Before she ever met Loretta Lynn or sang Willie Nelson’s song “Crazy,” Patsy Cline was in a head-on collision. Last week marked the 60th anniversary of that rainy day in Nashville when she was riding with her brother John on a two-lane road when a passing car came roaring toward them as they topped a hill. Cline was thrown through the windshield onto the hood, while John, who had been at the wheel, ended up with a puncture in his chest and cracked ribs. In the other car, a woman and her six-year-old son were killed. Unaware of how badly she was injured, Cline told the EMTs at the scene to take care of the others.
The admitting physician said she was a “gory mess” when Patsy arrived at the hospital. Her scalp was peeled back; she had a deep gash across her forehead from temple to temple, crossing her right eyebrow, the bridge of her nose, and her left eyebrow; she also had a dislocated hip, a broken wrist, and enormous blood loss. Twice, the doctors thought they lost her. She told a visiting minister about her near-death experience, “All my life I have been reaching for God and today I touched him.”
Looking beyond despair
Patsy Cline had a complicated relationship with God and everyone else, as most people do who have been sexually-abused by a parent and raised by a raging alcoholic. Singing seemed to save her, even though she put some distance between herself and Jesus. She loved to sing gospel music as a child and recommitted herself to it after the crash.
I have often found her music to be something of a spiritual experience. The pain in her voice keeps me grounded and her perfect-pitch genius transports me. Long after her death in a plane crash in 1963 (a bad year: Aldous Huxley, C.S. Lewis, JFK, and Patsy Cline), I bought her Greatest Hits album on vinyl in 1992 and about wore it out. That album camped at No. 1 on Billboard‘s chart for 165 weeks. In 1995, along with Peggy Lee , Henry Mancini, Curtis Mayfield, and Barbra Streisand, Patsy Cline was inducted into the Grammys Hall of Fame.
The other day I recorded her first hit, “Walkin’ After Midnight,” on the international karaoke app, Smule, and have been singing it ever since. I realized the way she sings it turns a clever little song about a lost romance into her own song of longing for love and even searching for God in the mysteries of the night. I think fans love her because they yearn like her, at least I do.
You can get a worship song out of most pop love songs — or at least a song of salvation or damnation, because most of us have jettisoned God and put our poor love-mate in God’s place, which often works out rather poorly. I think Patsy moves the other direction; she puts a little gospel into whatever she sings. You probably do too.
We’re all wandering around in the dark
Right now, the world is definitely “out walkin’ after midnight!” Many of us still feel anxious and bereft – it became a habit last year. We can’t sleep. We are still desperately searching around in a lingering darkness. I can’t talk to anyone without feeling their palpable loss of 2020. One in four of us are mourning the loss of a loved one or acquaintance. The U.S. has lost 600,000 people to the virus! The number of deaths will likely surpass the previous record of loss to the Spanish Influenza. All over the world the stats tell a terrible story, but the grief gives us the true picture. We lost a year, kids lost school, we lost jobs and we lost each other. The church was shown to be a crucial community, since many of us lost Jesus without it.
So this little Patsy Cline song turns out to be a good God song to sing as we are walkin’ after the midnight of the world.
I go out walkin’ after midnight,
Out in the moonlight,
Just like we used to do. I’m always walkin’
After midnight searchin’ for you
I just want to affirm your search. Yes, it feels dark for a lot of us. People are piling into restaurants, but we still feel depressed. It comes in waves. We got disconnected. We’re searching. God sees.
I walk for miles along the highway.
Well, that’s just my way
Of sayin’ “I love you.” I’m always walkin’
After midnight, searchin’ for you.
We’re on a new journey. I love the faith of taking a step in the dark as a way to say, “I love you.” I am taking many steps in just that way since I ended my long work as a pastor in my beloved church. We are all stepping out into what seems at least a foggy future every day. God hears. Jesus is searching for us.
I stop to see a weepin’ willow
Cryin’ on his pillow.
Maybe he’s cryin’ for me.
And as the skies turn gloomy,
Night winds whisper to me.
I’m lonesome as I can be.
