Praying With The Punks

praying with punks

Prayer is sometimes a struggle for me. As much as I try not to, I find myself slipping into ruts and my prayers becoming rote recitations of familiar phrases and friends in need. Trying to combat this, I’ve sought guidance from all kinds of spiritually-minded people and from all kinds of sources. Reading and using prayer books. Studying the writings of the saints on prayer. Praying the daily prayers from more devotional sources than I can count. Praying scripture texts in a practice called lectio divina. Centering prayer. The Jesus Prayer. The Saint Francis Prayer. Prayers from texts on recovery. All of these are fine, and I can say I have gained something from all of them. Some of them still form a significant part of my daily prayer.

There are times, however, when none of these seem to quite fit where I’m at. Most of the time it’s because they’re too smooth, too polished, too pious. There are times in my life of faith when I can come up with those polished words just fine on my own, and other times when the polished words of others can help get me started. There are times, though, when my life with God is anything but polished, times when it is about grit and grime and getting gut-level honest. And gut-level honest, for me, rarely sounds like anything from the poems of George Herbert or from the Lutheran Book of Worship or the Book of Common Prayer. Gut-level honest, for me, tends to sound a lot more like Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings or Mike Ness, songwriter and front man of the southern California punk band Social Distortion. And then, on my way home from church one Sunday, I flipped on the radio and it hit me that if hymns can be heard, and therefore used, as prayer, so can these songs.

One example is Social Distortion’s Ball and Chain. It’s sung from the point of view of a loser at the end of his rope, and to my mind sounds a lot like a prayer for deliverance. What I find most powerful about it, though, is that the loser is able to acknowledge, even while listing all the things he’s done to “make it”, that he himself is the source of the problem:

Well I’ve searched and I’ve searched
To find the perfect life
A brand new car and a brand new suit
I even got me a little wife
But wherever I have gone
I was sure to find myself there
You can run all your life
But not go anywhere

Take away, take away
Take away this ball and chain
Well I’m sick and I’m tired
And I can’t take any more pain…

Like I said, gritty, grimy and gut-level honest. It’s powerful mix of lament, confession and petition, the crying out of one who has done all of the “shoulds” that are instilled in us as the path to success but has still not “made it” the way the so-called American Dream promises. That kind of searing lament, so present in scripture, rarely seems to make it into our prayer books. Maybe it should.

Another example of the lament genre comes from Social D’s When the Angels Sing. The song starts with an almost feisty engagement with God, laced with sarcasm:

At last we meet again, dear God
Hear the angels sing
The funerals are nicer when we know you’re there
When the angels sing

It reminds me a bit of the Old Testament prophets, many of whom were both masters of sarcasm and not afraid to mix it up with God now and then. That willingness to mix it up with God goes from sarcastic to deeply personal as the first verse goes on, referencing both the human struggle to understand God and pious religiosity’s injunction against trying to do so:

Sometimes I try so hard
To understand the things you do
Who am I to question you when it all comes down
Hear the angels sing

After a chorus, Ness wrestles with a belief in the power of God in the face of God’s seeming absence:

The prisoners pray when they’re on death row
When the angels sing
The junky cries for love but it’s all run out
When the angels sing
The sins of the world
And it’s cold on the streets, and you’re all alone
And the tears, they start to fall when it all comes down
Hear the angels sing

Maybe it’s just me, but I hear echoes of the second verse of Lord, Whose Love In Humble Service, a hymn found in the last two Lutheran hymnals:

Still your children wander homeless;
Still the hungry cry for bread;
Still the captives long for freedom;
Still in grief we mourn our dead.
As you, Lord, in deep compassion
Healed the sick and freed the soul,
By your Spirit send your power
To our world to make it whole.

Perhaps the most powerful part of the song, though, is the third verse, which speaks both to our human fears and anxieties about our relationship with God, the conviction that God will set things right, and hope in the form of a child:

When the angel of death comes to looking for me
Hear the angels sing
I hope I was everything I was supposed to be
When the angels sing
There’s gotta be a heaven
Cause I’ve already done my time in hell
And a little baby’s born when it all comes down
Hear the angels sing

Longing, a recognition of mortality, hope in the person of a child born to us: If this isn’t an Advent hymn, what else is it?

I should also note that when superimposed over the images from the video, the song speaks to a rejection of pious religiosity while at the same time expressing a longing for a simple faith and devotion that still seeks to understand God, however fleetingly. How many theologians, including Luther himself, have echoed similar sentiments?

A third (and for this post, final) example comes from Winners and Losers off of Social D’s 2004 release Sex, Love and Rock ‘N’ Roll. (Albums seem to have so much better titles than blogs.) Like the other songs listed here, Winners wrestles with some inherently theological concerns, namely, the struggles of being saints and sinners living in the already-but-not-yet reality of a world where the reign of God has broken in but is not yet fulfilled. Okay, I admit, I’m reading it through that hermeneutical lens, but is it really that much of a stretch?

Winners and losers, turn the pages of my life
We’re beggars and choosers, with all the struggles and the strife
I got no reason to turn my head and look the other way
we’re good and we’re evil, which one will I be today?

There’s saints and sinners
Life’s a gamble and you might lose
There’s cowards and heroes
Both have been known how to break the rules
there’s lovers and haters
The strong and the weak will all have their day
We’re devils and angels
Which one will I be today?

Is this really that far removed from Paul writing that

“…I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” (Romans 7:19-23)

Sin and holiness, law and grace, hate and love, the strong and the weak each having their day. There is rich food for reflection and for prayer here. In the repeated question, “Which one will I be today?”, there are also echoes of Luther’s thoughts on the daily nature of baptism:

“[Baptism] signifies that the old person in us with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned and die through daily sorrow for sin and through repentance, and on the other hand that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” (Martin Luther, The Small Catechism, The Sacrament of Holy Baptism, Part IV)

I’m not suggesting that Social Distortion should become part of our regular Sunday worship. (Actually, that’s not such a bad idea after all. But that’s another topic for another time.) I am suggesting, though, that if we really believe what we say we believe, then songs like these (and from lots of other bands) are certainly appropriate for reflection and prayer. If we really believe that God is present in all things, then God is present here. If we really believe that God can use any number of clay vessels and cracked pots as a bearer of the life-giving Word, then God can use punk rock, too. Maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised at the idea of God speaking through a prophet with full-sleeve tats and eyeshadow. After all, camel hair and leather belts, locusts and wild honey weren’t marks of mainstream respectability, either.

2 thoughts on “Praying With The Punks

  1. Great insights. Although I heard their lead singer deny the song had any religious message, Carolina Liar had a song entitled “Show Me What I’m Looking For” (or something close to that) that sounded like a passionate “call for fire” prayer, religious terminology and all. Thank you for a great post.

    • That’s the funny thing about words. Once they’re out there in the air, they take on all kinds of meanings to all kinds of people. I’m grateful if mine were meaningful to you.

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