Non-Churchy Songs for the Soul

16May

Curse-Word Hymns

One of the best things about road-tripping with Dan is getting those long, uninterrupted miles of time to talk. Early in our relationship, I worried that we’d eventually run out of things to say to each other, and I suppose there’s some validity in that. After all, we live together and work together and can pretty much catch up on each other’s news over a three-minute espresso break. Our day-to-day interactions tend to cluster around the present though—how work projects are going, what to do about Parenting Challenge #5,000,008, which brand of toothpaste is on sale at the grocery store, who’s going to take one for the team and vacuum—and while these are all incredibly glamorous and sexy topics to be sure, they don’t exactly cover the scope of human communication.

In eleven years of marriage, we haven’t left many conversational stones unturned, but coming back to them is always a new experience. I’ve changed so much in the past decade. My views on any given subject are liable to be 180º degrees from what they were when we first talked through it, and part of me feels guilty over that, as if I got Dan to choose me based on false advertising. His love has proven to be expansive though, more than enough to cover all the different iterations of me. Through Dan’s unconditional fondness for me, I’ve been able to grasp the idea of a spacious God… and that’s where one of our road-trip conversations led us last weekend.

We were talking about how people commune with God, and I confessed that no matter how much I’ve tried over the last several years, I just cannot get my soul to click with religious music anymore. Christian bands, worship songs, pretty much any churchy phrases set to chords chafe at me like an outgrown hat. This makes me sad sometimes. I remember what it was like to agree with my heart and my vocal cords with the sentiments of an entire congregation, to float out of my body on the strains of communal devotion. I don’t have that anymore.

But talking with my husband about it helped me re-remember for the umpteenth time that I don’t have to fit in a mold to love and be loved by God. I don’t have to speak or think or vote like a stereotypical Christian (whatever that might be) in order to align my life with Jesus. I don’t have to accept traditional spiritual practices as the only way. And I don’t have to connect with “religious music” to have a religious musical experience. In the end, this thrills me far more than it saddens me. Finding God in unexpected places makes spirituality real to me in a way that predictable experiences never do, so if God is meeting me through rap rather than hymns, I can only take that as proof that my ever-changing self is still very much covered by love.

I haven’t done a Non-Churchy Songs for the Soul roundup in a while, but today feels just right for sharing eight more unconventional tracks that are pulling at my soul-strings these days:

1. Glósóli by Sigur Rós
I can’t watch this video without crying. I know that drum-beating rescuer with the kind eyes, don’t you see. This is the story of Jesus… and of the tremulous hope, the rag-tag trust, and the dizzying joy of freedom that have become my story too.

“And here you are, Glowing Sun,
And here you are, Glowing Sun,
And here you are, Glowing Sun,
And here you are…”

2. Rambling Man by Laura Marling
All of Laura’s songs are poetry, but this one in particular folds me into a higher mindset. It’s introspection and self-evaluation and a determined authenticity, and the video above should give you a clue as to how I interpret the rambling life.

“It’s a cold and a pale affair,
And I’ll be damned if I’ll be found there.
Oh give me to a rambling man,
Let it always be known that I was who I am.”

3. Starting Over by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
I have proven myself incapable of doing anything but sitting up to listen when Macklemore’s on the stereo. This track is one of the best biographies of grace I’ve ever heard, and it always makes me grateful for the hard, beautiful work of being human together. (Just a heads up that this song involves decidedly non-churchy language.)

“We fall so hard,
Now we gotta get back what we lost.
I thought you’d gone,
But you were with me all along.”

4. I Want to be Well by Sufjan Stevens
I’ve posted this song before because it so fully expresses my gut feelings/thoughts/prayers when PTSD yanks my breath out from under me. (Note: The following does not involve polite language either.) What comes to mind when I listen to it is a question from the Bible that Jesus asked a lifelong invalid: “Do you want to get well?” How many times had that man wailed to God, “I’m not fucking around”? And to learn, after all those years, that neither was God…

 “I want to be well, I want to be well,
I want to be well, I want to be well.
I’m not fucking around, I’m not, I’m not,
I’m not fucking around.”