I love the picture of the willow crying on his pillow! Night winds are whispering in the gloomy, dim, moonlit skies. We’re lonely. I often feel lonely after a day of seeing people! I’m carrying some residual loneliness from my isolation and I sometimes feel like a stranger in the new place of the summer of 2021. I don’t think we can underestimate how long our recovery from the pandemic might take. For one thing, people are still dying of the latest coronavirus all over the world! What’s more, there are after effects which are yet to be seen. We’re grieving. We’re afraid. God knows.
I am glad Patsy Cline gave me a song to help me sing out all this trouble before I tried to control it all or just distract myself from it. Maybe she will bless you too on your way into the dawn.
This year’s original songs nominated for an Oscar have an unsurprising theme: loss and longing. If they are not downright sad, they are about sad situations, sad lives and a deep longing we can all relate to.
Sad songs are more popular than happy ones and have greater staying power. I wish Pharrell’s Happy would last longer than Adele’s Hello, but I would not count on it.
In a sad world, sad songs can be addictive. So be careful; it is sad out there. Research suggests that sad music can play a role in emotional regulation — I think everyone knows the word “cathartic” by now; and everyone talks about “venting.” Music-evoked sadness helps us release emotional distress in a safe, beautiful way and provides some distance for reappraisal, and insight. Sometimes it gives us the chills, which feel good and soothe anxiety. Sad music teases out hormones like oxytocin and prolactin, which are also associated with mom’s cuddles and falling in love. So the aftermath of a sad song can be a period of feeling not so sad. Of course we’ll need a another dose very soon – at least most of us seem to. But we like going back for more.
Jesus is acquainted with grief and full of joy
Jesus followers, contrary to what some of their teachers taught in the last century [like this], are encouraged to be sad in a hopeful way: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).
We have a safe place in Christ to grieve fearlessly, knowing that we are not in danger of the deadly despair we dread. When we are wearing our true selves, we can sorrow without defeat and experience sadness without hopelessness. We can aspire to true sorrow and true hope.
One reason Paul gives for this wonderful capacity is our knowledge that we grieve temporarily. We know our grief will come to an end. Like I said a couple of weeks ago, Jesus told his disciples: “So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” Paul highlights that hope by pointing back in time and then pointing forward: “For since we believe that [in the past] Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will [in the future] bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:14).
This year’s songs are also acquainted with grief and longing for something else
The songs nominated for Best Original Song of 2018 are all longing for the hope Jesus instills in us (at least unconsciously). Take a look and see what you think.
All the Stars
Black Panther is a hopeful movie about a culture in hiding, its treasure masked by its contradictory camouflage of poverty.
Kendrick Lamar and SZA sing a duet of the nominated song, All the Stars, during the credits. Here’s part of it:
Love, let’s talk about love.
Is it anything and everything you hoped for?
Or do the feeling haunt you?
I know the feeling haunt you
This may be the night that my dreams might let me know:
All the stars are closer, all the stars are closer, all the stars are closer…
How did it all go to feel good?
You could live it all.
If you feel bad better live your life
We were runnin’ out of time.
I do not know everything Kendrick Lamar is getting at. But I can tell he is longing, like the movie, for respect. Even deeper, he is trying not to let love slip away, even though he would like to stop feeling the pain of missing it. Maybe even deeper than that, he would like the moment when he feels the stars are closer to be a regular occurrence — he misses God, too.
RBG is a bit of hagiography about the lawyer-turned-SCOTUS-member who worked valiantly to put women’s rights into law.
The song is called I’ll Fight. And RBG can pack a wallop for someone as notoriously diminutive as she is. Here is a bit:
When you feel you’re taking all that you can take
And you’re sure you’re never gonna catch a break
And the tears are rivers running down your face, yeah
When your faith is low and you’ve got no strength left
When you think you’ve gone as far as you can get
And you’re too run down to take another step
Oh I will take up the struggle
Oh I know it’s a fight
So I’ll fight, fight that war for you
I’ll fight, stand and defend you
Saints have often been stand-ins for the Savior. So it is appropriate that Jennifer Hudson, the church woman, steps up to sing a testimony: “I was low but you rescued me, I was defenseless and you were my strength.” It sounds like a psalm!
