The folk rock group the Avett Brothers are securely established among my most favorite musical acts. I wrote a series a couple of years ago about the echoes of the gospel of Jesus Christ in their music. After seeing them in concert for a second time this past Friday, I felt inspired to add to that series a couple more lyrics analyses of some of their older songs, the meaning of which really hit me for the first time.
The Avett’s 2007 album Emotionalism explores the gamut of human emotions. I want to look at the track “Shame.” The simple (and very singable!) chorus speaks to a deep longing present in every human heart:
Shame, boatloads of shame
Day after day, more of the same
Blame, please lift it off
Please take it off, please make it stop
Have we all not felt, even desperately so, the need for such emotional relief, after wronging or greatly disappointing someone?
The audience of this plea is ambiguous. It’s likely a disappointed, perhaps jilted lover, who he has wronged. The first two versus suggest this:
Okay so I was wrong about
My reasons for us fallin’ out
Of love I want to fall back in
My life is different now I swear
I know now what it means to care
About somebody other than myself
I know the things I said to you
They were untender and untrue
I’d like to see those things undo
So if you could find it in your heart
To give a man a second start
I promise things won’t end the same
He is clearly seeking a renewal of the relationship from his wronged lover. How can this happen? Shame is an emotional response to being blamed for or accused of a wrong – to moral disapproval. For the shame to disappear, the blame must be removed. While we might attempt to remove blame ourselves, through self-justification and rationalization, this fails because we achieve removal not by lifting it off, but by stuffing it deep down inside – suppressing it. The burden of blame is too heavy for us; it must be lifted off by the offended party.
This process is initiated by humble contrition. The speaker admits, without condition or excuse, that he was wrong and needs a second chance (no argument here that he deserves a second chance). In other words, he is taking the blame. This is indeed ironic: to remove the blame, one must first take the blame. The renewal must be given and received then as a gift.
Are his pleas answered? There is a hopeful sign at the end that they were and that blame was lifted (this was the verse that hit me hard at the concert):
And everyone they have a heart
And when they break and fall apart
And need somebody’s helping hand
I used to say just let ’em fall
It wouldn’t bother me at all
I couldn’t help them now I can
The sign of “lifted blame” is compassion for others living under its weight and an ability to be a blame lifter. Under the burden of blame himself, when others were ashamed (“and when they break and fall apart), he couldn’t help them. Instead, he would blame them (“I used to say just let ’em fall) for their own demise. But stark change has taken place in his heart (“I couldn’t help them now I can”). It is clearly implied that this newfound ability to help results from his own blame being lifted. This is the language of a man who can forgive because he has been forgiven.
Now the question returns to “Who lifted it?” It might be obvious that it was the jilted lover. This is certainly possible. But it seems that she is not the only one causing shame:
Okay so I have read the mail
The stories people often tell
About us that we never knew
The potential sources of shame from people who would blame and accuse seems endless. How then can we hope for blame to be lifted completely, permanently? Only when the One who knows all the wrongs that make us blameworthy and who all our transgression ultimately offend becomes the blame-lifter.
God promises to lift blame from our shoulders by taking our blame upon Himself. This is what the cross of Jesus Christ is all about. Without this accomplished in our lives, we would not only carry our own blame forever, but would only be able to cast blame on others, never being blame lifters ourselves. But having been forgiven, we are then freed (in the sense of being empowered) to forgive others. Thus, Jesus taught, “Whoever has been forgiven little, loves little” and ties our practice of forgiveness with others sins to his forgiveness of our sins.