Lament is difficult to do corporately. The publicity of it tends to belie sincerity, or at least, to undercut it. If not precipitated organically from some horrible regional or global event, lament usually feels most true when expressed by one family, a few individuals, or even only a single person.
And so I do not believe it is the church’s fault that we struggle to incorporate lament well into our rhythms of worship. In congregations that keep with the liturgical year, that which may be truly experienced by a few is likely one more rote repetition for the majority. In low-church contexts, we may have given up attempts at communal lament altogether.
Perhaps public mourning was always so. Sackcloth and ashes; fasting and dirges: have these ever inspired or reflected true emotion in the hearts of the broader community? I am no sociologist, nor a historian, and I cannot claim to know the hearts of my contemporaries, let alone those of ages past. But from my perspective, the one place I can reliably find genuine grief is in art, old and new. This is one way humans have been able to make our distress public in all sincerity.
In an age where violence is so visible across the world, it is easy to become numb to the loss of life. So I felt on October 27, 2018. The shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue left me aching to feel and not knowing how. God gave me the words of ‘O Come O Come Emmanuel’ to let me grieve with my Jewish neighbors. I have always felt strange that such a solemn song is my preferred Christmas tune, but that weekend, its poetry connected me to historical and immediate Hebrew lament in a way nothing else could. We all could hold on to the hope of God’s promised shalom, in spite of the pain.
‘O Come O Come Emmanuel’ often brings tears to my eyes. The raw desire for God to show up, as he promised he would, attends every believer, even for those of us who believe the Messiah has already appeared and completed his good work. Already, sure. But not yet. In her small way, Regina Spektor has contributed to this Judeo-Christian vein of artistic expression with her heartbreaking ‘Becoming All Alone’. This song draws tears from my eyes like only something with deep spiritual and emotional import can. (Might I suggest Spektor’s performance behind NPR’s Tiny Desk as more affective than the studio recording?)
Spektor’s personal religious commitments are entirely unknown to me, but the lyrics of her music show a surprisingly earnest regard for God (as in ‘Laughing With’) paired with a disappointed lack of connection with him (‘Samson’). Armed with an amateur’s research abilities and Spektor’s Wikipedia page, I easily discovered her Jewish heritage and upbringing. And with an amateur’s luck, I also found that Spektor’s parents immigrated with her to America “as refugees with the assistance of HIAS [Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society],” the same organization that the accused and indicted perpetrator of the Tree of Life shooting railed against on Gab.
Perhaps this is only a strange coincidence of facts with meaning for a single critic, but to pretend that Spektor’s religious background and personal history do not inform her lyrics is to miss an important connection. Whatever her commitments, her spiritual concerns should not be ignored. These seem to be well informed and deeply felt.
‘Becoming All Alone’ begins with the speaker minding her own business, walking home along city streets late at night. She begins alone, though there is no saying how lonely she is. And that is when she hears his voice.
I went walking home alone past all the bars and corner delis when I heard God call out my name. And he said, “Hey, Let’s grab a beer. It’s awful late. We’re both right here.” And we didn’t even have to pay ’cause God is God, and he’s revered. And I said, “Why doesn’t it get better with time?” I’m becoming all alone again. Stay, stay, stay.
Unseeking, she instead is sought by God. From nowhere, he “calls out her name.” He calls out, not accosting her head on but hoping to grab her attention from some distance, seemingly with a purpose, at least to connect with a beloved daughter. She was not expecting and may have been caught off-guard by his presence, but all is well.
Having made the connection, the speaker finds it easy to enjoy the blessings of God’s presence. They are together, and they both enjoy good times. Why not go for a drink that “cheers God and men” (Judges 9:13)? Heck, they wouldn’t even have to pay. Who is going to charge God for a beer?
This series of events may seem completely trivial, but the interaction is enjoyable. Delight is a real blessing that God bestows. Ecclesiastes commends such pleasures. God is showing his favor. There is joy as his countenance shines, and there is real and effective reverence for his power, glory, and righteousness; at least enough to get a free drink.
One might ask what is only implied in the lyrics: why did God choose her? Why did he seemingly go out of his way to be with her? One might ask the same of Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, Mary, or Paul. We may hope to find an answer to the question, but God’s grace is often inscrutable. It falls on whom it falls.
But God’s favor is exceedingly fleeting in the speaker’s experience. Having just pronounced delight in and reverence for God, she almost simultaneously feels his goodness recede.