5. Me and God by The Avett Brothers
Now, you know I’ve got to love anyone who admits to using curse words when they pray. (See: previous two songs.) I can still remember what it was like to read in the Bible, of all places, that God just wanted our honest, simple selves—no church-sanctioned polish, no middle men on pedestals, just us. The relief of it still makes me grin wide.

 “Well I found God in a soft woman’s hair,
A long day’s work and a good sittin’ chair,
The ups and downs of the treble clef lines,
And five miles ago on an interstate sign.
My God, my God and I don’t need a middle man.”

6. When Death Dies by Gungor
I’m fudging my own rules to include this self-proclaimed Christian band on the list, but I’ve never heard a beat-boxing cellist at church, so I think you’ll forgive me. This song is everything I believe about heaven, everything I believe we get to dream of one day.

 “Where it comes, poor men feast.
Kings fall down to their knees.
When death dies, all things live,
All things live.”

7. Bible Belt by Dry the River
This is another one that speaks directly to my experience growing up under fundamentalism. It’s sad and beautiful and ultimately shining bright with the hope that comes of bravery and companionship. And if I said that Jesus was the one waiting for me on the 5:45 to whisk me away from the Bible Belt, would you believe me?

“Cause we’ve been through worse than this before we could talk.
The trick of it is, don’t be afraid anymore.”

8. Take Up Your Spade by Sarah Watkins
Sarah’s always had a way of making life sound uncomplicated and pure, and this little hymn to new days and new grace helps get me out of bed when the morning dawns heavy. Plus, that’s Fiona Apple singing with her. Perfection.

 “Shake off your shoes, leave yesterday behind you,
Shake off your shoes but forget not where you’ve been,
Shake off your shoes, forgive and be forgiven;
Take up your spade and break ground.”

What about you? Any songs been tugging at your soul-strings lately?

Previous roundups:

