Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Ministry of the Overwhelmed

Before the church sang Chris Tomlin, before they sang Bill Gaither, before they sang Fanny Crosby, even before they sang Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” the church would sing the Psalms. We don’t do that very much any more. Outside of the more liturgical traditions of our faith, we barely even read the Psalms in worship with any consistency. That’s to our detriment. While our choruses and hymns have their place, no doubt, they mainly take us to the places we want to go. The Psalms (especially the Psalms of lament and complaint) take us to places we need to go, teaching us not only to sing out of our joy, but also out of our pain. As we well know the world’s got plenty of pain.

“Out of the depths” (Ps 130) the psalmist cries to the Lord, and he is not alone. Again and again in the scriptures we find men and women turning to God when as another Psalmist put it, “the waters have come up to my neck . . . the floods engulf me” (Ps 69). Most of the references to “the depths” in scriptures are pretty ambiguous. We’re rarely told of the specific circumstances that have brought the writer to his knees. But do we really need to know the details? Almost all of us have experienced “the depths” at one time or another. Shorthand for the depths of the grave or the depths of the sea, “the depths” in Hebrew poetry represents any situation in which a person feels overwhelmed by the bottomless troubles of life. Who of us hasn’t been there?

Perhaps the reason we avoid singing from this place of trouble (besides the pain) is that we’ve foolishly convinced ourselves that if we are overwhelmed by the depths of life, God can’t use us. But this is a myth, a myth perpetuated by a church that has failed to learn to sing from the depths. Samueal Logan Brengle was one of the great leaders of the Salvation Army. Throughout is life he ministered to countless men and women who where overwhelmed by life. Perhaps his ministry was so effective because he often found himself in the depths. He once wrote to a friend, “My nerves were ragged, frazzled, exhausted. And such gloom and depression fell upon me as I have never known, although depression is an old acquaintance of mine.” Could someone for whom depression is an “old acquaintance” really be used mightily of God? You bet! In fact, ministering through those in the midst of deep waters seems to be God’s specialty.

Too often, we come to church pretending we have it all together, pretending that we’re not overwhelmed, and we miss out on the ministry of the overwhelmed. That is, we miss out on the place that petitions and cries for deliverance have in the church’s life. The church isn’t a collection of people who’ve arrived, but a people who’ve become purposeful in watching and waiting for the coming of the Lord. A church that never cries out for help, who never sings out, “Hasten, O God, to save me; come quickly, Lord, to help me,” (Ps 70:1) has lost touch both with the brokenness of the world and the mission of the Lord. What the world needs is not a church that denies the presence of suffering in this world, but a church that leads the world in its persistent cries for deliverance and redemption and clings tenaciously to the hope that there is one who hears our cries and is able to deliver us. The world needs a church that has learned to sing from the depths to a God who is able to save.

I am overwhelmed with troubles and my life draws near to death . . . But I cry to you for help, LORD; in the morning my prayer comes before you – Psalm 88:3, 13

1 comment:

Jim Martin said...

Taylor, this is an excellent post! I just "tweeted" about your post.

Very nice blog! Hope you are doing well.