My City of Ruins was written by Bruce Springsteen in November 2000 as a tribute to his native New Jersey, specifically Asbury Park. The song begins by describing the blight and rampant abandon in this once thriving area:
There’s a blood red circle On the cold dark ground And the rain is falling down The church doors blown open I can hear the organ’s song But the congregation’s gone My city of ruins…My city of ruins Now the sweet bells of mercy Drift through the evening trees Young men on the corner Like scattered leaves The boarded up windows The empty streets While my brother’s down on his knees My city of ruins…My city of ruins
The song’s chorus reaches anthemic pitch as Springsteen repeatedly cries, “Come on, rise up! Come on, rise up!” My City of Ruins was first played on Dec. 17, 2000 at Asbury Park Convention Hall at a Christmas benefit.
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the song took on even greater meaning, especially in New York City. On Sept. 21, 2001, Springsteen performed the song to open the America: A Tribute to Heroes national telethon.
I’ve been listening to this song a lot this week, 10 years after 9/11. I can still remember Springsteen performing this song live and feeling that it so perfectly encapsulated what we all felt in those days: sorrow and hope and firm resolve to pull each other through.
But this week, I’ve also been struck at the similarity between the song and the biblical lament, specifically the book of Lamentations. Lament is an often over-looked portion of our Bibles, but they give voice to a set of emotions we would do well to explore more fully in the context of our faith. Some of the most faithful people in Scripture express lament before God. We need look no further than Jesus and his cry from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Such brazen addresses may seem out of line with “proper” fundamentalist belief, but it’s right there in the text. But we need not understand Jesus as being “disrespectful” to His Heavenly Father for “questioning” God’s presence. Rather, we should see lament as faithful language — an honest expression of fear and doubt that is ultimately an expression of faith because it is directed God-ward. Think of lament as our way of saying, “God, we know you’re big enough to handle even our strong feelings of pain, grief, sorrow, fear, and doubt.” Maybe we don’t have a lament problem after all; maybe we have a faith problem.
Consider Jeremiah’s opening refrain in the book of Lamentations:
1 How deserted lies the city,
once so full of people!
How like a widow is she,
who once was great among the nations!
She who was queen among the provinces
has now become a slave.
2 Bitterly she weeps at night,
tears are on her cheeks.
Among all her lovers
there is no one to comfort her.
All her friends have betrayed her;
they have become her enemies.
4 All her gateways are desolate,
her priests groan,
her young women grieve,
and she is in bitter anguish.
Empty, desolate streets. Grief stricken citizens. A barren land and a heart-broken people. The Boss could well have been describing 6th century BC Jerusalem instead of New Jersey or New York. With one primary difference, of course:
5 The LORD has brought her grief
because of her many sins.
Her children have gone into exile,
captive before the foe.
Judah’s sin has precipitated God’s judgment. But Jeremiah will go on to defend the goodness and faithfulness of God, even amid a city in ruins — God’s own holy city on earth.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. It is enough to simply recognize lament as faith language.
Lord, help us lament, in honesty and humility and reverence. We lament on behalf of our brothers and sisters. We weep for those who have no more tears. We cry out for those whose voices have long given out. As we are one in our pain, may we also be one in our hope, one in our prayers.
We pray for our city of ruins.
We pray for the strength, Lord.
Pray for the faith, Lord.
Come on, rise up…
If questioning is disrespect, then I’m way out of bounds.