During my last year of college, I found myself in a church service, distracted as always by floral patterns on the carpet and surrounded by what churchgoers would have called “worship,” but what heathen millennials would have called “Kidz Bop live.” Spotlights swept across the crowd, and everyone was dancing and singing that if Jesus went to the left, well, then we’d all go to the left! The crowd shuffled accordingly. And if he went to the right, then off we’d go again.

It was winter when I walked into that auditorium, and outside students were dropping like flies. By that point, suicide had taken two students, an alleged rape had made national headlines, and racial conflict was two degrees from boiling over. The university’s counseling services were wiping sweat off their foreheads with bath towels, wringing them out, and putting in overtime. And here I was, in church, being told to sing, shout, and dance in the river. The song, and the service itself, was only trying to do the same thing as everyone else, namely, make gestures against the darkness of the world outside. But here the plan of attack was to, metaphorically, scribble over that darkness with Crayola’s Glow Explosion markers (two stars on Amazon, by the way). For some Christians in the crowd, it worked. For me, it was a forced laugh, a valiant effort that missed its mark. There was an undeniable divide between my own emotions and the emotions of the rockstars up front; I couldn’t ignore that the person I felt I was at the time was a far shot from the person the music was hoping I could become.

I don’t currently support a puritanical dancing ban (“Praise him with the tambourine and dance: praise him with stringed instruments and organs!” Ps. 150, ok), but I do think it’s important to remember that, especially in a crowded room, the chances are high that somebody out there probably needs a good cry, and they shouldn’t feel un-Christian for that. As a famous 1984 New York Times article notes, “It’s time for adults to stop telling children things like ‘Now, now, don’t cry’ and ‘Big boys don’t cry.’ Crying is a natural phenomenon and the withholding of tears appears to be a danger to health.” And even if Jesus is the “Lord of the Dance” (as described by this hymn I used to sing at Mass), it’s worth remembering that he “danced on a Friday when the world turned black. It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back.” Jesus danced right to the cross, an embarrassing and tragic dance that no one would do with him, especially not in public.

a3015990672_10As far as Christian music goes, it’s slim pickings for albums that are both good and elegiac. Anyone who just can’t dance in the river for another minute longer, because they are feeling mournful or otherwise, should be interested in Bifrost Arts’ newest album, Lamentations, released last Tuesday and now available exclusively here.  It serves as a freeing reminder to those of us caught up in our harried search for “happy” that our days are numbered; at the same time, it brings comfort to those who are already grieved by mortality.

Seasonally, the album arrives just in time for the mid-Lent slump, which often finds us sneaking Girl Scout cookies and forgetting that humbling Ash Wednesday sermon we might have heard a few weeks back. Despite its title, the album is not insufferably dreary. Its lyrics focus on grace, death, and the seeming silence of God. So if you’re sad, mourn with this album. If you’re not sad but maybe trying to be a little more emotionally available, for Lent or otherwise, also, listen to this album.

Lamentations is an empathetic prayer for the dissatisfied anyone who’s waiting for God to do something comprehensible, to bring His work to completion. At the same time, it sneakily redirects us to understand that we are ourselves incomplete sinners. A song entitled “Break Us” is particularly memorable as it repeats, “Break us by the power of your grace.” Grace teaches us that we are sinners and that, even so, God sacrificed his one life for us. The good news is shattering.

In a similar way, “Break us by the power of your grace,” reminds us that it’s the Girl Scout crumbs who are saved, not the pre-packaged cookies. As Robert Capon says, “The last, the lost, and the dead are held up as God’s chosen vessels”–not the first, the found, and the whole. Those of us who boast in our wholeness are at best deluding ourselves, and this song reminds us that we are never more unworthy than when we think we are worthy according to our own merits–when we think we’ve got it all figured out, when we’ve built ourselves into shiny, fashionable lamps to light up the altar. In those moments, we are like the Pharisees to whom Jesus says, “You brood of vipers! How can you escape the sentence of hell?”

Break us, remake us, don’t let the sorrow take us.
Oh, break us by the power of your grace.

Lamentations is a collaborative project, produced by Charlottesville native Isaac Wardell and Mockingbird favorites, Daniel and Lauren Goans, of Lowland Hum, among many talented others. “Wisdom and Grace” is another huge highlight, a powerful meditation on mortality.

Teach us to number our days
That we may apply our hearts to Your ways
Teach us to number our days
with wisdom and grace.

This is the quiet kind of music that can hold a candle to the chilly window outside which people are dying. This is the theology of the cross singing, “If you go to the left, then we’ll go to the left.” The prayer here is that God will teach us to understand the finitude of our lives in imitation of Christ, who himself knew that his days were numbered–that, at the end of the road, the cross was waiting for him. Not only did he know, but he spoke plainly about it:

Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be delivered over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him and spit on him; they will flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again.” (Luke 18:31-33).