Singing a new song at the end of an old year...

A few months ago, Gordon Atkinson (of Christian Century blogs) asked if I might put together a collection of spiritual songs that are essential to me. I am still working on that list - and will get to it this week - but in the interim I have been thinking of the songs from popular culture that have touched me deeply this year. To be sure, they come from a host of seasons - not just 2008 - but here are the tunes that have really rocked my world, touched my heart and soul, brought healing and challenge to me and made me laugh, dance and weep.

But before I go to the songs - and the YouTube clips - let me go to this midrash on Isaiah 42 which I am currently wrestling with on a variety of levels. You see, I believe that at the heart of rock/country/soul/rap and jazz is the spirit of Exodus - freedom - restoration - justice and compassion. Yeah, there's greed and lust in there, too - and racial/sexual exploitation along with some ugly and mean-spirited people ripping off our deepest longings. But.. in this realm of incarnation where the word of God is always mixed with our true human realities, I guess that is to be expected, yes? Anything less would be naive, docetic or worse.

So, in addition to the first historical context of the words from the Prophet - consolation by the servant poet of justice and compassion for the Jerusalem that lies in ashes after the conquest by Babylon - I am intrigued by the challenge of hearing God's still speaking voice of justice, compassion, forgiveness, renewal, despair and outrage in the sounds of contemporary poets and artists. Where is a new and prophetic song being sung amidst our Babylon?

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him
and he will bring justice to the nations.
He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;
he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth.
In his law the islands will put their hope.
This is what God the LORD says—
the one who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and all that comes out of it,
who gives breath to its people,
and life to those who walk on it:
"I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness;
I will take
hold of your hand.
I will keep you and will make you
to be a covenant for the people
and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind,
to free captives from prison
and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.
"I am the LORD; that is my name!
I will not give my glory to another
or my praise to idols.
See, the former things have taken place,
and new things I declare;
before they spring into being
I announce them to you."
Sing to the LORD a new song,
his praise from the ends of the earth,
you who go down to the sea, and all that is in it,
you islands, and all who live in them.
Let the desert and its towns raise their voices;

let the settlements where Kedar lives rejoice.
Let the people of Sela sing for joy;
let them shout from the mountaintops...
"For a long time I have kept silent,
I have been quiet and held myself back.
But now, like a woman in childbirth,
I cry out, I gasp and pant.
I will lay waste the mountains and hills
and dry up all their vegetation;
I will turn rivers into islands
and dry up the pools.
I will lead the blind by ways they have not known,
along unfamiliar paths I will guide them;
I will turn the darkness into light before them
and make the rough places smooth.
These are the things I will do;
I will not forsake them.

To my crazy soul, this is an invitation and call to restoration - a healing of the nation on every level. Breuggemann tells us that justice in this context is "finding out what has been taken from the people and returning/restoring it" to them. So here are some songs that sing this new/old tune of the Lord so that the blind might see and the deaf hear and restoration begin within and among us all.
1. "Falling Slowly" - the Swell Season: we used this song at the end of a contemporary music and art Good Friday - with Peter reflecting on his betrayal of Jesus and what that might have felt and sounded like. It is so beautiful and sad that it aches for redemption and healing...


2. "Roads" - Portishead: This song ACHES like God's breaking heart over our greed and violence. It helps me feel what the One who is Holy experiences every day - and breaks my heart, too, over and over again. It also speaks of what so many of us feel every day - rich or poor - alone and weeping, "How can it feel this wrong?" Freakin' brilliant!


3. "Signed, Sealed and Delivered" - Stevie Wonder: Now I have ALWAYS loved my man Stevie Wonder. He is one of the living signs that God still loves us. As a kid my high school band played his stuff - dig it: white kids in Connecticut doing the master of soul - and I used this tune to court my wife after being a total asshole! But when Barack put it to an even higher use... man I was moved to tears. And all I can say is: THANKS BE TO GOD!


4. "Things the Grandchildren Should Know" - Eels: Our church band, "Between the Banks" does a KILLER version of this song that seems to connect with people in every walk of life. We all have so many regrets, we've all screwed things up so much and really don't know how to be with our loved ones... and then along comes Mr. E and reminds us that in spite of most of what we do, there is a love that is greater than ourselves that offers healing. What's more, my wife sings our version - and she (like Mr. E, too) once hated her father but came to love him at the end in spite of all his stupid shit. That is one of my prayers for a lot of us.


5. "One Voice" - The Wailin' Jennys: This is my affirmation of faith every week in worship (whether we actually sing it or not.) It is my prayer for my current church - the trust that we can find a way to celebrate our individual gifts and bring them all together so that everyone is strengthened - as well as for the body of Christ in the wider world. We are so cruel to one another... and most of it makes no sense. So when these women sing and blend their voices, it is truly the sound of hope for our generation.


6. "Satisfaction" - Cat Power: Now this song is another one we used for Good Friday - so different from what I danced and flirted to back in '65. (There was this English girl 2 years older than me who taught me to dance and kiss to this song!) Cat Power makes it a lament for all the emptiness... sounds like Jesus singing the blues to me. One of the saddest sounds I have ever heard.


7. "I Think I See the Light" - Yusuf Islam: Back in the 70s I loved this song on "Mona Bone Jakon" but it is even wiser and more fun now. After spending a summer in the Muslim section of London - what an eye opener - I found myself going back to Cat's old/new music and this song gives me hope, opens me to confession and teases me into my best self.


8. "Dirty Day" - U2: For some reason I keep going back to this song from Zooropa - there is so much social/emotional critique here, so much anguish and hope, too - that I just hear God reminding us that as f**ked up as most of us are there is still more grace to come. None of it is deserved and still "these days, days, days run away like horses over the hill."


9. "Need One" Martina Topley Bird: Another tune from England that is a genre-bender. It is so tough, so honest, so "shake your booty" hot that I hear it as a call to confession: "You're gonna kill some, you're gonna free some, you're gonna lose someone, you're gonna fake some, you're gonna want some, you're gonna need someone.. but what you're feedin' me, don't make a mark on me, I don't bruise so easily no scars inside."


10. "Breathe" - Cinematic Orchestra: a call to creation and spirit on every level... another sweet genre-bender, too.

That's my prayerful take on songs that have brought healing and humility to my soul this year: may blessings be with you always.

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