Every Monday in Listening Closer, Jeffrey Overstreet opens up the art of songcraft, sharing his own musical experiences, interpretations, and epiphanies, while soliciting alternate interpretations and discussion.
This week, you’re invited to slow down. To stop.
This column is usually meant as an invitation to keep up with music that is lighting up billboards on roads through new frontiers. And I was fired up this week to write about any of several new or recent recordings by Kate Tempest, Courtney Barnett, José James, Cassandra Wilson, Kendrick Lamar, or Blur.
But then, on Thursday morning, I woke up and saw the news.
I don’t feel like leaning forward anymore. I feel like falling back. So for this installment, I’m pulling the car over. Right now, I need some hymns. Perhaps you do too.
You are probably well aware of the details by now: On Wednesday night, a young American walked into the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. He made his way into a community of Christians who had gathered to study the Scriptures and encourage each other toward carrying the love of Christ into their community and the world beyond. And that young man, deceived by lies about race, driven by hatred, pulled out a gun and killed nine of them. Nine children of God.
Let’s honor them by naming them:
Ethel Lee Lance
Reverend Clementa C. Pinckney
Reverend Daniel Lee Simmons, Sr.
The problem with reading about this news online is that it’s hard to prevent my gaze from straying beyond the columns into the comments from readers. And sure enough, right away I read responses from suit-and-tie Caucasian Americans calling for the killer to be captured, tortured (even raped), and then killed by any of a number of excruciating methods.
After falling into a silent sort of prayer, not knowing what to pray, I feel compelled to write down, as if I’m scribbling a prescription for myself, what came to mind. I wrote that Christ himself—as he was mocked, tortured, and nailed to a cross—asked his followers to care for his grieving mother who would bear the horrors and loss in her heart. And he also cried out for forgiveness for those who were killing him. I posted this on Facebook, hoping that it would remind others—and me!—to pray for the stricken community and also for those who persecute Christ and his church in the world.
Later, I found that my post had prompted a sharp personal rebuke. Somebody didn’t like it. A few minutes later, I found myself swept up in a current of conflicting opinions from other voices in Christian media who had different ideas about what constitutes the “right response” to such tragedy.
“Your response shows insensitivity to those who are suffering.”
“Our focus should be acting on gun-control legislation now. If not now, when?”
“Don’t mention the shooter’s name. That’s what he would want.”
“We need to talk more in this country about mental illness.”
“Don’t talk about mental illness. Talk about racism.”
“Let’s call this what it is: a hate crime.”
“Let’s call this what it is: terrorism.”
“Stop talking about the perpetrators. They want attention. This is a time to lift up and remember the martyrs.”
“Don’t blow this out of proportion.”
“What this event clearly demonstrates is that we need more guns in churches.”
I think that last one was what pushed me over the edge and made me slam my laptop shut—hearing professing Christians call for us to respond to violence by bringing deadly weapons into church so that we can shoot down our enemies. Jesus responded to violence not with, “Arm yourselves!” but, “Fear not, for death has no power over me—I respond to violence not by firing back, but by opening my arms in forgiveness.”
If the online shouting match is corrosive to my spirit, I can’t imagine how it deepens the wounds of those suffering in that South Carolina church community. I’m sure I’m not the only one seeking some kind of medicine for an angry, aching heart. In prayer. In silence. In song.
* * *
By God’s grace, there was another new album in my playlist this week. And it blessed me with opportunity to lament, to find solace, to sing of God’s promises.
It’s a new record called Jaywalker, by Nathan Partain, who also leads the music ministry at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis. On this release, Partain reaches back into the poetry of traditional hymns and honors those verses by lifting them up in new Southern rock arrangements. Their endeavors are produced by Paul Mahern, who also produced Over the Rhine’s beloved double-album Ohio.
