At the risk of stereotyping, most Christian pop music tends to be upbeat. There is a fair bit of exuberance and praise. My experience is that its goal is frequently to pummel the listener into some sort of emotional catharsis, principally achieved by loud repeated choruses, which might be musically effective but leave a lot to be desired lyrically. And because the music makes people feel some sort of release, they attribute that to a spiritual experience.
In contrast to that possibly unfair stereotype, Harrison Lemke earns his catharsis with blood, sweat, toil, and tears. His most recent album, Thy Tender Care, is a collection of songs that might not sweep listeners away with their musical muscle but instead with their self-awareness and, more importantly, self-doubt. Nearly each of Lemke’s songs is a mini existential crisis, in which the speakers confront the ennui of an empty world, their inadequate prayer, the tedium of waiting for God, and being unmoored in an unfamiliar world. They realize that because of their sinfulness they cannot solve these problems through their own strength. Instead, there is only hope in a tender God who is always near, though He might often be quiet, and who calls the speakers to surrender to Him. Here I will discuss two songs on this album that especially exemplify these conflicts.
The first of those songs is “Windstorm Blackout.” In it, a wind has knocked down the power lines, shutting down activity in the district. While the power outage continues, the empty business of being online is not possible. There is a respite from the noise of always being connected, of always being able to look at something trivial online. Instead, one must work to keep oneself and one’s family safe. As Robert Cardinal Sarah says in The Power of Silence, “In silence, not in the turmoil and noise, God enters into the innermost depths of our being” (25). This is in contrast to the noise of the world, which is
a whirlwind that avoids facing itself. Agitation becomes a tranquilizer, a sedative, a morphine pump, a sort of reverie, an incoherent dream-world. But this noise is a dangerous, deceptive machine, a diabolic lie that helps man avoid confronting himself in his interior emptiness. The awakening will necessarily be brutal. (33)
It is in the silence of the blackout that the speaker prays. One might even see the wind, like the powerful wind of Pentecost, as the presence of God clearing away that which would otherwise distract the speaker from prayer. A power outage, especially a prolonged one in winter, can be quite frightening as one tries to stay warm with enough supplies and fuel to last until power is restored. One realizes that, despite technological advances in heating and the increased availability of food, one is incredibly vulnerable if the infrastructure that makes those advances possible fails. One might not know how to garden or hunt, how to make warm clothing, or navigate without a compass. There is little left but prayer in such a situation.
However, the speaker says that he prayed “for all the wrong reasons.” Although he has a special opportunity to turn to God, he realizes that this turn was not simply motivated by a desire to love and know God but rather by self-interest. The only way he knows how to speak is “in the language / of the carrot and the stick.” He wants to gain rewards and avoid punishment. Maybe he only turned to God as a desperate last resort after long ignoring Him. Maybe he was worried about something trivial, like not being able to access Twitter. Whatever the case, he knows that he must learn a different language for prayer: one of thanksgiving and contemplation, of silence and listening. Indeed, he calls himself a “tiresome slouching child” and makes no pretensions to spiritual maturity. He acknowledges his helplessness and reliance, though he still sees it a troublesome. God, however, will not tire even of childish prayers but calls the person to deeper growth. As Pope Benedict XVI says in Spe salvi,
when we pray properly we undergo a process of inner purification which opens us up to God and thus to our fellow human beings as well. In prayer we must learn what we can truly ask of God—what is worthy of God. We must learn that we cannot pray against others. We must learn that we cannot ask for the superficial and comfortable things that we desire at this moment—that meagre, misplaced hope that leads us away from God. We must learn to purify our desires and our hopes. We must free ourselves from the hidden lies with which we deceive ourselves. God sees through them, and when we come before God, we too are forced to recognize them… Yet my encounter with God awakens my conscience in such a way that it no longer aims at self-justification, and is no longer a mere reflection of me and those of my contemporaries who shape my thinking, but it becomes a capacity for listening to the Good itself. (33)
he speaker must still learn what he can properly ask of God so as to better conform his will to God’s. Having said this, he has already made a first step towards recognizing his faults when he stands naked before God – metaphorically – with no noise to hide behind, by recognizing that he prayed for superficial comforts. He is starting to grow towards spiritual adulthood.
