A Brokenhearted Poet

Brothers and sisters,

Last Friday, Taylor Swift released her latest album, The Tortured Poets Department. Since the album’s release, the internet has been ablaze with reviews and hot takes. The album has already set multiple records—most Single-Week Vinyl Sales, most Single-Day Spotify Album Streams, most Single-Day Spotify Song Streams, and more. By just about every metric out there, Taylor Swift and The Tortured Poets Department are winning.

The thing is, this album is raw. Swift writes about heartbreak, shattered dreams, and mistakes. She also sings about the ways the music industry hurts those in it. So far, one of my favorite songs has been, “I Can Do It With a Broken Heart.” The song tells the story of Swift’s ability to compartmentalize her emotions, pushing through the real pain she’s going through to be the persona of “Taylor Swift—Pop Star” the people want to see. The song starts with Swift singing in slow, breathy tones about how she wants people to perceive her “having the time of her life/There in her glittering prime,” but she admits that the persona is a lie. Then, with a quick “one, two, three” the chorus intrudes on Swift, demanding the persona come out to sing. Somehow both peppy and melancholy, you can hear her singing the lyrics with a practiced smile, “Breaking down, I hit the floor/All the pieces of me shattered as the crowd was chanting, ‘More’/I was grinning like I’m winning, I was hitting my marks/’Cause I can do it with a broken heart.”

Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like there’s a lot of that happening these days—folks grinning like they’re winning, hitting their marks, all to conceal broken hearts. And while I understand that part of life is learning how to function even when going through difficult times, it seems to me that church ought to be a place where folks can find rest. Church ought to be a place where we can genuinely say to people, “There are no marks to hit here. If you want to celebrate, we’ll celebrate; but if that’s not where you are right now, that’s fine too. There’s still a place for you here.” At its best, the church can be a place of healing where people are told that they are beloved by God and by God’s people, no matter what. But there’s one final layer to the song I want to briefly touch on.

At the very end, the chorus is done. Swift is coming off stage and she speaks to the listener, but her tone is uneven. She sounds like she’s losing it. The practiced smile is cracking. She says, “You know you’re good, I’m good/’Cause I’m miserable/And no one even knows!” But then her voice snaps into an exhausted, but threatening tone as she says, “Try to come for my job.” She recognizes that this back and forth, between her real pain and the persona she’s made for herself, is hurting her. But she can’t let it go. It’s how she’s learned to deal with the world. In her mind, if she loses the persona (even though it’s killing her), she loses every-thing. So just try to take this from her. It’s a real feeling. It is a raw depiction of what can happen when reality and expectations clash.

At its best, the church can be a place that says to people struggling with these kinds of internal struggles, “You don’t need to put on a persona here. You can be you. All that we ask is that you bring your authentic self.” God has made each of us to be wonderfully, uniquely ourselves. The only expectation God places on us is that we love one another. No personas. No crowds cheering on breakdowns. Just a community of believers.

Grace and peace,

Pastor Ben