Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing
It sounds an echo in my soul
How can I keep from singing
– “How Can I Keep from Singing” from Above Earth’s Lamentation
With those words from a traditional hymn, Sarah Hart opens her most personal and profound album to date. I have, since its release, written several unfinished versions of a review not because it has been a difficult album to review, but because my own life has somehow gotten in the way of me writing a review worthy enough to convey the beauty and depth of this recording. I also think that I am able to finally sit and write this review in its entirety, because between the time of the album’s release and the day I write this I have endured a faith journey of my own that has tested the strength of my faith and has found me clinging on to the hope that only Love itself can give. And so, reviewing this album has suddenly become more personal than usual. I have reviewed several of Sarah’s albums in the past and each one has touched me and I have found songs that have become like my own prayers, but this time Sarah’s music has reminded me to remain hopeful and, at times, has echoed what I feel and what I’ve needed to say. Recently it has carried me above my own lamentation into a place of hope and into a place of seeing the glimmers of light in the darkest crevices that life sometimes appears to hold for us. And so, this will not be like my usual reviews. It simply cannot be and, for that, I will not apologize but will only say that there is truth in what is sometimes said about music. Music picks up where words no longer can, it speaks into the deepest recesses of the soul, and it can change the heart. Music has, for so long, been one way that God speaks to me and, there is no question that “Above Earth’s Lamentation” has proven that to me again.
Soon after the album’s release I asked Sarah to tell me about her inspiration for this album. She wrote: “This recording is what I would call an ‘accidental recording’…my inspiration came simply in walking through a very difficult period of grief; through the dark valley and slowly back into the light. I would say the songs were not as much inspired, as much as they were my mode of healing and catharsis. My prayer in compiling them as a collection is that they will help others who are walking through those dark parts of the journey; that they might find comfort, peace, and hope in the arms of a loving God who never lets go.” For this listener, she accomplished exactly what she prayed would happen.
In the past few months, one of my colleagues passed away after a long battle with cancer; several young people that I work with have attempted to take their lives; a few people I have grown to love have contemplated taking their lives; several of my students have faced immense hardships; and, a few people in my life have faced health scares and so have I. And, in October my life changed in a matter of days when my dad suffered a stroke while I was out of town on a girls’ weekend. Not only did life change for my family and me, but the intensity of all that has happened weighed on my heart more heavily and thrust me into a temporary dark valley where all I desired to reach for was the light I knew was there but couldn’t see. With the support of family, close friends, colleagues, and even my students I have been able to find the strength to carry on these past few days. “Above Earth’s Lamentation” has become what I have prayed with daily as I have sought the comfort and peace and have continued to trust.
“Above Earth’s Lamentation” opens with “How Can I Keep from Singing,” a beautiful traditional hymn that sets the tone for the entirety of Sarah’s album. “My life flows on in endless song/Above earth’s lamentation/I catch the real though far-off hymn/That hails a new creation.” That first verse of the song encompasses the whole of the album. It is a project whose catalyst was loss, in one of its many forms, and its purpose is to rise and help others rise above their sorrow and loss.
“Every Bird” is a beautiful bluegrass-tinged song that seamlessly captures the effects of loss and pain:
But my heart holds no melody
My tongue can find no lovely word
So hear the song my silence keeps
Loud as the song of every bird
There is often a silence that comes with grief or difficult times—a lack of words to express what one feels, even a lack of words with which to pray. Yet, the silence is sometimes louder than the words one can say and it’s that silence that only God can truly understand. Sarah’s powerful songwriting continues to capture what so many of our hearts, but which our words cannot express.
One of the beautiful aspects of this album is that Sarah doesn’t diminish the sting of loss or pain. Rather, her lyrics embrace it and convey it. The message is not “get over it”; the message is about embracing the emotions. But, even in the reality of sorrow and pain Sarah interweaves a message of hope and God’s mercy. In “Praying with a Broken Heart,” there is a sense of that reality”
I asked you for the light
You gave me a long dark night
Gave me shadows for my path
There was no turning back
You whispered “hold on tight”
I asked you for some peace of mind
So you gave me a fight inside
How I wrestled with the truth
Went round and round with you
Could not shake you, but I tried
Grief is a natural part of our lives. We cannot escape the reality that even though we may hope for easy paths and joyous moments, sorrow and hardships can still come. The truth is that it is often not the outcome of this sorrow that tells us more of who we are and more of whom God is. There is grace within the journey. And, in those moments of complete brokenness—when all we have is a broken heart—we may wrestle with faith and trust, but our prayers are somehow still heard and that, in many ways, the balm that begins to heal our deepest wounds. To fall on one’s knees (both literally and metaphorically) and to call upon God even in the emptiness is perhaps the best and most grace-filled strength we can muster within our weakness. It is a realization that “[o]nly you could start a fire/
[o]n such an empty mountainside.” Only God can understand the brokenness and emptiness and can heal us in the broken places.
Each day we wake with the reassurance that somehow the sun continues to shine. So to do our lives continue to face ups and downs, but we are reassured that somehow we will overcome and rise above. Christ experienced the deepest of human suffering and the most brutal of deaths, yet he rose from the dead. Each Easter we say “Hallelujah” recognizing that joy comes after sorrow. Jesus rose from the dead and so shall we. Hart’s song reminds us that we can and do rise every day. We do so above sorrow, above pain, above trials and tribulations. In “Hallelujah is our Song,” we are reminded:
What hope we have
Even in the longest night
For the light will overcome
We will not fear
For we know the sun will rise
Hallelujah is our song
We will rise above the lamentation, we will rise above our own expectations, and it will be God who will lead us back into the light of his truth—that love does indeed conquer all of it. In life and in death, in joy and in sorrow, through it all our heart will sing out “Hallelujah” because Christ’s own heart has borne it all: “For the stone is rolled away/And the tomb holds nothing now…And we shall live/Sinners, we will rise to saints/Hallelujah is our song.”
Sarah Hart has given the church and its people a beautiful collection of heartfelt songs that express some of our deepest longings within our soul’s lamentation. But, she has also reminded us of the promise of resurrection and the light than finds its way through the darkness. This is an album that does not disappoint.