She stood at the back of the sanctuary, lingering inside the door—arms folded under her long scowl—waiting for me. I collected myself as I made my way towards her. As iron sharpens iron, she was a rusty shank of maritime steel. Her twelve o’clock worship critiques were becoming regular. I feigned a smile as I approached—the kind you wear before being hit by a train—and mouthed a “Hi.”
“I don’t like that new song we sang today.” She produced a bulletin—like it was evidence in a courtroom—gray with notes and markings, circles and underlines—all scrawled from a dull pew-pencil. “I don’t think it’s right to sing this.” She pointed to a lyric she’d marked through from Jonathan Stockstill’s Open Up the Sky. I knew the contested lyric before I saw it. “We don’t want blessings, we want You.” “But I do want blessings,” she scolded. “Why would I sing this?” The teacher in me saw an opportunity. “I do see where this could be confusing. We’re declaring that our pursuit of God is for God’s sake alone, not to gain blessings. We’re saying that we need God—not just good things from God. We are praising God just for being God.” I pointed her to a few of the other song lyrics for context. She didn’t back down. “I understand. But I don’t want to sing it.” I started to realize that her objection was rooted more in pain than theology. The struggle in her eyes was familiar. “I just think it would be better to sing we want blessings, too. It would be a lot easier.” I felt the familiar, wincing pain of my intestines twisting together on my right side—the pain that I had asked God to heal at least a million times. Easier.
I flashed back sixteen years. I was standing in pelting, cold rain at the base of a mountain peak somewhere in the Needles—screaming up at Mr. Bob Fooks. We were two days into a six-day hike in the Weminuche Wilderness of Colorado. I was miserable. I felt my heavy pack digging into my shoulder blades. My feet were sore and blistered. I was wet, frigid, and exhausted. Bob was a good distance ahead of the rest of us. I had fallen into sluggish, pouting pace at the end of the line. I couldn’t see him, but I could hear him. He shouted down to us from heights ahead, cheering us on, “C’mon guys! You’ve got to see this. It’s beautiful!” Everything inside of me furiously resisted. “No! No! I don’t want to see any more of your beauty,” I declared. “Seriously, this view is breathtaking. You don’t believe me?” “No,” I shouted to up to the heavens, “I do believe you. That’s the problem. I’ve figured out what it means when you say something is beautiful. It means I’ve got to work harder to see it. And I don’t want to see any more beauty today. I don’t care about the view. I just want easy.” I could hear him laughing. “I’ll be up here waiting,” he said. Easier.
I looked her directly in the eyes. I saw pain, though I didn’t know its source or story. “Thank you for your honesty and your thoughts about this,” I politely said. She read my cue and fought back, “So you’re not going to stop singing this song, are you?” “No, ma’am. I’ll do a better job introducing it next time. But keep singing it with us. It might change your mind.” She nodded her head dramatically, stuffed her bulletin in her purse, and glided out the doors with a Syrophoenician grin. I knew we weren’t finished.
Easier? As the people of God, the most heartbreaking songs we sing aren’t the ones we don’t believe—they’re actually the ones we believe the most. The songs of Zion that expose the great disparity between our current reality and the hope we fiercely believe in aren’t ever easy anthems, for they reveal the hard work ahead. It’s the chasm between those two realities that can make some lyrics just too painful to expel out of our vocal chords. Joyous praise is the deepest lament when the difference between the prose and the headline is incomprehensible. By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How could we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?
We sing when it’s not easy. We sing the songs regardless of blessing. We sing before we can see the beauty. We sing until our days are redeemed. We sing the songs until we are changed.