Finding God in the Music

(Credit to Brian Zahnd for introducing me to the idea of searching for God in music)

Come down from your mountain
Your high-rise apartment
And tell me of the God you know who bleeds
And what to tell my daughter
When she asks so many questions
And I fail to fill her heaviness with peace
Well, I’ve got no answers
For hurt knees or cancers
But a Savior who suffers them with me
Singing goodbye, Olympus
The heart of my Maker
Is spread out on the road, the rocks, and the weeds

— “The Road, The Rocks, and The Weeds” by John Mark McMillan

I have recently become quite a fan of the Christian folk/indie singer and songwriter, John Mark McMillan. His music has become somewhat of an anthem in my life, echoing the cries of my own doubts and questions as well as the inexpressible joy and worshipful contemplation that comes from an encounter with God. He wavers on the outskirts of what would be considered “worship music,” and he isn’t content with settling for cliches and cop-outs. He speaks from the heart with the prose of a poet and the truth of a prophet, and for that I am grateful. I consider him along the lines of other prophetic poets, like Josh Garrels, Jason Upton, Jack Johnson, Jon Foreman, and of course the great Bob Dylan. Words hold immense power, and I have mad respect for a lyricist who can make me experience the depths of human emotions within one album, or even one song.

The first day I heard “The Road, The Rocks, and The Weeds,” I must have listened to the song 10-15 times. Just as Paul tells us in Romans that the Spirit groans for us, I felt this song groaning from the bed of my soul, as if a prayer long buried had finally been birthed through the pain and brokenness of my own suffering. Like Lucy, this song took me through the wardrobe — shaking me awake from the haziness of an apathetic and dying world and igniting my heart once again with the resurrection of not just Jesus, but my own being (and, perhaps, the world).

Okay, enough of my fangirling over McMillan. The reason I am so compelled by this song is because of the gospel truth it speaks. Just like the ancient authors of Scripture, McMillan refuses to offer quick and easy answers to the suffering he speaks of. Instead, he allows space for brokenness and grief, a space which then allows the Spirit of God to enter in to, just as the Spirit hovered above the waters so long ago in the Creation Story, birthing life out of a barren place.

As a recovering skeptic who struggles with bipolar faith, doubts and questions for God are as daily as a cup of coffee (which is to say, every day). To quote Philip Yancey in his book, The Jesus I Never Knew, “In Jesus, God lay down on the dissection table, as it were, stretched out in cruciform posture for the scrutiny of all skeptics who have ever lived. Including me.” A few pages earlier he describes the tension of his love and doubt when he writes, “sometimes I accept Jesus’ audacious claim without question. Sometimes, I confess, I wonder what a difference it should make to my life that a man lived two thousand years ago in a place called Galilee. […] I tend to write as a means of confronting my own doubts. […] I return again and again to the same questions, as if fingering an old wound that never quite heals.” Yancey and I share a commonality in our tension of faith and doubt, which is why I find comfort in his boldness to share his vulnerability as a way to step closer and closer to Jesus. The same can be said of McMillan, an artist whose work is clearly an outward expression of his inner world.

Nearly a year ago, after speaking to a small crowd in middle Georgia, a pastor asked me if I’d like to travel to Trinidad and preach. I cynically wanted to respond with, “well, it depends on the day. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, I’m a skeptic. All other days I’m all in.” Like Yancey, nearly all of my writing and speaking are simply a means of working through my own doubts and questions, reminding myself of the tragedy, comedy, and fairy tale of the Gospel. I write, not for others, but as a way to enter in to my own darkness, purposefully opening up wounds so that they may be healed. And on the days that I feel like abandoning it all and putting to death the faith and hope within me, I am reminded of Jeremiah’s words: “But if I say, ‘I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,’ his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot” (Jeremiah 20:9).

Perhaps that is why I find solace in modern day psalms like “The Road, The Rocks, and The Weeds” and in the words of skeptical believers like Yancey. Contrary to the pop apologetics of our day, McMillan and Yancey refuse to give answers to the existential questions within us. Rather, they each reveal the beauty and tenderness of the God we see revealed in Jesus, the God who enters into our pain. The God who bleeds.

In a culture dominated by facts and certainty (particularly within certain Christian subcultures — I’m talking about you, conservative white evangelical culture), we have become accustomed to finding comfort in certitude. I think of all the times I’ve been asked in a church context to say the day I was saved, and I respond back with ambiguity because I do not know the year, month, day, and hour I prayed that prayer. Of course, I understand the comfort that comes from knowing the answers. Heck, I’m an unashamed theology nerd who loves discussing Jesus over a beer or cigar. But to reduce the Great I Am, the Divine Mystery, to a sterile list of facts or attributes (or less, to a formula on how to go to heaven), is like reducing the wonders of sex to nothing more than freudianism and drive reduction theory. It is true that the mysteries of God have been revealed in Jesus (Colossians 1:26), but we must not think this means that the answers or explanations to those mysteries have been revealed. Jesus himself is the Divine Mystery revealed. But he still remains a mystery, just as love itself is a mystery (Proverbs 30:19). The best songs are those that express rather than explain, and Jesus himself rarely explains but rather expresses himself, which is to say he provides his presence rather than answers.

We need less pragmatism, and more mysticism. Less cheap answers, and more vulnerable questions. Less materialism, and more asceticism. Less transactionality, and more relationality. And perhaps the words of prophetic poets can help us recover this sacred mystery, the mystery that is echoed all throughout the ancient Scriptures. Because, just like the best books, the Bible is not a rule book but a Story — and so is each one of us. As the song goes, “we are stardust, we are golden, we are caught in the devil’s bargain, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden” (“Woodstock,” CSNY). Rather than having the cynicism and hatred of the dominant culture etched onto our hearts, might we be people who have the courage to see the world as it once was, and one day will be — full of the glory of the Lord with all things restored. And maybe one way to do this is to find God in the music.

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