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Telling meaningful stories

We all tell a lot of stories and listen to a lot of stories. It’s one of the main ways we humans communicate and make connections with one another, pulling past experiences into the present moment and creating meaning by them.

But not everyone is a good storyteller. In fact, we all regularly encounter people who either bore or bully us with their bad storytelling.

There are times when someone will tell story after meaningless story without pausing for breath in between, and I can feel the life draining from my body. And I wonder, “Can’t this person see what she’s doing to me? And how is it that she’s lived as long as she has without learning how to tell a good story?”

So, what is it that makes for a good story? And by good, I don’t mean entertaining. There are people who are excellent entertainers, who can keep us engaged with their stories.

What I getting at here is this: What makes for a meaningful story, a story that adds to the life of both the teller and the listener?

According to communication expert John Savage in his book Listening & Caring Skills, there are four levels to story telling. Here’s my own take on his thoughts.

Level 1: Information back then.

The most basic level of story-telling is a simple relating of information that happened previously. We do this numerous times every day in conversations, in emails, on social media, and in the news we consume.

“I took my family to the U2 concert in Oakland, California, in 2011” is an informational story about something that took place a few years ago. If there are details the listeners find interesting, it can even be an engaging story. But it has no real meaning. Not yet. (Note: The further in the past the story is, the less emotionally engaging it is, since there’s more distance between who you are now and who you were then. That is, unless you get to level 2 ….)

Level 2: Emotions back then.

A story gains depth when we begin to move from the purely informational to the emotional.

“As we stood and sang along with our favorite U2 songs, I felt a deep bond with my family. There I was, with my favorite people, standing ten feet away from my favorite band. It felt like heaven.”

When I engage my feelings about an event that happened in the past, I’m no longer talking in sterile information language. I’m emotionally engaged and, most likely, so too is my listener. But if the emotions stay “back then,” there is less engagement than if I express current feelings about the experience.

Level 3: Emotions now.

The best stories don’t stay in the past. They live in the present, interacting with our lives today.

“When I think about that concert, I feel nostalgic. I realize what a snapshot in time it was for our family. And now that the kids are older and heading off to college, I wonder if we’ll have many more times like that. You ever feel that way?”

Once I have a sense of how the story connects with my current feelings, I begin to understand why I told the story in the first place.

Level 4: Self-understanding.

We don’t just tell stories. When we draw memories from the past, we do so because of current realities. There’s a reason I’m telling this story and not a different one. There’s a connection between what happened before and what’s going on now. And so, when we listen to others as storytellers and to ourselves as storytellers, we can come to a moment of insight.

“Remembering that concert makes me realize how afraid I am of having my kids drift away as they grow older. It makes me determined to let them have their own lives and experiences with their own families while also making sure that we have more experiences together like that concert. If U2 is still around then, I want to take my grandkids!”

I’ve seen this kind of self-understanding happen as people tell good stories. And I’ve listened to someone tell a powerful story that could have led to such self-understanding, but she blitzed on to the next story and the one after that, while I sat there thinking, “What a profound thing she just said. I wish I could get a word in to articulate what I just heard her say.” I kick myself for not speaking up in those situations.

There’s so much more to our story-telling and story-listening than we generally experience. May we all become better tellers and better listeners, not afraid of emotion and moving toward self-understanding.

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40: More than just a U2 psalm

I was a sophomore in high school when I started listening to U2, with the release of their War album. As has been their pattern, the band ends the album with a hymn of sorts. On War, it’s the song “40” — a yearning rendition of Psalm 40:1-3. For many years, the song closed U2’s concerts, with fans singing along, “How long to sing this song?”

MI0000045802.jpgBecause of this, Psalm 40 has always been the U2 Psalm in my imagination. And because of my love for the Psalms and for U2, I’ve used it as a worship song in the churches I’ve pastored. And that’s been great, except for one thing: It left out verses 4-17. And boy did that leave out far too much.

The psalm begins with gratitude for what God has done in the recent past. And we see right away that the rescued, reordered life requires very little on our part and a lot on God’s part.

The person in prayer does just one thing: Wait. But this can be a long waiting, soul-straining in its required patience.

