On June 19, 2015, Leon Bridges released his debut LP titled after its hit single “Coming Home.” The 24 year-old Bridges, who has been washing dishes and playing open mic nights around Fort Worth, TX, for the last few years, was discovered and signed by Columbia Records in 2014. His music immediately reminds audiences of Sam Cooke & Otis Redding, and he reportedly records on vintage equipment and wears the clothes of a dapper young man circa 1963.
In an age like our own, which is so starved for authenticity, it is both shocking and predictable that this man’s record should exist. It is shocking because you might guess that a young R&B/soul singer in 1960’s getup would be recognized and written off as a phony. It is predictable, though, because even within our lust for progress and forward movement, we are easily awakened to the fact that we are like lost passengers who have been shot up into space like a rocket, and who have left the simplicity of life on earth.
With all convenience readily available at the beck and call of a few buttons, or in a soothing exchange with Siri, we are discovering that our generation has nothing left to call permanence. And so, when a young man with a distant look on his face, old clothes on his body, and simple songs in his mouth appears in the center of our mad universe even for a flickering moment, it is as though we have discovered some ancient sage who must have something to say to us.
By his own admission, Bridges is not a Christian. Yet somehow he sings the faith of his childhood with more truth than the best Christian pop artists. As the simplicity of Gospel hope drips from his lips, our falsehood is unmasked, and we realize that our expressions of life before God might better be characterized as the lies of a people who know neither up nor down, east nor west.
“River” begins like a love song: A solo guitar steadily strums a D chord, and then come the smooth words, Been traveling these wide roads for so long. My heart’s been far from you, Ten-thousand miles gone. In the echo of the “ten-thousand years” of “Amazing Grace,” Bridges hints at a distance that can only between a man and his God.
The lyrics inhabit the melody in a way that reminds us of a young Bob Dylan, who could arrest his listeners with unexpected pauses and run-on paragraphs. In the next lines Bridges again draws upon both romantic longing, and the imagery of sin: Oh, I wanna come near and give ya, Every part of me, But there is blood on my hands, And my lips are unclean. Each one of us becomes this man, bloody, unclean, full of pain and longing for reconciliation.
Bridges then uses a somewhat clichéd expression, in which he remembers the possibility of pardon from the mouth of his mother: In my darkness I remember, Momma’s words reoccur to me, "Surrender to the good Lord, And he’ll wipe your slate clean." But before we have time to take offence at the naïve offer of a “slate wiped clean”, Bridges propels us into the chorus with a choir behind him and the steady drum of a tambourine as he sings:
Take me to your river, I wanna go… Oh, go on…
Take me to your river, I wanna know.
The result is that the cliché regains its original force, like the transformed idioms in Raymond Carver poems. Instead of naïve thinking, it is restored to simple hope.
He turns in verse two to the sweet exchange of crime for grace in the vivid depiction of sin washing down the Jordan River: Tip me in your smooth waters, I go in, As a man with many crimes, Come up for air, As my sins flow down the Jordan. But we are not allowed to stay in the river, or come back to its shore fully cleansed. Instead, Bridges returns to the pre-chorus lament that there’s blood on my hands, and my lips are unclean.
After a second chorus, the bridge meditates on the longing for forgiveness. Several different voices offers the prayers, I wanna go, and I wanna know, before Bridges brings it home with a final chorus. The end of the song is as lonely as the beginning, but now with a new hope, and filled with a memory that forgiveness is ready to come to those who repent.
We might think such a song would have a very limited set of appropriate circumstances, in our paedo-baptist universe. However, this song is the lifelong call of every Christian who ever taken the name to his lips. As Luther said, the confession of sin is none other than a re-baptism, a re-Christianizing, a renewed entry out of darkness, and into the light of God (cf. Large Catechism).
So long as we are incomplete and imperfect, we will always find “blood on our hands” and long for the simple washing of sin in the waters of God, if we are honest with ourselves. For my money, the “sacramental realism” of verse two is one of the most powerful aspects of the song, because it speaks both of what we truly need in our baptism, and what the Gospel truly offers: forgiveness, cleansing, sins washed down the river in the mighty power of God.