(**all the italicized lines are Jars of Clay lyrics)
I became a Jars of Clay fan in the spring of 1998. They had a self-titled first album and a second called Much Afraid out at the time. I played those two albums over and over again, with the kind of devotion to music always found in the raging hormones and emotional turmoil of an adolescent. I remember walking home from a friend’s house one night around nine. It was summer: fireflies and humid air and mosquitoes at my ankles. I was listening to Much Afraid on my headphones and Frail came on and completely spooked me with its haunting melody and words. Nothing scary happened as I walked home, and I didn’t have any inspirational realizations as I listened to the lyrics. I simply remember how powerful and eerie that song sounded in the dark, enough to make me shiver. And that’s my first memory of my love for Jars of Clay: the first time one of their songs moved me.
Speaking of firsts, I think everyone remembers their first concert. That’s the power of a live show, isn’t it? You hear a song, relate to the words, feel the music inside your heart, and then see it come alive in front of you. On Thursday, April 18th, 2002, I went to my first concert at the old Hersheypark Arena to see Jars of Clay on their Eleventh Hour tour. They put on a fantastic show, and I can still recall, clear as day, screaming and grinning with everyone else in the audience when those first few notes of Flood rang out. Now I’m going to see them on October 11th down in Sellersville for their 20th anniversary tour, and just saying that is hard to believe. Over the years, the band has released so much more music, and each album has songs that have captured my heart and stayed with me as I matured (from Tea & Sympathy to Loneliness & Alcohol). But more than just the music, it’s their lyrics. I think that’s it, right there, why I love this band so much. Their words are beautiful, the strange and surprising combinations, the phrases I wish I’d written: if our hearts are turned to stone, there is hope: we know the rocks will cry out. Lyrics are the expression of a sentiment, giving form to a feeling, and the lyrics that the band writes are as relevant and intense today as when they first came out.
So I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Jars of Clay’s music has been the soundtrack of my life for the past months. All the grief, the heartbreak, the spiritual struggles I’ve been going through… there’s a lyric for them all. After my relationship ended, I’d listen to the lines “I just want to feel your hand in mine” or “but that’s not the way it has to be” and I’d think “yeah that’s how I feel, ‘I think of you more than ever’” and then I’d have to stop myself and remember that no, that’s not how it is. The point is, I could not romanticize breaking up with Danny. I couldn’t sit in my room listening to those poignant words about staying strong and battling through problems together and relate to them. I’m coming home, I’m waking you up, in the middle of the night, I’m not giving up. That struggle was no longer mine to claim. Songs about letting go, songs about sorrow and doubt, the stark lines of heartbreak. Those were my music then. “Because I don’t understand why we can’t get close enough, I’ll miss the shivers in my spine every time that we touch.” I never thought that would be my line.
“I thought You left me for the wreckage and the waste on an empty beach of faith. Was it true? …I want to believe but all I pray is wrong and all I claim is gone.” Was there ever a more fitting lyric for those first few weeks in March? It wasn’t merely Danny and half of my life I lost; it was hope, and trust in the power of prayer, and that strange innocence I never knew I had until it was gone, because my heart had been truly broken for the first time. What I get from my reflection isn’t what I thought I’d see.
But like they always do, Jars of Clay’s songs reminded me that my faith was there, buried beneath pain and anger and a hell of a lot of loneliness & alcohol, but still there, a firm and sure foundation. “God hears your sighs and counts your tears.” That’s from God Will Lift Up Your Head. For days back in May and June, I played that song on repeat in my car and in my room, clutching it like the metaphorical lifeline it is. I sang it as a promise, as a statement of belief. I listened to the words and found it within myself to tell Jesus that even though the hurt and anger were still there, I did believe in His mercy and goodness. In July, after my sister’s baby girl died, All My Tears became my song any time I cried for her, simply because she isn’t crying. Cecilia Joy may not have seen the sun or moon from here on earth but she’s seeing what our feeble eyes and ears cannot even conceive: the sunlight of Jesus’ face, the music of His voice, the moonlight glory of His mother Mary. I was getting back to the basics, looking up at God and saying “don’t forget me, here it is, my frail faith, I hold it out to you in my shaking hands and even if I cannot do anything else with it, I can at least show you that it is here.”
Now I’m healing. Time is passing. I can think of Ceci in heaven with my cousin Christin and smile. I’m moving on and discovering that I’m okay being single, even after six years of being in a relationship. I’m figuring out, slowly but surely, who I am as a single person. And more importantly, I’m realizing I need to be in love with Jesus before anyone else. His love is a jealous kind, a First Commandment importance kind of love, and I need to orient my heart to that. I need to have two hands, doing the same thing, lifted high in a sacrifice of praise. That’s the hardest lesson, to learn how to give it all up, not just the easy stuff. I’ve been learning my whole life how to give up good things for the sake of others, make a sacrifice of something I love, because sacrificial love is the source and the summit of faith. Giving up the suffering is harder. Offering up heartbreak, smiling through grief, singing the words of the best Jars song ever: take the beauty, take my tears, take my world apart, and meaning it, that is the hardest lesson of all. I cannot wear my sackcloth and ashes on the streets. I have to trust in the mercy of the Lord.
Although at times I still find it hard to pray, and the tears still come for what I’ve lost and what I do not understand, the words of Jars of Clay’s songs are there like a hand grasping mine, helping me up, reminding me that my orphan heart will find a home. I’m not alone. Light is leading. Love will find us all.