I was told once that during Lent, you don’t sing songs with the word hallelujah in them. I had never heard of that tradition, though my church in Atlanta had been observing Lent for a while. But I liked it. It made sense. Lent is a season of intense self-reflection, repentance, fasting, low-key suffering, and lament. Songs about victory could run the risk of sounding impatient, even lazy and unwilling.
The hallelujahs will have to wait, as we have some things to sort out first.
Years ago, our worship band started opening each Sunday of Lent with a blues song: Robert Johnson, Elmore James, Blind Willie McTell, Bessie Jones, Blind Willie Johnson, Eric Clapton, and down to The Black Crowes—the real stuff. We called it “Blues for Lent.” These were songs of pain and frustration, songs with very vivid pressure points on the hurt that exists in the world.
At first, they were just a way to get people in the room, a “last call” for those in the lobby. They turned into these moments, though, when a very particular tone was set for the morning. These preludes reminded us that life doesn’t always go well, and that the world we share is stuck in a loop of brokenness and trouble.
Broken hands, on broken ploughs,
Broken treaties, broken vows,
Broken pipes, broken tools,
People bending broken rules
Hound dog howling, bull frog croaking,
Everything is broken
The origins of the blues are notoriously hard to pin down, but the music and sentiment were born in the fields of American slavery, where men and women sang as a way to tell the truth about their lives, the troubles they had seen, and bear witness to the persistence of their endurance. The blues have been called “chronicles of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically and endured with grace and dignity.”
Before such music was marketed and made popular across the nation in 1920s, it lived mostly as a localized language inside the African American subcultures of work and religion. In church services, the “call and response” between the preacher and the congregation is the most well-known model of this music: a gospel proclamation followed by church confirmation, the “amen” as a means of participation.
It’s the combination of despair and hope that gives the blues such an approachable quality, as these two things often live together in the hearts of everyday people. The music acknowledges the truth of trouble in the world around us and in our own hearts. To call out such despair for what it is and then to undercut it with hope is what makes the blues so powerful.
Sadness and lament are emotions familiar to all people, and songs, when rightly written, have always been a place where these emotions can safely be expressed.
That might take the form of a traditional hymn: “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it / Prone to leave the God I love.” But there are other places you can hear the human cry of need for a savior: “Nobody loves me but my mother / And she could be jivin’ too.”
Allowing the nature of the blues to have a seat at the table of church life is good for the congregation. Reflective sadness has a place in the life of a congregation. There is “a time to mourn,” said the writer of Ecclesiastes (3:4), and more than any other season, Lent gives the church dedicated space to sorrow together.
It’s good for us to be shaken by the losses in our world that have taken place at the hands of injustice, inequality, poverty, depression, disease, and war. It’s more difficult to mourn over the ways we have played an active or passive or even unconscious role in these things. There’s grace in the courage it takes to reflect on our personal frailties, on our tendency to wander from the ways of Jesus. To name the ways we live as prodigals takes a level of courage that alludes to a world bent on building a perfected sense of self.
Lent won’t allow it. Lent is marked by an honesty about failure, about our own unjust dealings, and our own sense of self-righteousness. But also, an honesty about our sense of hopelessness, anger, fear, and sadness.
In her book The Liturgical Year, Joan Chittister writes, “Lent enables us to face ourselves, to see the weak places, to touch the wounds in our own soul, and to determine to try once more to live beyond our lowest aspirations.”
There are songs for these things.
The Bible is no stranger to the blues. It has a base conviction that the world is not as it should be. Its first words, even, describe a creation out of sorts, one longing for order and balance and rest. It is said that history is composed by the victors, but the writers of the Bible were formed more by loss, slavery, wandering, oppression, betrayal, exile, and the ongoing threat of extinction. Its stories and teachings and poems and laments are all voices from the margins that remind us of the unchecked darkness and injustice that can run wild in the world. It doesn’t pretend that these things aren’t real. The prophets of Israel, even, had to remind the people of God of their own involvement in such things, of their own amnesia around their calling to be a light and a way in the world.
Church services can often hurry too fast to victory. Sometimes all the songs and readings and sermons are about the glories of the mountaintop. They can be encouraging, but not always honest. In the Orthodox tradition, the spirit of Lent is described as “the Bright Sadness.” It’s the marriage of hope and pain, or, as we say in theology, the “here but not yet” state of the kingdom.
The apostle Paul said we do “not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13, NRSV). But we do grieve. There’s an ecclesiastical skill in holding out hope while also being honest in naming the pains that are real in our world and in our lives. Not everything is fixed, not yet. For an hour a week we hear how everything has been overcome, and yet we still leave the church house with a heavy sense that we remain temporarily overwhelmed by the world.
Lent is permission to be overwhelmed.
If it keeps on rainin’, levee’s goin’ to break,
If it keeps on rainin’, levee’s goin’ to break,
And when the levee breaks, I’ll have no place to stay
- Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie
As the church enters Lent, I think about the testimony of a global community in mourning, the church committing itself to the 40-day path of reflection, lament, and repentance. Resurrection is coming, but it’s not here yet. Hope will be realized, but not just now. I think about what it means to fast, how the pains of hunger or desire or addiction or habit remind us that we are not all that independent, and that our lives are not completely of our own making. I think about the outcomes of the inward journey of Lent. As we explore even the darkest corners of our lives, we are reminded of the breadth of God’s grace, and how in remembering, we might learn to extend such grace to others.
I think the blues can teach us to take up residence in those troubling spaces where there is hurt and to practice the difficult speech of hopeful lament. For how can we be a people who long for the resurrection day when God will repair all that is broken if we cannot see and speak and sing of what is broken?
Lent asks us to take the world’s suffering and our own personal catastrophes as our muse as we await the coming restoration day.
He proved a friend to David
That same God that David served
Will give me a rest someday.
Trouble will soon be over,
Sorrow will have an end.
- Blind Willie Johnson
Derek Sweatman is the lead pastor of Atlanta Christian Church in Midtown, Atlanta. He is also an adjunct professor of biblical studies at Point University and host of the annual podcast Blues for Lent.
Blues for the church in Lent:
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