Learning to Let People Sing their own Songs How they Need to be Sung

Have you ever listened to a song and in that moment that song was exactly what you needed to hear? Like, for me when my grandfather died, I had Blind Pilot on repeat, or there were times in Morocco where certain songs just powerfully spoke to me.

It’s been a few years since my grandfather died or since I was in Morocco, and I still love those songs, but I don’t keep them on repeat anymore. They spoke to who I was in that moment, but I’ve moved on to other songs that capture new moments or frustrations, songs I currently put on repeat.

C’est la vie.

When I was in the fourth grade, I remember going to camp and having my wallet stolen, and I was so angry that some “Christian” would actually steal at a church camp that for years I carried anger with the church over that and even claimed I was atheist for a while all the way into high school. And that’s okay. It’s where I needed to be in that moment. It’s who I needed to be. Like those songs that find us in the right moment, sometimes, we just discover that’s where we are, and anybody asking us to listen to a different song isn’t going to reach us. We know what we need, and that’s not it. So, we keep playing what we need to play until the right tune comes along at the right time, and we fall in love with a new song.

I feel like I can name countless examples over the years of how my songs have changed: A youth director telling me at the beach that, to him, there was nothing wrong with being angry or questioning God and religion; to him, growing closer to what he called God demanded we ask questions, no different than how we’d grow closer to one another by asking each other questions. And then there was a dear professor who handed me a powerful pamphlet he’d written during his sabbatical that got to the heart of some of the questions I was needing to ask. Or, then, there was news of a growing church schism back home that left me bitter and angry and needing to remain in that place for some time. Or, once, a few unexpected emails that were both shocking and profound enough to alter everything about how I pictured the universe at the time. Songs, the lot of them – moments that either defined or changed me in a meaningful way.

I’m not sure if this is one of them because it seems too trivial, but yesterday, I caught an episode of the Daily Show, and John Stewart was interviewing Bill Maher, who is a pretty staunch atheist. Maher bemoaned all of religion. He praised the fact that millennials, he feels, have discovered that “drugs are good and religion is bad.” He commented that he believed Barack Obama is a secret atheist, which reminded me of conservatives claiming Obama is a secret Muslim.

I rolled my eyes at first. To hear Maher lump all religious people together made him seem to me to be just as egocentric as the literalists he was criticizing. He’s always struck me as someone who values being intellectual, so how could he miss the blatantly obvious false dichotomy that suggests you’re either religious or you’re smart. It made me think of how the mainstream media, whenever there’s an argument about religion, always brings only two sides of the argument to the table: the right-wing Evangelical and a liberal. That misses the mark on the number of devout, faithful people throughout history who held their churches and their governments accountable to bring about real progress. People like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Or Gandhi. It forgets the role churches played (albeit slowly and still many with much left to do) in spearheading the feminist movement (cf. Welter, B.). And it ignores the countless liberal theologians and Biblical scholars who have been writing for decades pushing for gay rights. So, I rolled my eyes at first, annoyed.

And then it kinda hit me: Bill Maher is just a song some people need to listen to because that’s where they are right now, and it’s where they need to be. And that’s okay. Whatever’s happened in their life that’s brought them to that place where they need to be angry with religion (or politics or whatever), Bill Maher is one of the people who may offer them comfort through laughter or critique. Having said that, I think he might argue that I’m suggesting his point of view is a mere stepping stone when he believes it to be the end goal. And if that’s his end goal, that’s okay with me, but for me, I’m more interested in the journey than the destination, and in the sojourning I’ve done thus far, the Bill Maher song is one I don’t need to have on repeat anymore, though it’s had its useful moments.

At the dawn of civilization when life was more tribal, an “us vs. them” image of the world didn’t just make sense; it was crucial to survival. We’re all born a little egocentric, born into that tribal mindset, so to speak, but in the age of the internet and on the cuffs of globalization, we can no longer afford to advocate tribal mentalities. Not in our religions. Not in our politics. Not as Christians. Or as atheists. Or as anything in-between or completely different. If I had to pick where my song was these days, it’s there – advocating something world-centric, something pluralistic, and yet something still faithful and devout – a prayerful journey eager to hear more songs.

And that song, the song that moves me most these days is one that no longer dislikes or bemoans the reality that other people need to listen to their own favorite music at their own pace. And my music isn’t better than anyone else’s. It’s just what speaks to me at the moment. But that’s not to say I’m not interested in seeking out others who want to sing along. So, in this moment of your life, what song are you needing to hear the most? It might be vastly different from the one you listened to years ago or the one you’ll be whistling along to in the years to come. Realizing that we’re all doing that, singing our different songs however we need to, is maybe, just maybe, to bring a little harmony to a whole lot of discord.

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