Saturday, November 1, 2008

Praying and Singing the Psalms

James 5:13 (NKJV)13 Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms.

What are we to do when facing the ups and downs of life? When we are suffering and weighed down, heavy of spirit – what are we to do? On the other hand, when cheerful, full of joy and wonder at the world in which we live – what are we to do? Today James tells us. “Is anyone among you suffering – feeling poorly, enduring trouble? Let him (an imperative, a command – this isn’t simply good advice) Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him (again, an imperative, a command), Let him sing psalms.”

James tells us straight that when we are suffering we are to pray. We are to take our troubles straight to the Lord. Lord, I don’t understand; God help me; Father, lift me up; My God, my god, why have you forsaken me, why are you so far from my groaning? When we are suffering it is not simply a good idea to take our pain to the throne of God, we are commanded to do so. Cry out to God; He wants to hear; He wants to be the one to whom you direct your cries.

Balancing this imperative comes James’ imperative for times of joy. When we are cheerful, we are to sing psalms. Why? Because singing enables us to funnel the joy that we are experiencing in the right direction – in praise and thankfulness to our Creator and Redeemer. When we are joyful there is only one proper response in James’ mind. What is it? Praise and thanksgiving.

Note then that the role of the psalms, in James’ mind, is first and foremost an expression of wildly exuberant joy and gladness. When joyful, James tells us, that which should first come out is the psalms. But as you think about the psalms, you will perhaps remember that some of the psalms are expressions of grief and longing for God’s presence – how do they fit with this theme of thanksgiving? It is here that we are directed back to James’ command to pray when burdened. James’ exhortation to pray also directs us to the psalms – for the psalms embody for us what despairing cries to God look like.

Notice then the priority that James places upon the psalter for the life of the people of God. What are we to do when suffering? We are to pray. And where do we find examples, patterns of prayers offered up in the midst of suffering? In the psalter. What are we to do when joyful? We are to sing psalms. And where do we find these psalms to sing? In the psalter.

So here’s the question for us – do we know our psalter well enough to fulfill James’ exhortation? How well do you know your psalms? Do the psalms, when you are burdened and weighed down, come to your mind and fill your soul with cries to God? Do the psalms, when you are cheerful and lifted up, come to your mind and fill your home with praise and thanksgiving?

I dare say that if you are like me there is some lack in this regard. Not many of us grew up singing the psalter. This is a new experience for us. Many of the psalms may be strange and foreign to us. Some of the tunes that we have in our English psalters are hard to learn. Some of the words of the psalms are difficult to understand and believe. But is the problem with the psalter? Hardly. It is with us. We need to grow in our ability to sing and to understand the psalms. And so, one of the things we are committed to do as a congregation is to become more excellent in our ability to sing the psalms and more knowledgeable of their content. And one of the things that we do every month to enable us to fulfill this duty is hold a psalm sing. The psalm sing is specifically geared to help us fulfill the exhortations given to us by James – is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms.

Reminded that in our suffering and in our joy God expects us to cry out to Him with the psalms and to praise Him with the psalms, let us kneel and confess that we have neglected to do so.