taking the words of Jesus seriously

As soon as the news hit a few weeks back that rock band R.E.M. was retiring after over 30 years together, a call went out to writers to compose tributes to favorite R.E.M. songs. I can’t say I’ve been a fan of the original band – Michael Stipe, Bill Berry, Mike Mills, and Peter Buck – for all those thirty years, but I can say I’ve been a fan for the last twenty-five or -six.

I immediately replied with my request to write about their song “Everybody Hurts.” Actually, “request to write about” can be interpreted in this context to mean “begged, pleaded, and may have crossed the line over to ‘demanding’” (It’s just a very personal song for me). The nod of approval came my way, and off I went …

I should’ve asked for “Stand” – something peppy and fun; or something from Reconstruction of the Fables (or, Fables of the Reconstruction, depending on how you look at it). “Everybody Hurts” is just too personal.

I have a very small select group of friends (more like brothers than friends) that pray for each other, encourage each other, and carry each other – we are forever bonded together because of  our connections with the deepest, darkest depression and suicide. “Take comfort in your friends, ” sings Mr. Stipe … little does he know. Or, perhaps he does.

When your day is long and your night … your night is yours alone;
When you’re sure you’ve had enough of this life … hang on.

Michael (not Stipe, but a different one) was one of the friends in our group. He was a gifted and beloved youth minister. I was just getting to know him (I was the new kid in this circle of angst-ridden ministers/writers). An online private discussion about depression and faith emerged within our small group. Someone mentioned Elijah’s depression and Elijah crawling inside the cave to die. Michael posted, “yes, but Elijah’s story had a happy ending.” Just a few days later, Michael’s wife came home and found him dead … suicide. Despite our best efforts, there was no comfort for Michael, not even in his friends.

Sometimes everything is wrong …
If you feel like letting go, hold on …

For me, more than any other song, “Everybody Hurts” gets it. The words are repetitive and direct, yet overflowing with the imagery of overwhelming darkness. The music, at first, is very simple, slow, and hypnotizing.

Stipe doesn’t preach. He just shares the emotions as only one can who has experienced them personally (I have no idea about his experiences with depression, but somehow he knows…). He doesn’t smile and try to make anyone be a shiny, happy person. He just shares in the emotions. And instead of offering easy answers or “always look on the bright side” platitudes, he just pleads.

When you think you’ve had too much of this life, hang on …

The music begins to build. The strings begin lifting the music higher. The passion grows higher. The pleas and the rhythm build on each other until musically it borders on gospel (especially with the organ). Somehow Stipe’s continuing plea to “hold on” becomes a chant of hope.

Hold on …. hooooooooooold onnnnnnnnnnnnnnn …

For others of us in our small group of close-knit friends, we’ve each pleaded with each other many a long, dark night.

Hold on.

Sometimes only those who have been there can understand the depths of the loneliness, and only those who understand have earned the right to say “hold on.”

Take comfort in your friends …

REM’s “Everybody Hurts” is more than a song. It is itself a dear, close, comforting friend.

For Michael (not Stipe, but the other one), I wish we could have helped you hold on a little longer.

And for Michael (Stipe), Bill (Berry), Peter (Buck), and Mike (Mills) – thanks be to God.

Bert Montgomery is a writer, minister and college lecturer living in Starkville, Mississippi. His new book is Psychic Pancakes & Communion Pizza (2011, Smyth & Helwys).

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About The Author


Bert Montgomery grew up outside of New Orleans, lived in Memphis, and dearly loves the state that connects the two. He has interviewed legendary folksinger Arlo Guthrie, members of the Allman Brothers and Tedeschi Trucks Bands, and even the deceased monk Thomas Merton. Bert has written about everything from prayer to great hymns, from gender identity to board games, from horror movies and classic comedies to Mardi Gras and sports, and a whole lot about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit in the midst of it all. His book include Of Mice and Ministers, Psychic Pancakes & Communion Pizza, and Elvis, Willie, Jesus & Me. His day jobs (most writers have day jobs) involve teaching sociology and religion courses at Mississippi State University and also pastoring University Baptist Church, Starkville.

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