The song longs for that person who meets us when the tears are streaming down our face. Ultimately, I met that person in Jesus. But Jesus has a lot of friends. Every Jesus follower keeps growing in Jesus-like empathy and conviction; so sing it, Jennifer! And plenty of humans who don’t follow Jesus have goodness and courage built right in as the beloved creatures they are; so stay alive, Ruth!
The Place Where Lost Things Go
Above is the songwriter singing his version. If you want Emily Blunt, here she is.
Mary Poppins Returns is a great remake of the original. It should be given an award for daring! Emily Blunt should win prizes for letting herself be compared to the icon, Julie Andrews. Like so many Disney movies, the drama centers around the death of a parent. In this case, it is mom who is lost — thus, this stanza of The Place Where the Lost Things Go:
So when you need her touch
And loving gaze
Gone but not forgotten
Is the perfect phrase
Smiling from a star
That she makes glow
Trust she’s always there
Watching as you grow
Hiding in the place
Where the lost things go
The theology of many movies teaches children that dead people are like stars that shine down on us from heaven. And if you don’t forget people they are still alive, at least in your heart. I have, indeed, imagined that loved ones I miss are still looking over me, and my memories of them comfort me, since I still miss them. So this is a sweet, if somewhat untrustworthy song.
God has been generally banished from the movies, but we still need a Savior (Black Panther, RBG, and Mary Poppins) and we still need and still long for a touch of love and mystery in our sadness (strength in blackness, strength in weak old age, and strength returning to Dad in his deep, deep sadness). I hope Jesus appreciates how religious these movies are! He is still needed!
I wasn’t much of a Gaga fan until this movie. As soon as I saw it, I forgave her for following Janet, JUDY and Barbra, she was just so talented! Plus, she writes evocative songs, like Shallow. Here’s a lot of it.
Tell me somethin’, girl
Are you happy in this modern world?
Or do you need more?
Is there somethin’ else you’re searchin’ for?
In all the good times I find myself
Longin’ for change
And in the bad times I fear myself
Tell me something, boy
Aren’t you tired tryin’ to fill that void?
Or do you need more?
Ain’t it hard keeping it so hardcore?
In all the good times I find myself
Longing for change
And in the bad times I fear myself
I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in
I’ll never meet the ground
Crash through the surface, where they can’t hurt us
We’re far from the shallow now
In just a few brief lines, this duet hits us where sadness meets fear: “Will I ever get to be who I feel I am? Is my longing doomed to go unmet?” I appreciate the clever image of crashing through the surface. It is on the other side of what seems to be the impenetrable surface that we find out we can’t be hurt like we feared quite so much.
For Lady Gaga, personally, the wall between men and women is broken down as the partners listen and empathize in this song. What’s more, the walls the misfits, like her, need to crash through is demonstrated for everyone needing to find courage.
I went back and listened to the words above as if Jesus were singing them, wherever that seemed right. It fit for me. I am blessed with people who crash through surfaces with me and for me. But when it comes to finding the place where they can’t hurt me, that comes with Jesus crashing into humanity and then crashing through death. My courage is too shallow to get where the song promises. Lady Gaga is worth about $300 million dollars — I know it does not buy her the great courage she has, but it surely helps. The rest of us probably need more.
When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a set of stories in which someone is going to die. It is a movie about death. The crack shooter, Buster Scruggs, sings the nominated song, When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings, as he is ascending to heaven. Here’s much of it:
When they wrap my body
In the thin linen sheet
And they take my six ounce
Pull the boots from my feet
Unsaddle my pony
She’ll be itching to roam
I’ll be halfway to heaven
Under horsepower of my own
When the roundup ends
And the campfire dims
He shalt be saved
When a cowboy trades
His spurs for wings
The final one of the film shorts that make up the movie: “Mortal Remains,” is the only one in which the characters are already dead. They are only marginally aware of this reality. They remind me of the spirits in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce (MUCH recommended, if you haven’t read it yet). This final parable pulls the rest of the stories together. It is the story of how three people who would normally not be in the same stagecoach together find their souls being harvested.
