Ash Wednesday: Beginning the Lenten Pilgrimage with Steve Bell

Today we begin a Lenten journey.

We know that this is a wilderness journey,
and we know that it is going to a cross.

But what do we do on the way?

If Lent is a time of deep reflection,
biblical meditation,
and contemplation,
then what shape might our reflection take?
Is there any direction for our biblical meditation?
And if we are to engage in contemplation, what should we contemplate?

How about this:

Whoever loves God loves all that God loves
Think about that.


Take those lines, sing them like a mantra and see what happens.
Take this profoundly disarming truth and think about it.
Let these lines direct your Lenten reflection.
But know that if you love what God loves,
it will undoubtedly break your heart.

That’s how Steve Bell opens his Lenten album, Pilgrimage.

The musical expansiveness of “Think about that”
(listen to that Hugh Marsh violin)
matches the sheer scope of the lyric
and is set in lovely relief with the country waltz of the next track.

Biblical imagination goes to the wilderness in Lent.
In the wilderness with Jesus.
In the wilderness with the prophets.
In the wilderness with Israel.

So Bell gets to thinking about the wilderness with his collaborator,
theologian/poet, Malcolm Guite.

We know that Israel told her story of the wilderness and the exodus sojourn
with different nuances (just compare Psalms 105 and 106).
But what happens if we imagine Israel as a wooed lover
wondering if it was all a big mistake?

The Bell/Guite song “Big Mistake” takes us to the wilderness
where Lenten people must dwell.

But the wilderness is a dangerous place.
We mistake God for an idol and he mistakes us for a lover.

You mistook me for the worthy, you mistook me for the free
You mistook me for the lover that you wanted me to be
But I’m leaving your fold
On a calf made of gold
And it’s all been a big mistake

The song is more tragic than any country and western tune,
and yet I find myself wanting to dance.

The Divine Lover, however, will not walk away,
will not dismiss it all as a ‘big mistake.’

And so Guite and Bell lead us deeper into the anguish of this Lover.

As the wilderness is a dangerous place,
so Lent is a dangerous time.
During Lent we ask again whether we are staying in the story.
We ask again whether it was all a big mistake.

In “Lenten Lands” we hear this Lover ask,

And will she turn, oh will she turn again
I hold my arms out wide upon a tree
And will she see me yearn to her through the pain
And turn again, and turn again to me?

This is a Lover with tear filled eyes,
longing for reconciliation.

And so Bell and Guite discern that we need to ‘turn this thing around.’

“Turn it Around” is a song rooted in a sense of disorientation,
a sinking feeling that this pilgrimage has got seriously off track,
we’ve lost the plot,
lost our bearings.

So the artist sings that we need to,

Turn this boat around
Take us back to where we started from
Find that holy ground
Back where we began in Bethlehem

Lent is directionless without the memory of Christmastide.
And so it is not surprising that a few songs later,
we are offered a hymn to Mary in the midst of Lent:

O gracious Lady, child of your own child
Whose mother-love still calls the child in me
Call me again, for I am lost
And wild waves daunt me now on this dark sea

Turning this boat around is a perilous business
and we need all the help that we can get.

These metaphors of pilgrimage, lostness and longing
come together in Bell’s stunningly beautiful performance
of the traditional American folk tune,
“Wayfaring Stranger.”

This exodus out of Egypt and the sojourn in the wilderness
has a destination “over Jordan.”
This is a path that is going home.

But this side of Jordan,
things remain deeply broken
and in need of mercy.

Bell’s rendition of Mary Gauthier’s “Mercy Now”
is heart-breakingly poignant.

Beginning with the familial,
the song reflects on the realities of elderly parents
who “could use a little mercy now,”
and then moves to a wider picture:

My church and my country could use a little mercy now
They sank into a poisoned pit
That’s going to take forever to climb out
They bear the weight of friends and nations
They’ve betrayed and they’ve pressed down
I love my church and country, and they could use a little mercy now.

