Two Tools to Fight the Darkness

Two Tools to Fight the Darkness

The world is a dark place. I could prove it by asking you to open your news app of choice and scroll a few headlines, but I don’t even have to do that. We know that the world is a dark place because we’ve lived it. Experienced it. Felt it closing in upon us. 

There is nothing quite like that, is there? The darkness closing in, squeezing us, suffocating us. 

I’ve felt that, and I don’t think I’m alone. It’s one of the reasons I’m so grateful for the beautiful promise of hope we receive in the prologue of the Apostle John’s brilliant gospel.

John 1:5 “The light (Jesus!) shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.”

I know there are times where it feels as though darkness has won. Times where it looks like the light of Jesus has been snuffed out like a candle that is no longer needed. Times where all indications are that the darkness has actually extinguished the light. I know that’s true, but John 1:5 is a promise of God. It’s his Word. And what God says, he does. 

Later in John’s gospel, Jesus plainly and boldly declares himself to be “the light of the world” (John 8:12), and as such, he is our ultimate hope and resource in the battle against darkness. 

When you are in the deepest, darkest valley, remember that Jesus, your good shepherd and the light of the world, is WITH you, his rod and his staff protecting you, keeping the light from going out. 

Do you need that good news encouragement today? I know I do. 

And there is more good news, too. Even as Jesus — the true light of the world — is our ultimate resource against the darkness, he is not our only resource. No, indeed, God is a good father who desires to give good gifts to his children, including multiple resources to wage war against the darkness.

Here are two of them, and they are a bit unique, so stick with me. God gives us the gift of friendship and music as resources to help push back the darkness. 

I’m going to be honest: I stayed up WAY too late earlier this summer for two nights in a row binge-watching volume one of the fourth season of Stranger Things. Now I know that show isn’t for everyone, but even if you’ve never watched one minute of one episode, everyone needs to know that it is one of the most beautiful depictions of sacrificial friendship in modern media. 

The theme of friendship is fleshed out in every season in many different characters, relationships, narrative arcs, and more. None were as compelling to me as a young girl named Max and her journey to realize how badly she needs her friends. 

The villain in season four zeroed in on young people with different types of dark, painful trauma in their past, convincing them that they were nothing more than these dark moments. Max’s friends  discovered that music (one of the resources, remember!) helps break this villain’s hold on their friends. Max’s narrative arc powerfully coalesces with the beauty of friendship and music, helping her push back (and escape!) the darkness.

 I so want to provide a link to the scene… but it’s just a bit too intense.

So instead, let’s conclude by reflecting just a bit more on the idea of beauty. Why is friendship a resource against the darkness? Why is music? There are lots of reasons, but one is because true friendship and excellent music are both such pure expressions of beauty. And beauty leads us to light, not darkness.

Isn’t that true of Jesus, too? Who is more beautiful than Jesus? Not in physical form (Isaiah 53:2), but in life lived. Track with me: Jesus is the beautiful light of the world who was an incredible friend (John 15:13) who I’m sure also loved excellent music. Probably, anyway. 

So the next time you feel the darkness closing in, whisper a prayer of “help!” to Jesus, the light of the world, schedule a coffee meet up with a good friend, and on the drive over, listen to “Running up that Hill” by Kate Bush.

The Gospel According to Twenty One Pilots

The Gospel According to Twenty One Pilots

At the end of each concert, the two frontmen of the musical group Twenty One Pilots stand together on the stage, put their arms around each other, and smile at their fans as the cheers rise. Throughout the crowd, people lift signs with “Thank You” written on them. After a while the lead singer lifts the mic and gives them his parting words: “We’re Twenty One Pilots, and so are you.” As the duo walks off, the crowd continues shouting out their thanks for their music, performance, and, for many, their witness.

Yes, witness. Witness to what? What are the crowds gathering at these shows so grateful for

I believe the reason the fans of Twenty One Pilots are so profoundly impacted by their music is because through it, whether we realize it or not, we are getting a glimpse of, even becoming participants in, the good news of Jesus Christ. 


