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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  1. Songs hmmmm. The first one has to be Three Little Birds, by Bob Marley. Whenever I am overwhelmed and out of control this song helps. I listened to it over and over before I had my first baby. Another one is Holy Now, by Peter Mayer. Of course, I love Imagine, by John Lennon, and I also love old spirituals. “Oh, let us build this place full of hope and grace, with walls so thin, anyone can walk right in, and a roof so high, we can see the angels fly…”

  2. Now I want to crack open iTunes and gather all of these songs to lift me up. I love your list. I have that particular song of Nickel Creek’s…just haven’t really listened to the CD much. I have to do this list!

    Dude. The last time I went to church, we sang “Pass It On” and I got the giggles because it’s SO CHEESY. I just couldn’t believe it.

  3. well..my unchurchy song is a church song, but not a typical churchy song. “Jesus loves me” makes me weep, everytime. I hope your lil vaca is going well… and girl you are CRAZY for taking 2 little girls across the globe. I think I’m adventureous with the one crossing the state line.:)

  4. Megsie – Bob Marley’s “So Much Things To Say” was one of my runners-up for this list, but I haven’t heard “Three Little Birds.” I’ll give it a listen when we get home. Oh, and “Imagine” has always been a favorite too.

    Sam – I’m not really into folk music, but that entire CD of Nickel Creek’s is glorious. It soothes some sort of soul itch that nothing else will.
    I’m not sure I’ve ever heard “Pass It On,” but the title is plenty cheesy. I love the image of you in church trying not to let all the sincere passer-oners see you giggling!

    Erica – Once or twice, our church in Delaware sang that as a congregation, and those were the times it held the most meaning for me too. As for the vacation… I think we’re going to skip the whole overseas extravaganza next summer. We’re using up all our remaining craziness with this one. 🙂

  5. Golly, you’ve touched on something I’ve struggled with for years now. As a matte of fact I stopped going to church because I couldn’t connect. Singing the songs left me feeling like I was repeating verse after verse (as most of the songs are repetitive) without true meaning, without revelation, without depth. I was just singing along for appearance sake. My husband would tell me not to care what others think. But try sitting in church while everyone else is standing, raising their arms in worship and not feel like you stand out as a rebellious anti. Once when my youngest was at a church camp, during a worship service he said he was tired and didn’t feel like worshiping. The youth pastor came over to him and implored him to stand up, raise his hands and sing! This struck me as exactly what I don’t want. I don’t want my son to feel he has to be forced into loving God and in any particular manner. My husband argued with me that the youth pastor was just trying to get him to join in. I disagree. Lately I’ve been thinking I can’t get past my humanity to understand spirituality. But yet, I know I have deep feelings that are in touch with spirituality and I know God is always there guiding me even if I don’t chant my adoration.

    I’m in the doldrums. I’ll check out your music and try to catch some wind.

  6. i am in love with that cold water song…..

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