Sunday, November 6, 2016

Spiritual Soundtracks

Music has a huge impact in all of our lives. We can hear a song and it reminds us of a time and a place and a person. Songs can be healing or hurting depending on the memory that we connect to it. I can be sitting in one place, hear a song playing, and be completely transported to another one, in another time. There are songs that remind me of times in my life or of people who have been in it but are no longer here. Music creates soundtracks for our lives. They also can provide the soundtracks to our spiritual lives as well. I know that throughout my own life there have been singers and albums that have had huge impacts on my faith and shaped my theological perspectives. 

As a child who grew up in the 1970's, it was albums and a stereo system. My parents had a large and diverse record collection. Everything from the music they grew up with to Broadway musicals to Country to jazz to what was currently on the radio. I remember hearing lots of gospel and Christian music: everything from Second Chapter of Acts to Andrea Crouch to Keith Green. While those were the Christian singers of my parents, the first one I felt was truly my own and had the biggest impact on me was Amy Grant. First off, I'll admit it, I had a huge crush on her. I remember getting her albums as presents, starting with My Father's Eyes. It was for the Christmas of 1982, though, that I got the record that I remember best: Age to Age. The song most of us know off this album was her recording of Michael Card's "El Shaddai." This would be one I would love hearing her sing, but would suffer hearing other girls sing badly in Christian talent shows. My favorite song off this album was "Sing Your Praise to the Lord" written by a singer / songwriter who would have the biggest impact on my faith, Rich Mullins. 

When Amy toured for her album Unguarded, Rich would be her opening act. I saw this tour, but only remember her. As I grew up, I continued to love her work, especially her very raw and vulnerable album Lead Me On, the title track is my favorite song that she's ever recorded.  "Faithless Heart" addresses her own spiritual and marital struggles in a moving and deeply personal way. 

When I think about the Christian music of my youth, Amy Grant is always the first one who comes to mind. She would take hits from Christians over the years (including this year when LifeWay said they wouldn't be carrying her latest Christmas album because it wasn't "Christian enough." but I won't get started on that). Even now, she continues to be an example of me of someone who has success but has handled it with humility and grace and compassion.

"My experience," she once said, "is that people who have been through painful, difficult times are filled with compassion." 

That statement is deadly accurate of my next choice: Rich Mullins. 

No one in music (Christian or otherwise) has had as big an impact on my life and my faith as Rich Mullins. I see him as both poet and prophet, which can be a lonely place to be because both often say the things we don't want to hear or show us things we don't want to see. My first exposure to his music was not through him, but, as I wrote before, through Amy Grant's recording of his "Sing Your Praise to the Lord." I guess, like many, though, I would become aware of Rich through his anthem "Awesome God." The first album I owned by Rich was his Never Picture Perfect, which accurately describes not only him, but all of us. The song that stood out to me and continues to resonate ever since I first heard it in 1989 is "The Love of God." From its opening lines of, "There's a wideness in God's mercy / I cannot find in my own" I found myself blown away by the sheer honesty of his lyrics. Rich was the first singer I had ever heard record music about his struggles, his failures and his flaws, but that it ultimately came down to the grace of God. The image of God's love being "a reckless, raging fury" is one that has never left me. 

It's his 1993 album A Liturgy, A Legacy & A Ragamuffin Band that was a spiritual Sergeant Pepper for me. It was like no other Christian album I had ever heard. From "Creed" inspired by the Nicene Creed to "Peace (A Communion Blessing from St. Joseph's Square)" to the "Hold Me Jesus," Rich's poetry and honesty cut deep. I had never heard anyone (in music or otherwise) admit:

Well, sometimes my life just don't make sense at all
When the mountains look so big 
And my faith just seems so small

And yet I needed to. In the Church or my own home, there had never been an allowance for questioning or struggles or doubt. Rich was the first one to teach me that not only was this okay, but it was a part of true spiritual growth. "Closeness to God," Rich once admitted, "is not about feelings, closeness to God is about obedience . . . I don't know how you feel close to God. And no one I know that seems to be close to God knows anything about those feelings either. I know if we obey occasionally the feeling follows, not always, but occasionally. I know if we disobey we don't have a shot at it."

Along with doubt, Rich also taught me about social justice. His concerts were not only filled with his music, but with his wisdom. "Christianity," he said, "is not about building an absolutely secure little niche in the world where you can live with your perfect little wife and your perfect little children in your beautiful little house where you have no gays or minority groups anywhere near you. Christianity is about learning to love like Jesus loved and Jesus loved the poor and Jesus loved the broken." This statement would drive me back to my Bible to reevaluate, especially since our family was attending a Word of Faith church that was espousing exactly the opposite of this. Indeed, I found Rich far closer to the gospel than that church, where they had ushers seating doctors and lawyers at the front and the poor in the back. The more I studied scripture, the more I could see that God had a heart for the oppressed, the outsider, the forgotten, and those on the fringe of society. I began to see that the way of Christ is not a scrambling to climb up the ladder but a downward climb to be with those Jesus most identified with; the poor, the lonely, and the sojourner. And Rich lived this out: leaving success and Nashville behind to teach music to Navajo children on a reservation in New Mexico.