The Art of Our Everyday Work

I need only one song to show you an example of how this duo embeds the gospel into their artwork. They become a witness and a guide for us as we embed the gospel into our “artwork,” that is, the art of our everyday work.

“Trees” is the song Twenty One Pilots always performs to end their shows. Its basic flow traces the dialogue between God and a man who is hiding in the trees, silent and afraid in the face of his impending death. And yet God comes after him, initiating a conversation and showing his heart’s desire to be with him. 

Clearly, this recalls the aftermath of human rebellion against God in the Garden of Eden, giving voice to the interchange of Genesis 3:8-9. Adam and Eve stood naked and afraid, hiding from God amidst the trees, and yet he came after them. He called them out of hiding and invited them to be known, even in their sin. 

What the song does next is repeat this scenario by repeating the same set of three verses, but building to a much bigger finish. This gives the sense that the same dialogue between God and a man happens again, but with a different outcome. 

And indeed, this is what the good news proclaims! Jesus takes on our shame and faces his impending death, fearful and exposed before his Father as he sweats blood amidst the trees in the garden of Gethsemane, pleading for the cup of the cross to pass from him (Luke 22:42). But this man, the last Adam, remains obedient to the end (1 Corinthians 15:45, Philippians 2:8). He gives himself up to make our death his own, crying out while he stands nailed upright on one tree amidst others, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). This is echoed in the lyrics from “Trees”: “Why won’t you speak, where I happen to be?… Silent in the trees, standing cowardly.” 


God’s Heart Cry

Then, the climactic refrain at the end of the song invites a response: “I want to know you, I want to see, I want to say, Hello.” This is God’s heart cry. God came in the flesh to be with us, which is what he has been after since the beginning. He’s always initiating, starting a conversation with us. Not from afar, but here, where we are, in the midst of our sin and shame and death, even taking it all upon himself. Then he rose from the grave to new life and Mary saw him standing amidst the trees, mistaking him for the gardener, and he called out to her (John 20:15-16). The cross and the resurrection are God’s song of invitation to know a love stronger than death. 

So when a slight, dark-haired man stands in front of a stadium full of thousands at the end of a show, he sings out the refrain of that invitation: “Hello.” He repeats it throughout the song, bending over his microphone while his friend sits behind him hammering away at his drum set. Then the hellos stop, and after another chorus and some intervening “la la las,” the beat stops. A synth interlude rolls over the crowd. They’re anticipating. Waiting. They know what’s coming. As the two men make their way down from the stage, the security workers in the front lift two large tom drums on either side of the audience from the orchestra pit. A small platform comes next, one beside each of them. Then the spectators become participants. Drumsticks in hand, the two men climb onto the platforms, held up by the people who have spent the last 2 hours singing their guts out along with them. And then it comes.

Confetti drops like a snowstorm from the ceiling as the two men pound their drums in unison. In between beats (buh buh – pause – buda buh buh buh – pause) they point their sticks out to their “Skeleton Clique” (their fan club). And the clique responds, as if coming to life. The crowd shouts a resounding “Hey!” each time, responding to the invitation sung from the stage just moments before. When the music stops, the duo gets back on the stage and says goodbye.

An Invitation to Participate

This is how Twenty One Pilots ends their show, every time. If you’re curious, you can WATCH a recording. They have designed their music and performances with an invitation for fan participation. If my interpretation is right, they have written their music to be sung out so that the singers become participants in the gospel narrative hidden in its folds. This is what Twenty One Pilots has made with their artwork. They’ve not written “Christian music,” but music that nonetheless points to Christ in story-form. 

What about the artwork of our own lives? Have we received the message that we have to make “Christian art” or do “Christian work” to be impactful in God’s Kingdom? With the apostle Paul I say, “By no means!” (Romans 7:13). 

In your home or at work, with your spreadsheets, with your meetings, with your budgets, with your coworkers, with your friendships, with your relationships, with your sexuality, with your (dare I say it) politics, with your grief, with your depression, with your trauma, with every particularity that makes up your particular story…what would it look like to embed the gospel story into your own story? Every single facet of our story can become a witness and invitation for others to participate in God’s Story. 

