Here is the exciting conclusion of the playlist posts. Last week’s blog highlighted the mostly not-specifically-Christian music that meshes well with our numerous inpatient hospital stay adventures. Only two “Christian” songs made that list, and I outline several reasons for that in the earlier post On the Insufficiency of Christian Music. However, there are some gems to be found in the pit that is the Christian genre. The songs below speak to me for various reasons- just not during adrenaline-filled hospital stays.
In no particular order:
Blessed Be Your Name- Chris Tomlin
What I like about it: I became a Christian at 16 during a very difficult time in my life. In fact, the decade following was to be filled with one crisis, danger, or source of grief after another. I knew nothing about actual Christianity before age 16; previously I figured from observing the youth-group cliques at school that “Christianity” was just a bundled component of the “shiny, happy” white upper middle class culture, like shopping at Abercrombie and playing a sport. I wanted nothing to do with that culture which seemed oblivious to real life and hardship, and for the most part, the feeling was mutual. But at 16 I was invited to a different kind of youth group, aimed precisely at kids like me who were outside of the the mainstream, preppy, sheltered, grew-up-in-church fold. They sought out the kids were not “shiny and happy,” the smokers and the skaters and the angry and determined. There I learned the basics of Christianity- the story of sin and death and repentance and redemption- but more importantly, as I read the Bible on my own and explored this “spiritual stuff,” I personally found there is something tangible to it. My faith grew as an independent force- separate from the church, peer pressure, and expectations of others (both in support of and against my faith); I actually left that youth group shortly afterward because I felt their extreme fundamentalist approach was out of line with what I understood and discerned to be biblical teaching. I mean to say that I actually reliably experienced guidance, peace, and growth on a spiritual level when I was seeking it through prayer and the Bible. Those tools are the only way I weathered all of the events in my life since that time. This song has always embodied all of that for me. My understanding of and experience of Christianity bears no resemblance to the sheltered, privileged life that I (perhaps unfairly) perceived the youth group kids at school to be living. It also bears no resemblance to the “prosperity gospel,” which implies that sincere pursuit of God always leads directly to material wealth and well being for the Christian. I understand the Bible to consistently say that life is “full of trouble” (Job 14.1), that there is a “time to weep and a time to laugh” (Ecclesiastes 3.4) and that Paul describes being, “…under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure….but this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God” (2 Corinthians 1.8-9). This is why it bothers me so much that there are very few Christian songs that address suffering as a natural part of our spiritual life. They tend to dismiss it with a platitude like, “When I’m down, God will raise me up!!” as though it shows a lack of faith to mention suffering for me than just a microsecond. I believe this song captures one role of suffering in a Christian’s life very eloquently in the line, “Though there is pain in the offering, blessed be your name.”
Lyrics Highlight: Though there is pain in the offering
Blessed be your name
Along These Same Lines: If You Want Me To- Ginny Owens
What Do I Know of Holy- Addison Road
What I Like About It: Poetically describes the awe and wonder when you stop to examine your understanding of “God”
Lyrics Highlight: What do I know of you
Who spoke me into motion
Where have I even stood
But the shore along your ocean
Along These Same Lines: What Love Really Means- Jj Heller
Waiting Here For You- Martin Smith
What I Like About It: The song and the video both have a very intimate sound, like we’re listening to Smith direct his words to God without pretense.
Lyrics Highlight: If faith can move the mountains
Let the mountains move
We come with expectation
We’re waiting here for you
Along These Same Lines: Sanctify- Delirious? (Smith’s old band)
Hallelujah- Rufus Wainwright
What I Like About It: Both the lyrics and the music, originally written by Leonard Cohen, are stunning creations. The power of the song is reflected in its versatility. Cohen himself noted that “many different hallelujahs exist,” and this song could be performed in a “melancholic, fragile, uplifting [or] joyous” tone. I like the Wainwright version best so far.
Lyrics Highlight: Maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Is how to shoot at somebody who outdrew ya
And it’s not a cry that you hear at night
It’s not somebody who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and its a broken hallelujah
Along These Same Lines: Resurrection- Nicol Sponberg
Because of This- MercyMe
What I Like About It: Like Blessed Be Your Name, this song addresses suffering in a Christian’s life.
