In Conversation with Steve Bell

Sometimes it pays to be bold with emails. I have long had a deep affinity for the music of Steve Bell. Not only is he a gifted musician and singer/songwriter, but he also conveys a deep thoughtfulness about the matters of faith. Steve loves the Church, and he loves Christians. He also loves the Psalms. This made him one of the first people I thought of when I desired to have these conversations.

Please enjoy the video below. Unfortunately, Steve’s audio is fairly quiet, so you will have to turn up your volume to hear him. Blessings!

A Conversation: with David O. Taylor

The Psalms have become a source of constant inspiration for me. They have informed my prayer-life far more than any liturgical resource or devotional text out there. Within the Psalms I find the language of praise, adoration, and awe-struck worship; I also find the words for when I need to lament, cry, and yell. The Psalms affirm to me that there is nothing about my life – nothing about me – that cannot be presented to God. Nothing is to be hidden. I can live my life with Jesus open, and unafraid.

Open and unafraid. That is the title to David O. Taylor’s book on the psalms. I was delighted when the formation small-group in my parish chose David’s book to work through. I am excited to begin this journey into the Psalms with them, in only a few short weeks.

On a whim, I decided to contact David to see if he had time to chat. Happily, he agreed. Below is our conversation; I know you will be blessed by David’s insight and passion for the Psalms. (Apologies for the time when the video get’s stuck – just stay with it and it will right itself). Enjoy!

Psalm 73: A Song for the Faithfully Forlorn

We all get discouraged or frustrated in our faith. Our spiritual lives rarely occur exactly as we would imagine or hope. After all, we live in an imperfect world, and we bear those imperfections within ourselves. We all struggle. We all question. We all, at times, raise our voice to the heavens and scream “why?” These experiences are not a denial of our love for God. They do not indicate a loss of faith or a deconstruction of our spiritual life. They are a natural part of our relationship with the Lord. This is why the Book of Psalms are so important for us. The psalms show the normality of our questions and discouragements; they teach us how to voice our discomforts honestly and faithfully. Psalm 73 is a good example of this.

The psalm (attributed to Asaph) begins by heralding stalwart faith. Asaph speaks to God’s utmost goodness in providing for the righteous. He sings, “Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.” This affirmation almost rolls off the tongue. It reads like it may have been a spiritual slogan common to the day. Is this something Asaph had heard before? Was this the go-to response whenever someone voiced struggle or doubt; the ancient equivalent to a patronizing pat on the should and a softly spoken “there, there”?  Did someone turn to Asaph, immersed in a time of turmoil, and hurt, and offer the not-so helpful response of “There, there…Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.” As if mouthed by one of Job’s friends, the subtle charge of such a statement implies that Asaph, mired in confusion and discouragement, is not pure in heart.

Have you ever had someone offer you such not-so-helpful spiritual soundbites?

Of course, Asaph believes this statement in principle. Yes, God is good.  Yes, God’s goodness is known to Israel. The problem is, in this moment, Asaph doesn’t experience this goodness. He is struggling. He is discouraged. His song describes how he has almost slipped and stumbled. The solid base of Asaph’s faithfulness appears shaken. The problem is not so much the imperfections of life, in and of themselves. What truly stings is how the arrogant and wicked appear to prosper. They seem blessed with unrestricted happiness.

Here is where the discouragement finds its roots. Do you see how verse 3 seems to contradict verse 1? Slogans of faith seem triumphant enough. They are catchy and repeatable. They stick in our minds. God is good…all the time…and all the time…God is good! Yet Asaph simply cannot deny that when looks at his own life, set against the lives of the arrogant and wicked, the goodness of God appears one sided. The wicked have no struggles, their bodies are healthy and strong. They live free from burdens. Despite scoffing at the Lord, they “lay claim to heaven” and enjoy the delightful possessions of the earth. Power, prestige, and privilege befall the wicked. Asaph, however, is left feeling divinely cast aside. For ten verses his complaints come gushing forth. Asaph holds nothing back.

Who hasn’t borne these questions today? How can we not? Mass media continually bombards us with new occurrences of prideful arrogance, violence, or oppression. We lift the rich and famous as the elite to emulate. Hollywood brags the good life, even though we are all aware of the deep narcissism, selfishness, and personal destruction that lurks behind the scenes. Despite continuous occurrences of personal, professional, and relational breakdown, the world tells us to look at them as if they are “always free of care as they go one amassing wealth.” Oh, if we could be like them, we think. Oh, if we made the money they did! Oh, if we had their house, their car, their glamour.

