We all have those songs which move us, giving words to something deep inside. A song which gave words to something I didn't think could be made so simple and clear is "Come Close Now" by Christa Wells. In one video1 she tells the story of how the song came about. The spark for the song sprung from a book by Dan Walser called To Make a Life. Christa says that Dan writes in his book about grief describing it this way; "Being in this room upstairs in a house that is burning down and I'm strapped in a chair. And outside this house there are all these people running around with fire hoses and ladders and sirens and they are trying to fix it and make it better but I'm still alone up in this room. Eventually one, maybe two, people just quietly make there way up the front walk and they open the front door of the house and they walk up to this room that I'm in and they pull up a chair beside me and they sit down and they just sit in the burn with me." The picture is a powerful metaphor for grief. As one who has both seen grief first hand, and experienced it in my own measure, I can say it rings very true.
Christa takes this picture of grief and puts it to song in "Come Close Now." The words are lyrical, poetic, and beautifully sung. For me the song is deeply moving. But as I listen to the song part of what moves me are the many layers of truth wrapped up in the song. First, there is the truth the song shares about the perspective of a grieving person. The song captures very well the feelings of alienation and helplessness that swallow a grieving person. Speaking for myself, I found in grief a profound sense of being terribly alone. It felt like no one could understand the place I was in, or the feelings I struggled with. More than that, it felt like there was no purpose in speaking, or attempting to share, because perhaps the only thing more dreadful than the feeling of aloneness in grief is someone attempting to "fix" the situation. Grief cannot be fixed til death is destroyed, and anyone who tries to fix grief with pat platitudes or comfortable bromide only shows more painfully to the hurting that the imagined helper doesn't understand how deep and wide runs the stream of sorrow. True understanding, and true healing, does not come from people running around trying to fix a hurt that stretches more vast than any human healing. In poetic words the song gives shape to the conflagration which is grief.
Second, the song equally expresses the place of someone outside the grieving--a place I have also been. There is a unique hurt a heart feels when it sees someone in grief and realizes there is nothing, absolutely nothing, you can do to make the grief go away. You cannot banish the hurt or heal the wound. In those moments we feel the heart weighing, heart rending, unutterable burden of the sentence, "From dust to dust." In that moment of complete helplessness there is a strong urge to walk away. No, to run back to some place where the world seems fixable. As the lyrics sing, "I'm afraid of the space where you suffer . . . I can't handle the choke or the danger / Of my own foolish, inadequate words." How so very true. The song goes on:
What can I bring to your fire?
Shall I sing while the roof is coming down
Can I hold you while the flames grow higher
Shall I brave the heat and come close with you now
Can I come close now?
This refrain captures the paradox of being succor for the grieving. At first in folly we might think to sprinkle water on the bonfire in an attempt to put it out. But if we gain the grace to realize how foolish our attempts to fix the grief of another, it then leaves the question, "What can I bring to your fire?" Which leads to the realization of how unhelpful our attempts at helping, "Shall I sing while the roof is coming down?" It is absurd--you don't sing while the roof is coming down. And yet, in the paradox of being comfort to the grieving the answer is yes. Not ladders and hoses on the outside--singing right there in the middle. If you are going to be true help to those in the throes of grief, you can't be safe. You can't stay outside the fire. You can't put out the fire. You must do the insane and go into the fire, hold them in the flames, and sing while the roof is coming down. In this rather lose metaphor those running around outside with ladders and fire hoses and sirens are people trying to give "things" to help the grieving. To sing is to give of yourself in a very personal way. To ask to come close is to request to partake with the person in their pain, even as one would join in flames. What good does it do to sing while the roof is coming down, what good does it do to come close in the flames? Logically, it does no good at all. And that is the point--in the depths of grief people don't need cold logic, they need nearness. However useless it might seem, in truth it does far more good than we can imagine.
