During my first breakup, I wrote my first song, “Breath of Life,” a declaration of who God is:
You are my strength when I feel weak and weary.
You are the sun when life gets dark and dreary,
the only one who shows Your love for me so clearly…
Although I wouldn’t have identified it at thirteen, I was writing modern day psalms.
Years later, when my dad left our home without a word of where he was going, my grief was palpable. On more than one occasion, I was so distraught that I paced and cried during the music at church. One time in particular, I caught the eye of a visiting pastor. Moved in his spirit, he spoke a word over my life: He saw me as a painting that God was carefully creating and intending to put on display. Later, in another time of great pain over my mental illness, I received another image: A crystal, shaped like me, with God’s light shining through. I didn’t recognize it then, but I see clearly now that God was revealing my calling: My life was meant to create beauty.
Music is an outburst of the soul.
It is obvious that music has been a means of powerful expression for my soul. But to what end? Thomas Aquinas writes, “A song is the exultation of the mind dwelling on eternal things, bursting forth in the voice.” The hardship of our lives primes us for those outbursts of sorrow and joy, and songs and poems allow us to transcend our present sufferings by shifting our focus to the eternal. They give us the ability to fulfill our “chief end,” to both glorify and enjoy God forever. They re-center our lives, reorder our hearts, and reset our minds on Truth.
You are the air I’m breathing in.
You are the water of my soul.
I need You to survive.
Knew me before the world began,
created me as who I am,
that’s how I began
with Your breath of life.
lyrics from “Breath of Life”
And not only that, as Emily Dickinson writes, “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the song without words, and never stops at all.” And Gerhard Richter writes, “Art is the highest form of hope.” Like David, our songs are the product of conversations with our souls, reminders of the true Source of our hope. They are ebenezers of God’s faithfulness, manifestations of our faith, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” I will never forget how God met me in that breakup, because the lyrics of that song bring me back in remembrance of His extravagant love for me:
You know the number of the stars in the sky.
You bottle up the tears that fall from my eyes.
That I might live you gave your only son to die.
In the last 20 years since I wrote those lyrics, I’ve seen more highs and lows. Music has been a means of processing doubt, dealing with a mood disorder, and confronting God in times of lament. Many times I’ve been tempted to believe that the obstacles I go through hinder my calling, but God uses the despairing moments to give “beauty for ashes.” It’s been invaluable to have the skills to create while in the wine-press, during the pressure-forming-diamond moments. These painful times have shaped my capacity for empathy and led me to my current work as a peer in mental health, but they haven’t just refined my character and honed in my relational ministry. They have shaped me into a worship artist.
I don’t remember exactly why I started singing, but I know that I keep singing and writing partly because of my pain. In this time, it is paramount for worship artists like us to remember that our struggles do not disqualify us, but rather have the potential to bring us closer to God, refine us and lead us to honest worship in hard times. The sufferings we go through can be strokes in the painting that God is putting on display, beauty He gives us for ashes, whispers of our calling.
“The day is going to come when there will be no more suffering… and there is suffering that silences singing, but most of our lives… are lived under the truth ‘life is hard and God is good’… For the last three thousand years whenever God’s people have been conscious of this… the effect… has been thousands and thousands of faith-sustaining songs… the interpenetration of ‘life is hard and God is good’…. What are your favorite hymns or spiritual songs?… Which ones have sustained you most powerfully over the years?… I daresay… the songs that give expression to pain and hope in pain… The greatest songs are born of the greatest suffering. That’s just the way it is.”
Melissa Amber McKinney is a Certified Peer Specialist, writer, and singer/songwriter who currently lives in Bellevue, Pennsylvania just north of Pittsburgh. She is the Care Team Coordinator and sings and leads worship at her home church, Redeemer Anglican Church. You can find her album Through Flood and Fire, an EP of songs she’s written through times of suffering and doubt on Bandcamp.