Tom WaitsI first ran across Tom Waits’ song “Come on Up to the House” not long after it was released, on the Grammy-award winning album Mule Variations. Occasionally an atheist friend would get a kick out of the jarring line “Come down off that Cross, we could use the wood.” The implication of course was that Waits was mocking the crucifixion, telling Christ that humanity had no need of His sacrifice. I’ve been listening to the song a lot lately, thanks in part to brilliant covers by the Delta Spirit and new bluegrass chanteuse Sarah Jarosz. A quick read of the lyrics exposes any sacrilegious tendencies in the song as merely agnostic snark, and instead reveals Tom Waits at his gospel best.

Well the moon is broken
And the sky is cracked
Come on up to the house
The only things that you can see
Is all that you lack
Come on up to the house

All your cryin’ don’t do no good
Come on up to the house
Come down off the cross
We can use the wood
Come on up to the house

Come on up to the house
Come on up to the house
The world is not my home
I’m just a passin thru
Come on up to the house

There’s no light in the tunnel
No irons in the fire
Come on up to the house
And your singin lead soprano
In a junkman’s choir
You gotta come on up to the house

Does life seem nasty, brutish and short
Come on up to the house
The seas are stormy
And you can’t find no port
Come on up to the house
There’s nothin’ in the world

There’s nothin’ in the world
that you can do
You gotta come on up to the house
and you been whipped by the forces
that are inside you
come on up to the house
well you’re high on top
of your mountain of woe
come on up to the house
well you know you should surrender
but you can’t let go
you gotta come on up to the house

Here, as much as in any song he’s ever written, Waits is preaching a message that all of us so desperately need to hear. Quit crying.  Quit crucifying yourself with guilt, shame and rules. Life is difficult and you’re in bad shape.  So accept that you have nothing, and come join the party. Like Robert Farrar Capon in his brilliant work on the parables of Jesus, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus, Waits is telling us to quit trying to justify ourselves. Our crying and effort are worthless. We think we’re singing soprano only to find out that we’re in “a junkman’s choir.”  To quote Capon’s essay on the parable of the publican and the Pharisee:

 “We fear the publican’s acceptance because we know precisely what it means. It means that we will never be free until we are dead to the whole business of justifying ourselves. But since that business is our life,  that means not until we are dead.”

Soon as we meet our death and give up silly acts of justification, we hear the voice of a loving, patient Saviour – is His voice as gravelly as Tom Waits? – beckoning us to indeed “Come On Up to the House.”

Here’s a nice video of great man singing the song in London several years back.