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prodigal psalms

August 8, 2011

This summer, I have really enjoyed listening to Mumford & Sons’ debut album “Sigh No More”. Their live performance at the Grammys got me hooked. What particularly struck me was the earnestness and joy they exuded while they played.

Unlike some albums I have grown to like, there was no “breaking in” period with this one. I liked the record from the first listen. So did my wife and kids–although my children have never heard “Little Lion Man”:).

The songs’ musical hooks pulled me right in.  And every time I listened to it again, I would pay more attention to the lyrics. They took me even deeper. In addition to being peppered with allusions to Shakespeare, Plato, the Bible and Homer, the songs were chronicling a significant spiritual struggle. As a pastor, this heightened my curiosity even more.

So I did some digging and discovered that their front man and primary songwriter (Marcus Mumford) was raised in a Christian family. His parents are actually the head of the Vineyard Churches in the UK.

Knowing this and upon further listening, I concluded this record fits in a genre I call Prodigal Psalms.  It is a collection of songs and prayers of a man who has wandered away from God.

The first song is a great (but non-specific) desire to be made whole again. On the opening track, “Sigh No More”, we hear:

Love it will not betray you

Dismay or enslave you,

It will set you free

This succinctly describes a fundamental human longing. But what sets these songs apart is how they progress. Like many others, they start by talking about general concepts like love and redemption. But they don’t stay aloof and guarded. They quickly move to direct, personal conversation. Marcus is no longer singing about something. He is singing to someone.

On “Roll Away Your Stone,” we hear these words:

Cause you told me that I would find a hole,

Within the fragile substance of my soul

And I have filled this void with things unreal,

And all the while my character it steals.

So who is the “you” that he is talking to? With the fairly clear title reference to Jesus’ resurrection, it’s safe to assume he is talking to God. It sounds like the grief of a prodigal who has made a mess of his life and doesn’t want God to abandon him. He’s filled his soul with “things unreal” and it’s eaten away at him instead of giving him life.

This “direct address” and engagement of God makes these songs like the Biblical Psalms. While some Psalms talk about God and redemption, the majority of them speak directly to God. The Psalms model direct engagement with God in all kinds of life circumstances–joy, hope, sorrow and defeat.

This is what encourages me about these songs. I know a lot of prodigals. Many of them only talk about God. It’s far better to talk directly to God, even if that conversation is loaded with questions, doubts and pain.

So if Marcus Mumford is a prodigal, what’s keeping him from coming home? Obviously, I can’t be sure. But paired with the “longing for home” that we hear in these songs, we also find, in the lyrics and in the music, an incredibly forceful and direct anger.

In the same song I mentioned earlier, “Roll Away Your Stone”, Marcus expresses what seems to be an absolute refusal to submit.

But you, you’ve gone too far this time

You have neither reason nor rhyme

With which to take this soul that is so rightfully mine

He is claiming possession of his own soul and saying that God has no right to take it.

This is where these songs depart from the Biblical Psalms. The Biblical Psalms are often raw and often unfiltered. But even the ones written in the most difficult situations resolve in confident trust in God’s goodness. Michael preached yesterday on Psalm 13, which is a classic example of this kind of resolution. The one exception that proves the rule is Psalm 88, which ends in darkness. But even with Psalm 88’s “dark night of the soul”, 99% of the Psalms end with the Psalmist being in a place of trust of and submission to God.

Marcus Mumford isn’t there yet.

But the encouraging thing is that he seems to be haunted by God.  He knows too much to walk away.

I have been there myself. I spent several years as a prodigal. But even in my running from God, I was still unable to shake him. God ultimately brought me home.

So in the meantime, I will continue to enjoy Marcus Mumford’s music and pray for this prodigal (and the others I know). God pursues those who walk away. We celebrate this in stories like the prodigal son. This past Sunday in worship we sang about God’s pursuit of his wayward people. We sang, “Jesus sought me, when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God.”

Do it again, Lord.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Rob permalink
    August 8, 2011 10:22 am

    Very well put John. Their music, and lyrics, have been very important to me over the past 18 months. There is depth there that I don’t see in some of my other favorite albums like “9” and “O” by Damien Rice, The Head and the Heart’s debut, and the Avett Brothers latest. Where they all address the realities of life that many bands don’t they often seem stuck on the self and don’t look beyond. I hadn’t made the connection to M&S’ work and the Psalms and am encouraged by it, thank you. I know for my own “dark night of the soul” that Psalm 88 was a great comfort because each day, though God be sufficient in it, does not always end in hope, trust, or peace. Psalm 88 normalized my experience, and the end of 39, but I like you couldn’t cannot shake him. I’ve felt the like the disciples at the end of John 6, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” For them and me this isn’t a comfortable statement but a true one. For them it comes after hard teaching and for me after a hard year but the reality is that with him it can be very hard but without him it is torture, unbearable, destructive. Perhaps that’s why I’m drawn to M&S, it’s not all worked out but it is head somewhere. Thanks for posting this.

  2. John permalink*
    August 13, 2011 11:03 am

    You’re right. We often get swallowed up into our own story and forget there is a larger story going on. That’s the beauty of the Biblical Psalms. They give full freedom to enter into our own joy and heartbreak. At the same time, they’re always lifting our chin up to see that there is more going on in the world than our own stories.
    Praying for you from the other side of the continent.

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