Dearest Rachel –
What with Christmas day having come and gone, I suppose I ought to set aside any talk about painful Christmas music. But if you’ll indulge me for just one more day, I have a few things to say about this one – and its composer.
For one thing, Chris Rice just seems to have this talent for pulling at my heartstrings in a way that most songwriters don’t. Some songs have a particular sting simply because they remind me of my current circumstances. But from the first time I played one of his retrospective albums that we picked up while on vacation in California (you’ll recall we were visiting the Crystal Cathedral for some reason), you’ll recall me crying about several different songs as we listened to it on our drive later that year out to Iowa. I think it’s because so many of his songs carry those grains of truth about imperfect humans as we attempt (and fail) to understand and emulate our perfect Savior.
There was ‘Mama Prays,’ which left me realizing how my parents raised me and Jenn in an environment bathed in prayer, much like the one Chris describes his own childhood, and how little I noticed it (perhaps thinking it was just how normal families behaved). And that lack of notice translated into a lack of appreciation for it, when I didn’t realize just how hard it was to do that on a regular basis – until I became a parent myself. With that in mind, the song was convicting insofar as I was not praying for Daniel to anywhere near the extent that my parents did (and, I understand, still do) for me. These days, that song is even more convicting, because you were the one to pray for him far more than I did, and now I’m left having to take up the slack you left behind. I basically have to do the praying of two people on his behalf, and I fail so hard at it, especially ‘in a world’ that is considerably more than ‘a little darker than before.’
Which leads me to ‘Clumsy,’ a song that is so much more lighthearted in tone, both lyrically and musically, and yet it spells out how we all stumble through our Christian walk, meaning well but falling short. At least it concludes with the assertion that God still loves us, and picks us up and supports us throughout our failures regardless. Chris isn’t telling God anything He doesn’t already know about us, but it’s meant to remind us both of our shortcomings and God’s acceptance of us despite them.
And of course, there’s what most people probably consider his magnum opus, ‘Smell the Color 9,’ which I’ve touched on before, because of my own difficulties throughout my life in trying to hear, let alone listen to, Him as I try to determine my next steps in life. For all the time I’ve had to learn what He would have me do, I still don’t know which direction is the one He wants me to take, and this song just sums that frustration up so well.
But as the Christmas season lingers in the air, I should mention his take on the Christmas story, a simple sounding melody dripping with irony in that it implies that we as humanity could have done so much better by Him as far as his ‘welcome to the world’ went.
So like with most of Chris Rice’s music, its sting is not in the fact that you are no longer here, but rather in the fact that the situation it describes is so much worse than the King of the Universe deserves, and that we could have done so much better (‘how I wish we would have known’). If there are any tail tears, they are in shame in embarrassment for humanity. But could we really have done any better? Even Solomon himself, when he was dedicating his temple (which could, at that time, been considered one of the wonders of the world), admitted rightly that his magnificent work was hardly sufficient to house the Shekinah glory of the I AM.
And then there’s the fact that, from His very first moment, everything about Him had been prepared for those nine terrible hours in which every evil of humanity would be poured upon Him. At what point in his humanity was he aware of this fact? Did he have a sense of things from that first moment? He certainly knew what his true Father’s business was at the age of twelve; is it possible that he had those hours to come in the back of his mind from his very first breath? What a terrifying mortal existence His would’ve been were that the case.
What’s strange is that there are songs that talk about how poor of a reception He received that don’t nearly have the same impact on me. Take the old Negro spiritual, ‘Sweet Little Jesus Boy,’ for instance:
For what it’s worth, while this song is moving, it doesn’t pack the same punch to it. Maybe it’s the fact that it doesn’t suggest that the singer could have done anything about Jesus’ treatment – indeed, while there’s the acknowledgement that the world treated Him mean, there is also the complaint that it “treats me mean, too / But that’s how it is down here.”
In a way, it actually softens the punch of the recognition how poor a reception Jesus received by pointing out why it had to be that way. Jesus had to endure the absolute worst the world could dish out, if for no other reason than to take away any excuse from a suffering human: “You don’t know what it’s like, God!” Oh, yes He does; he’s been through far worse than you, my friend. If nothing else, to have the weight of the entire world’s sin laid upon his shoulders for those few terrible moments is a pain and abandonment that we as humans cannot possibly comprehend. We may think of certain places, certain circumstances, certain times where we are forsaken by God, but we never truly are; but Jesus, His Son, actually felt that for those moments in time. Thank God we never will have to go through that, and that we will never have to understand what that abandonment truly feels like.
There is one more Chris Rice song that I should reference right now, even though it has nothing to do with Christmas. Of course, it’s another one that wrecks me, and has wrecked me every time I’ve heard it. Most of it is a simple plea, asking the listener to react to Jesus in some measure reflecting the listener’s station in life. But the final verse has always had the power to level me.
I can barely listen to this song anymore; as beautiful as it is, that last verse was absolutely devastating even when I was only contemplating the axe in the rafters. The mere thought of losing someone – or even that one day, I would have to say goodbye to everyone and everything I loved here on earth – was almost too much to bear. But now… now that it’s actually happened, now that we have suffered through our first parting (I mean, I still have everyone in my immediate family, even as all of yours has been literally turned to ash)… well, I’ll just put it up here without even bothering to listen to it. It’s here, and that’s enough. You have flown to Jesus, and you live in a way that I can’t imagine… but also, for now, a way I can’t experience.
And I miss your not being here. I know that I will follow you someday, but that seems like so far off in the distance, temporally speaking. In the meantime, I’m waiting for the day when I can dance for Him again, rather than crying to Him.
Until then, honey, keep an eye on me – and Daniel – as we stumble toward what we hope will be better days to come. Merry Christmas, and remember that I love you.