Rendering

I’ve a new business to start this week,
My wife has a pain in her heel,
My son’s wagon needs a new wheel,
My daughter’s got an aching tooth,
Our horse is limping on one hoof.
With all this and more weighing us down,
We are going to worship the emperor today.

The ox tripped and broke a horn;
A cart full of grapes in the ditch.
The rains didn’t come through this year;
The wheat dried up without much crop.
The rabbits ate half my turnips,
And the foxes aren’t too hungry, so
We are going to worship the emperor today.

They say that Rome is thriving,
That the frontiers are expanding,
That denarii go up daily,
That the colosseum is full,
That the rebels in Judea,
Had their temple duly razed. That’s why
We are going to worship the emperor today

Incense doesn’t cost all that much,
And it smells pretty good most days,
But I’m beginning to wonder
How much good it does anyway.
The emperor’s not too stable,
Or well, the old gods seemed nicer, but
We are going to worship the emperor today.

The fire was a long time back,
And Nero’s died in the meantime.
Old Vespy keeps his fiddle tuned,
So as to dull the people’s cry.
My friend got crucified Tuesday,
But as for me and my house, you see,
We are going to worship the emperor today.

Image courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group, CC BY-SA 3.0

Window watching

What do you do to fight the rainy-day blues,
To push through the mud, the flood, and thunder
When it’s always spring but never Easter?

At the window watching lightning flicker—
The power, too—feel the pane as it shakes.
What do you do to fight the rainy-day blues?

New life for flowers, snails, mushrooms, and you?
You search in hope for new growth but it seems
That it’s always spring but never Easter.

Each drop’s surface tension is soft heartbreak,
Alone, trapped from within and without, but
That’s how life is with the rainy-day blues.

Like March, love warms and cools and warms again
And the future is clear as mountain fog
When it’s always spring but not yet Easter.

Glory in the mundane. Praise faithful work.
Do the next thing. Rest in what’s done for you.
That’s the way to fight the rainy-day blues—
For right now it’s spring, and soon it’s Easter.

Image: Redbuds, Walker County, Georgia, March 2020.

How to Clean Up before Christmas

Start by observing the residue of childhood. Note the rotting oak leaves on last year’s toys, plastics long since dissuaded from their original color by ultraviolet rays. Recall how they emerged, shining hydrogenated petroleum, the last gasp of some grasping raptor. Marvel as casual conspiracy between a forgetful toddler and her neighborhood star undoes industrial complexity. Brace yourself as this year’s toys arrive in waves. Strategically maneuver around school crafts and children’s church presents. Have UPS kill off a few extra dinosaurs, for good measure, to ship the good intentions of far-flung relatives or even your own nagging guilt. Sweep up litter. Weep over glitter. Whisper a litany for global trade and the Pacific garbage patch. Tidy up as though it is a game of chicken with the universe. Be careful what you cast out—thoughts count, and twaddle is freighted with love. Try not to stuff souls past and present into stockings. Calculate the cycle of ashes and dust looping from eternity past to Christmas morning to landfill. Measure the relative proximity of Bethlehem to your living room. Factor in the arc of the great circle. Set a stopwatch for the distance in time, a route growing longer with each revolution. Feel the warping of the continuum as the accretion of candles and carols and traditions makes mangers manageable. When you have swept the last artificial fir needle and loaded the last dessert spoon into a groaning dishwasher, don’t rest. Embrace the life you’re tasked with living. Meditate on your insignificance and significance. Look, look in the mirror at your own demise and resurrection. Think dead men’s thoughts after them.

For the time being
Seven demons scour earth
For a spotless room.

Image: My backyard, October 2019.

Church in a Minor Key: Lament

To begin, I should strongly voice my joy at seeing so many churches in America working toward recovery of a biblical ethic of life that matches their commitment to the authority of Scripture—and the reaffirming of many churches that have been striving toward this all along. In a fraught cultural moment, I am praising God daily for congregations that follow after the full counsel of God, not just offering a reassuring supernatural pat-on-the-back to the culture.

That said, I’ve got a small bone to pick—a friendly *ahem* to my brothers and sisters— I think it’s important that our music match our message, and I’m concerned that we don’t try hard enough to do that.

Put more bluntly, why don’t we sing more songs of confession and lament? Wrestling with sin and its effects (both individually and corporately) is a major theme of Scripture, including the part designed for our worship together: Psalms. By most counts, nearly half the psalter is focused on individual or communal lament, even more if you include penitential and imprecatory psalms. Kelly M. Kapic, in Embodied Hope: A Theological Meditation on Pain and Suffering, writes: “Biblically, we discover that lament is a legitimate, even necessary form of fellowship with God when we are in a place of pain. The Bible repeatedly affirms lament to be an honest and expected expression of our battle with the brokenness of ourselves and the rest of the world” (p. 29).

God clearly wants our sorrows offered up to him as surely as our joys, yet most of us sing the Psalms (or more modern songs based on them) infrequently, and when we do, we tend to stick with Psalms of ascent, enthronement, or thanksgiving. Of course, all the Psalms have a place in our public worship and private devotion, but it is perhaps time to lift up lament to restore a balance to our corporate songbooks.

So why don’t we sing more songs of a darker mood?

At least part of the reason comes from our Protestant focus on preaching of the Word as the key aspect of public worship. Our church leaders tend to put our energy into crafting the sermon and then building the rest of the service around that. This is a good habit, but too often it results in the musical accompaniments receiving less attention as part of the worship (sometimes, I get the sense that many congregants attach reversed importance to these, but that’s another subject). We spend hours poring over Scripture and commentaries to craft a 30-40 minute sermon, but we pull the 30 minutes of songs from a standard basket of tunes that our congregation has grown accustomed to singing.