I waited patiently for the LORD …

God’s response to this waiting in prayer is multifaceted. The verbs pile up:

    he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
    out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
    and gave me a firm place to stand.
He put a new song in my mouth,
    a hymn of praise to our God.

God pays attention, turning toward us and hearing us. He gets busy on our behalf, lifting us out of stinking, sinking situations and giving us something solid to stand on. And then he puts a brand new song in our mouths.

That last action seems off at first. The song comes from God rather than from us. He puts it in our mouths rather than it rising spontaneously from us. On first reading, I don’t like this. It feels dictated, forced. But upon subsequent readings, I realize what David is getting at: God’s salvation has been so life-altering, he can’t help but sing. The words aren’t forced, but they are irresistible. And I’m reminded of another U2 song, Magnificent:

I was born to sing for you
I didn’t have a choice but to lift you up
And sing whatever song you wanted me to
I give you back my voice
From the womb my first cry, it was a joyful noise

Again, there’s compulsion without dictation. The saved find ourselves responding irresistibly and yet with our own voices.

Because of this, the result of salvation extends beyond the saved. Others see and begin to take God seriously themselves.

Many will see and fear the LORD
    and put their trust in him.

The psalm concludes its first section with a statement of what David has learned through his experience: The blessed life comes from trusting our God, not from trusting ourselves or the nothing gods others lean on. (As he generally does, David refers to God by his personal, covenantal name Yahweh — rendered as LORD — which always highlights our God’s loyalty and faithfulness.)

Blessed is the one
    who trusts in the LORD,
who does not look to the proud,
    to those who turn aside to false gods.

With verse 5, the psalm abruptly shifts from talking about God to talking to him in prayer: What you’ve done in the past and what you’re planning to do, God, leave me in awe.

Many, LORD my God,
    are the wonders you have done,
    the things you planned for us.
None can compare with you;
    were I to speak and tell of your deeds,
    they would be too many to declare.

In response to these wonders, God wants one thing. And to highlight it, it is sandwiched between two negatives, which is really just the same thing repeated twice. This Hebrew poetic device underlines the negative — which is particularly surprising given David’s desire to build a temple for Yahweh — while making the one thing in the middle pop out by comparison.

Sacrifice and offering you did not desire —
    but my ears you have opened 
    burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require.

The ritual of worship has its place, but it’s not what God really wants. He wants listening ears. He wants ears that have been drilled out so nothing can get in the way of our hearing him.

And then comes one of the great gems of the psalm, a verse that every Bible reader ought to memorize.

Then I said, “Here I am, I have come —
    it is written about me in the scroll. (Ps. 40:7)

“Here I am” is our most basic prayer. In it, we offer ourselves to God. Fully present. Fully attentive. No running away. No hiding. All of me present to all of God.

When we are present to God, we find him present to us and we find ourselves in the Scriptures. These ancient words come alive and we discover that “it is written about me” in them.

When this is the case, our hearts align with God’s heart. His will becomes our will.

I desire to do your will, my God;
    your law is within my heart.”

And having heard God speak his Word to us, we begin to speak ourselves. We’re unable to remain silent about what God has done for us. We don’t just mull over in our minds what he has done for us as if they were private things. We don’t hide the faithfulness of God as if were something to be ashamed of. No! We speak it out.

True spirituality is never private. True spirituality always spills out of our mouths, not in pious posturing, but in uncontainable worship and witness.

I proclaim your saving acts in the great assembly;
    I do not seal my lips, LORD,
    as you know.
I do not hide your righteousness in my heart;
    I speak of your faithfulness and your saving help.
I do not conceal your love and your faithfulness
    from the great assembly.

But now that David has committed himself to speaking on God’s behalf, he asks God to be committed on his behalf as well: “I’m not holding back my words, please don’t hold back your mercy!”

Do not withhold your mercy from me, LORD;
    may your love and faithfulness always protect me.

This isn’t a casual request. It’s a real need.

Where David began the psalm looking back on a time when God acted on his behalf, now he’s asking for it to happen again.

