Pop music is a sure bet to keep my toddler son happy in the car, so we end up listening to a lot of Top 40 radio as we drive around town running errands. When I first heard Miley Cyrus’ latest single, “Wrecking Ball,” I couldn’t deny the emotional effect the song had on me (despite my personal aversion to many of her artistic choices). Maybe it was the mournful way her voice reverberated through the car, or simply the raw vulnerability of the subject matter.
It took me several more car trips to realize I was connecting not only with her sense of anguish but also with the way her lyrics expressed lament. They put words to an aspect of my relationship with God that I am just beginning to understand: the pain of putting your whole self out there for someone, only to watch them grow more and more distant.
“I came in like a wrecking ball,” she sang. “All I wanted was to break your walls.”
And I understood, because like so many of my generation, I came full force into the church, doing everything its leaders told me to do, all my life, in order to know God. When the church said “Jump!” I said “How high?” When the church said read your Bible, pray continuously, serve others, I did it all, enthusiastically. But it still wasn’t enough to keep me from waking up—nearly five years ago now—to find God mysteriously drifting away from me, a little more each day. Even as the distance grew further, I redoubled my efforts, diving into the Bible and committing myself to even more attendance and service, convinced that I was doing the right thing and that, given time, my efforts would pay off with a renewed sense of closeness to God. But the closeness I once felt never did come back.
“Don’t you ever say I just walked away. I will always want you.”
When I first began to express my doubt to fellow Christians, they often would recite back to me the same answers I’d been giving myself for years: “God will never leave you, nor forsake you. When God feels distant it is because we have distanced ourselves from him. Keep reading your Bible. Keep showing up.” They only wanted to comfort me, to keep me from walking away. They couldn’t have known then how their words cut me; they couldn’t have known that I had been doing those things all along and it hadn’t been enough. It still wasn’t enough.
But, strangely, Miley got it. As I sat there in traffic with my son clapping along in the back seat, she, of all people, gave me the words I needed. She didn’t try to find a happy ending; she sat in the pain and brokenness in a way I haven’t yet been able to find in the music or liturgy of the varied churches I’ve attend.
In a recent Sojourners article, Soong-Chan Ra writes that the modern Church is desperate for songs of lament. He references studies showing that songs of lament make up less than 20% of todays most common hymnals, and only 5 of the top 100 worship songs—despite the fact that 40% of David’s psalms have been categorized by scholars as lament. I wonder what it is we are afraid of. I don’t think any of us would argue that there is not enough to lament in the world; from hunger to abuse to addiction to loneliness, we’ve all seen something worth mourning.
I think we fear uncertainty. I think we fear putting words to the pain and confusion we find in our hearts. Most of all, I think we fear questioning God’s sovereignty in all of it. But the truth is that we do question it. Somewhere in every tear we shed for the pain of others and ourselves; in every injustice that we fight against is the unspoken implication that God has not intervened to protect us from the pain we experience. Really, I understand this fear; it is a frightening truth to face.
The people of the Bible, however, much like Miley, don’t seem to fear airing their grievances, or expressing their distrust. In one of his many lament songs, David says “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalms 13:1-2). Jeremiah too speaks frankly to God, saying “O Lord, you have deceived me, and I was deceived;” (Jeremiah 20:7). The entire book of Lamentations is a testament to God’s apparent indifference to the suffering of His people. Job goes as far as to assert that God is working against him saying, “Behold, I cry out ‘Violence!’ but I am not answered; I call for help but there is no justice. He has walled up my way, so that I cannot pass, and he has set darkness upon my paths.” (Job 19:7-8)
These are not the words of the Bible we choose to put to music, or recite together on Sunday mornings. Instead, we sing almost entirely of God’s faithfulness and goodness, of his victory over the evil in the world, while occasionally confessing our wrongdoings. Even the more honest of our lyrics almost always end with God’s victory and justice and presence, lest we offend God with our distrust. There appears to be no room in our services for the honest expressions of pain, for the truth of our doubts, or even for mourning along with those who mourn.
Our music is written for those among us who have crossed over to the other side of our struggles, who have, with God’s help, conquered our fears, battled our demons, and now stand in triumph. It is not written for those of us who find ourselves lying on the ground in defeat, who spend a lifetime wrestling with our doubts, or mourning injustices that have not been made right. It isn’t even written for those of us who wish to lament the pain of others alongside them, with the knowledge that there are always people suffering among us. It’s no wonder generations are leaving the church in droves, and it’s no wonder they are finding safer places to voice their questions and pain, away from a community that is so afraid of being wrong.
I’m yearning for a day when our churches will begin to sing music that expresses the difficulty of attempting relationship with an invisible God, with a God who sometimes likes to keep his distance. I long to walk in on Sunday morning and find words, in a hymnal or on a screen, that reflect the honest prayers we whisper in the darkness, words like “How long, O Lord? How long?“ Until then, we doubters will keep taking truth wherever we can get it, even if it’s pop music, even if it’s Miley Cyrus.
Alissa BC is a writer, wife, mother, and doubter living in the dirty south. She blogs regularly and tweets occasionally. You can follow her blog at http://www.alissabc.com/ and on twitter at @SimpleAlissa
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