Sweaty Horns, Cracking Voices

Reggae and Redemption

Upside-Down Art: Jaw Harp Jam

8Apr

Upside-Down Art: Jaw Harp Jam

From the time I stumbled across D.L. Mayfield’s writing a couple of years ago, her perspective has intrigued and challenged me. Her blog was the first place I came across the term “downward mobility,” and her conviction that Jesus’s teachings and the American dream might be at odds has set off powerful ripples within my own thinking. Through her writing, she draws those on the margins of society into the middle of the picture, over and over until readers can’t help but start to see the world differently. In short, she’s a game-changer. I’m honored to be sharing her space today with a cross-cultural redemption story that has become my favorite earworm; join me there for the rest, would you?

~~~

When Marcus Mumford and his band of indie folk-farmers hit the scene back in 2010, I had never heard the term hipster. I didn’t know suspenders were the new rubric of cool; I just knew that their music spoke to me, that Mumford’s “newly impassioned soul” plucked the strings of my own longing for a full-volume life. I queued up Sigh No More and played it on repeat for the next six months. Chances are, you did too. The album peaked at #2 on the Billboard 200 and was the third most downloaded album of 2011. Everyone, it seemed, was getting his or her British bluegrass on.

But this story isn’t about Mumford & Sons. It’s about an almost impossibly obscure group of musicians from rural India who recorded an untitled EP with them.


Dharohar ProjectImage from last.fm user rahsa

They went by Dharohar Project (pronounced “Dah-RHO-har”), and the only thing I knew about them was my own disappointment. I’d been hoping for a fresh dose of the barn-dance rock I’d been cycling through my stereo—not the wailing and twanging I associated with traditional Indian music. I gave the MP3 samples a once-over, but they only confirmed what I already knew: Jaw harp just wasn’t my jam.

{Continue reading over at D.L. Mayfield’s place}

9Dec

Reggae and Redemption

I haven’t been to church in a few Sundays for various reasons, feeling like death among them, but I’ve stayed spiritually attuned (ha) with the help of my earphones. A year and a half after writing my post about non-churchy songs for the soul, I still haven’t eased back into the worship music scene. I approach it like an outsider now, mystified and sometimes uncomfortable listening in on an outpouring of theological convictions I don’t necessarily share.  However, my need to connect to God with my senses hasn’t shut down just because the Christian standard doesn’t work for me anymore. I still sing when no one’s around (you’re quite welcome) and  unwind in the mesmerizing dance of words and music, so without further ado, here are eight more unconventional songs for the soul:

1. O Holy Night by Seven Day Jesus 
In honor of the approaching holiday, here is my favorite rendition of my favorite Christmas song. Yes, it falls awfully close to hymn territory, but it speaks of yearning, of social justice, and of the love that continually draws me to God in spite of my chronic non-churchiness.

“Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother,
And in his name, all oppression shall cease…”

2. I Will Be Light by Matisyahu
Matisyahu’s “Light” is my running album, but I always find myself slowing when I get to track six. It’s like a double shot of perspective that both satisfies my daily craving for purpose and energizes my drive for compassion. I hear God’s reggae roots in it, and I’m always running again by the end of the song.

“You’ve got one tiny moment in time
For life to shine, to burn away the darkness…”

3. Let Go by Frou Frou 
This song ends one of my favorite movies with an unexpected rush of joy. The beauty of breaking down, of jumping from a carefully orchestrated tragedy into a deep unknown, is one I know well, and the freedom I’ve found since is well worth playing on repeat.

“So let go, just get in,
Oh, it’s so amazing here,
It’s alright,
‘Cause there’s beauty in the breakdown…”

4. Light and Day by Polyphonic Spree
The band is undeniably nutty and almost a little too happy (here is the alternate music video which is basically a three minute LSD trip), but I love this song’s positivity. It’s easy to get caught up in moody introspection, and a cheery reminder to seek the light is always welcome. (Though really, guys… fairies?)

“Just follow the day,
Follow the day and reach for the sun!”

5. You’ve Got the Love by Florence + The Machine
I’m there far more often than I wish, wading knee-deep in the mess of my own life wondering what’s the use. It’s the human condition this side of eternity, I think. However, the amount of love spilling over onto this side is more than enough for the road.

“Sometimes I feel like saying ‘Lord I just don’t care,’
But you’ve got the love I need to see me through…”

6. Get Me Right by Dashboard Confessional 
Chris Carrabba was my introduction to emo music years ago, and he has a gift for wrenching personal struggles out of the shadows into the stage lights. This song is particularly candid and makes no attempt to dilute his ache for redemption. I especially like his terminology of God as the one who makes things right; it’s a belief I grasp with all my heart.

“I don’t mind the rain if I meet my maker,
I’ll meet my maker clean…”

7. Let the Rain by Sara Bareilles 
This is a recent discovery, a poignant reflection that echoes my own wishes for change—release from oppression, from stifling tradition, from fear and cowardice and incapability and status quo—a cleansing deluge of newness.

