Do you have some things you wish you could say to God if only you had the words?

“The Psalms are the bluegrass of the Bible.”

This peculiar metaphor popped out of my mouth while I was teaching a unit on the Psalms last month to our adult Sunday School class at our new church here in the Smokies. Mike and I had just been to a Balsam Range concert the night before, which might explain my preoccupation with bluegrass.

I’m a girl who hasn’t had a musical group I particularly cared about since the Monkees. (Did you hear that Peter Tork died last week?

Shucks. Another piece of our childhood just took that last train to Clarksville. Let’s not do the math on how long it’s been since those tween days when we argued over which Monkee was cutest. Micky the drummer, hands down. Although have you seen him lately?)

More than a few years have passed since I’ve listened to a group’s music enough to memorize the lyrics. (“I’m a Believer” was big in my high school youth group.) But now on the shady side of 65 I’m mildly obsessed with the artistry of Haywood County’s own hometown boys, Balsam Range. Their newest album, Aeonic, released last month and I know every song.

So when I was leading our class through a discussion of Psalms, we noodled over the fact that lament psalms make up over one-third, some say nearly half, of the psalter. Bonhoeffer called Psalms “the prayer book of the soul.”

Many psalms were put to music in their original form. Forget a harp and a lyre. The lament psalms were written to the tune of a fiddle and a banjo.

Just as Balsam Range sings those high, lonesome bluegrass blues about children who left too soon and lovers who broke their hearts, the Psalmist does some wailing of his own. He’s got enemies surrounding him and a son who hates him. He’s been falsely accused of some sins and he’s writhing in regret for others. 

Like our lives,  bluegrass and the Psalms gravitate between two poles: foot-tapping praise and hand-wringing lament. 

But here’s the crucial difference: the audience. Musicians play to a crowd.  The psalms shout glory and pain to an Audience of One.

Maybe, like me, you were raised in a faith tradition that did not use rote prayers. I thought maybe we got extra points for originality in our petitions,  for fresh angles to our prayers.

Sometimes, though, I am plumb fresh out of new words.

Help her, Lord, I say again and again. She is so scared for her boy.

     Heal him, Father! I cry. We love this man. His family needs him.

          Hold them together, dear Jesus. Their marriage has ripped apart.

It’s then that the laments of the Psalmist explode from my throat.

Now hear my prayer, listen to my cry. For my life is full of troubles. (Ps. 88:2-3)

     O LORD, come back to us! How long will you delay? (Ps. 90: 13)

          Rescue me, LORD, from liars and all deceitful people. (Ps. 120:2)

               My health may fail, and my spirit may grow weak, but God remains the strength of my heart; he is mine forever.  (Ps. 72:26)

God not only gave us his Word but wants us to pray it back to him. If in his most desperate hour Jesus prayed the psalms (“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”), why can’t we do the same? The power is not in us or in the quantity or quality of the words we spit out in our suffering. The power is in the One who hears us.

The boys of Balsam Range are psalmists, too. 

On the corner of Division Street the weather’s gettin’ cold

The wind whips by the buildings and they say it’s gonna snow

He sits there on a curbside as sad as sad can be

It really doesn’t matter now what brought his misery

He says, “Help me to hold on, don’t let me let go

Lord, it’s the only prayer that I know

It surely ain’t much, but I’m down so low

Help me to hold on, don’t let me let go”

These apartments sure are drafty now, not safe by any means

Especially for a young girl who’s barely 17

Bad choices and a bad man confused inside her head

She’s about to pull the trigger, but then she prays instead

Help me to hold on, don’t let me let go

Lord, it’s the only prayer that I know

It surely ain’t much, but I’m down so low

Help me to hold on, don’t let me let go”

 (“Help Me Hold On”, copyright Balsam Range 2019)

Sometimes the only prayer we can pray is that one. Help me to hold on, Lord, don’t let me let go.

It’s the cry of the psalmist: “Yet I still belong to you; you hold my right hand.” (Ps. 73:23 NLT).

It’s music to God’s ears.