My aunt Louise tells stories about me as a two- or three-year-old, singing my heart out on car trips, loudly writing new verses to “The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night” from the backseat with reckless abandon and not a care in the world for phrasing, rhyme scheme, meter, or even pitch, for that matter.
The stories reinforce what I long have known: I express myself most fully through music. There’s a fairly interesting chronicle of my development as a person and artist in the recordings I’ve made since I started high school, and if I let anyone hear them, they’d find a very honest account of my joys, sorrows, silliness, anger, loves (and let’s be honest, infatuations) and faith in my 100+ song catalogue. I will not let anyone hear most of them, however, because though I am proud of their honesty, the majority of them are embarrassingly bad.
I have long believed that the music we sing in church needs to be just as honest in its reflection of the human experience as the music we listen to—and in my case, create—outside of church. Some settings in which I’ve worshiped lacked depth in their musical vocabulary, and they mostly sang happy songs of praise and thanksgiving. I once read about a woman dealing with incredible sorrow who couldn’t go to her church anymore because they didn’t sing anything that resonated with what she was experiencing. That seemed so crazy to me. The church is absolutely the place where someone hurting like that should be.
I belong to the Walking Roots Band. We were privileged to lead music at a retreat for Virginia Mennonite Conference pastors. The theme was trauma, and we were led carefully and courageously through the weekend by the resource speaker. My bandmate and friend, Seth Crissman, wrote a hymn of lament for the weekend using an Isaac Watts text and an original chorus. When he played it for us, I remember being blown away by the rawness of it all: “How long, O Lord, how long? / Will you forget me? Am I forsaken? / How long will you hide your face? / O Lord, I am shaken.”
When we first performed the song, I thought about people who experienced great loss. I sang for them. I wanted to give voice to their pain and let them know that they didn’t need to be happy to be in church, that crying out and shouting at God is okay.
And then I experienced traumatic loss. I almost couldn’t sing anymore. I couldn’t even cry out or shout.
My brothers and sisters in the band kept singing for me. They sang this song that expressed the anger, hurt, and despair that I felt. The power of music—and the power of Jesus’ love—is that my friends were not afraid to sit with me in the darkness. They sang the songs I couldn’t sing, and when I couldn’t cry out, they had the words to do it for me.
I love the reclaimed hymns we write and arrange in our band because they put us in touch with our ancestors of faith. Isaac Watts wrote the text of the verses for Seth’s “Lament” in 1719, almost 300 years ago. But in Seth’s setting of this text, I identify intimately with Watts’s words:
“See how I pass my weary days in sighs and groans; and when ’tis night / my bed is watered with my tears; my grief consumes, and dims my sight.”
A singing diet of this sort of song alone wouldn’t work for me; I need silly songs, songs to dance to, songs of love and hope, and songs of praise and thanksgiving. But mostly what I need in the music I sing and listen to—both in and out of church—is honest expression of what it is to be alive in the world today, and if the music holds even the most fleeting glimpse of what it is to be living God’s kingdom . . . well, then I sing, “Amen.”