Disappointment, Townes, and the Kingdom of Heaven


Every night for two weeks, Bethany and I have been listening to Rearview Mirror by Townes Van Zandt. A few nights it’s been during fixing and eating dinner. Sometimes it plays while we read. Sometimes I just stare at nothing and let the songs seep in and the violin hover somewhere overhead.

I’d been listening to the Cowboy Junkies and remembered I’d seen Townes open up for them back in 1990. I was a Senior in High School and couldn’t understand why so many people seemed to be into this older guy opening for Margo Timmins and the Cowboy Junkies. I didn’t really pay attention. I just didn’t get it.

But now I can’t stop listening.

The last two weeks seem to be one’s marked by disappointment. And the kind of disappointment which makes hope a luxury for those of us who are poor in spirit.

All of it piled up in front of me this past Thursday. I had some expectations and they were met with the kind of disappointment that can make you feel like one.

Townes was once asked about his sad songs and he said, “Well, many of the songs aren’t sad, they’re hopeless.”

Maybe that’s why I can’t stop listening to them in this stretch of wondering what I’m gonna do. For some reason all these stark sad…hopeless songs help me along. The music is otherworldly, the words altogether worldly. They are full to spilling of hurt and pain and all the hell there is here on earth.

And so I always feel better.

Even if I’m not at the point of hopelessness, I can smell it’s awful breath. It’s like your trying to climb out of darkness and every time you feel a rung under your feet your heart swells with gladness and then you feel it break under your weight.

And you curse the weight.

This past Thursday, one of those rungs shattered completely at the slightest touch.

There ain’t no dark till something shines                                                                     I’m bound to leave the dark behind

I’m pretty sure it isn’t all for nothing. But I’m in no mood for evangelical platitudes. In the divine economy, the scarcity of hope increases it’s worth in the marketplace of dispositions.

The first Townes song I ever heard was “Pancho and Lefty,” sung by Willie and Waylon. It was the mid ‘80s and my parents had the cassette and I was interested in everyone but those two guys. However, one line reverberated in my mind for about a dozen years…

All the Federales say

That line just stayed with me till I voluntarily went back to it…the things you gotta thank your parents for so many years later.

Hope is talked about a lot among those who follow Jesus. But it’s only so much talk mostly, I think. I suppose this is why we never really know what to do with Jesus’ “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”

Osteen’s books be damned.

Only the poor in spirit can know the full value of hope. Only the hungry can know the value of a piece of plain bread. Whether it’s organic or not is wealth’s great worry. The poor in spirit don’t even look at the expiration date.

I hate the disappointment. I hate going to work in the morning and the waiting for it the night before. But I am not sorry for the hopelessness. Because now every bread crumb leading to Something outside of just removing it, tastes a little like heaven.

Bill Camplin said, “Townes was only interested in heaven once he was down in hell and looking up at it.”

I used to teach on being “Poor in spirit.” And I probably taught it like everyone else who has never been blessed to be so.

Jesus does not say they will be blessed. He says they are. Right now. And you probably already know that it’s just as likely Jesus meant “happy.” Which I like better, because “blessed” is a really meaningless word uttered thoughtlessly by Wal-Mart cashiers.

Everything is not enough                                                                                         And nothing is too much to bear                                                                            Where you’ve been is good and gone                                                                            All you keep is the getting there

I get it though. I know this happiness. And all that talk of happiness v. joy? That’s just sophistry for those who are not presently wondering whether there is any water in the well or even a bottom there to hold it.

But it don’t pay to think too much                                                                              On things you leave behind

This morning, I sat on a hard bench in a cafetorium and prayed, “help us.” Then we all got up as a violin played and we all walked forward to take the bread and juice. And it was a weekly moment upon which that happiness pivots.


“For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

8 thoughts on “Disappointment, Townes, and the Kingdom of Heaven

  1. Rebekah Grace February 11, 2013 / 10:21 am

    Matt, this is tremendous! The depths of our spirits are so greatly affected by these moments! And thank God for the music and the love of others that move us along! Thank you for sharing your heart! Much love and grace to you today. And always!

  2. AmyB (@amyjzb) February 11, 2013 / 2:30 pm

    Beautiful. I think a lot about that verse that says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” And “hope does not disappoint.” I think this hope thing is a deep, complex, winding road with no simple answers, and I’m not sure I trust it completely. So I’m just feeling your words in the sort of way that one feels words and doesn’t hear them. If that makes sense.

  3. natalietrust February 11, 2013 / 11:29 pm


  4. Gail February 13, 2013 / 8:23 am

    Thank-You Matt. Amen.

    If I can enter the deep grief of my disappointment it seems like a softer place to rest, music takes me to places I cannot get to own my own…

  5. Ken February 15, 2013 / 8:58 pm

    Wow, what a great piece! Thanks. And now I’m going to go listen to Townes.

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