But we have to know our story to do this. And the best way, indeed the only way to fully know ourselves is to know the God who knows us. We have to let God in, and respond to his invitation. We need to yell “Hey” when he sings “Hello.” The deep desire of his heart is for us to know him even as we have been fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12). 


Reflect on Your Own Story

So reflect on your own story. Write it, draw it, yell it, sing it, dance it, however the Spirit leads. Then invite others to listen to your story. Allow yourself to be known before God as two or three gather around to bear witness to the work of God in your life (Matthew 18:20). In doing so you offer up your story as a prayer, giving voice to the silent dialogues between your heart and God’s, thus training the ears of your heart to recognize your Shepherd’s voice (John 10:3).  

If you’re convinced, come with me and follow the path that Twenty One Pilots have laid, to imitate their artwork as they seem to be imitating Christ’s (1 Corinthians 11:1). Jesus himself told stories and lived a life that perplexed most, but for those who have ears to hear, he has spoken and lived the very words of life (Mark 4:9-13, Luke 8:8-10, John 6:60-69). Let’s participate in his life, and through our lives invite others to do the same. 



Why do we sing?

A church service can feel like a strange place to those who lack familiarity with the practices that take place in gatherings for worship. One of the practices that sets the church apart  is corporate singing. While it may seem non-negotiable to those of us for whom church attendance is a regular discipline, it can seem a bit odd to someone experiencing it for the first time. Or, for that matter, there may very well be those among us who have attended for years and they are asking the same question!

“Yeah, I’ve always wondered…why DO we sing so much?”

Let’s consider this for a moment. Even if you have taken this as a given in your life, I think it is a subject worth exploring to understand the extraordinary practice of corporate singing. Historically, it has been a part of the Christian church since its inception. Music as part of worship predates Jesus’ life and ministry. The first documented song of worship goes all the way back to the book of Exodus. I mean, if it’s good enough for Moses, I guess we should consider it, right? I think the greater question, however, is ”Why”. More specifically, why has the use of the song and the participation of the congregation in singing been such a primary medium in worship? And why does it continue to be? Why should I sing?

I could probably write about four chapters of a book on this, but I think I will limit myself to two primary reasons why singing plays such an important role in worship.

First, it’s biblical.

OK. I know this sounds like a “Cuz the Bible says so” argument. But for those who take Scripture seriously, this is not an argument to be brushed by or easily disregarded. If one is an earnest student of the Word of God, then there is an understanding that precepts are followed by practice. For those of us who are interested in what God’s Word has to offer on this matter, let’s just say there is a great deal of biblical evidence that suggests this has always been an important aspect of Christian practice. 

Singing is directed and commanded in Scripture (Deuteronomy 31:19-22, Psalm 5:11, Psalm 33:1, Psalm 47, Psalm 95, Psalm 96, Psalm 149, Psalm 150, Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16). Singing is  something God does (Zephaniah 3:17) and a practice Jesus participated in during His earthly ministry (Matthew 26:30). Throughout Scripture, we see singing as a way of proclaiming who God is and what He has done, as well as a means of communicating with and responding to God (Exodus 15:1-21, Luke 1:46-55, the entire Book of Psalms). And while this certainly doesn’t capture the breadth of the subject, there just doesn’t seem to be any lack of evidence that singing has been, is, and will be an expression of God-worshiping people. 

 You might be thinking, “All right. I figured there had to be some biblical evidence, but why? Why…singing?”

Second, it’s formative.

I am reminded that God has given us a responsibility “…to equip God’s people for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ until we all reach the unity of faith and knowledge of God’s Son. God’s goal is for us to become mature adults—to be fully grown, measured by the standard of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:12-13 CEB) So when we gather together, we are seeking to form one another in the unity of our faith and a greater understanding of the person of Jesus. And singing helps us to do that.

“How?” I’m glad you asked.

This reminds me of God’s incredible hand of creation and His intimate understanding of those He has crafted in His own image. Because as He commands, “Sing!” He also understands what singing does for us as a means of spiritual formation. And I think it is vital that we understand that corporate worship and singing as a part of corporate worship are distinctly formational practices for the follower of Christ.  