For troubles without number surround me;
    my sins have overtaken me, and I cannot see.
They are more than the hairs of my head,
    and my heart fails within me.
Be pleased to save me, LORD;
    come quickly, LORD, to help me.

Trouble presses on him from outside and sins press on him from inside. They occupy his attention so thoroughly he says, “I cannot see.”

What an honest statement of situational spiritual blindness. “I’m so full of myself and my circumstances, God, I can’t see you at all. This myopia is causing my heart to fail me, too. Betrayed by the eyes of my heart and flailing about, I don’t need you sometime in the future, I need you now! Come quickly!”

Be pleased to save me …

What a beautiful request. “I want you to want me.” Because there are those who are pleased with my sinking circumstance, be pleased to save me. The shaming and disgracing that they plan for me: Rebound it back on them.

May all who want to take my life
    be put to shame and confusion;
may all who desire my ruin
    be turned back in disgrace.
May those who say to me, “Aha! Aha!”
    be appalled at their own shame.

In contrast to the haters, may those who seek you find you, God. It will lead to more songs of rejoicing in you.

But may all who seek you
    rejoice and be glad in you;
may those who long for your saving help always say,
    “The Lord is great!”

What I need most in my poverty is for God to think of me. If he does, if he pays attention and sees what’s going on, I know he will help and deliver me. That’s what he does, because that’s who he is. That’s at the very heart of the character of Yahweh.

But as for me, I am poor and needy;
    may the Lord think of me.
You are my help and my deliverer;
    you are my God, do not delay.

This need for God to step in without delay has me singing with the masses, “How long to sing this song? How long? How long? How long? How long to sing this song?” With U2’s Bono, I may even pop the cork from a bottle of champaign to celebrate his answer.

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October in June

maxresdefault-2I have been a U2 fan since War was released in 1983, during my sophomore year in high school. I wish I could say I’ve followed them since their first album Boy, but I think my third of a century of fandom is plenty.

But with so many friends going to see U2 perform the entirety of The Joshua Tree album plus other songs on their current tour, I was feeling a bit of self-pity that I wouldn’t be seeing them myself. So, to move my attention away from myself and back to them and their music, I’ve been listening to all of their music (b-side songs included) and watching each of the concerts and music videos they’ve released in chronological order.

I’m not even halfway through and still it’s been an amazing immersion in music, politics, and faith. Bono masterfully moves between his inner world and the world around him and brings faith to bear on it all.

Although the album October is often brushed aside as a least favorite, I’ve always had a fondness for it and particularly the title song. It’s spare and melancholic, pairing piano and vocals in a way that offsets the semi-punk urgency of many of their other early songs.

The lyrics are similarly few and unadorned:

And the trees are stripped bare
Of all they wear
What do I care

And kingdoms rise
And kingdoms fall
But you go on…and on…

Bono starts with the ephemeral nature of creation. October has stripped the trees bare of their beautiful leafy clothing. The leaves are gone, but the trees are still there.

He then turns his eye from creation to humanity and sees the same thing at play. The flashy brightness of human kingdoms and boastful political systems, too, have their seasons. Their leaves burst forth and then fall to the earth. They may draw our attention, but just like the tree trunk that remains, when political bluster blows away, what remains is “you,” is God.

During this season of microscopic attention on all things political, I find this song comforting. Our current presidential turmoil and all of the other political wrangling will eventually fall away like leaves in October, but the one true constant will remain. God will prevail. And he is right now and will continue to have his way, even if we can’t seem to see it beneath all of the human pomp and circumstance.

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Bono: The unsettling question asker

Bono is a master question asker, peppering every U2 album with questions, rarely paired with answers.

Questions send us on quests. They pull us out of ourselves, requesting that we get up and move and see things from a different angle.

Questions are dangerous. They unsettle us. They remind and undermine. They don’t take things as they are.

Questions lodge themselves inside of us. They bounce around. They get underneath the settled layers of who we’ve become, where we’ve settled for less.

For well over three decades, Bono has asked me questions in his songs. Many of them passed over my head or under my gaze, but many others got stuck inside of me and have never worked themselves free. “How long? How long must we sing this song?” has been rattling around inside me since I was 15, from its fiery demand in “Sunday Bloody Sunday” to its hymnic prayer in “40.” Both versions gave me utterance, a vocabulary for both the angry and the beseeching in prayer.

