27 September 2007

Songs of Lament

There's a song we hear a lot, but only on German radio. On German radio, it's currently in relatively heavy rotation. I haven't heard it at all on AFN (American Forces Network). It's not hard to figure out why.

Dear Mr. President,
Come take a walk with me. ...
I'd like to ask you some questions if we can speak honestly.

What do you feel when you see all the homeless on the street?
Who do you pray for at night before you go to sleep?
What do you feel when you look in the mirror?
Are you proud?

How do you sleep while the rest of us cry?
How do you dream when a mother has no chance to say goodbye?
How do you walk with your head held high?
Can you even look me in the eye
And tell me why?

Dear Mr. President,
Were you a lonely boy?
Are you a lonely boy?
How can you say
No child is left behind?
We're not dumb and we're not blind.
They're all sitting in your cells
While you pave the road to hell.

What kind of father would take his own daughter's rights away?
And what kind of father might hate his own daughter if she were gay?
I can only imagine what the first lady has to say
You've come a long way from whiskey and cocaine.

Let me tell you 'bout hard work
Minimum wage with a baby on the way
Let me tell you 'bout hard work
Rebuilding your house after the bombs took them away
Let me tell you 'bout hard work
Building a bed out of a cardboard box
Let me tell you 'bout hard work
Hard work
Hard work
You don't know nothing 'bout hard work
Hard work
Hard work

How do you sleep at night?
How do you walk with your head held high?
Dear Mr. President,
You'd never take a walk with me.
Would you?

--"Dear Mr. President," by Pink (feat. The Indigo Girls)

It's no secret that I vote Republican and voted for the president. Some of the lyrics in this song are cheap shots (what, Clinton had no homeless under his watch?), including pretty much all of the second verse. And needless to say, I don't agree with many of the things Pink is so angry about.

But every time I hear this song my heart hurts and tears come to my eyes. Partly because the melody is beautiful and mournful. It's simply a lovely song. But also because you can feel the pain and heartbreak in the refrain. People are crying out for justice, for help, for someone to listen to them. Mothers are crying at night. Families are broken. The world seems so very dark.

But the question to the president in this song, and I think, to the leaders of the nation in general, is not "What is your plan for getting us out of this?" At least, that's not what I hear when I listen. The questions this song really ask are: Do you care? Does injustice trouble you? Do you know what we're going through?

It's obvious that Pink believes the answers to these questions are "no." No, the president doesn't care. No, he'd never take a walk with her (of course, I wouldn't want to take a walk with someone who just wrote a song insulting me, either).

But would any other political leaders and presidential wannabes walk with her or answer those underlying questions differently? Of course, many would say they would, at least during election season. But I'm not convinced that very many of those who call themselves "public servants" truly would listen to someone who's not powerful or in a position to donate to their campaigns. Despite her harsh words, I think Pink asks some valid questions, not just of Bush but of those who are and who would like to become our leaders.


Perhaps you'll find this an odd juxtaposition, but "Dear Mr. President" reminds me of another song. The context is different, but the underlying questions are the same.

You who live in heaven
Hear the prayers of those of us who live on earth
Who are afraid of being left by those we love
And who get hardened by the hurt
Do you remember when You lived down here where we all scrape
To find the faith to ask for daily bread
Did You forget about us after You had flown away
Well I memorized every word You said
Still I'm so scared, I'm holding my breath
While You're up there just playing hard to get

You who live in radiance
Hear the prayers of those of us who live in skin
We have a love that's not as patient as Yours was
Still we do love now and then
Did You ever know loneliness
Did You ever know need
Do You remember just how long a night can get?
When You were barely holding on
And Your friends fall asleep
And don't see the blood that's running in Your sweat
Will those who mourn be left uncomforted
While You're up there just playing hard to get?

And I know you bore our sorrows
And I know you feel our pain
And I know it would not hurt any less
Even if it could be explained
And I know that I am only lashing out
At the One who loves me most
And after I figured this, somehow
All I really need to know
Is if You who live in eternity
Hear the prayers of those of us who live in time
We can't see what's ahead
And we can not get free of what we've left behind
I'm reeling from these voices that keep screaming in my ears
All the words of shame and doubt, blame and regret
I can't see how You're leading me unless You've led me here
Where I'm lost enough to let myself be led

And so You've been here all along I guess
It's just Your ways and You are just plain hard to get.

--"Hard to Get" by Rich Mullins

My favorite Rich Mullins song, as I've mentioned before. In a crisis of the soul, what does the singer want to know about God? Do you care? Does injustice trouble you? Do you know what I'm going through?

Songs of lament, both of them. Songs of angry questions, shaking your fist: Do you see? Do you know? Do you care? Wrong is being done! People are dying and you stand by, seemingly unmoved! Help us!


When I was in college, I took a course on religion and modern culture. I was fairly outspoken as one of the few practicing Christians (or admitted ones, anyway) in the class. One of my classmates did a presentation on some song that she deemed was anti-God--or anti-religion, anyway. She nervously warned that some might find the lyrics offensive. I did not. I found them to be strikingly similar to some of the Psalms, and said as much. (I remember the speaker being shocked that I wasn't offended, and me being shocked that she thought I would BE offended. I don't, however, remember what the song was.)

The format, the questions, even the anger and cries for justice--from Pink as well as from Rich Mullins--I find strikingly similar to some of the less-quoted Scripture passages.

How long, O LORD, must I call for help,
but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, "Violence!"
but you do not save?

Why do you make me look at injustice?
Why do you tolerate wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
there is strife, and conflict abounds.

Therefore the law is paralyzed,
and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
so that justice is perverted.

--Habakkuk 1:2-4

It's the question of evil. Why does God allow evil? Why does he allow good people to suffer? The standard Christian answers have to do with free will, original sin, and the devil. And those answers may somewhat satisfy us intellectually. Until we actually face suffering, until we are exposed to war, to poverty, to injustice. And then all of the theology in the world does not mend our broken hearts. And so we cry out. We cry out for justice, for understanding, for help. We cry out to a seemingly unmoved Power: Do you see? Do you know? Do you care?

One of the reasons I am suspicious of pat, tidy answers, especially within the Christian church, is books like Habbakkuk, like Job, like parts of the Psalms. I believe the Bible holds the truth, and with C.S. Lewis I believe that Christianity offers the best explanation for why the world is the way it is. But the Bible doesn't hold all of the answers. Sometimes, it just asks the right questions.

Awake, O Lord! Why do you sleep?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.
Why do you hide your face
and forget our misery and oppression?

We are brought down to the dust;
our bodies cling to the ground.
Rise up and help us;
redeem us because of your unfailing love.

--Psalm 44:23-26

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