Song to My Heart
Rarely do I experience the phenomenon of a song “writing itself.” I’m a believer in the slog of plain old artistic discipline; I fully adhere to the sentiments of the painter Chuck Close, who said “Inspiration is for amateurs- the rest of us just show up and get to work.” Songwriting takes willpower, habit, editing, refining, self-awareness, and practice.
But every now and then, a song seems to almost descend upon me, and the labor of completing it is all but effortless. It’s as if the song always existed and only needed to be found. My friend Sarah refers to those songs as being “in the bloodstream.” It is part of you.
That was my experience with Song to My Heart. And while I wrote it awhile back, I think I’m still figuring out what the song is actually about.
Suffering is part of life. It’s in my bloodstream. When the heartaches and catastrophes I never saw coming happen, I try to rewrite it, to re-frame it, to numb it, to move past it, to crowd it out. But I can't. While hardship doesn’t define us, the losses become a huge part of our identity.
The best advice anyone gave me about grief is that you must acknowledge and, to some degree, embrace the reality of its presence in your life and in your body. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it - you can't replace the absence of the thing you lost: “One must simply hold out and endure it.”
I picture it like a riptide; to struggle against it, frantically trying to swim towards safety will exhaust and almost surely kill you. The best course of action is to submit and allow the current to pull you out to sea, trusting that in time, you’ll be rescued and drawn back to shore. Like a shell in the ocean, you have to give yourself over to it and accept the shaping and reshaping it will do to your boundaries and edges, the expansion and compression your heart will undergo.
Simply put, you have to let yourself feel what you feel. You must let the darkness overtake you to some degree. I’m not saying you shouldn’t seek help. (I see a counselor twice a month, and have benefited from anti-depressants at certain times in my life). I’m not saying you should give up. I’m not saying you should succumb. I’m just saying you have to let grief be grief, in all its raw misery, it’s ups and downs, its wounding and re-wounding.
I’ve been part of faith communities that were deeply suspicious of emotions. I’ve heard preached from the pulpit statements like “God gets a hold of us through the mind and intellect, while Satan engages us through the heart and emotion.” While I appreciate the notion that rash decisions and hasty outbursts driven by uninformed feelings can be reckless and damaging, I’ve come to believe that we encounter God through the wide ranging expanse of the experience of being a whole person – body, mind, heart, and soul. God meets us in the vast and varied terrain of this wilderness life that is called being fully human.
To ignore my heart, to ignore my feelings, is to ignore the soul shaping journey that God mysteriously ordains as part of my story.
Our culture is not good at giving ourselves over to pain. We deny, anesthetize, and bypass at all cost. Even the church has a habit of rushing the process, of checking off the boxes next to the circumscribed laments, then quickly moving on to the bit about the hope, and the redemption, and the better days to come. This is true no matter the source of the grief – whether it’s loss, illness, miscarriage, doubt, deconstruction.
But what if the church held space for the long, arduous work of grief, which is a labor of love - love for what I lost, love for my family, love for myself, and love for God? What if I let it bury me? What if I simply wait: wait for the muscle and sinew of my heart to break down, reform, and begin flexing again?
What if I had the courage to truly keep vigil?
Whatever wilderness you find yourself in, the call and the challenge is to simply face it. If you doubt, then do so wide eyed and unblinking. If you weep, do so loudly with no inhibition. If you wait, watch the horizon with eager vigilance.
As the old song goes: Child of weakness, watch. And pray.
“My soul waits for the Lord, more than the watchmen for the morning. Indeed, more than the watchmen for the morning” (Psalm 130:6). I believe God is a God worth watching for, worth waiting for. And because I still believe in a God of resurrection, I believe that God breathes in the underground, beneath the waves, in the wilderness, off the map, and in the empty, formless void. It is a wild and frightening thing, this breath that makes dust into a human soul and wraps flesh and muscle and hope around dry bones. God breathes into our bereavement. He expands our understanding of what it means to be a human in the world as a bearer of the image of God – a God who wept, a God of sorrows.
I, as a watcher and a waiter, believe in a God that will arrive. And when He comes, He comes with a light that will break the ache wide open.
And as we walk forward, I’ve come to believe that as long as you allow yourself to feel what you feel, we the bereft must also allow ourselves to feel joy when it comes. This is perhaps the harder lesson. When one’s eyes have become accustomed to the darkness, the light can feel blinding. Laughter can catch you by surprise. But you must give yourself over to the happiness as well, for I have seen the breath of God in pleasure, in beauty, in peace.
Because ultimately, this dichotomy, this both/and, is what it means to be alive. This is living. This is what it means to be human. This is what it looks like to breath the breath of God and bear His image.
I hope this song makes space for you if you are walking through loss. My sister once wrote in her book Inspired: “To ‘hold space’ for someone is to simply sit with them in their pain without judgement or solutions, and remain present and attentive no matter the outcome…Life is full of the sort of joys and sorrows that don’t resolve neatly in a major key. God knows that. The Bible knows that. Why don’t we?”
Let’s learn it together.
Song to My Heart
I will give thee to the underground
I will give thee dark
I will give thee to the hollow sound
To the path unmarked
I will give thee to the open air
I will give thee night
I will give thee what I cannot bear
To the bloodied fight
Breath of God, oh breath of God
I will give thee to the rising sun
To the changing tide
I will give thee to the Holy One
To the break of light