The church and the country are also on a pilgrimage,
and it hasn’t been pretty.
There has been betrayal and oppression,
and this pilgrimage will not find its way out of the poison pits
without a little mercy now.

But the song isn’t content to move from the familial
to the ecclesial and political.

It takes us the step further to the eco-cosmic:

Every living thing could use a little mercy now
Only the hand of grace could stay the pace
Of nature’s rage against us now
People of power, well …
Do what they can to keep their crown
I love life, and life itself, could use a little mercy now

If our Lenten contemplation and reflection
is to be shaped by a biblical imagination,
then it will need to face the death-dealing power
of the empire head on.

Remember, that sojourn in the wilderness
was a liberation from Egypt,
an escape from empire.

But empire is still with us.
And, as all of creation rebelled against the empire
in the biblical plagues,
so also does nature rage against us now.

And let there be no mistake,
as Pharaoh wanted to hang on to his slave labour,
so also do the people of power today
defend an ecologically suicidal status quo
in order to defend their power and privilege.

Things are getting heavy on this Lenten path.
I’m starting to feel the weight of it all.

My feet are starting to hurt.

So the artist offers us a delightful ragtime guitar instrumental
composed by his friend Roger Schmidt.
Appropriately titled, “Borrowed Shoes,”
this tune sets these tired feet to dancing,
and there is a renewed energy to see this journey through.

And that is a good thing because this is a long journey,
for which we will need a long love.

“Long Love” is a song that Steve Bell wrote
for his beloved, Nanci, on their thirtieth anniversary.
And because marriage is also a pilgrimage,
filled with danger and peril,
joy and ecstasy,
this song belongs on this album.

Marriage often leads to children,
and children can then lead to grandchildren.

“Pop-Pop and the Lads” punctuates the journey
with another guitar instrumental.
Grandpa Steve playing with his grandsons,
rolling around on the floor.
Just another moment on the journey.
Another glimpse and deep taste of where we are going.
Maybe you need these moments of sheer joy on the pilgrimage.
Moments of home in the midst of the sojourn.

The second last song is Steve’s rendition of Ken Medema’s wonderful
“The Riddle Song (The Long, Long Journey).”
What are the bearings that we need to see this journey through?
Well, wrote Medema, it is a riddle:

Finding leads to losing
Losing lets you find
Living leads to dying
But life leaves death behind
Losing leads to finding
That’s all that I can say
No one will find life any other way

This is a strange pilgrimage,
and so it needs strange direction,
an orientation that turns everything upside down,
a pilgrimage of surrender, of letting go, of relinquishment.

Matching the simplicity of the mantra with which the album began,
Pilgrimage closes with a lullaby for folks in the wilderness.

Alana Levandoski’s Appalachian-inspired “Felix Culpa”
assures us that,

He who watches over you
Will never slumber nor sleep …
Oh my child lay your burdens down
Lay them at my feet
He who watches over you
Will never slumber nor sleep

If you find it hard to sleep this Lent.
If the journey has left you with night terrors,
an anxiety-induced insomnia,
or just too much weighing down on you,
then listen let Steve Bell sing you this lullaby.

Pilgrimage is a soundtrack for a Lenten journey.

I plan to keep this music close this Lent.
At times it will disturb and trouble.
And then it will delight and bring a smile to your face.
But it will take you deeper into the wilderness,
deeper into discipleship,
deeper into the path of Jesus.

Thanks Steve.

To sample tracks, read customer repsonses, or to purchase Steve Bell’s
Pilgrimage, see:

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian, a retired CRC campus minister, the founder of the Wine Before Breakfast community, and farms with Sylvia Keesmaat at Russet House Farm.He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

2 Responses to “Ash Wednesday: Beginning the Lenten Pilgrimage with Steve Bell”

  1. Mary elias

    We heard Alana sing the song He who watches over me will never slumber nor sleep on our radio station CFAM is there any place we could get and buy this CD

    • Brian Walsh

      Glad you were as moved by the song as I was. You can get it on Bell’s Pilgirmage album from his website: Where you can get the original artist, I do not know.


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