellow Christians now. Therefore, we not only undervalue suffering, but we also lose the great hope of the life of the world to come. We have forgotten that tears are the seed of joy (Psalm 126:5–6). We have exchanged hope for lies, making liars out of those who are world-weary and depriving them of hope.
“Dirges” can help us balance the joy of Mount Zion and the weeping at the waters of Babylon. The tune and text of “Our Father, Who from Heaven Above” communicate both joyful confidence and plaintive yearning; “Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands” contemplates both our captivity under sin and our reception of Christ’s eternal sunshine in our hearts.
“O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” discusses the joy that comes through death, our Lord’s and our own. “The Clouds of Judgment Gather” commends sobriety and watchfulness as our final Judge approaches, but also reminds us that he brings mercy and the end of evil.
“Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” reminds us to stand with fear and trembling at the Lord’s coming, but it also reminds us that he comes with blessing in his hand. Does any hymn communicate both the joy and sorrow of a Christian in this present age better than “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”?
At times, even America has produced such work. “What Wondrous Love Is This” discusses the Christian’s sin and his present participation in the joyful songs of eternity. “I Wonder as I Wander” calls us “poor, ornery people” whose hope is in Christ, the “promise of the ages,” who gave up the glories of heaven for our salvation.
Will we ever stop the manipulative looks and questions Christians offer each other before and after worship? I am not sure. For my part, I encourage my flock to say, “It is good to see you,” and “Good morning,” rather than, “How are you?” However, if pastors rely upon classical liturgical music and hymnody, even or especially the “dirges,” maybe those who hurt will find refuge among us.
Christopher Jackson is Associate Pastor at Saint Johnís Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, in Lexington, Kentucky. He and his wife Mary have three children.