Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Psalm 39:4-5,12-13 - "Music for Recovering Failures”

Lenten Midweek
Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Tonight we’re going to be looking at a number of songs and readings from Scripture to talk about Christian music.

We start with the rock band U2 who has often encouraged me in my faith through songs with biblical references, pointing to eternal hope while singing about difficult, troubled situations. However, I’m tired of Christians acting like U2 is a Christian praise band. U2’s music encourages my faith, not because the songs are simple praise choruses; U2 speaks about faith from the context of life’s darkness and struggles.

For instance, “Tomorrow” has always first and foremost to me talked about the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Take a listen to the first verse and chorus.

U2 – “Tomorrow” from the album, October
Won't you come back tomorrow
Won't you come back tomorrow
Won't you come back tomorrow
Can I sleep tonight
Don’t go to the door
I'm going out
I'm going outside, mother
I'm going out there

Outside, somebody's outside
Somebody's knocking at the door
There's a black car parked at the side of the road
Don't go to the door

There’s an ominous knock on the door, a threat of violence, perhaps the IRA coming to recruit the son, perhaps the police coming to arrest him, and the son struggles to know whether to face this violence, to join the struggle, or to stay inside and hide.

With that verse in mind, I hear the rest of the song struggling over this, even with its Christian references. I always took the chorus, “Will you be back tomorrow,” as being partly the son speaking about wanting an end to the troubles and perhaps asking for Jesus to return. However, I also hear the mother speaking those words, wondering when the son will return from jail or from being a part of the IRA.

Of course, you can’t ignore the last verse where Bono, the lead singer, says, “Open up to the love of God/To the love of He who made the blind to see/He's coming back/I believe Him/Jesus is coming/I'm gonna be there.” The song does look forward to Jesus returning.

Yet, to say that “Tomorrow” is just about the Second Coming is to ignore the rest of the song and the context in which U2 wrote much of their early music. U2 is very much inspired by the Psalms. Just as David cried out about his enemies attacking him even while clinging to faith in God, U2’s songs also cling to faith while facing the world around them. These are cries of faith within songs about the Troubles and the world that we live in.

With that in mind, it is no surprise that U2 took the words of Psalm 40 and made them into a beautiful song, often closing their early concerts with this song, leaving the stage with the crowd still singing.

Psalm 40:1-3
1 I waited patiently for the LORD;
he turned to me and heard my cry.
2 He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.
3 He put a new song in my mouth,
a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear
and put their trust in the LORD.

That’s the kind of music, poems, and stories that we need to encourage our faith. As one author said, “[God] may be needling us through contemporary music; He may be challenging us to be alert to crucial issues and questions of our time that can be heard in rock music.”

However, some bands have been attacked in the Christian press for not being Christian enough, because they write songs about the world around them, songs that don’t necessarily make the Christian faith simple and neat. One such band is Switchfoot, and the lead singer, Jon Foreman, had this to about those criticisms,

“The people who throw the first stones don't sound like any hero of mine. I do have a hero. My hero is the most forgiving person I've ever met. My hero is the one the religious circles wanted to take out with the trash.

“My hero didn't play clubhouse games. He didn't start a clique where we invite the people who fit the bill. He invited the sick, the prostitutes, the weak and the screw-ups like myself. That's why everyone is invited to listen to our songs.

“No, I don't write music for the people who are in the cool club or the self-righteous club. This music is for the recovering failures who know they need a savior. Why does the church shoot the wounded? Why think the worst of people?”

Music for recovering failures. That’s the kind of music that we need for our faith; that’s the kind of approach to life that will help us to understand the world around us. The people in our community are broken and wandering away from God’s ways, but so are we. We are recovering failures. Listen to the song, “The Beautiful Letdown.”

Switchfoot – “the beautiful letdown” from the album, the beautiful letdown
It was a beautiful letdown
when I crashed and burned
when I found myself alone, unknown and hurt.

It was a beautiful letdown
the day I knew
that all the riches this world had to offer me
would never do
where I don’t belong.

In a world full of bitter pain
and bitter doubt
I was trying so hard to fit in,
until I found out

I don’t belong here
I don’t belong here
I will carry a cross and a song

The first two verses are much like what Psalm 39 says in verses 4-5:
Psalm 39:4-5
4 “Show me, O LORD, my life’s end
and the number of my days;
let me know how fleeting is my life.
5 You have made my days a mere handbreadth;
the span of my years is as nothing before you.
Each man’s life is but a breath.
Part of the Christian life is realizing just how small we are, how small the things of this world are compared to knowing God. Knowing that our entire hope lies in God, suddenly we realize like Switchfoot that we don’t fit in with this world, we don’t belong here. We sing a different song.

