Sunday, March 9, 2014

Leaning into Doubt: Worship Music, Praying Drunk, and The National

If I'm being honest, around 70% of church worship music sounds like this to me:

With "Jesus" replacing "Mickey" in the lyrics.

Oh Jesus, you're so fine, 
You're so fine you blow my mind
Hey, Jesus, Hey, Jesus

That doesn't necessarily mean they're bad songs or that they're poorly written--that's a separate issue--just that I don't connect to those songs the ways a lot of people seem to. Or that many churches would expect me to. 

I can get to the point where "Happy Jesus songs" make sense to me, but it doesn't happen very often, and it takes work to get me there. I'm not generally the happiest person, but I'm also not the biggest fan of people noticing my presence, so I'll sing along with songs I don't really feel (and might not even believe at the moment, since I'm being honest). 

It's easier for everyone that way. 

But the thing about the Bible, and Psalms (the original spiritual songbook) in particular, is that they are not just written with happy people in mind. There are happy songs, of course, but there are just as many "complaint" psalms, such as Psalm 142:

Psalm 142
New English Translation (NET)

A well-written song by David, when he was in the cave; a prayer.

To the Lord I cry out;
to the Lord I plead for mercy.
I pour out my lament before him;
I tell him about my troubles.
Even when my strength leaves me,
you watch my footsteps.
In the path where I walk
they have hidden a trap for me.
Look to the right and see!
No one cares about me.
I have nowhere to run;
no one is concerned about my life.
I cry out to you, O Lord;
I say, “You are my shelter,
my security in the land of the living.”
Listen to my cry for help,
for I am in serious trouble!
Rescue me from those who chase me,
for they are stronger than I am.
Free me from prison,
that I may give thanks to your name.
Because of me the godly will assemble,
for you will vindicate me.

But not many of today's worship hits sound like that, so when I'm looking for a "worship experience," I usually have to look elsewhere, in places you might not expect to find God at all. 

One of those places I find God is in poems by Andrew Hudgins, who has an uneasy and honest relationship with Christianity:

"I was raised as a Christian immersed in the Bible, and educated in a Methodist college. Several times, I’ve thought about applying to divinity school, though I never did it. I continue to see the world from a Christian ethical perspective, though now I add to it my own doubts about that perspective.

The spiritual issue, the issue of faith, is much more difficult for me, fluid, and painful. I am, I think, an instinctive believer, but I balk at the intellectual level. No matter how much I want to make the leap I can’t do it. Sometimes, though, when I don’t think about it, I find that I’m thinking not like a believer, but as a believer."

And even though I've never actually been drunk, my favorite Hudgins poem is "Praying Drunk." 

I’m sorry for the times I’ve driven   
home past a black, enormous, twilight ridge.
Crested with mist, it looked like a giant wave   
about to break and sweep across the valley,   
and in my loneliness and fear I’ve thought,   
O let it come and wash the whole world clean.
Forgive me. This is my favorite sin: despair—
whose love I celebrate with wine and prayer.
Dear Lord,   
we lurch from metaphor to metaphor,   
which is—let it be so—a form of praying.

As important and dear as words are to me, though, they can only go so far. Something about the commingling of words and chords is inherently spiritual, and the right song can reach me in ways a poem or a story cannot. 

When I'm looking for a "worship song," by which I mean a song that aligns me with an attitude of appreciation for God's presence and activity in my life, my go-to is the band The National. As far as I know, none of the members of the band go to church or even believe in God, but the way they engage with life resonates deeply with me. 

The National lean into doubt in a way that helps me to find myself again on the other side. 

All of my thoughts of you
Bullets through rock and through
Come apart at the seams
Now I know what dying means

I am not my rosy self
Left my roses on my shelf
Take the wild ones, they're my favorites
It's the side effects that save us