She asks a serious question: why doesn’t life fix itself in the presence of God, for those in whom he is well pleased? Something seems terribly out of joint. She never asked him to come, but now in God’s absence, loneliness and grief grow all the more for the knowledge of what she lost. She begs God to stay near.
Spektor echoes what we hear in the Psalms. There are so many questions left unanswered in David’s lyrics. He wants to know if God is really so far away, if God hears him still. As an exemplar of faith, David tends to answer his own questions with hope in God’s promises. But the questions remain, don’t they? Psalm 13 is a great example of one song that asks God how long he intends to hide his face from the speaker, and it ends without much of a resolution. Even the great king of those who wrestle with God sometimes feels like he is only shadowboxing.
‘Becoming All Alone’ begins its second verse with a prayer that people who have particular needs might have their desires fulfilled in unexpected ways, probably healthier ways than they would have chosen for themselves.
Let the ones who want it bad get all the things that make them better. Let the ones who don’t care feel a thrill. And I just want to ride, but this whole world, it makes me carsick. Stop the meter sir. You have a heart, why don’t you use it? Why doesn’t it get better with time? I’m becoming all alone again. Stay, stay, stay.
The speaker shows wisdom in asking for these things for others; sometimes our desires can only be fulfilled in ways that contradict our immediate preferences. But when it comes to herself, she only asks for relief. Life is making her carsick, and she would sorely like a chance to let herself settle into comfort.
If only she could drive herself, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. But control evades her. If only the one compelling her to ride would stop the car, maybe she could reset. But life marches ever on. He will not stop the car. He will not even stop the meter. Not only is she suffering through the whole experience, but the meter also assures that she will be held to account at the end of all this. Justice seems far away, somewhere off with the God who she thought would always be by her side. Where is the loving kindness that she believed he would show?
The song’s final verse inverts the action of the first. Here the speaker must stand in the role that God previously filled. His silence necessitates that she take the initiative.
I went walking home alone past all the bars and corner delis when I asked God, “Please call, call my name.” And I said, “Hey, Let’s grab a beer. It’s awful late. I know you’re here. And we wouldn’t even have to pay ’cause you are God, and you’re revered.” Why doesn’t it get better with time? I’m becoming all alone again. Stay, stay, stay. I’m becoming all alone again. Stay, stay, stay.
The almost identical first and third verses starkly highlight God’s absence and the speaker’s pitiable attempts to recreate the conditions by which she first met him. God is so incredibly inaccessible; she cannot command his attention nor a response.
But a careful reading of the lyrics reveals more frustration with God’s silence than despair at his absence. She does not call out to God hoping that he hears; she asks him to call her knowing that he hears. She asks because she knows he is still with her. But why the silence? Why no reply? Why doesn’t he delight in her presence like before? Wasn’t it God who chose her in the first place?
The conditions are identical, which makes God seem capricious, inconsistent. And why? The speaker reminds God how easy it would be for him to be there like that one time. He would not even have to pay for the beers; he is still revered. His response is desperately longed for. What could be the reason for him to keep his face turned away, as if he was purposefully ignoring his daughter?
‘Becoming All Alone’ gives no answer. Unlike many Psalms, which declare the truth of God’s promises for the future or the consistency of his good character established in the past, Spektor’s speaker does not make a pronouncement of faith. We clearly hear “belief” in God’s existence; his presence is plainly affirmed. The speaker also expresses a desperate hope that God will be with her and stay. But that is all.
If not quite like most of David’s songs, to get an idea of what Spektor’s is about let us return to Psalm 13. Though many psalms that anguish in God’s silence establish a positive conclusion by affirming statements of faith, the 13th is not so clear. Sometimes it is too painful to sing of God’s character and promises. Sometimes lament is the only honest path through the suffering. But for believers, that lament cannot deny God nor the history of his work in our lives. We witness and shall not forget.
One explanation of Regina Spektor’s consistent return to religious themes and earnest spirituality in her lyrics (particularly instantiated in this song) may be an echo of how David ends Psalm 13:
I will sing of the LORD because he dealt bountifully with me that one time near all the bars and corner delis.
Paul Frank Spencer is the owner of By Grace For Glory Publishing and author of Marvelous Light. He earned a BA and BSBA from the University of Pittsburgh and still lives and works in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Keep up with Spencer's reviews and creative writing at www.bgfg77.com.