What does advancing toward Christmas typically look like in most Christian families and churches?
RH: From what I’ve observed, the approach of the Christmas season is often filled with a mix of both excitement and anxiety. We may look forward to decorating, gift-giving, parties, time with friends and family, etc., and at the same time find those very things can create anxiety due to unrealistic expectations, over-commitments, family drama and exhaustion from all of the busyness and hectic schedules we keep. And, as Christians, we’re also trying to hang onto the Christ-child story so it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. It’s no wonder that at the end of the journey towards Christmas, we can feel like there’s “no room in the inn” for us as well.
Why did you feel compelled to write a Christmas album of “lament and longing,” and isn’t that idea an oxymoron?
RH: Offering The Longest Night of the Year Service at Providence UMC (Mt. Juliet, TN) with my wife, who is a spiritual director, is what got me interested. Like “Blue Christmas” services, it acknowledges the struggle and sadness many feel, especially during the holidays. Finding Christmas songs speaking to this was difficult and that led me to take a deeper look into the music and lyrics of popular Christmas hymns.
What I discovered in the less familiar verses and overall musical structure was the presence of lament and longing. So I began composing arrangements of several Christmas hymns from this “new” lens. For example, verse three of O Come O Come Emmanuel begins, “O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer our spirits by thine advent here; and drive away the shades of night.” Though we may use different language, our longing for the return of the sun/Son is still the same. This is the essence of Advent.
How might incorporating lament into the life of the church help us be more true to the biblical story of salvation?
RH: The answer is found in your question, in that the church incorporating lament invites us to be more in-line with what’s true of the biblical story itself. Lament is obviously present throughout the Bible but often left out of the conversation and, in some ways, even looked down upon by today’s church. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line, it became “unspiritual” or lacking in faith to be as honest as God and the biblical characters.
Lament is largely misunderstood, and I think fear is at the root. God’s salvation is an invitation to wholeness where every part of us is welcomed and transformed by God, and that also includes those parts we are apt to look down on or fear. Whether individuals or a community, all are welcomed by God. When the church laments, it creates a deep hospitality for the whole person or group, and in such an environment healing can truly take place.
Who did you write this album for, and what did the process look like?
RH: During a season viewed as “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” I wrote this music to be a companion for those struggling with feelings such as loneliness, loss, grief, discontent…just to name a few.
I wrote a couple of the songs with a specific person or event in mind, but I’ve also learned it’s important to first write for myself and be authentic to where I’m at and what I’m feeling or sensing. I trust the music will find and speak to others where they’re at on their own journeys and circumstances. It’s humbling when people share how a song sparks a buried memory or helps initiate a step toward healing. That’s the beauty of music and how the Holy Spirit can use it to provide comfort, hope, courage or whatever is needed at a given time.
In terms of the process, I simply wanted to stay true to the theme of lament and longing, whether it was a well-known carol or one of the original songs I included. I usually started with a simple melody or chord progression and built out the arrangement from there.
How does lament relate to hope? Are there signals of hope in your album The Longest Night?
RH: It’s a paradox how lament creates space for hope. I believe it’s a healthy spiritual practice allowing us to express disappointment, grief, anger and fear to God rather than taking these things out on ourselves or each other. Suffering is part of being human, and God meets us in those darker places. We are never alone and this offers some comfort. I’m a firm believer music can create space for lament to be expressed, comfort to be experienced and hope to emerge.
I purposely wove in subtle elements of hope throughout the record, including the uplifting end to the last song called “Some of Us,” because I wanted to end the record on a clear, distinct note of hope.