Being a writer sometimes means staying in on New Year’s Eve with your cat, pouring an imperial stout, writing a few hundred words, then going to bed before The Ball drops.
With what stillness at last
you appear in the valley
your first sunlight reaching down
to touch the tips of a few high leaves that do not stir
as though they had not noticed
and did not know you at all
then the voice of a dove calls
from far away in itself
to the hush of the morning
so this is the sound of youW.S. Merwin, “To the New Year”
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible
This is not the end of year post I had intended to write.
My first choice would have been a review of my favorite films of the year, like I did last year. Unfortunately, I am well behind on the year’s cinema, which is causing me undue anxiety and envy of everyone with HBO Max. My second choice would have been a look back on the only day that really mattered in America’s 2021, which was, of course, January 6, a day that so perfectly captured America in 2021 in all of its absurdity, its violence, its delusion.
But, instead, I’m writing about doxology, a word that comes our way from Greek and medieval Latin that basically means to sing praise to God. “Doxology” is also the name of a song that I happened to listen to on my drive today from one side of Wisconsin to the other on that meandering hellscape of uncultured ignorance known as Wisconsin STH 21 (except for you, Wautoma, you blessed oasis of sense and sensibility). It’s not in my nature to dunk on an entire swath of my homeland, but you can only drive by so many pro-hate yard signs before making that trip with a permanently raised middle finger. And maybe this undercuts everything I’m about to write, but I hope taking that risk – if nothing else – underscores how much I hate Wisconsin STH 21.
Anyway. “Doxology.” It’s the name of a song by Portland rap group Beautiful Eulogy. The verses from Braille and Odd Thomas are ensconced in Latifah Alattas’ beautiful rendition of a traditional doxology that they sing every Sunday at Trinity Church in Portland, First Baptist Church of Sturgeon Bay, and many more churches around the nation and the world. It goes like this:
Praise God from whom all blessings flow
Praise him all creatures here below
Praise him above ye heavenly host
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost
I’ll get back to the main thread in a sec, but I had to do a quick Google search to double check the name of Beautiful Eulogy’s church, and I’m just now learning that Thomas Terry (Odd Thomas) is now lead pastor because former lead pastor Art Azurdia turned out to be an abuser. Art, the most gesticulative preacher I have ever seen, could really bring it from the pulpit and has been a spiritual inspiration to many. The fact that he, too, has been a wolf in the pasture is, well, really fucked up, and maybe also undercuts what I’m about to write. And if the fact that I just wrote “the f-word” is what really upsets you about that sentence, then I have to ask right quick if your mailing address happens to be on Wisconsin STH 21.
I’ve shared “Doxology” multiple times on Facebook, and I usually get 2 or 3 likes. I know sharing a YouTube song link on Facebook without a lengthy or pithy comment is basically like jettisoning an escape pod into deep space and hoping it crash lands on Tatooine. Then again, in a pretty well-connected galaxy far far away, seems like an awful lot does happen to land on Tatooine. Maybe I’m just too squarely in the target audience for the song, since I grew up singing those words every Sunday and those three men changed my life, but I’m going to keep sharing it (and, tonight, writing about it) because I think it’s a perfect work of art that continues to make me think and feel in the direction of God.
So, here it is again:
But why this song, now, on the Eve of 2022?
Well, because doxology – the act – as described in “Doxology,” is something for each and every occasion, which is why “we” sing it every Sunday (regrettably, we do not sing it at my current church). (Side note: (which is a parenthetical side note instead of a footnote because I’m in a rush and also too buzzed to format the footnotes) “20 Something,” by SZA, just came on while I’m writing this and that song really hits me at this time in my life, and is also kinda on the nose for what I’m writing). Doxology – to sing praise to God – is a beautiful act engendered by hope in the Triune God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The act of singing in praise of anything – your love, your country, your football team (European, mind you (we don’t sing so good in the sports over here)) – requires a certain amount of satisfaction, of joy, of pleasure in that thing. Try singing your favorite football team’s song after they get trounced by their rivals, or a sexy love song after you and your S.O. have just had a fight, and you’ll find it difficult. But God is not like your favorite football team or your S.O. (and thank God for that), and should always be worthy of songs of praise.
The problem is that we don’t always feel satisfied, joyful, or pleased because of God. That’s okay. Really, it is. If you don’t feel like singing joyfully to God, you’re in good company with at least a couple different people who wrote the Bible – EVER HEARD OF IT!? But the sad songs, the anxious songs, the agonized songs, still get sung, and, eventually, they turn back to praise.