When it comes to lamenting sin and the brokenness it brings to our people and our cultural institutions, we leave the pastor to do the heavy lifting through preaching. Too often, though, we set up our pastors for an impossible task. Prophetically preaching against sin and injustice is difficult. It is appreciably more difficult when it is introduced by 3 major-key songs about rejoicing in the Lord and bookended by another praising Him for our salvation. How much more effective could that preaching be at carrying this load when underscored by music and lyrics that reflect the tone and text of the sermon? This requires worship leaders to do the same quality of digging and study as preaching pastors, resisting the urge to stick to the same familiar rotation of songs.

Another, more troubling, factor here is that our “basket” of songs, hymns, and spiritual songs is very light on lament. Much of the Western (particularly American) church songbook reflects incomplete views of the Christian life. We need to remember that our song choices are not neutral, and that our songs often come freighted with the blind spots of the past. Sometimes this results in nothing worse than a bit of discord between a song service of gospel triumphalism and a sermon of lament; sometimes it seems almost completely tone-deaf to the emotional/spiritual tenor of a worship gathering, with the music all but encouraging us to forget and ignore the message.

In broad strokes (there are plenty of exceptions), our hymns from the 18th and early 19th centuries have a tendency to focus on a triumphal understanding of the completed work of Christ and personal devotion to Him, reflecting a postmillennial confidence that the culture itself was Christian and needed only encouragement down that path (nevermind the existential problem of the church’s widespread blessing of chattel slavery). Once Darby and Scofield popularized premillennial dispensationalism, the gospel songs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries tended to focus increasingly on a disembodied (yet very present) hope of glory, reinforcing piety as the main mode of faithfulness here and now. I don’t really have a good theory for why so many of the songs of the mid-late 20th century are so relentlessly cheerful, other than perhaps that they reflect a time when majority-culture churches were turning a blind eye to civil rights abuses, unjust war, and the effects of the sexual revolution—far be it from functional dualists to write songs of gritty, embodied anguish.

Historically, churches in the dominant culture of any given context have a tendency to drift from a consistent, holistic Christian witness that closely follows the “true narrative” of Christ (per Hauerwas). When this happens, we forget to trust Christ for all things, and only lean on him in areas where the culture fails to meet our deepest needs—we have “a gospel of of the gaps” (per Carl Ellis). This reduces the church to caring primarily about the metaphysical aspects of our faith, and so our corporate worship knows little of the deep concerns of this life.

Music has tremendous power to help us remember truth. That’s why we include it in our worship in the first place. What truths we choose to commit to memory via music matters. Our music, just as much as our sermons should shape us to weep with those who weep, turn our hearts to love the poor, the oppressed, the voiceless, and the lost. Our music should call our attention to our own complicity in systemic sins by our love of comfort.

Again, Kapic says:

When contemporary churches cease to sing laments as part of their regular catalog of songs, instead only choosing happy or upbeat music, the people of God lose their ability to lament well: our muscles for godly mourning atrophy. We become ill-equipped to handle the pain that life throws at us. Without space for genuine lament, false veneers and bitterness easily take root, eventually bringing destruction in their wake. Suffering surprises and isolates once-active worshippers, often driving them away. When the homes of believers are hit by chronic pain or mental illness, they often find the contemporary church strangely unhelpful, even hurtful. A hurting family no longer fits the American Christian model of growth, happiness, and victory. When the church is robbed of its regular pronouncements, prayers, and songs of lament, then, like a shepherd distracted by the stars in the sky, it fails to protect and nourish the vulnerable sheep entrusted to its care. Rather than receiving special care and protection, the wounded believer is left alone to doubt and despair. The church that responds by entering their lament, however, participates in the healing that the wounded find at the feet of the compassionate Father. There we lay them; there we cry out with them; there we together long for healing and hope (p. 38).

So how do we begin to work against the grain here, and reintroduce the needed discipline of lament into our corporate worship? For starters, we just need to rummage a little father down the song list for the tremendous songs of weighty emotion that we so naturally gravitate toward in liturgical seasons of longing (Advent and Eastertide) and at times of overt grief (funerals). The African American tradition of Spirituals and classic hymns like “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” and “Be Still My Soul” are a great place to start. Many modern hymns, such as Matt Redman’s “Blessed Be Your Name” or Stuart Townend’s “The Power of the Cross” get closer to the mark as well. I can’t think of another songwriter working in the corporate worship space that gets the spirit of lament as well as my friend Wendell Kimbrough, and the Porter’s Gate project he’s been a part of as well.

There are many others as well that we can learn from by listening to (even if they’re not designed for singing together)—the work of artists like Amanda Opelt (another friend), Propaganda, Sho Baraka, and Josh Garrels comes to mind as examples of bringing musical expression to the harder realities of life. And there’s plenty of room for new songs and songwriters here!

Again, this is a friendly nudge, and certainly not unique to me. I’m encouraged by what I see and hear already, and long for more. Songs that proclaim the fulness of the gospel (including the sorrow!) in ways that show God’s love to a hurting world are a needed witness for the church in every age. When we are in our greatest need of Christ, we are least likely to find him through the abundance of overly joyful music we’re apt to encounter at a given church on a given Sunday. Press on!

Image: Quarry & Fog, Hamilton County, Tenn., September 2018.