There is this cover band called Runaway Train made up of these suburban dads and me. I don’t know why they let me sing with them, but I’m grateful. One of them goes to the church I work at. The other two play in a band at another church. We occasionally play at a bar in a strip mall. Apparently, these guys also want to play at the end of my time here. At church. One of them suggested we sing the song “Shout to the Lord.” I know this is a favorite for many people, and if that is a song that speaks your story, then sing it out.
The truth for me is this: I don’t really resonate with many contemporary Christian songs. I also don’t resonate with many hymns. (And I’m just praying that there is still room for people like me in the church.) I can’t quite put my finger on what it is–part of it has to do with complexity of both music and themes. Life is complicated. I like my music to reflect that complexity (message and means of relaying that message). Otherwise, it doesn’t feel like the truth for me. It is not true, for example, that I will forever praise God or that I sing for joy at the sound of God’s name. I’m just not that good. I also don’t envision God as a Mighty Fortress. I’ve never been in need of a Mighty Fortress. I’m not even sure what that is, though I’ve been to Wartburg Castle, so that is what I picture in my head.
What I do resonate with is when some song I hear on the radio reminds me of an ancient sacred story. Or when I read from sacred text (Bible, for me) and think about the characters introduced and what they might be thinking about and feeling, and find some singer today who is expressing those same thoughts and feelings. That deepens the experience of the sacred story for me.
Here is an example: My friend Michael Larson and I like to work on finding poetry and music that goes with Jesus stories. He is working on a worship experience around the story of Jesus calling his disciples. It’s in the first chapter of the book of Mark (one of four books that made it into the Bible that tell the story of Jesus). Jesus is starting to collect disciples—people who would follow him, like, as a career. He picks up these two fishermen and tells them if they follow him, he will make them “fishers of men.” (For you churchy leader types who might be reading this, this is the text you may come across for January 22.) For the text of the story, look here: http://bible.oremus.org/?passage=Mark+1:14-20&vnum=yes&version=nrsv
Thinking about those fishers, we wondered what was going on in their heads as they heard him say that. Jesus must have been a compelling person in order for them to decide to follow, but there still must have been some ambiguity in their choice. Some question about if this was wise. What does it mean to be a fisher of men? How do you make money off of that? Who is this guy and what will be expected of me? What will my family think? And as we kept hearing that word, “follow” we thought of a song from Brandi Carlile, called “follow.” We looked up the lyrics to see if it might speak to the situation these guys found themselves in. Imagine a scene in the movie of this story where you see these guys struggling with this opportunity to follow, and wondering what to do. And maybe the scene is told with this song playing over the top: Brandi Carlile “Follow”
And as you think about the possible thoughts of those guys, maybe you’re also led to think about your own life, and your own struggles with what to do, and how to respond to your own life and what God might be calling you to do. For me, this way of listening to music and thinking about the ancient stories animates the stories and my faith life, infusing faith into life, making sacred what is ordinary.
Some people find it important to keep sacred music separate from the rest of the world (variously described as “secular” or “profane”). I’m uncomfortable with that separation. I want to experience God in all kinds of ways. Just as I am to remember Christ whenever I eat bread or wine—ordinary things in the world, I also want to remember Christ and these stories whenever I turn on the radio and hear ordinary music of the world. If this song comes on the radio while I’m driving along I can think about those guys and the choice they had to make, along with all of us, who are still making choices about who and when and what to follow today.
So, that’s why the band won’t be singing Shout to the Lord on my last day. When we sing at the bar, we always sing the Decemberists, Down by the Water, a song that reminds me of John the Baptist (see this ancient river bed, see where all the follies led, down by the water, down by the old main drag…)
Of course, they also occasionally talk about doing the song “Feel like Makin’ Love.” I don’t know what story to relate that to. Sampson and Delilah? Just some occasional thoughts on life, sacred and profane…