Going to Church when You are in Despair

Friday, January 11th, 2013

I was praying through Psalm 142 yesterday and was struck by how alien such a prayer is to the forms and structures of modern Christian worship. Psalm 142 is not a particularly unusual Psalm but is one of a whole class of Psalms which are known as laments. The whole Psalm emerges out of a sense of despair in the life of the Psalmist. Phrases such as, “I am in desperate need,” and “rescue me from those who pursue me,” and “set me free from my prison,” are all found in the anguish which is known as Psalm 142. The verse which really jumped out at me was the end of verse 4 when he says, “I have no refuge, no one cares for my life.” Some of the older translations say, “I have no sanctuary.” It reminded me that most churches once called the most sacred place where we corporately worship the “sanctuary.” It was, to put it plainly, “a place of refuge.” It was a place you fled to for mercy, grace and consolation when you were caught in despair like Pilgrim’s “slough of despond.”

Today, the word, “sanctuary,” is out of vogue. We now call these sacred places, “worship centers” or “celebration centers.” We must, of course, always be happy in these spaces. We may sing and clap and shout or at least watch those on the “stage” sing and shout and clap. But, if we are ready to burst into tears and weep over our sins or cry out in despair over a situation which has us hemmed in on every side, this just might not be the time or place. I heard someone tell me recently that they just “couldn’t go to church” the previous Sunday because they were “feeling so depressed.” Hmmm.

Maybe there’s something going on here. Certainly, Psalm 142 would enter a typical contemporary service like that strange cousin who shows up at family gatherings and is greeted with a forced smile and and the obligatory handshake but inside we quietly regard him as kind of “weird.” Psalm 142 really has no place in a “celebration center.” So, alas, Psalm 142 is left out in the cold along with the Apostles’ Creed and prayers of repentance, because they weren’t “contemporary” or “seeker sensitive” enough.

I often wonder about the sustainability of any Christian movement which gives the appearance that Christianity began three weeks ago. I wonder why we rob ourselves of so many “means of grace” in the “contemporary Christian scene.” I wonder if I was 20 years old again and I walked into one of these services if I would ever have become a Christian, or even taken the whole thing seriously.

Don’t get me wrong, there are many times when I clap my hands and shout with joy in the presence of the living God. That’s part of worship, too. Psalm 150 is also in the Psalms. But, we need to provide space and time for those Psalm 142 moments as well. Brothers and sisters, don’t ever lose your confidence in the power of the gospel. We don’t have to “dress it up” to make it palatable to contemporary people. We don’t have to “downplay” the tough, difficult road of discipleship. We don’t have to cherry pick the Psalms or other parts of Scripture in public worship so that everyone “stays positive.” These are all bad instincts. Let the gospel tell its own full story. It is messy, nuanced and demanding. It’s not always “tweetable.” It’s not always fun. But, praise God, it’s always true.