So, I decided to do something strange: To gather all of Bono’s lyrical questions into one place so I could just soak in them for a bit. They’re a bit disjointed, by pulling them from their context like that. But as someone who knows and loves the songs they come from, I don’t mind that. I know the contexts. But I wanted to be immersed in them and them alone. So, here they are without any commentary, starting from the first U2 album and stretching to their most recent in chronological order.

Whether or not you like Bono or the music of U2, there’s a beautiful and mysterious thing going on here in these askings. May Bono’s questions get inside of you and upset your world as they have for me.

A boy tries hard to be a man
His mother takes him by his hand
If he stops to think he starts to cry
Oh why? (I will Follow, Boy)

Monday morning – eighteen years are dawning
I say how long? you say how long? (Out Of Control, Boy)

One day I’ll die
The choice will not be mine
Will it be too late? you can’t fight it  (Out Of Control, Boy)

I’m starting a landslide in my ego
Look from the outside to the world I left behind
I’m dreaming – you’re awake
If I were sleeping, what’s at stake? (A Day Without Me, Boy)

Whatever feelings I keep feeling
What are the feelings you left behind? (A Day Without Me, Boy)

Back to the cold restless streets at night
I talk to myself about tomorrow night
Walls of white protest – a gravestone in name
Who is it now? it’s always the same

Who is it now? who calls me inside?
Are the leaves on the trees just living disguise? (Shadows And Tall Trees, Boy)

Do you feel in me anything redeeming?
Any worthwhile feeling?
Is life like a tightrope hanging from the ceiling? (Shadows And Tall Trees, Boy)

It’s falling, it’s falling
And outside the buildings are tumbling down
And inside a child on the ground
Says he’d do it again
But what am I to do?
What in the world am I to say? (Rejoice, October)

This morning I fell out of bed
When I woke up to what he has said
Everyone’s crazy, but I’m too lazy to lie
What am I to do?
Just tell me what am I supposed to say? (Rejoice, October)

Won’t you come back tomorrow?
Won’t you come back tomorrow?
Won’t you come back tomorrow?
Can I sleep tonight? (Tomorrow, October)

Who broke the window?
Who broke down the door?
Who tore the curtain?
And who was it for?
Who healed the wounds?
Who heals the scars?
Open the door
Open the door (Tomorrow, October)

And the trees are stripped bare
Of all they wear
What do I care? (October, October)

Oh, and where do we go?
Where do we go from here?
Where to go? (With A Shout, October)

Singing this song makes me angry
I’m not angry with you
Is that all? is that all? is that all?

Singing this song makes me happy
I’m happy with you
Singing this song makes me dance
Is that all? is that all? is that all?

Is that all? is that all? is that all?
Is that all you want from me?

Is that all? is that all? (Is That All?, October)

I can’t believe the news today
I can’t close my eyes and make it go away
How long? how long must we sing this song?
How long? how long? (Sunday Bloody Sunday, War)

And the battle’s just begun
There’s many lost, but tell me who has won? (Sunday Bloody Sunday, War)

It takes a second to say goodbye, say goodbye,
Say bye bye – where are you going to now? (Seconds, War)

And they’re doing the atomic bomb
Do they know where the dance comes from? (Seconds, War)

I can see through this expression
And you know I don’t believe
I’m too old to be told
Exactly who are you? (Like A Song, War)

Too set in our ways to try to rearrange
Too right to be wrong, in this rebel song
Let the bells ring out
Let the bells ring out
Is there nothing left?
Is there nothing left?
Is honesty what you want? (Like A Song, War)

Angry words won’t stop the fight
Two wrongs won’t make it right
A new heart is what I need
Oh God, make it bleed
Is there nothing left? (Like A Song, War)

Help me – how can you help me? (The Refugee, War)

Is this love out of fashion?
Or is it the time of year?
Are these words distraction
To the words you wanna hear?
Two hearts beat as one (Two Hearts Beat As One, War)

