Half album review, half theological forage, this one comes to us from Madeline D’Elia.
Panic in the first beat of the morning
Even what I’ve got isn’t worth offering
Even faces change—my heart stays the same.
After five years of waiting for their album release, I was hooked on And Then Like Lions in the first fifteen seconds. Once again, with trumpets, banjos, guitars, ukuleles, and mountain dulcimers, Blind Pilot poetically captured the experience of being a human. But this album was markedly different content-wise because it focused on tragedy from beginning to end. Called a “darker shade of folk” by the Wall Street Journal, lead singer Israel Nebeker said quite the opposite in an interview with NPR:
I think of this album as a conversation about different kinds of loss and the courage we find when we face loss honestly, cracked open and unsure of what it will become, which is the only real way to face it.
The opening song “Umpqua Rushing,” which I began with, was written about the end of Israel’s 13-year romantic relationship. And the next eight songs are equally as heavy as he sings about losing his father to cancer and falling out with close friends. The following is from “Seeing is Believing,” which describes the experience of moving back home to take care of his father before he passed away:
Oh my father
I’ve got your fever
I’m holding my breath in
Your wishing well
This is just time’s thirst
This is just everything hurts
You feel your own breath
The rest is hard to tell
Maybe it’s because the first nine songs are so heavy, but I never listened closely to the lyrics of the last song on the album, the title track “Like Lions,” until I saw the band play in Charlottesville this past month. Performed as the encore, it focuses on finding inexplicable courage despite tragedy and pain; that it’s only in this type of darkness, which shrouds us in fear and uncertainty, that we might look outside of ourselves and focus on another.
Is it worse to see no future
Is it worse to be afraid
And then we are like lions
And we are bearing all our teeth
It will cheat you in the balance
Taking more than left to live
And then we are like lions
We are strong enough to give
Before Israel started, he told the audience that in the midst of this darker album, a close friend told him that “Like Lions” was one of the most hopeful songs he had ever heard. And I think that I have to agree, because, as the gospel shows, it’s only after the cross that we find hope and redemption.
When I think of the metaphor of a lion, I immediately think of the common imagery that is especially dense in the Old Testament. Lions were considered some of the most ferocious and feared animals (Ps. 22) and were used to describe wicked leaders (Jer. 50:17, Ezek. 32:2); in biblical times, kings often built statues depicting themselves as lions. But the Bible’s authors also spoke of God himself as a lion—for his judgments and ferocity, and equally so for his compassionate heart. In the book of Hosea, the prophet describes the day that the Lord will restore and forgive His people:
He will roar like a lion, and they will follow the Lord; when He roars, His children will come trembling from the West (11:10).
The Old Testament also says, however, that the people of God will be as mighty as lions or lionesses (Num. 23:24); Proverbs says that the righteous person is “as confident as a lion” (28:1). And while it sounds pretty great to be counted as strong and ferocious, there seems to be a pretty large gap between regarding God as a lion and regarding His people as lions. I have to admit that I’ve rarely identified feeling this way. While God counts himself as both the Lion and the Lamb—the ruler who fights for us yet the redeemer who was slain for us, strong and ferocious yet kind and full of mercy—when it comes to claiming the attributes of God, I mostly only identify as the lamb. And when I say lamb, what I really mean is a lost, wandering sheep who desperately needs a shepherd for guidance. Perhaps the gap here is not so much about whether or not I feel like a lion but about the means by which the Bible’s promise of my lion-likeness is attained.
On this, the idea of imputation is helpful: “Christ’s merits are given to us so that we might be reckoned righteous by our trust in the merits of Christ when we believe in him, as though we had merits of our own” (Apology of the Augsberg Confession XXI). These merits are given to us because of Christ’s work on the cross; we are now counted righteous as lions, not because we did anything to earn His love or forgiveness, but because Christ stood in our place. And in this understanding of the atonement, God doesn’t see us as righteous because we were infused with Jesus’ righteousness and goodness, but because He sees Jesus instead of us and counts Jesus’ actions instead of our own. So, like I usually feel, I really am nothing like a lion; but because of the cross, Christ’s lion-like qualities have been imputed to me.
Though I often need to be reminded that “frailty is the friend who makes us sleep until the morning” (“Palm Lines,” Lowland Hum) and that being small is a gift, there are seasons where I hear songs like “Like Lions” and I really want to believe that strength and righteousness are also gifts. I was reading Ephesians 6 with a friend a few weeks ago, and I was discouraged by the fact that Paul says I have to put on an entire set of armor to withstand the schemes of the devil as well as my own flesh. I was feeling overcome by my own sin, how far it separated me from God, and how weak I felt in the face of that. Ephesians has quite the list of things that I should not do in order to find freedom and the things that I should do to find freedom, but it seems that most of my track record thus far is a whole lot of mistakes. And sometimes this is all together such a discouraging thought that I want to give up on the whole notion of being like a lion in the first place, and I would rather simply wallow.
But I think it’s what Israel said in his NPR interview. I think that courage and lion-likeness are found when we are “cracked open and unsure of what [we] will become.” Because that type of posture allows us to see that imputation is real in our lives; it allows us to confess that all we need is Christ, because we have nothing to offer. In this strange paradox that we call the gospel, we become like lions, strong and ferocious, only when we are made lambs, when we are weak and dependent on one who is stronger than us. Paul says as much in 2 Corinthians when he admits his own weakness:
But [the Lord] said to “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.