I am a child of the early 2000’s worship boom.
In big arenas and tricked-out sanctuaries we sang loud, hands lifted and eyes closed softly:
“Blessed be your name when the sun’s shining down on me, blessed be your name…”
“Savior He can move the mountains, my God is mighty to save…”
“I could sing of Your love forever…”
(And we did sing for a very, very long time.)
Somewhere along the line though, those songs got harder to sing, the words stopped making sense with what I was experiencing in the world outside the arena and the sanctuary.
How do I sing, “blessed be your name” when so much violence and injustice and oppression exist?
How do I declare “God is mighty to save” when God so clearly has not completed that work? (And what the hell is God waiting for, anyway?)
As the questions mounted, I dove deep into the book of Lamentations, into the practice of lament and into songs which were more reflective and wrestling in nature. I traded a posture of lifted hands and upward gaze for a downturned face, and knees pressing into the earth.
There were still moments, of course, when I would need a song which expressed boundless joy and gratitude, but the big-arena songs often fell short of what I was trying to express. Like last year, when I found out last year my daughter’s name had come up on the wait list to get into our first choice of school. Hillsong’s “Oceans” just wasn’t going to cut it that day. I got in my car that day, rolled down the windows and turned up Hezekiah Walker:
“Every praise is to our God, every word of worship with one accord, sing hallelujah…”
“Faithful, faithful, faithful is our God. I’m reaping the harvest God promised me…”
“I’ve come through the fire I’ve come through the rain, but God he never left my side…”
There was just something about the music that connected with me, and reached into the depths of my gratitude and awe and pulled them out in song.
I stumbled in to Gospel music by chance in college. I was first introduced to it by coworkers at a nonprofit. They taught me “Faithful is Our God” and “I Need You To Survive” and that Mary Mary sang more than just “Shackles.”
I started to learn that you don’t just memorize words and melodies and sing the songs. You live the music, you feel the music, you drag it up from your guts and pour it out, it moves you so deep that your whole body has to move with it, and it doesn’t matter what you’re going through or what you’ve been through – you lift up the praise.
Image: The Howard Gospel Choir, US Embassy Sweden
This week I was listening to songs, choosing selections for church on Sunday when Israel Houghton’s “You Are Good” came on.
I smirked, and reached to skip the song. This week has not been a week that leaves me wanting to sing “You are good, all the time, all the time, you are good.”
There has been too much paper work,
not enough money,
not enough resources,
too many questions
and not enough answers.
There have been too many cops and too many ambulances on my street – and summer isn’t even here yet.
My grandmother, who has been battling cancer for a year now, received a very sobering report, and I can’t be as present as I would like to be as she nears the end of her life.
Everything in me wants to fall into a heap of sack cloth and ashes and cry.
Give me Lamentations and The Goo Goo Dolls, black eyeliner, Ben & Jerry’s and flannel shirts.
Almost as quickly as the impulse to skip the song arose, came another feeling. Knocking the wind out of my chest: This is how you fight against it.
The stress, the sadness, the grief, the anger and anxiety.
There’s a time to lament, and a time to dance.
My mind wandered to the end of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, where the heroine of the story squares up against an unmatched and terrifying evil, and the only way to overcome the evil and save the day is to scream declarations of her love for her brother over and over into the very face of that evil.
You are good, all the time
Even in the face of cancer and death and mourning.
All the time, You are good
Even in the midst of crime and destruction in my neighborhood.
You are good and your mercy endures forever
Even when I cannot see that mercy at work
We worship you, hallelujah
I’m learning that there is a defiant nature about worship that I missed altogether growing up white and largely insulated from a lot of the grievances in the world.
It’s something I’m slowly learning from my neighbors, from the community I am a part of.
When the Grandma down the street sings“Have you got good religion? Do you love everybody? Certainly Lord!” it’s not because the wind is at her back and all her relationships and interactions with people are encouraging and helpful – it’s in spite of and in the face of challenges within her family and with her landlord and with so many others.
When she sings: “Give me that old time religion, it’ll bring you out of bondage and it’s good enough for me” it’s not because she’s been delivered from the ailments in her body, she sings it in spite of and in the face of illness.
I grew up in church praising God when I was happy, and standing in silent indignation when I was angry or sad. Eventually the rubber meets the road, all the shit hits all the fans and those of us who grew up like I did (white, insulated and relatively easy) find ourselves in a place where worship doesn’t make sense any more.
So we stop.
We stand in the midst of our grief and our questions and shake our fists at the heavens instead of lifting our hands in praise.
I think there’s a place for those things, for taking time to grieve and lament, but I also think we miss something if we stay in that place.
It’s a mistake to deny the existance of pain and questioning in the face of God, but it’s equally mistaken set pain and questioning up as our gods.
I will likely never understand why God allows things to happen the way they do,
pain and suffering will always plague the conscience of humanity,
but perhaps our response should be less about performing great acts of philosophical or theological gymnastics to explain the “why” of suffering.
Perhaps evil and suffering are overcome first from within, crying out love in desperate defiance like Meg in A Wrinkle in Time, or calling out like Kirk Franklin before his choir: “You can’t take my joy, devil!”
Defiance and protest may look like disruption, burning down, shutting down and tearing apart, there is a time for this.
Acknowleding grief may look like lament, ashes, black eyeliner and – yes- even The Goo Goo Dolls, there is a time for this.
But protest and grief may also sometimes look like standing in the face of suffering and pain and daring to declare:
Even still, there is Good.
Even still, there is Love.
Even still, there is Peace.
And those things can never be taken from us.