This one comes to us from Connor Gwin:

_MG_7765It was perhaps one of the most interesting gatherings of people that I have ever seen. Bearded, flannel-clad hipsters crowding into a concert venue next to political operatives in dark suits wrinkled by the days ordeals. Teenagers with their parents, young and old couples, friends and strangers – the whole muddled mess of humanity gathered in DAR Constitution Hall in Washington D.C. to see Sufjan Stevens.

While not up-to-date with his current work, I still had a place in my heart for his warbling falsetto when a friend of mine offered me a ticket to see him live. My interest lingered from my Sufjan Stevens phase of a decade ago, when his hit “Chicago” was all over the charts and my late teenage hormones were raging. As with all teenage music loves, I let him go as I moved on to the requisite Talking Heads phase in college.

When I told my friend that I would see the concert she sent me a Pitchfork article that featured an interview with the artist. Knowing my life story, my friend warned me that Stevens’ new album, Carrie and Lowell, focused on the death of his mother and that the concert might be an emotional experience.

sufjanstevens01-500x500Fast forward to the night of the concert. At one point in the show, the entire crowd of joined the artist in singing the final refrain from his song, “Fourth of July”. Four thousand people, of all sorts and conditions, sang “We’re all going to die” over and over.

It was haunting. And freeing.

My mother died when I was eight years old and my father died last year, as I was finishing my second year of seminary. Like Stevens, I have found myself wrestling with death’s meaning and my own life’s meaning in the shadow of death.

I did not find much relief in church after my father died. I found a supportive community and caring friends, sure. I found great comfort in the words of the liturgy that washed over me and held me up, even (and especially) when I was not in the mood to say them. I did not find anyone who was willing to walk with me to the edge of the mystery of death.

The supervisor of my Clinical Pastoral Education program was fond of saying that people are incredibly uncomfortable around other people’s grief. I found this to be true in my experience as a hospital chaplain and in my own grieving process. This may explain why people avoid talking about death or grief. It may explain why we use phrases like “passed away” or “lost her fight with [insert disease]”. It may even explain why people use painful platitudes like “God needed another angel” in the place of authentic statements of frustration, anger, and confusion.

This brings me back to the concert hall where the crowd was repeating the truest thing that that conglomeration of politicos and hipsters will ever say.

“We’re all going to die.”

Sufjan Stevens’ album does not have time for platitudes. There are no Hallmark card sympathies. Instead there are lyrics that cut directly to the heart of the darkness of grief. Carrie and Lowell does what the church should do, which is unflinchingly look at the reality of death.

“I forgive you, mother, I can hear you/and I long to be near you/but every road leads to an end.”

“What’s the point of singing songs/if they’ll never even hear you?”

The turn comes later in the album. Stevens does not linger in the pain, but following the form of the lament psalms, he emerges on the other side of it with an eye toward the Light.

It is a beautiful articulation of the ancient truth, that “God will wipe away every tear” but not before “the great ordeal”.

In the interview with Pitchfork, Stevens says his relationship with God is fundamental in his life. He goes on to say, “At their best, they [his songs] should act as a testament to an experience that’s universal: Everyone suffers; life is pain; and death is the final punctuation at the end of that sentence, so deal with it. I really think you can manage pain and suffering by living in fullness and being true to yourself and all those seemingly vapid platitudes.”

Or put differently, “All we go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

What the church has to offer is the same type of truth-telling that Stevens displays.

All go down to the dust. Death is the inheritance of us all.

Stevens sings, “There is no shade in the shadow of the cross.” These words can only be sung by one who has walked through the valley and come out on the other side. None will be spared the fact of death. Even Lazarus tasted the true finality of death.

And yet, with Paul we stand at the edge of that mystery and ask, “Where, O death, is thy sting?” Even at the grave we make our song.

Jesus never promises sunshine and rainbows, but he does promise that the Resurrection will transform pain into joy and hearts that are saddled with grief will one day rejoice.

We’re all going to die.

Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.