Despite that failure, God still hears the prayer and responds with “some weird kind of mercy.” The speaker does not allow this to mask his wrong reasons for praying; he knows that he was wrong, despite God’s response. He does, however, also find the mercy “uneasy.” Why? Partly because he did not ask for it but received it anyway, and in the silence of the blackout he may feel confronted with his faults, there being nothing to distract him. Marc Barnes, of Bad Catholic, describes silence as “terrifying” because to be silent is “to simply be,” and “we can only do this in the presence of someone whom we love and who loves us in return, for with them we are safe…We are monstrous sinners, and silence, revealing the self to the self, damns us as such.” In this mercy, the speaker is now confronted with the mystery of how God, seeing the speaker “simply be,” to use Barnes’ words, still loves him, and it is difficult to understand how a sinner who ruptures his relationship with God can still receive God’s love, as justice would seem to demand something else. The expression of God’s mercy is that the speaker is not cut off from Him.
The other song is “Tired, Waiting.” The speaker is “tired of waiting for you.” But it is unclear who “you” is. Given the apocalyptic tone of the lyrics, the speaker is likely referring to God. There are always “wars and rumors of wars” while the speaker waits for the end, which alludes to Matthew 24:6, where the disciples ask what the sign of the end of the age will be, and Jesus tells them not to be alarmed by these happenings. Because these wars and rumors of which the speaker hears are not actually signs of Christ’s return, it seems that he must continue to wait even longer.
However, the speaker also mentions that
the end is near
and the end’s been near for quite some time,
for my whole life.
The speaker is to live always as if Christ’s return is imminent, like the faithful slave in Matthew 24:46, who does not know when his master will return and so continues to work diligently, or the wise bridesmaids in Matthew 25:4 who keep oil for their lamps to greet the delayed bridegroom. Therefore, even though he is not to be alarmed by the wars and rumors of wars, he is right to say that the end is near.
Furthermore, it is not only the speaker who is waiting to encounter Christ; he refers to his friends and friends of friends who “get sick.” One presumes this is not a common cold, otherwise it would hardly be worth mentioning, but a more serious illness that endangers life and prompts the friend to evaluate his life and his relationship with God. In the case of these friends, the end might be very near.
What does it mean for the speaker to be waiting for Jesus? This waiting is not mere passivity. Instead, it is like Advent, a period of active preparation, of consideration of one’s life and relationship with God, and which must be transformational. The speaker here, however, does not seem to be active in this way; the song’s last line turns the speaker’s complaint on its head when he asks, “and are you tired of waiting for me too?” He has not been moving towards God, transforming his life, but has been expecting God to do all the work for him. He has been expecting God to, in the parlance of our times, “meet him where he is.” The speaker has been presenting himself as alright, and just needing to keep up what he is doing and expecting God to accommodate him.
This is not to say that God does not move close to us. God eagerly waits for us (and Lemke’s speaker) to accept the love He offers. And, like the father of the Prodigal Son in Luke’s Gospel (15:20), God does not wait passively. The speaker awaits Christ’s Second Coming, but in His first coming He pursued fallen humanity even to the point of death. While the father of the Prodigal Son running to meet his son might be merely undignified, God far surpasses that by taking the apparently mad action of accepting death.
Pope Benedict also explains just what is being awaited of the speaker:
The response the Lord ardently desires of us is above all that we welcome his love and allow ourselves to be drawn to him. Accepting his love, however, is not enough. We need to respond to such love and devote ourselves to communicating it to others. Christ “draws me to himself” in order to unite himself to me, so that I learn to love the brothers with his own love.
Has the speaker done this? It would seem not. Instead, he has been passive; he may have notionally accepted God’s love but not yet truly responded by communicating it or by allowing Christ to draw him nearer.
Overall, the hope and peace of Thy Tender Care is epitomized in “Guest Room Song,” in which, on the longest and darkest night of the year, the speaker awakes not sure where he is. Unmoored in the world, he wanders from guest room to guest room and realizes that, from this day on, the days will get longer and brighter. There is a shift that he cannot bring about, but he is powerfully aware of the “blessed assurance” that Jesus is in the world, and so he can hope that “all will be well,” though he does not yet see the longer days. Even though, in another song, “Ghost House,” the speaker says that we “ain’t got no home / in this world anymore,” this shift is a consolation that the world is not merely a hostile environment through which to pass in this life. Instead, as in the last lines of “Leaving Midnight Mass,” the closing song of the album, the speaker can wave back to the world as the world waves its blessing over him. We are all “gonna die,” as “Upstairs Song” says, but Lemke’s speakers can have faith that as they pass through the world, God’s tenderness will follow them.