Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room
Before leaving for church, I usually read Mary Oliver and drink coffee. My son plays drums.
That is, he bangs along to expressions of taste inherited from me. “Mr. Jones” by Counting Crows. Talking Heads’ electric-eel rendition of “Take Me to the River.” With each song, his full-size drumsticks strike a makeshift snare: the metal roof of an old, broken-down dollhouse whose faded surfaces and outmoded interior suggest fabrication in the mid-1970s.
One of us listening for the still, small voice. One of us shouting at the devil.
Christmastide comes and goes, yet its challenges linger like twinkle lights making their last stand on a stubborn neighbor’s roof. Chief among them, how to sing along with Isaac Watts when the carol has faded out: “Let every heart prepare him room.”
With any amount of trial and error, Christians learn how little power they hold to remake themselves. Instead, our path lies in positioning ourselves to receive whatever God will do.
Preparing him room often happens in the quiet with a sort of everyday lyricism. Sometimes preparation takes a noisier form. It feels like chaos; it sounds like a drumstick vibrating against a rooftop. We rearrange the furniture in our hearts, trip over piles of old clothes, clean neglected corners, and knock over a lamp or two along the way just hoping to make enough space for God to come in.
The standard spiritual disciplines do their work: prayer, scripture study, sacraments and ordinances. All means of grace collaborating to form and free me.
Other more peculiar forces outside me reach within. Poetry stills my mind and slows my breathing long enough for the sacred to pierce a veil of clutter and clatter. A walk through fresh snow, fallen along the untouched places of my neighborhood, reorients me to my smallness and God’s greatness.
Music works on me with a power that rarely fails and almost always surprises me. It massages oil into places which have grown tough and dry.
As a Christian whose job involves writing weekly about music and who regularly logs into social media to wax rhapsodic about the particular glories of a song, I field my fair share of questions about content and form. Friends earnestly trying to reconcile holiness with music’s magnetic pull find me, seeking something like absolution or permission or understanding.
Questions typically take one form or the other: “How much is too much?” “What does faithfulness look—and sound—like?”
My answers wriggle around absolutes. Any engagement ends with a call to community, to self-knowledge and self-love, to create lines carefully and conservatively, knowing they can always be redrawn.
Anymore, my reflections on music center on degrees of softness and hardness. Not compression or volume. Not the relative merits of smooth jazz versus hardcore. Rather, the sort of lightness or heaviness a piece of music creates in the soul.
I seek—and spur others to seek—music which softens the heart. All other metrics eventually break down.
Counting the number of four-letter words in a song or invocations of Jesus’ name replaces wisdom with math. We judge poorly when we settle a song’s worth by whether its creator does or doesn’t acknowledge the one, true creative mind animating heaven and earth.
Sometimes music created by and for Christians hardens my heart. Songs steeped in a sense of triumphalism, which turn eyes and stop ears to cries coming up from the earth, which apply glossy paint to the life of the Jesus-follower—these songs land on my heart with a distinct clang. They move my soul no closer to God. Songs which make me less flexible, which explain away another’s humanity, which harden me to the movement of God in the world are songs to shuffle past.
Any song which acknowledges the messy stuff of life, which aches for understanding, which finds a crease in suffering or treats hope as an anchor, is a song for me. Whether dubbed secular or sacred, created with holy intent or as an end unto itself, a song like this softens me up.
Once soft, I have the capacity to turn my heart toward beauty wherever it exists—in the wildness of nature or stitched-together soul of another person. A soft heart makes more room for what is true, pure, and excellent. A soft heart makes room for God himself.
And so I prepare him room with the songs of Bon Iver and Bruce Springsteen, John Coltrane and David Bazan, Nina Simone and U2, Rich Mullins and Andrew Peterson. Their music holds power to dive deep and bring emotions back to the surface. It creates in me a longing to be known and loved, to see past myself, to ask, to pray, to dream.
This way of thinking leaves listeners with more questions than answers. Rather than avoid the ambiguity or run from it screaming, we face a chance to reframe our conversation—to ask better questions.
Who is allowed into the world of this song and singer—and who gets left out? Does the song turn me toward living hope or a defeated heart, in itself, a kind of death? Does the song prepare room for something greater than itself?
Not every measure of music requires this much introspection. Sometimes the value of a song lies simply in the way it makes us hum along, or gets us off the couch to dance. A special sort of holiness accompanies pure, undistracted enjoyment.
But the thoughtful believer recognizes music’s unique power to shape us, to amplify all that beats within us. Whether singing along or listening close, we dial up and turn up the songs which make us soft. Our soundtracks and playlists, whatever title or genre they bear, clear room for God to enter in, never encouraging us to block or bar the door.