The Healin Power of Hurtin Words

Psalm 137

When we were planning today’s outdoor worship as part of the Stampede Breakfast, I had asked Brad to come up with some country-themed songs that we could sing as part of today’s service. Back in early June, Brad came and said to me “I was thinking about one, it’s not exactly a religious song, but everyone knows it –you are my sunshine.” I have to admit my first reaction to it was to ask Brad back, and I said to him, “Brad, you know how depressing the lyrics to the verses are, right?” He paused for the moment, and then sang the first verse, and then said “you’re right! Maybe I should consider another.”

Although shortly after that, it occurred to me that I was a bit harsh. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I was too dismissive, and that Brad’s suggestion for at least one of us to sing together was perfect. So I went back to Brad, apologized, and told him that not only should we use “You are my sunshine” but that it should actually help form the central message for today.

So… is “You are my sunshine” a happy song?

The chorus seems to be, at least reasonably so:

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,
you make me happy, when skies are grey.
You’ll never know dear, how much I love you,
please don’t take my sunshine away.

But then the lyrics for the first verse go like this:

The other night dear, while I lay sleeping,
I dreamed I held you in my arms,
but when I awoke dear, I was mistaken,
and I hung my head and cried.

…and it gets more depressing from there… the chorus is meant to be sung with tears streaming down the singer’s face.

But then again, aren’t depressing lyrics the central feature of country songs?

When we think of country music, what are some of the themes? (have people call them out)

One does not have to think hard to come up with some general themes, and that country songs often have depressing lyrics. Country music as we know it today emerged from East Tennessee in the 1920s, but was heavily influenced by the experience of the Great Depression in the 1930s. In fact, it’s harder to come up with happier lyrics. I had to do some digging, Alan Jackson’s “Chattahoochee” is the exception to the rule! There are others, of course, but for the most part, country songs have a well-earned reputation for being sad and depressing.

But that’s not a bad thing! Cuz there’s healin’ in them hurtin’ words! And the tradition of hurtin’ words, especially in songs, goes waaaaay back. Almost immediately Psalm 22 and Psalm 137 come to mind as ancient songs that are hurtin’ words. There is an entire book dedicated to hurtin’ words, its formal title is Lamentations, but one could easily call it “The Book of Hurtin’ Words.”

So while country music really is only about 100 years old, the tradition of songs of lament goes back thousands of years. It’s Biblical!

It tells me that the tradition of singing our lament, of putting hurtin’ words to music, is far more than style, but touches notes deep within our spirituality.  It’s worth paying attention to.

Those words of lament that we find in the Bible, whether they’re in Lamentations, Job, or the Psalms; almost universally, they are songs. Rather than praising God, they’re giving voice to experiences of sadness, of grief, of loss. Psalm 137 is a great lament of the exiles, after literally being taken prisoner, and carried into exile, forced into a prison camps by the very rivers, the waters, that flowed by Babylon. To help them cope, they would sing songs of lament: hurtin’ words to give voice to their feelings, and to give them a channel to put all of the different mix of emotions that come with trauma and loss. By giving them voice, it gave them strength, and it helped them to heal.

There’s healin’ in them hurtin’ words.

So I wanted to thank Brad, to apologize for my initial response to his suggestion, because it gave me, and gives us an opportunity to learn something new: There’s a deeply spiritual side to songs of lament, and it’s worthwhile to listen, to sing songs like “Man of Constant Sorrow” or “You are my Sunshine.” May we all get a chance to learn the healin’ power of hurtin’ words.