In an interview in 2015, Keith Getty, co-writer of In Christ Alone, provided this anecdote regarding the role of singing in worship. “My joke with all my preacher friends,” he mused, “Is that if they finish a good sermon, people go out singing the last hymn. And if they do a really bad sermon, they go out singing the last hymn. So it really doesn’t matter what they say.” 

And while that may seem like a lighthearted proposition, scientific research affirms the sentiment. It begins with how music connects with memory. You might understand this more inherently than you realize. For instance, has there ever been a time when you heard a song and it took you back to a particular time and place? Or it stirred up a feeling or a particular emotion? That is the associative power music has in creating memory. And therein lies the power of music and the understanding God has of the human mind He created, the medium of music He created, and the way the two interact.

One of our worship leaders at the Leawood Campus, Amy Wilson, is a highly educated, licensed music therapist. In a lecture she presented in 2011 on Music and Memory, she helps us understand how the glory of God’s creativity, the way the mind stores information, and the human experience interact.

”Long term memory is the relatively permanent and limitless storehouse of the memory system. However, we need cues to recall this information. When we encode memories, neurons form connections called neural networks. When we access one aspect of a network, this leads to other bits of information stored in the same network. Stronger emotions related to these networks create stronger memories.”

So here’s the incredible byproduct of singing in church. Because of the strong emotions intrinsically embedded in a song and the experience surrounding it, you are encoding memories and creating a memory storehouse when you physically participate in it, leading you to inevitably remember what you sing and build meaning around it. It’s how we learned the alphabet and, more than likely, why you have a library of Scripture in your head without really knowing it. Ultimately, that means that when we sing in church, we create a storehouse of the songs we sing. And the words of those songs – the lyrics – serve a valuable role in forming the way we understand and interact with our faith. 

This collection of memories we store shapes our imaginations and reorients us to the story of who GOD is, what GOD says about us and the world, and who GOD says we are. And in response to the incredible story that God is writing in our lives, our singing gives us language to reflect our emotional response to Him – songs of thanksgiving, praise, adoration, devotion, longing, commitment, and love. It is by no means a passive activity. It’s participative. It requires something of you, and it involves our body, mind, and heart. 

Not to be overlooked, there is an incredibly unique characteristic found in singing which is something we desperately need today as the people of God – unity. When we sing together, we sing in agreement. We say the same thing, we pray the same thing. The songs we sing literally put words into one another’s mouths. We sing these words – words of shared expression, belief, devotion, commitment and prayer – for one another, over one another, and with one another as a means of shaping one another. It is a sung covenant to be the people of God together. And we are forming one another into a new creation, a new community. Keith and Kristyn Getty put it this way in their book, Sing!

“As we sing to God and about God together with the people of God, we reflect the truth that we were designed for community, both with God and with each other…and singing together engenders and expresses that we are family. When we sing, we show the community that reflects our Creator, our triune God. When His Church sings together, voice upon voice like arms linked across a room, and indeed across all the gathering places of His followers around the globe, across history, we are doing what we were designed to enjoy-using our God-given voices to sing praises together to the One who gave us those voices. It expresses what unites us, and it reminds us of our interdependence.”

Perhaps you didn’t realize all that was happening and being communicated as you sing! 

So when you come to church again this Sunday, be reminded that your participation in singing is not only a biblical directive but is a meaningful part of your spiritual formation and the formation of those around you. Listen to what you are singing about God, to God, and to one another, because it is quietly forming you (or not so quietly, depending on how loud you sing) into fully grown followers in the fullness of Christ. 


Songs of Faith,” CBS This Morning, Columbia Broadcasting System. CBS, New York. 17 Apr. 2015. Television.

Wilson, A. (2011, October 5). The Songs of Our Lives: Music and Memory [Conference Presentation]. Cross Train Your Brain Symposium, Leawood, KS.

Keith Getty and Kristyn Getty, Sing!: How Worship Transforms Your Life, Family, and Church, (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2017), 8.