“And I always felt it before
That the world was filled with so much more
Than the drowning soul I’ve learned to be,
I just need the rain to remind me…”

8. Roll Away Your Stone by Mumford & Sons
I had a tough time choosing just one song of theirs. The entire album so perfectly captures the experience of waking up to life and identity, wholehearted awareness, grace… and this song, well, I dare you not to get swept away on its rollicking current. It’s one church service I wouldn’t mind attending in the least.

“And so I’ll be found with my stake stuck in this ground,
Marking its territory of this newly impassioned soul…”

Any that you’d like to add?

22Jun

Sweaty Horns, Cracking Voices

I woke up grumpy this morning… not your average, garden-variety grumpy but the truly pernicious grumpy reserved for Sunday mornings with too little sleep. I know myself well enough by now to treat church as a soul-gobbling monster on these mornings—respect it by backing sloooowwwly away. Or run away screaming like the flighty blonde in a B-movie. Unfortunately, neither was an option this morning as my in-laws’ church group met at their house.

The caustic dialogue in my head jump-started with the first song. Why are we singing that? What does this even mean? Am I supposed to get something out of this? That line isn’t even true! And on it went, while I tried to move my unwilling lips along with the lyrics for appearance’s sake.

This disconnect with worship music is a fairly recent development. Church and I have had sundry problems over the years, but music was always my saving grace. When I was a child, a teen, a college student, and a budding world traveler, worship music was the alchemy that transformed divinity into something dear. Through it, I could feel God’s warmth. But now… Honesty, or maybe an earnest kind of cynicism, keeps me unable to sing along with church choruses. The words catch in my throat and slap against my ears. My connection with worship music is gone.

Or at least what most people consider worship music. In collaboration with the lovely Rachelle, a pioneer in soul sincerity, I’d like to share eight songs that connect me to the divine… now.

8 Things *8 Things: [Non-Churchy] Songs for the Soul

1. Cold Water by Damien Rice
 This song has to be first. It is raw and tender and fierce and so perfectly honest. Damien Rice has a gift for reaching deep down into unknown vulnerabilities and coaxing dry emotions into a flood; try making it through the Buddhist chanting at 5:34 or the cello at 7:04 without breaking open just a little bit.

“Cold, cold water surrounds me now,
And all I’ve got is your hand.
Lord, can you hear me now?”

2. Dance ‘Round the Memory Tree by Oren Lavie:
I put this song on repeat nearly every day of this past winter, and on some of the bleakest mornings, it alone kept me turned toward life, future, and the magic of hope.

“Winters have come and gone, you know…”

3. I Gotta Find Peace of Mind by Lauryn Hill 
My friend Q introduced me to Ms. Hill’s “MTV Unplugged No. 2.0” in college, and this song has yet to release its grip on me. At its most simple, it makes me want to love God. And when Lauryn cries while singing “What a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, merciful God” 8 minutes in… the beauty is almost too real to bear.

“Please come free my mind,
Please come feed my mind.
Can you see my mind, ohhh…
Won’t you come free my mind?
Oh, I know it’s possible…”

4. Doubting Thomas by Nickel Creek
When I haven’t found the courage to pray over the past few years, this song has prayed on my behalf. It has all the gritty candor and fearful longing of those uncharted territories of religion, and I find myself meaning every single word.

“Can I be used to help others find truth
When I’m scared I’ll find proof that it’s a lie?
Can I be led down a trail dropping bread crumbs
That prove I’m not ready to die?”

5. What Child is This Anyway? by Sufjan Stevens
Three Christmases ago, I was frantically busy with a job I hated, and the holiday loomed like a garlanded menace. I put Sufjan’s Christmas CD on, fully expecting to dislike this song as I always had before, and instead found peace.

“This, this is Christ the king,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing…”

6. Christmas Song by Dave Matthews Band
Yes, another Christmas song… but really an Easter song and a Thanksgiving song and 4th of July song and a Sunday morning song and a 2:00 in the afternoon song and one of the best Bible summaries I’ve ever heard.

“Drinkers and jokers, all soul searchers,
Searching for love, love, love…”

7. Live High by Jason Mraz
Sometimes I need a reminder that spirituality does not need to equal stress; it can be as chill as walking down the streets of France with a guitar and a comfy hat.

“Live high, live mighty,
Live righteously, that’s right—
Just  takin’ it easy…”

8. World Without End by Five Iron Frenzy
This song might be the polar opposite of Damien Rice, but it reaches the part of me that loves concerts and Goodwill t-shirts and too many friends crowded into the booth at Denny’s. Somehow, sweaty horns and cracking voices convey more of the sacred to me than pipe organs ever could.

“In the soundless awe and wonder,
Words fall short to hope again.
How beautiful, how vast your love is,
New forever,
World without an end…”

Play along, won’t you? I’d love to hear what songs feed your soul as well.

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