Asaph has these exact feelings. He is brutally honest, with himself, and with God. “I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked”, he says. Can we be as honest enough to admit that, at times, we bear a similar envy?

What is the faithful response to such discouragement? How do we exude faithfulness when this sense of envy rises within us? Where do we go when we ask the haunting question “how come them and not me?” Asaph feels all this deeply. He feels that his faithful following of God’s ways has garnered him nothing but affliction and punishment. “In vain I have kept my heart pure and washed my hands in innocence”, he laments.

Feelings of deep spiritual discouragement are wrapped in dismay, hurt, and profound sadness. They are felt in that deep inner place where we are most uniquely ourselves. We should not, however, rush past our laments. We should not minimize these feelings or attempt to explain them away. Leaving our spiritual discouragement unexplored does us no spiritual good. To do so is to avoid meeting God in life’s unpleasantness. Too often our faith becomes abandoned as a result. The psalms diligently articulate feelings of discouragement to illustrate that they are a normal side of our spiritual lives. None of us are immune. Thus, instead of avoiding these feelings, or these questions, we should engage them. This is exactly what Asaph does in his song; Asaph enters his spiritual discouragement and begins to walk through it.

In his song, Asaph considers whether his faith is worth it, whether it really matters to believe in the Lord. Yet by sitting with these questions, Asaph concludes that the momentary delights of the world hold no weight against the eternal blessings of the Lord. He recognizes that wandering away from the Lord, in pursuit of vain pleasures, would be to abandon who was created to be. It would betray who he is at the core of his being.

Asaph comes to this realization in the sanctuary of God. In this sanctuary he is surrounded by people who struggle with the same struggles and ask the same questions. The sanctuary of God does not peddle easy answers. To be clear, Asaph does not return to the patronizing slogan of verse one. The sanctuary of God simply reminds him of the vision of God’s eternal glory and blessing. Surrounded by the worshiping (and lamenting) community, Asaph perceives the ultimate end of all who chase after momentary delights. When their spirits depart, they return to the ground, and all the baubles of the world come to naught. So instead of looking enviously upon the wicked, Asaph begins to set his gaze on the greatness of the Most High.

Of course, his newfound realization does not make his struggles vanish. Asaph does not escape his feeling of daily struggle or affliction. Tomorrow, the wicked will still flourish, and (most probably) Asaph will still feel discouraged. The difference is, despite the discouragement, despite the confusion, even despite the doubt, Asaph can say with confidence “I am always with you.” Spiritual discouragement, then, is an invitation to journey to a deeper place of faith. Relaying our honest struggles, as Psalm 73 illustrates, does not drive the Lord away. We lay hold of God more tightly when uncover our honest selves

The Lord is not offended by our questions. The Lord does not abandon us when we feel discouraged or dismayed. Our questions do not discredit our faith nor do our struggles indicate a deconstruction of our spirituality. They are but a deeper way we reach out to God for guidance, council, and support. It is because God is the one who journeys with us in the messiest of places that we can voice our laments. Even when our own hearts fail, God is the strength of our hearts, forever. God is faithful to us, even if we can’t see it.

We are all psalmists at heart. We sing out our joys and our dismays, our victories, and our struggles. We need not mask how we feel; the Lord knows it anyway. And as we sing, we are invited to experience the deep reality that, through it all, the Lord is our refuge, our guide, our strength, and our delight. We don’t have to figure things out. We don’t have to arrive at some “solution” to our plight. The spiritual life is not a Disney movie; things don’t always get wrapped up neatly at the end. That’s ok.

Despite his struggles and doubts, Asaph ends his song on an important note. “It is good for me to be near God”, he cries. In the end, that’s enough. This is where we, as psalmists, rest our faith. We rest not in well-meaning but ultimately unsatisfactory spiritual slogans nor in polite pats on the shoulder. Our faith is built not by gritting our teeth and pretending that we do not hurt. Instead, sing. We join Asaph’s psalm with our own. And despite the ups and downs and twist-turns of life, we dare to believe that it is good for us to be with God.

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Are you feeling spiritually discouraged? Do you feel you would like a fuller, deeper, richer spiritual life, but don’t know where to start? Do you find yourself echoing the deep cry of Asaph? Sign up to receive my monthly encouragements and you will receive “9 Questions to ask when you are feeling Spiritually Discouraged.”