Lyrics Highlight: How can we sing, when there seems no reason to
Along These Same Lines: Crazy- MercyMe
Without Running Away- Jason Gray
What I Like About It: Gray’s lyrics are real and original. Without exaggeration, I cannot think of any other Christian performer of whom I could say the same. I wish more artists would learn Gray’s secret for sneaking rugged authenticity into the Christian music industry. A few lyrics in this piece: “I’ve spent some days looking for a length of rope/ And a place to hang it from the end of my hope/……If truth be told I’d rather dismiss it/ And be free of the burden of living that hoping requires” are the boldest and rawest lines I’ve ever heard in a Christian song. The Christian “culture” needs more honesty like this about depression, hopelessness, and other mental health struggles from artists, pastors, and laypeople. And the Christian community needs to be prepared to respond graciously. Thankfully the “don’t ask, don’t tell” atmosphere surrounding emotional suffering and mental illness is very slowly abating in Christian-dom after tragedies such as the suicide of Matthew Warren- the son of the distinguished mega-church pastor and author of The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren. Events such as this have prompted mental health awareness efforts, scientific research, and practical resources to be generated in the field of Christian ministry, in addition to frequently-appearing articles on the topic in recent years. Perhaps after successfully breaching print, emotional authenticity in Christian culture will be heard more widely from the stages and the pulpits.
Lyrics Highlight (in addition to the powerful lines listed above): To bring my heart
To every day
And run the risk of fearlessly loving
Without running away
Along These Same Lines: Remind Me Who I Am- Jason Gray
Here I Am- Shawn McDonald
What I Like About It: As is true of many of McDonald’s songs, here he brings a deeply emotional performance from simple and brief lyrics.
Lyrics Highlight: Here I am, oh, tonight
With my arms open wide
Along These Same Lines: Have You Ever?- Shawn McDonald
Symbol of a Lost Cause- Ginny Owens
What I Like About It: I love the picture she paints of a Christian in some type of social service work: “He could have prospered in the suburbs/ Instead of working for the poor/ Down at the inner city mission/ Where there’s so much disappointment/ And very few rewards,” as it describes many positions I’ve held during my career as a case worker and a counselor working with “under-served” or “under-privileged” populations. These types of positions will relieve you of your idealism and savior complex promptly. You start out bursting at the seams with good intentions, but as that energy is lapped away by persistent disappointment in the lack of results and the eventual failure of fragile victories, you begin to realize how much narcissism and pride was underlying those fierce desires to “do good.” This never-ending process of picking out the pride invading my attempts at virtue informs my understanding of “the gospel” more and more, because God embodies love that isn’t tainted by self-interest. I weary very quickly of my imperfect attempts to “love” in the absence of some kind of ego boost or gratification in return. Yet somehow God truly loves us- the sick and weary but traitorous and vicious beings that we are- unconditionally, and reconciled us to him at his own expense even knowing what a lost cause we were, since we could never reciprocate this perfect love in the state we are currently in.
Lyrics Highlight: Beneath the symbol of a lost cause
Is where I take my stand
Along These Same Lines: Be Thou My Vision- Ginny Owens
Better Than A Hallelujah- Amy Grant
What I Like About It: This is a beautifully written song that dares to mention several specific situations of true, deep suffering. And I’m sure some people are offended by the gritty statement that, “God loves a drunkard’s cry/ A soldier’s plea not to let him die/ Better than a hallelujah sometimes,” and it may be misconstrued to paint God as lacking compassion or even as taking pleasure in our misfortune somehow. But I believe these weighty lyrics communicate the opposite- they describe the spiritual power of suffering and the fact that “God is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34.18).
Lyrics Highlight: We pour out our miseries
God just hears a melody
Beautiful, the mess we are
The honest cries of breaking hearts
Are better than a hallelujah sometimes
Along These Same Lines: Held- Natalie Grant
Bless Us and Keep Us- John Waller
What I Like About It: I originally heard this song as part of the video Bible study, The Blessing. The Bible study elaborates on the power of a parent’s blessing, both when it is given and when it is withheld. This song reminds me of my intentions to actively bless and lead my kids in my relationship with them. The two similar songs linked below are also powerful in this way.
Lyrics Highlight: Lord make our sons
Like Ephraim and Manasseh
Forgetting the troubles of their past
And having a fruitful future