What do you do when you feel alienated, isolated, frustrated, loss or anxious? As an adult, I turn to my wife, my network of friends, to prayer and contemplation and to my family. I have places where I find support when the storms of life come. By contrast, where do adolescents turn when they feel these same emotions? Because they are in a time of emancipation from their parents, teens often turn to friends and especially, music.
As I write this, many things in my life are going well, but in some areas, my life is like a picture of a desert that hangs in my office: dry, lonely, barren. I’m in this space due to the recent death of both my in-laws and circumstances outside my power to control. To deal with my emotions, I’ve turned for help to my support networks and also to the Psalms of Lament.
Psalms of Lament
As I’ve been finding comfort in these Psalms, I’ve started thinking about adolescents and how for them, due to the physical, emotional and social changes in their bodies and world, many are daily experiencing very negative emotions, like I am. Where do these young people find the safe space to express these emotions? Are these struggles allowed in our churches and youth groups? It’s been my experience that in many churches I’ve known, asking questions or sharing struggles has been discouraged. To be honest, I didn’t even learn that there were Psalms of Lament (it may have been because I wasn’t listening) until I reached college.
I think it’s significant to note that over one-third of the 150 Psalms are classified as “lament psalms”. These are psalms where the raw emotions of life are shared; often the “happily ever after” ending is missing, and God is portrayed as distant. They show us that when things are tough it’s ok to share our strong emotions with a loving Father.
In our quest for relevance and an honest desire not to offend a guest at our services, do we leave out of worship this significant portion of the Psalter?
And where do teens turn to find help expressing their feelings of alienation, rage, frustration and loneliness? They turn to their music, just like people of the Bible have been doing with the psalms for centuries. The styles are different, but to listen to much popular music, from rage rock to pop, the messages are the same: I don’t fit, I feel alone, the world doesn’t feel safe, those in power let me down, I’m desperate for love, etc.
My serious concern is that many of the musical artists who are doing the “lamenting” for adolescents today have no possibility of hope and some advocate suicide as an escape from the pain. This is in stark contrast to the Psalms of Lament, many which end with a line similar to Psalm 42:11:
Why, my soul, are you downcast?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God.
Hope. One reality we can offer to adolescents that others can’t.
Can we as educators and youth ministry practitioners find time in our programs to give students the opportunity to lament? Can we give space for them to vent and have permission to feel their struggles?
Can we also offer hope as so many of the Psalms of Lament do? What is the larger story that we can offer to teenagers that help them see that they can be part of something larger?
Rick Bartlett has worked with youth and young adults for over 30 years. His doctorate is in Leadership in the Emerging Culture, and he has served in a variety of positions at churches, nonprofits and educational institutions. Currently, Rick serves as Director of Theological Education at Tabor College in Wichita where he directs a masters degree in ministry entrepreneurship and innovation. Rick is a co-author of Consuming Youth: Leading Teens through Consumer Culture. Rick and his wife Karen have been married 31 years and have two children, Grace and Toby. You can connect with Rick on Twitter or his blog.