The Gospel According to Jason Isbell: Songs of Guilt, Sounds of Deliverance

Jason Isbell is an artist I didn't know I liked.

As a member of the band, Drive By Truckers, he sang on one of my favorite radio stations regularly. I would turn up the volume, I liked what I heard, but I never bought an album or researched who these 'truckers' were. Only when iTunes recommended his new album, Something More Than Free, to me last month did I realize that his voice was not new to me.

For a few weeks, I've wanted to write a blog post about one of his songs from this new album, but I had trouble choosing only one. "The Life You Chose" takes us into the question of how different our lives would be had we made different choices: "Are you living the life you chose? / Or are you living the life that chose you?"

The title track, "Something More Than Free," made this pastor pause with the statement, " Sunday morning I'm too tired to go to church / But I thank God for the work."

Thankfully, when I couldn't choose a song, the song found me with sounds of the gospel.

CBS This Morning featured Isbell on their "Saturday Sessions." Prior to the performance, they played a clip from a CBS Sunday Morning interview with Isbell and his mother about the song, "Children of Children." This was one track on the album that I'd heard, but I did not really listen to it until hearing the story behind the music.

"[The song is about] this guilt I always felt for coming into the world when my parents were so young and not ready for it."

He shared that his mother was 17 years old when he was born. Even though his parents never said or did anything to make him feel guilty,  he felt like an interruption in their lives. The more he thought about the nagging guilt, the more a song formed in his imagination. The result was "Children of Children."

As I watched Isbell and his band perform the song, something amazing happened. The first half is lyric-driven with intentional, slow accompaniment. The self-imposed guilt spills through the words: "You were riding on your mother's hip / She was shorter than the corn / All the years you took from her / Just by being born." 

The nurturing rescuer in me wanted to jump through the screen and hug the guy (and hope he'd let me play his guitar). I wanted to look him in the eye and say, "Being born is not your fault! This guilt is unnecessary! Quit making your mother and me and everyone else awake at 8AM on a Saturday cry!"

Then the lyrics ended, and the music moved to the forefront. Isbell took up a different guitar, and the sound changed. As a car traveling up a mountain gains speed slowly with a steady foot on the accelerator, the song was on an unhurried, uphill climb. Then the band reached the mountain top. Instead of turning around and descending back to the acoustic beginnings of the song, the music reflected artists who paused to take in the view of freedom. The ending was nothing like the beginning. The song of guilt had become the sound of deliverance. 

The Lord is good to those who hope in him, to the person who seeks him. It's good to wait in silence for the Lord's deliverance. (Lamentations 3:25-26, Common English Bible)

So many of us want to avoid lament. I can't remember the last time I heard (or preached) a sermon from the book of Lamentations. We love the verse about, "Great Is Thy Faithfulness," but we shun the other 100+ verses in the book. 

In "Children of Children," Jason Isbell does not shy away from lament. No matter how unnecessary the listener may think his lament is, he feels the need to express a heartache. Only after expressing that sadness does the hope of freedom ring.

Ever since Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, God has shown power as a Deliverer. Perhaps we don't feel the same kind of guilt that "Children of Children" expresses, but there are other bondages that gnaw at us. Anger. Resentment. Prejudice. Self pity. Pride. Grief.

Sometimes, to experience deliverance we have to sing a lament to God. We need to write a song. We need to tell someone how we honestly feel. Lament is not about loss of hope. Sometimes it's the opening guitar riff of hope's song.

all good things to each of you,

Pastor Darian

I hope that you will take the time to listen to "Children of Children" in the video below. The brief interview that I quoted is at the beginning, followed by the in-studio performance. To learn more about Jason Isbell, visit his website