A portion of Braille’s verse encapsulates this very nicely:
I exist for your glory, never for mine
I never would shine if it wasn’t for your Spirit inside
You made me alive when I was dead in trespasses
The passion of Christ left my sin in the past tense
Every good and perfect gift comes from your hand
You set me back on course when I run from your plan
No excuse to refuse to lift my voice
Because the gospel is true, there’s always reason to rejoice
And that don’t mean that my sorrow is inconspicuous
But when I grieve, I got a greater joy in the midst of it
The joy of knowing I will see you face to face
And it’s all to the praise of your glorious grace
There will be times we don’t feel at all like praising God. But we should sing anyway for two reasons: first, because there is always something to praise God for, and second, because through the singing, our hearts and minds may be turned from despair to hope, from sorrow to joy.
2021, like 2020, was a real shitshow for many. For some people I know, it was the hardest year of their life. It is standard Christian practice to prescribe a double dose of God for times like these. God is the best medicine for a shitty year.
But the same can be said for a year like mine, which was, on the whole, kinda meh.
There’s been plenty of bad, sure. I didn’t get a dream job in Oregon which I thought was in the bag. My step-grandfather died. My paternal grandfather is in poor health. Some of my most meaningful relationships were strained and painful. My cat got ringworm. I just found out while writing this the restaurant with the best French Toast I’ve ever had (and I’ve had a lot) closed.
And there’s been good! I adopted the above-mentioned cat who is snuggled up against me right now. I got to teach again. I joined a young adult Bible study at my church and have found friendship and community. I did the dating app thing and met my girlfriend who makes me feel like I’ve been struck by lightning, which is what Roy Kent says I deserve.
But there’s also been a lot of meh. I’ve written a little, but not as much as I’d like. I’ve got a novel in the hopper but I don’t know how close any of you are to reading it. I turned down a job offer in Shanghai that would have changed my entire life. It was the right decision, but it doesn’t feel great to turn down one of the few offers I’ve gotten out of myriad applications. I dabbled in freelance copywriting, and while I just sent my first invoice last week, it hasn’t turned out the way I wanted it to. By and large, the meh has been a constant. From an outside perspective, all of this might sound like not such a bad year, but it has been, from a mental health point of view, a challenge much of the time. The good is too often canceled out by the bad and/or muted by the meh.
But tonight, at the end of 2021 and on the eve of 2022, I’m thinking that part of my problem has been a lack of doxology, a lack of praise to God. This is not to say that if only I had praised God more I would have had more good things or fewer bad things, because that’s not how God works. What it means is that my outlook on each day, from the worst ones to the most ordinary ones, could have been made better by a more consistent heart of praise. On my worst days, I sometimes resent God for what God puts me or someone I love through. On my meh days, I sometimes forget I’m a Christian for hours at a time. What I should have been doing, on the bad days and meh days (and good days!), was turning my heart and mind back to God.
And, as I contemplate the state of my own heart, mind, and soul, I wonder if maybe Christians need, in this new year, a renewed commitment to the practice of doxology. There are many ways in which our faith can be displayed in public, and many of them are not helpful, not honoring to God. Many of them are pointed with a very specific purpose, or poisoned with ulterior motive. Some are tone-deaf, and some are just noise. Maybe we need, as we move from this year which was so hard for so many, to focus at least a little more on just praising God in private and public ways. Our prayers don’t have to be subtweets. God’s name doesn’t need to be accompanied by “guns and glory” or “family and football” or “America.” You can, of course, continue to tweet incessantly about the connection you see between Christian faith and outlawing abortion, because I’m going to continue to scream and yell about how critical race theory goes hand in hand with a Biblical worldview, as I believe faith must apply intentionally to our specific context, and I believe we must – clearly and repeatedly – articulate this. But maybe we need to be a little less selective, less utilitarian, about our declarations of faith. Maybe we just need to make a habit of praising God for being God and all that entails. Doing so will turn our hearts and minds to God while redirecting the eyes and ears of others from these images of God to God, from creatures to Creator.
Christians are, after all, one of the main reasons so many reject religion. “We” had a chance to do great things during the pandemic, and we kinda fucked it up. Tomorrow is a new beginning. Maybe a renewed focus on praise is the way to start healing our world, starting with our own weary selves.
Anyway, that’s what listening to “Doxology” today made me think about.
Happy New Year
Forth now, and fear no darkness.
Soli Deo Gloria