Tag Archives: despair

remember death

Recently, a friend sent me this piece in which Russell Banks discusses his inspiration for writing: a gravestone inscription of Remember Death that sits near his desk.

I’m reminded (as I read Banks’s words now, and often when I write) of Andrew Marvell’s line, “at my back I always hear Time’s wingéd chariot hurrying near.” For some reason it gives me the feeling of a hand lightly touching the small of my back; a feminine image, a tuxedoed man ushering me inside while holding open the door. I don’t need to look over my shoulder to know that it is no mortal, but Death’s skeletal hand, resting on the curve of my spine.

Yet death is such an abstraction, so hard to keep near. I’ve more than once tried to be decisive about killing myself, tried to pick a date, so that I could write a suicide letter about the way I experience the world. Undoubtedly, the letter would turn into an essay and then a book and maybe something worthwhile would come of it. But I can’t convince myself quite enough that I’ll actually follow through with the suicide, at least never for long enough to actually write something worthwhile. Or, the times I begin to draft such an essay in my head, I’m already so far in despair that I know—with supposed certainty—that nothing worthwhile would ever come of it, or of any work at all. Everything is meaningless, I mumble to myself, everything is vapor.
Sometimes I worry that because I don’t remember death and because I don’t write—the causation is important—I’ll be diagnosed, someday soon, with an exotic, fast-moving, incurable disease and have to scribble down just one of the dozen books I have inside me before the spirit expires.
So here I am. Anxious, unproductive. Paralyzed.
Jesus said: If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring  forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will kill you. It feels true. And I don’t now how to get it out.
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music: wailing worship

The modernist worldview of forward human progress asserted the belief that every problem not only can be solved but eventually will be. Along with much of the Western world, the church bought into the paradigm, seeking to resolve theological tensions. The result is services centered around certainty and sentimentality. Christians have become known to outsiders as those who wear rose-tinted glasses, offering the simple answer of “hope in Jesus Christ” as an answer to problems to everything from addiction to finding a parking space.

The area in which the sentimental nature of the church has become most clear is in worship. The sentimentalist, writes Jeremy Begbie, is one who “misrepresents reality through evading or trivializing evil, is emotionally self-indulgent, and avoids appropriate costly action.” Such works abound in contemporary Christian music; a song that comes to mind is “Blessed Be Your Name,” a happy melody with lyrics that encourage worship rather than painfully confronting God and reality about evil. It is self-indulgent in that the congregants can feel good about the decision to choose praise even when they could feel despair. The primary intent of such a song is the “satisfaction gained in exercising their emotion.” This piece avoids action by refusing to draw attention to any problems: through the complete evasion of recognizing evil for what it is, any situation that would require action remains unnamed. Such compulsory praise is “disturbingly out of touch” and is often “deployed as a narcotic” against the horrors of the world.

In contrast are pieces that confront the breadth and depth of both the human experience and of the triduum: Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Day. Begbie writes that countersentimentality depends on an “appropriate construal of the relation between cross and resurrection.” The story is told and heard both as a story in which the resurrection is known from the beginning, and as a story whose ending is discovered as it happens. Hope and despair are held together. Such pieces acknowledge the reality of suffering as experienced on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, while also offering glimpses of the hope that is known to be in store for Easter Day. The challenge is to hold both tellings simultaneously.

Although Begbie calls for songs that include the hope of Easter Day, I find it enough to express the despair and mourning of Good Friday and Holy Saturday. In a society where the church has reduced itself to a center that encourages certainty, introducing works that meet people in places of questioning or anguish would feel paradoxically hopeful. One example is “Bukowski” by Modest Mouse, in which the narrator names God an “Indian giver” (racial issues aside for now) and questions “who would wanna be such a control freak?” The singer’s question speaks to doubt within myself, confronting a boxed-in view of God. His honest wrestling against God requires more contact than a bow of praise does. Another piece, entitled “Maranatha,” professes a God who is in, rather than only the cause of, all circumstances, and thus worthy of praise. Pádraig Ó Tuama sings, “I’ve fucked it up so many times / Alleluia.” The juxtaposition highlights that God is not to be worshipped merely because He is the cause of joy, goodness, beauty, and happiness, but rather, God is to be worshipped because He is God.

“I’ve fucked it up so many times / Alleluia.”

More is at stake than the experience and expression of human emotions and experiences. Without lament, humans are forfeiting both genuine relationship to their Creator and the power to appeal to Her for justice. As Walter Brueggemann writes, “a theological monopoly is re-enforced, docility and submissiveness are engendered, and the outcome in terms of social practice is to re-enforce and consolidate the political-economic monopoly of the status quo.” Which is exactly what we see happening in sentimental worship: complacency abounds. The problem, as Brueggemann illustrates, is that it is not only a complacency of humans, but such silence permits God to remain inactive. When humans lament, “the cry initiates history” by calling God to action in the face of circumstances that are not tolerable. It is a task specific to humans to engage with the Creator in such a way, negotiating with Her for the good of all. In Psalm 39, the speaker’s verbal “restraint only contributed to the trouble;” may we learn from the mistake of his silence. God is on our side and willing to work on our behalf, but we must cry from a place of genuine suffering in order to engage Her.

Lament in worship is also a crucial aspect of community formation. Much of what makes singing together so powerful is the seemingly simple act of breathing together. The congregation aligns the in-and-out of breath, submitting to a work that is beyond ourselves and greater than the sum of individuals’ voices. Guthrie writes that “in music, we encounter identity which preserves particularity.” Through worship, the community demonstrates what can be achieved by coordinating our very pneuma, our breath and spirit, with one another. At the same time, the individual can hold on to his or her self in the piece. To use such a living metaphor exclusively for acts of praise is to diminish it. By incorporating lament, we validate and encourage the members of our community who aren’t experiencing God’s goodness by coming alongside them in the physical acting out of despair. Israel knew this, often using the psalms to share the burden of pain.

The church’s definition of worship must expand beyond praise, must be redefined to include mourning, suffering, doubt, and lament. To do so will honestly engage the living God through the Spirit, call humans to action in restoring our world, and reach out in accepting community to those who are in places in life in which God’s goodness is anything but obvious.

This piece was originally written for Theology of Spiritual Formation with Chelle Stearns. Students were asked to write on music and singing.

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