As dead people they try to put things together. Each is very sure of their own point of view as to what is happening. With a nod to why sad songs and stories about death move us so much, one of the harvesters notes that “We love hearing about ourselves. As long as the people in the stories are us, but not us. Not us in the end, especially.” Each person’s confirmation bias can’t save them; though different, each is just as dead as the other. It is a Coen Brothers parable. They seem to see a world full of swift repercussions, but one that is also random, in which the only certainty is death.
The humor that laces the Coen Brothers’ debate with the narcissism and nihilism of the postmodern era leaves room for love and hope, which their wacky characters often demonstrate. The whole, three-hour Oscar ceremony, complete with the often less-than-classic nominated songs it elevates, is a similar celebration. Beautiful, talented people celebrate, show honor, cry, praise people (and sometimes God), and showcase the best of humanity.
I feel for the attenders, all all gussied up for their stagecoach ride in the Dolby Theater, all with their longings, 80% of the nominees soon to experience loss. In many ways, as the nominated songs are performed, they will reveal their sadness and longing. Those beautiful people might experience that tingle we feel when something has broken through our surface and the Holy Spirit gets an opportunity to beckon us into eternity and our true selves.
Like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be recovered, so we must die. But God does not take away life; instead, he devises ways so that a banished person may not remain estranged from him. 2 Samuel 14
I was happy to speak to a great “audience” on Sunday at the Madison Street Church. One of their great gifts to the world is to accept someone as they are and envelope them in their long love for each other. I was happy to have been there at the beginning of that love and to still be included, though living far from the wind-swept skies of California.
Pains and losses of long loves
I had a great weekend. The weather was spectacular; the celebration was moving; the time for renewed friendship was precious. But lurking in the background of the joy and love was the pain and losses of long lives, long loves and long mission. The same background was threaded through the scripture I used for my Sunday message. I am still pondering the reality.
I am especially interested in how hard it was for David to let go of his losses and let Absalom return to the kingdom. He lost the integrity of his family when his son Amnon raped his half-sister Tamar. He lost his son Amnon to murder. He lost his son Absalom to banishment. He would not let go of his losses and let Absalom return, even though his holding on to them created new loss, as he continually mourned the absence of his son.
Do you unconsciously hold on to your loss, sometimes, like I do? It is like we feel it would be unjust of us to not hold on to the losses we carry – the lost virginity, the lost integrity, the lost love, the lost health, the lost opportunity, the lost years. We own our losses them like they form our identity. Our lives can be so threaded with what we’ve lost, the feelings twine around our hearts and strangle us.
I am especially thinking about the lost friendships that weigh on us. I was in my home town this weekend and I couldn’t help but feel sorry about the dear friends of our youth that we couldn’t even locate anymore. And I couldn’t help but hear about the losses incurred among families and between parents and children. The scripture above implies that such feelings are inevitable, since we are like spilled water on the ground. What has happened has happened. Our life is moving to death, so every day has some death in it.
But since we have God on our side we have life to hold on to. I have often experienced him breaking the hold of loss on me that I am holding on to. We know so well that in Jesus God brings us eternal life. Grasping that in the middle of our dying is the secret to our joy in Christ, isn’t it? Especially when it comes to the losses we experience in our relationships, we really need to go with God’s eternal strategy and devise ways for loves that can be renewed to be renewed. If the banished can return, we need to help with the process, not just mourn. God has gone to great lengths to reverse my self-banishment. I need to follow his example. Whether I have been so hurt I banished someone, or I hurt someone so badly they banished themselves, or whether we were both just stupid and we got unwittingly banished, I need to devise a way to reconciliation. What’s more, for all the people who are self-banished from God, I need to work with Jesus on God’s great plan for reconciliation.
It is a season of reconciliation among the Circle of Hope. I have been glad to see hearts softening and banishments ended. I doubt we will get it all done during Lent. Some people have been driven far away from us and from God. Some devices will be hard to invent and harder to implement. It could take years. But if we are close to the heart of God, I don’t see how own hearts would become adept at much that is better than strategizing for reconciliation.