How Sufjan Stevens Made Me into a Better Pastor: Some Thoughts on Carrie & Lowell
I owe my development as a pastor to a long series of books, professors, brothers in ministry, my own failures and God's grace, time spent with God's people, and... an album by Sufjan Stevens. I know, weird. But hear me out.
In April of 2015 my wife and I saw that Sufjan was performing at the Bushnell in Hartford—a venue I typically associate with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat and not with Sufjan Stevens. My wife and I shared a love for Michigan, Seven Swans, and Illinoise, however, we parted ways when it came to Age of Adz. I loved it. It gave her a headache. So needless to say, we had no idea what to expect as we sat in the upper balcony ready to imbibe an entire album we had never heard.
I don't think we were ready for what we experienced. In fact, in later conversations, I remember a friend of mine—a fairly "tough" guy—recount that he cried like a baby in the backyard while he listened to the entirety or "Carrie and Lowell" during an afternoon of yard work. Each song has a way of putting words to deep pain along with more subtle notes of hope.
The lyrics and the mood of each song tell the story of a broken childhood, the pain of an absent and addicted mother, and all of the awkward confusion that follows. The lyrics read like one of Mary Karr's memoirs—something like The Liar's Club put to music—albeit more subtle and less humorous.
Sufjan's elusive choice of words have a way of concealing details about his background story, while at the same time opening the listener up to reflection on the vulnerability of being human in a fallen world. In this way, Carrie & Lowell connects with the experience of the listener as well.
There are notes of confusion and loss in the past:
When I was three, three maybe four
She left us at that video store
The past is still the past
The bridge to nowhere
I should have wrote a letter
Explaining what I feel, that empty feeling
Also the reality of present pain:
The only thing that keeps me from driving this car
Half-light, jack knife into the canyon at night
Signs and wonders: Perseus aligned with the skull
Slain Medusa, Pegasus alight from us all
Do I care if I survive this? Bury the dead where they’re found
In a veil of great surprises; I wonder did you love me at all?
And even faint glimmers of hope:
So can we contend, peacefully
Before my history ends?
Jesus I need you, be near me, come shield me
From fossils that fall on my head
There’s only a shadow of me; in a manner of speaking I'm dead
How did all of this (hopefully) make me a better pastor? I was reminded through the powerful medium of music that some variation of Carrie & Lowell is the soundtrack many people have experienced on repeat throughout their lives. I saw again that the many people I serve in my church and in my community are also people who carry deep pain with them. Some of that pain I know about, however, much of it is hidden.
Furthermore, Law and Gospel don't make sense unless they are communicated within the context of deep empathy for others. This is why music, memoir, and novels ought to be experienced alongside a regular diet of biblical theology and systematics. The Gospel really is good news. However, the better we understand and even feel the bad news, the better we're able to speak good news in ways that are healing rather than trite of methodical.