Psalm 39, verses 12-13, make a similar realization, although there the writer also realizes we don’t belong with God, we’re strangers to Him in our sinfulness.
Psalm 39:12-13
12 “Hear my prayer, O LORD,
listen to my cry for help;
be not deaf to my weeping.
For I dwell with you as an alien,
a stranger, as all my fathers were.
Look away from me, that I may rejoice again
before I depart and am no more.”
We don’t belong in this world, because we believe in God. We don’t belong with God, because we sin, but He has promised to take us in despite our sinfulness.

And so we continue to sing with Switchfoot who reminds us that we are recovering failures, we are a gathering of failures. Switchfoot may not present pretty little songs about how great life is with Jesus, but Switchfoot writes real songs about the real lives of recovering failures, of recovering sinners, seeing the Holy Spirit work in our lives despite our sinfulness.

Switchfoot – “the beautiful letdown” continued
We are a beautiful letdown
painfully uncool
The church of the drop outs, the losers,
the sinners, the failures, and the fools.
What a beautiful letdown
are we salt in the wound?
Let us sing one true tune.

If we approach Christian music expecting that it doesn’t have anything to do with worldly things, I’m afraid we’ll approach the world like that too. We’ll talk to people who don’t know Jesus and tell them that Jesus answers all of the questions—when really many questions remain unanswered. We’ll tell them that you never have to be afraid if you believe in Jesus—when really life is still scary. We’ll tell them that Jesus changes lives—when really we’re ready to walk away from them because their lives still don’t look like what we expect from church-going people. We’ll tell them that they just need to believe in Jesus—when really we’re not willing to walk with them as they discover Jesus and the mystery of faith.

David Wilcox is a singer-songwriter who also is a Christian. He doesn’t promote himself as a Christian singer, but he’s willing to talk about his faith. He doesn’t preach at his concerts, but through music and stories, he’s clearly inviting people to discover God’s love.

Here’s what Wilcox said in an interview when asked about how his faith shapes his songwriting.

“At first I'd thought, ‘Since this is true, it's going to be easy to write songs about it. I'll just say it's true.’ Yet I realized that whenever I'd heard a lot of the kind of music that does that, it never did me any good. It never respected the fact that I hadn't felt that yet.

“If you're trying to explain something logically, you have to start with things people can trust. I've always loved the songs that talk about the search process, the God-shaped hole within us. And I wanted to write that kind of song. But it took me a long time to understand how to put those kinds of thoughts down on paper.”

In my mind, Wilcox has over and over again written songs that do just that. They invite people into the search process for God. They start from the questions and doubts and struggles in our hearts; they start where people are. And then these songs point to hope and faith.

Listen to “Silent Prayer” where Wilcox talks about the desperate prayer in his heart when he was searching.

David Wilcox - “Silent Prayer” from the album, Turning Point
I used to pray for rescue by burning up my pain.
That's the only kind of prayer I knew back then.
It was a fire of desperation for any wings in flight
Like a beacon from my lifeboat late at night.
As long as I was waiting
Under the empty sky out there,
I would feel that sorrow burning like a rescue flare.
I'd fear there's nothing to believe in, nothing that would care.
And the fire of desperation,
That's my silent prayer.

I want to smash the windows. The congregation's asleep.
I want to feel the wind blow and let the spirit free.
I can't, I can't stand to sit there where their God is pocket-size.
I want to feel what's real and will not compromise.
This rage I blaze inside me
Into the empty sky out there,
When I feel that sorrow burning like a rescue flare,
I fear there's nothing to believe in. Nothing that would care.
And the fire of desperation,
That's my silent prayer.

Wilcox seems to be afraid that some churches may squash those desperate cries, those desperate questions and searches for truth and hope and God. May we not stop people from asking those questions. May we invite people to search with us, to journey with us, to discover God’s love in Jesus Christ through asking as many questions as they want.

Are you uncomfortable with a song that doesn’t answer all of the questions? Are you uncomfortable with Christians writing songs that question so much? Are you uncomfortable letting people be so questioning about God and their faith? If you’re uneasy about these questions, look again at the Psalms, like Psalm 42:
Psalm 42:9-11
9 I say to God my Rock,
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I go about mourning,
oppressed by the enemy?”
10 My bones suffer mortal agony
as my foes taunt me,
saying to me all day long,
“Where is your God?”
11 Why are you downcast, O my soul?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God.

God can handle the questions—after all, many of the questions and doubts that we face are the questions and doubts in the Psalms, the Bible’s hymn book. Let the songwriters keep asking the questions. Let us keep listening to their songs. For those questions keep us searching for Jesus, keep us moving forward to discover each day how much Jesus loves and forgives us. And let us invite the people around us to walk with us, to journey with us, to search with us, to ask questions with us, to see the terrible struggle in our hearts and to see how God’s love supports us in every day of those struggles.

This is music for recovering failures. We are recovering failures who still know what it means to fail, who still cry out to God about our failures, who still kneel before God asking for His forgiveness for all of our failures.