More than once I have had the privilege of being with those in the midst of deep, devastating, grief. My own powerlessness in the presence of their profound hurt made those times some of the most trying I have experienced. It felt like I was doing nothing good, and I wanted desperately to find something to fix. And yet, somehow, I dimly, haltingly, perceived that my act of simply being there, of being still and with them, was the most profoundly comforting thing I could possibly do. We cannot fix grief. That we cannot do. But being with the grieving in their grief--that is the only thing we can do.
But having meditated on this truth I came to realize it was not the end of the matter. The truth so sharply on display in the sphere of grief applies also to the rest of life. When someone is going through a difficult event what they need is not for us to slap band-aide "solutions" on their struggle but for us to come close and join with them in the struggle. An illustration from my own life is the years I spent caring for my grandfather as he died from Alzheimer's. It was no help at all, and could be very harmful, for people distant from the struggle to offer "solutions" and advice. The only thing that was helpful was if someone came close and--having shared in the grueling experience--offered something from that shared experience. This insight caused me to realize two things: This idea of "coming close" articulated exactly how I wanted to share my own Alzheimer's experience with other people to help them. I wanted to come close, to (as it were) sing while the roofing was coming down. Whatever exactly that would entail in literal acts, I knew that the idea poetically captured what I wanted to do. But also when I hear "Come Close Now" I am reminded that I must be very careful when offering advice, fixes, or opinions on the struggle of someone else's life--no matter what the struggle. In a way for each of us our life is the story of our own house burning down. The rest of the world is running around telling us how to fix it but really what we need are the people who will come close even though our lives are burning down.
This brought me to another sharp reminder: Christians need to be very careful how we minister to the world. Especially in the corporate church of America there is a strong push for social justice, poverty alleviation, and similar causes. We want to heal the sick, fix the broken, and set the captives free. All are good desires, but what so often happens is we throw a lot of money, expertise, and energy at the problems we see in the world--and end up becoming those people outside the burning house running around with our sirens, ladders, and fire hoses. Money, expertise, and energy aren't the solution to grief, and neither are they, ultimately, the solutions for the rest of the brokenness in the world either. The poor man in Africa may do more to heal the hurting than a thousand rich people in America with all their money because the poor man is the one who knows what it means to come close. May we flee the snare of thinking that all our planning, organizing, and money can take the place of coming close and entering into the pain and suffering of those we seek to serve.
If that warning applies to the church as a corporate whole, it applies equally to us as Christian individuals. If we are bringing the light of the gospel to the people around us, may we be careful to bring it not as people running around with ladders and sirens and fire hoses outside the burning house, but let us enter the burning houses of others, after we have asked, "Can I come close now?" and there in the smoke and the burn share with them as one who truly sees.
And this brings us to the most profound and deeply comforting truth I found in Christa's song. The idea of "Come close" is so true for grief, for life, for the church, and for us as individuals because it is ultimately a truth that God Himself has demonstrated. The world is a house burning down. Our lives are houses burning down. And God has not stood outside running around with sirens, ladders, and hoses shouting advice to us. No, God came close in the most amazing way. He became incarnated, Immanuel, God with us. Jesus Christ came into the smoke and fire and burn. He came close and held us in the fire and sang the song of deliverance we needed to hear. Jesus came close historically when he was born in human flesh, lived, ministered, died and rose again. He came into the fire, and in holding us near he saved us from the fire. He took our place in the fire so that we might go free. But it is good to remember that not only did he do this once for all when he came to walk on this earth, but also when he enters into our lives individually he does the very same. The world right now is running around in circles outside the burning house of our lives while we sit inside bound to a chair, and what we need is someone to come in. And it is Jesus who does. It is he who comes in, who sings us the song of deliverance, and wraps us in his arms so that even in the smoke and the burn we are safe, we are preserved.
That is the heart of what it means to come close, and that is why we are called to come close now.
1. In this live performance of the song on Youtube Christa Wells gives a lengthy introduction explaining the song: http://youtu.be/gLDUO_mVYb4
2. The song, without introduction and with full lyrics included in the notes, is also available on Youtube here: http://youtu.be/jIYdZPuqjnY