Rich also introduced me, like many others, to the writing of Brennan Manning, whose book The Ragamuffin Gospel. I would even be fortunate enough to attend one of his weekend retreats. Reading that book brought me to tears, especially when I read, "My deepest awareness of myself is that I am deeply loved by Jesus Christ and I have done nothing to earn it or deserve it." Wow! I had never heard that. Ever. In Church or outside its walls. I had grown up believing we had to earn the love of God. As a child I head that "God loved good girls and boys" and felt the pressure to earn His attention or affection for fear that He would withdraw it and I could easily and eternally be lost. Not a pleasant way to grow up as a kid. The message of grace was a much needed one and it began a slow process to, "Define yourself radically as one beloved of God. This is the true self. Every other identity is an illusion" (Brennan Manning, Abba's Child: the Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging).

The last album Rich ever wrote, he never got to record because he was killed when his Jeep flipped over. His band, the Ragamuffins, would record what became known as The Jesus Record. Like all of Rich's music, it was filled with his unflinching honesty, his questions, and, ultimately, his dependence on the grace of God. "I would rather live on the verge of falling and let my security be in the all-sufficiency of the grace of God than to live in some pietistic illusion of moral excellence. My faith isn't in the idea that I am more moral than anybody else. My faith is in the idea that God and His love are greater than whatever sins any of us commit."

There never has been nor will there ever be another Rich Mullins and the world is all the less for it.

Lastly, is the singer / songwriter whose music and witness has picked up where Rich left off - Sara Groves. I first became aware of her with her hit song "The Word" released in 1999 on the album Conversations. Yet it was the songs that didn't make the airwaves that I connected with. Songs like "Painting Pictures of Egypt" (a song that's chorus starts off with, "I've been painting pictures of Egypt and leaving out what it lacks / The future feels so hard and I wanna go back") to "Cave of Adullam" (where, like David, she calls out for God to speak to her in a place of loneliness and depression).  She would add to the depth and beauty of her songwriting skills with her next to albums All Right Here and The Other Side of Something.

In 2005, she released Add to the Beauty, an album that she said focused on the concept that, "God has invited us, as mere human beings, to add to the beauty of his plan and creation." With her title song, Sara sings in the chorus, "And I want to add to the beauty / To tell a better story / I want to shine with the light / That's burning up inside."

Isn't that what God has called us to do? It always amazes me when I look about at His wondrous creation that He has invited us to be co-creators so that our art and our lives might glorify Him. Her song tells of how this is done in "loving community" and "helping a soul find worth." That is something I aspire to in my daily life with all I come in contact with. I love how she expresses it as, "This is grace, an invitation to be beautiful / This is grace, an invitation." What a lovely image: grace as an invitation, a welcoming, to be beautiful and that God is inviting us to "add to the beauty."  Each day I challenge myself to do this, to move beyond myself and my needs to the needs of others to be seen and heard and loved. Each night, before I go to bed, I ask myself: Did I? Did I invite someone in to grace by my words or actions?

"Loving a person just they way they are," Sara sings, "it's no small thing." I love the truth she expresses about the need but also the struggle that comes with loving other people. Listening to her, you know that she is speaking from her heart in her songs.

There's a lot of pain in reaching out and trying
It's a vulnerable place to be
Love and pride can't occupy the same spaces baby
Only one makes you free

Like Rich Mullins, Sara Groves is vulnerable in her songs. She writes about the struggles of not only faith, but in marriage and parenting. Yet her music never comes across as defeatist or cynical, but trusting in hope. Add to the Beauty is filled with songs that are a combination of loving and thoughtful. There's an intimacy to her voice that draws the listener in and causes a deeper connection with Sara as more than an artist but as a person. That's rare in music, especially the commercial driven music that fills the radio, including Christian radio. When one listens to such stations, one cannot help but lament the sameness of the worship music that they play. While I can get swept into a worship song like "Oceans (Where Feet May Fail Me)," I cannot help but think how Rich Mullins would never have been welcome there just as artists like Sara Groves, Andrew Peterson, Audrey Assad, and Sandra McCracken (among others) are not played on them today. These songwriters, like the Psalmists, create art that not only glorifies God but presents the whole gamut of the spiritual journey (the valleys as well as the mountaintops, the belief and the doubt). It seems to me, that Christian radio is the lesser for not allowing such artists on their airwaves because it gives those listening the false sense that there are no struggles in belief. I cannot write about the number of times that music by Rich Mullins or Sara Groves has spoken to the place where I was, spiritually, in my life and made me feel less alone and more understood.

