By Jamie Howison and Steve Bell
Signpost Music, September 2015, 133 pp.
I Will Not Be Shaken: A Songwriter’s Journey Through the Psalms is the companion book to a collection of songs by Steve Bell. The book combines Bell’s lyrics and songwriter anecdotes with Howison’s pastoral and theological reflections on the psalms on which Bell’s songs are based. This except focuses on Psalm 13.
How long wilt thou forget me, O Lord, for ever: how long wilt thou hide thy face from me? How long shall I seek counsel in my soul, and be so vexed in my heart: how long shall mine enemies triumph over me?
Consider, and hear me, O Lord my God: lighten mine eyes, that I sleep not in death. Lest mine enemy say, I have prevailed against him: for if I be cast down, they that trouble me will rejoice at it. But my trust is in thy mercy: and my heart is joyful in thy salvation. I will sing of the Lord, because he hath dealt so lovingly with me: yea, I will praise the Name of the Lord most Highest.
Picture if you will, an evening at church. As I sit in those few quiet moments before people begin to arrive for worship, I find myself in deep and wordless prayer, aware that I am “weary and carrying heavy burdens” (Matthew 11:28). No one thing in particular is weighing on me, just a combination of the stuff of ministry, family, relationships, and life. I am all set to preach on the Lucan beatitudes (Luke 6:20ff.), in which Jesus proclaims blessing upon people who, for reasons of poverty or hunger or sorrow or rejection, know that they live in need: “blessed are you when you’ve bottomed out, such that you can no longer kid yourself into believing that you are a self-sufficient, self-providing master of your own life.” This is at least part of what is going on in those odd blessings and corresponding “woes.” It is great news, of course, to discover that you don’t have to be—in fact can’t be—that strong, because grace is sufficiently, abundantly and freely given by a wildly indiscriminate and loving God.
As people begin to arrive, I break my stillness and go to offer greetings. One person after another has stories to tell of weariness and burdens too heavy to bear. “You know how I’ve said before that we’d had the week from hell?” one woman asks me. “Well, this was the week from hell.”
As worship begins, I am aware how Jesus’s blessing of those who weep is particularly potent and immediate for us—for me—this night. But then another voice begins to ring from deep within my imagination: “How long?” I mean really, Lord, I think we get it here. The woman agonizing over her teenaged son, the family wrestling against terminal cancer, the person in deep conflict with a roommate, the wife whose marriage has just been punctuated by a big question mark; surely, all of us could stand to have a shot at grace without first having to face these tears.
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
How about a direct, miraculous intervention here, Lord? Maybe just this once you could change the heart of the teenager, zap the cancer, make the roommate more reasonable, and the marriage partner easier to love. Maybe this time your blessed grace could be a bit more aggressive. We know our need, already…
“These psalms are the voices of those who find their circumstances dangerously, and not just inconveniently, changed. And they do not like it.” (Walter Brueggemann, p.38) The psalmist dislikes this dangerous dislocation at least as much as I do, or anyone else in our hurting congregation for that matter. The psalmist even tries to leverage God with a bit of shame-based pressure, crying for divine intervention:
Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
and my enemy will say, ‘I have prevailed’;
my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.
After all, what kind of God would allow this to happen to one of the faithful? Yet as Brueggemann points out, “It is the function of these songs to enable, require, and legitimate the complete rejection of the old (safe) orientation. That old arrangement is seen, if not as fraud, at least as inadequate to the new circumstance.” (Walter Brueggemann, p.39)
So yes, the quick fix zapping would be nice, but it would not do a whole lot to deepen us into the reality of the changed circumstance. It would not do a whole lot to grow a people who can actually take on new life. “Costly grace,” was Bonhoeffer’s paradoxical phrase, which in this instance seems to have something to do with the formation of a people who manage to keep moving deeper and deeper into the gift, regardless of the cost.
The psalmist manages to resolve this lament by affirming that, just as trust has been offered before, so will rejoicing come again. “I will sing to the Lord,” which means I will rejoice again “because God has dealt bountifully with me.”
But I trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.
These verses offer memory and stubborn resolution in one movement, and as such are a profoundly hopeful and faithful proclamation. Yet “how long?” is not a question far from the psalmist’s mind. Neither is it far from my mind. Not today. Not ever.
music and lyrics by Steve Bell
original album: Burning Ember, 1994
My grandparents on my father’s side were missionaries in China, which is where my dad and his siblings were born. I grew up hearing wondrous stories of adventure, sacrifice and profound faith. As wonderful as those stories were, however, they worked on me like a poison. For even though, since my earliest memories, I have felt destined for ministry, I have also felt myself too weak, fearful, doubtful and sinful to ever be of much service to God (at least the type of service everyone around me seemed to be in). I had too little faith, and too weak a character and spiritual constitution to rise to the calling. It was a shame I mostly accepted and carried.
Then, in my twenties, my disappointment in myself turned into disappointment in God. Although I never would have voiced it, I began to collect my disappointments in a pile: the prayers for my mother’s healing that went unanswered (she has suffered from an anxiety disorder for much of her life); the prayers for deliverance from my own vices and doubts that went unanswered; the many times I had begged God for help in the uncertain early years of marriage and child rearing that appeared to go unanswered; and the time (as silly as it now seems) when I broke my arm, was in excruciating pain, and begged God for relief that didn’t come. But the most profound disappointment of all was the unanswered request for a sense of God’s nearness that others reported, but which I didn’t experience.
Then I heard a sermon on Psalm 13. The psalm was described as a complaint to God, about God. It staggered me. I didn’t know this could be an acceptable prayer. This song followed… as did the beginning of an adult prayer life.
Have you forgotten me oh lord
Will you hide your face from me
Look on me
Answer my call
Oh Lord my God
I need some light before I fall
Will I wrestle with my thoughts
Must I have sorrow in my heart
Look on me
Answer my call
I cry every night
But you don’t seem to hear at all
Yet I’ll trust in your love
Yes your unfailing love
And I will sing out my days
That you’ve been good to me
Yes you’ve been good to me
Have you forgotten me oh Lord
Will you hide your face from me
Used with permission from Signpost Music.