We are aging soldiers in an ancient war
Seeking out some half-remembered shore
We drink our fill and still we thirst for more
Asking, 'If there's no heaven, what is this hunger for?'
Our path is worn, our feet are poorly shod
We lift up our prayer against the odds
And fear the silence is the voice of God
And we cry Allelujah, Allelujah
We cry Allelujah.
Thousands of singles and couples, many bearing the symbols of affluent Austin suburbia (collared shirts tucked in, and caps connected to high-tech, venture capital, or financial services firms), listened on Sept. 29 to that sung question and plea from Emmylou Harris, the 55-year-old grande dame of American music. She was a finishing touch on a two-day Austin City Limits music festival that drew over 50,000 to stand or sit in green fields with rock outcroppings, six fully equipped stages, an artists' bazaar, and a bajillion port-o-potties.
High-school and college students abounded, but so did 40- and 50-something singles and couples. Some in this cross-section of Austin sported bikini tops and tattoos, and others were in blue-jean shorts and T-shirts. But they all seemed enthralled as Gillian Welch sang,
I am an orphan on God's highway, but I'll share my troubles if you go my way.
I have no mother, no father, no sister, no brother. I am an orphan girl....
But when He calls me I will be able to meet my family at God's table.
I'll meet my mother, my father, my sister, my brother; no more an orphan girl.
Blessed Savior make me willing and walk beside me until I'm with them.
Be my mother, my father, my sister, my brother....
To hear and sing lyrics like those is edifying, emotionally moving, and truly helpful. Where people are making, shaping, forming, and listening to words, people are also thinking, communicating, and sharing. The content of the songs was not often "Christian," and yet, some was decidedly so: Wherever words are dealt with deliberately, Christians tend to do well and to learn well.
Buddy and Julie Miller flanked Emmylou Harris during her whole performance. They sang Julie's "All My Tears":
When I go don't cry for me
In my Father's arms I'll be.
The wounds this world left on my soul
Will all be healed and I'll be whole.
It don't matter where you bury me.
I'll be home and I'll be free.
It don't matter where I lay.
All my tears be washed away.
Gold and silver blind the eye.
Temporary riches lie.
Come and eat from heaven's store.
Come and drink and thirst no more.
So weep not for me my friend
When my time below does end.
For my life belongs to Him
Who will raise the dead again.
Even when the content was not explicitly or implicitly "Christian," songs still connected to deeper issues, as when Emmylou Harris sang Lucinda Williams's ode to those who took their own lives:
See what you lost when you left this world, this sweet old world
The breath from your own lips, the touch of fingertips,
A sweet and tender kiss
The sound of a midnight train, wearing someone's ring
Someone calling your name
Somebody so warm cradled in your arm
Didn't you think they were worth anything?
The ancient wisdom of Proverbs reminds us, "A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver." One of the benefits of a poetic setting is that because something is aptly described people who normally wouldn't give attention do so willingly. For instance, several lesbian couples and one homosexual couple near a Christian group were attentive to the songs, even singing along.
Perhaps God uses popular culture to remind us of the opportunity we have to speak and live thoughtfully, even poetically. God's Word can go forth through a multitude of means, remaking, reshaping, reforming not only words but lives. As Emmylou Harris sang,
Like falling stars from the universe, we are hurled
Down through the long loneliness of the world
Until we behold the pain become the pearl
Cryin' Allelujah, Allelujah
We cry Allelujah