Certainly I deeply connected with Sara's next album Tell Me What You Know. This album moved beyond just the personal spiritual path to one that is drawn to making a difference in the world, one with more of a heart for social justice. This was no more clearer than in her song "In The Girl There's A Room." This is the song that introduced me to the work done by Gary Haugen and International Justice Mission. After hearing it, I went to our local library and checked out Haugen's book Terrify No More. It opened my eyes to the horrific world of human trafficking, particularly sexual trafficking. I would go on to read more of his books like Just Courage and The Locust Effect. In Just Courage: God's Great Expedition for the Restless Christian, I was cut to the quick by this passage:

Jesus asks parents to make yet another choice. Are we raising our children
to be safe or to be brave? Are we raising our children to be smart or
to be loving? Are we raising them to be successful or to be significant?
How does God raise his children? In his book The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis
made an observation that is worth lingering over. "Love," Lewis wrote, 
"is something more stern and splendid than mere kindness . . . Kindness
merely as such cares not whether its object becomes good or bad,
provided only that it escapes suffering." My vulnerabilities as a parent
are such that sometimes I simply want my kids to escape suffering.
But if I keep them completely safe, they will never have the chance
to be truly good or truly brave. Is that what I want?

Reading those words, I had to ask myself, "Is that what I really want for my two sons?" It's a tough question, as a parent, to ask oneself. The path of faith is never one of safety but of selflessness and servanthood. "Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me," Jesus asks and, do I want my kids, to turn away with, "That's too hard" or "That's too scary" or "No thanks, I prefer safety and comfort." What do they see me doing in my own life?

This is further repeated in the song "When the Saints" in which she begins, "Lord I have a heavy burden of all I have seen and know its more than I can handle" and she makes a connection between Paul and Silas in prison to the work of the Underground Railroad, the missionary work done by the Eliot family after he was murdered by the tribe he went to witness to, the work of Mother Teresa in Calcutta, and the work that men like Gary Haugen are doing for IJM rescuing girls from sexual trafficking. And how, like these saints, she wants to be one of them making a real difference for Christ in this world.

The song that caused a change in the life of my family and I was her haunting "I Saw What I Saw" about her trip to Rwanda and seeing the aftereffects of the genocide. For us, when Sara sings:

Your pain has changed me
Your dreams inspire
Your face a memory
Your hope a fire
Your courage asks me what I'm afraid of
(What I am made of)
And what I know of love

These words resonated with us in regards to orphans and adoption. When we were first considering international adoption, we found ourselves overwhelmed by fear (a large part of that was in regards to the financial cost of adoption which is high), but Sara's words, "Your courage asks me what I'm afraid of" challenged us. Compared to the reality and fear hat orphans around the world face in their daily existence, what was our fears in comparison? What were we made of? How can we claim to love Christ if we weren't acting in that love when we were so clearly called to adopt?  And how could we not respond to show what we know of love to a child who has never experienced love, either that of the parent or God, before?

Whenever we started to doubt, "I Saw What I Saw" both encouraged and compelled us to not waiver and give up.  After we adopted and with all of the struggles that comes with that, it was her song "Miracle" off the album Invisible Empires that resonated. My adopted son struggled in school with behavioral issues that stemmed from fear and the inability to communicate with anyone, as he didn't speak any English. At first, he could not get through a single week of school without being suspended. One morning, before school, I just drove him around in my car and prayed for him. When I put on music to shuffle on my iPod, it was "Miracle" that first played. The opening lines are:

Lay down your arms
Give up the fight
Quiet our hearts for a little while

I prayed those words for my son. I prayed that he would feel a sense of peace that day and not feel the need to react and act out fearful aggression. I prayed that his heart would be quieted. As I prayed, her calm soothing voice singing, calmed him. The anxious rocking ceased and he listened to her voice, even though he didn't understand her words. That was one of the first good days he had at school. Even now, almost four years later, I cannot hear that song without thinking of that morning.

I love the sensitivity and wisdom of Sara's music. All of her experience has culminated into the masterful album Floodplain. This record is the most profound of her career. It is not only the most emotionally personal but also the most spiritually deep. Listening to this record is like sharing an intimate conversation with a close friend. Each of the songs off this album connects with me in a penetrating way. Like Sara, I am at a place in my spiritual journey where I am looking for something richer and of greater scope than the language of my "Native Tongue." This blog started as a part of that desire to connect with the more ancient ways of the Christian Church (stripping bare what I believe to ask, "Who is God? Who is Christ? Why do I believe what I believe? And to discover the width and breadth and depth of the Church and doctrine). As she sings:

Looking for a language that is older still
The taproot of a living Word
Resonating echoes of an Eden song
Waiting to be heard

For me, those words were connected to my own reading of the words in Jeremiah:

Stand at the crossroads and look;
ask for the ancient paths,
ask where the good way is,
and you will find your soul (6:16).

That's where I am on my spiritual journey and is the starting point for this blog and my searching. 

All of these singers have been instrumental in the shaping of my own faith, how I view the world, how I view the Church and finding a way to trust God and living life fully aware. Their music has inspired and challenged and comforted me. To each of these artists I am sincerely grateful and thankful for the gifts they share with us by using their talents to minister, to glorify God, and to touch the lives of those who listen.

These are just three examples of  the spiritual soundtrack of my life. What is yours? I would love to hear from you about yours.

Official websites of the artists mentioned:

Amy Grant

Sara Groves

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