As listeners, we are all different. For some, the style of this music might not be what such a dark hour would call for. And I admit, the first half of Jaywalker is built of songs that I will sing on other occasions. But several songs on Jaywalker’s second half came just in time to help me find the words that I—and maybe others—might need:
An appeal for comfort and strength.
Hold thou my hand; so weak I am, and helpless.
I dare not take one step without they aid.
Hold thou my hand; for then, O loving Savior,
No dread of ill shall make my soul afraid. . . .
A reminder that we find a particular intimacy with Christ when we suffer, for he has suffered all the way into death.
He was wounded for our transgressions,
He bore our sins in his body on the tree;
For our guilt, he gave us peace,
From our bondage gave release,
And with his stripes, and with his stripes,
And with his stripes, our souls are healed. . .
. . .
Who can number his generations?
Who shall declare all the triumphs of his cross?
Millions, dead, now live again,
Myriads follow in his train!
Victorious Lord, victorious Lord,
Victorious Lord and coming King!
An affirmation that those who have died while trusting him—including Reverend Clementa C. Pinckney, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Susie Jackson, Cynthia Hurd, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Reverend Daniel Lee Simmons, Sr., Ethel Lee Lance, and Myra Thompson—now live again.
Jesus lives and so shall I.
Death, thy sting is gone forever;
He, who deigned for me to die,
Lives, the bonds of death to sever.
He shall raise me with the just;
Jesus is my Hope and Trust.
He shall raise me with the dust.
. . .
Jesus lives and death is now
But my entrance into glory.
Courage! Then, my soul, for thou
Hast a crown of life before thee;
Thou shalt find thy hopes were just —
Jesus is the Christian’s Trust.
Thou shalt find thy hopes were just.
Thou shalt find thy hopes were just.
Yes, the Spirit may inspire us to participate in any number of ways to “seek justice” in the world in response to this violence. But as we do, I pray that you and I can help each other to remember the whole Scriptural exhortation: Not only to “seek justice,” but to “love mercy” and to “walk humbly with our God.”
So, you can take or leave anything that I have to say about what happened in South Carolina. But listen to these hymns. They have lasted for a reason. They give us ways to lament, to seek help, to find hope.
* * *
And if you want to go on singing, joining other voices, raising up other verses, here is a short list of songs recommended by some who follow me on Facebook.
These that I have selected from the list are songs of lament, songs of mourning, songs of faith. And, yes, songs of audacious hope. (You can browse and contribute to the whole list of recommendations here.)
Zach Malm recommends King Britt’s presentation of Sister Gertrude Morgan singing “Precious Lord, Lead Me On.”
Chris Deanne recommends the same song, but a performance by Mahalia Jackson.
And Joe Martyn Ricke points to a performance by Aretha Franklin.
Claire Tanner calls for The Blind Boys of Alabama singing “Amazing Grace.”
Brenda Branson notes that Steven Curtis Chapman performed a song in response to this specific occasion.
Hannah Long writes, “I have many favorite laments. (As Michael Card notes, this too is a form of worship.) This one takes a bit of getting used to—I found the rage and discordance of it off-putting at first, but I think it offers about the best understanding of the Book of Job that I’ve ever heard. It was written in reaction to the Sandy Hook shooting.” She then links to a performance of “El Shaddai” by Dogwood & Holly:
Brian McLain recommends “Africa (Now Shall My Inward Joys Arise).”
Joel Edwards and John Barber both point us to Mavis Staples singing “You’re Not Alone.”
Peggy Richelieu Harris queues up “I Saw What I Saw” by Sara Groves.
Sara Welch calls for “Silence” by Jars of Clay.
Mark Moring plays us some Pete Seeger—“We Shall Overcome.”
Rob Birks plays Adam Again—“Who Can Hold Us?”
Amanda McLendon listens to Sojourn Records’ “Death Has Lost Its Sting.”
Joel Cuthbert turns up “American Flag Umbrella” by Derek Webb.
And Carl Laamanen brings us, almost inevitably, to U2 singing “Yaweh and 40.”