It’s your own late show
As you jump to the street below
But where can you go
To leave yourself behind? (Red Light, War)

How long to sing this song?
How long to sing this song?
How long? how long? how long?
How long to sing this song? (40, War)

Why must I hide from myself, when I need a crowd?
bring on the crowd – I love the crowd (Cry/The Electric Co., Under A Blood Red Sky)

In the name of love
What more in the name of love? (Pride (In the Name Of Love), The Unforgettable Fire)

In I come and out you go, you get
Here we are again – now place your bet
Is this the time – time to win or lose?
Is this the time – the time to choose? (Wire, The Unforgettable Fire)

In cracked streets, trampled under foot
Sidestep, sidewalk
I see you stare into space
Have I got closer now, behind the face? (Promenade, The Unforgettable Fire)

Keep my voice up – don’t push too far
You are going to join to God
Give my voice some energy – why? (Elvis Presley and America, The Unforgettable Fire)

So how does it feel to see the sky ripped open?
To see the rain through a gaping wound?
Pelting the women and children
Who run into the arms of America (Bullet The Blue Sky, The Joshua Tree)

Am I buggin’ you? I don’t mean to bug ya. (Silver And God, Rattle & Hum)

Is it getting better?
Or do you feel the same?
Will it make it easier on you now?
You got someone to blame (One, Achtung Baby)

Did I disappoint you?
Or leave a bad taste in your mouth? (One, Achtung Baby)

Have you come here for forgiveness?
Have you come to raise the dead?
Have you come here to play Jesus?
To the lepers in your head (One, Achtung Baby)

Who’s gonna ride your wild horses?
Who’s gonna drown in your blue sea?
Who’s gonna ride your wild horses?
Who’s gonna fall at the foot of thee? (Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses?, Achtung Baby)

Who’s gonna ride your wild horses?
Who’s gonna drown in your blue sea?
Who’s gonna taste your salt water kisses?
Who’s gonna take the place of me?
Who’s gonna ride your wild horses? (Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses?, Achtung Baby)

We crossed the line – who pushed who over? (So Cruel, Achtung Baby)

How far are you gonna go
Before you lose your way back home?
You’ve been trying to throw your arms around the world (Trying To Throw Your Arms Around The World, Achtung Baby)

When I first met you, girl, you had fire in your soul
What happened? your face of melting snow
Now it looks like this (Acrobat, Achtung Baby)

Oh, it hurts, baby
What will we do now it’s all been said?
No new ideas in the house and every book has been read (Acrobat, Achtung Baby)

Love is blindness – I don’t want to see
Won’t you wrap the night around me? (Love Is Blindness, Achtung Baby)

What do you want? what do you want? (Zooropa, Zooropa)

How could beauty be so kind to an ordinary guy? (Babyface, Zooropa)

Bitter sweet girl, won’t you give me a taste?
How could beauty be so kind to an ordinary guy? (Babyface, Zooropa)

You say when he hits you, you don’t mind
Because when he hurts you, you feel alive
Is that what it is? (Stay (Faraway, So Close), Zooropa)

Do you feel loved? Do you feel loved?
Do you feel loved? Do you feel loved? (Do You Feel Loved, Pop)

Mother, am I still your son?
You know I’ve waited for so long to hear you say so (Mofo, Pop)

And if God will send a sign
And if God will send his angels
Would everything be alright? (If God Will Send His Angels, Pop)

It’s the blind leading the blonde
It’s the cops collecting for the cons
So where is the hope and where is the faith and the love?
What’s that you say to me?
Does love light up your Christmas tree? (If God Will Send His Angels, Pop)

And if God will send his angels
Where do we go? Where do we go? (If God Will Send His Angels, Pop)

There’s an insect in your ear
If you scratch it won’t disappear
It’s going to itch and burn and sting
Do you want to see what the scratching brings? (Staring At The Sun, Pop)

God is good, but will he listen? (Staring At The Sun, Pop)

I’ll be up with the sun – are you still holding on? (Gone, Pop)

What am I to do? 
Have I got the gift to get me through 
The gates of that mansion? (The Playboy Mansion, Pop)

If perfume is an obsession 
And talk shows confession 
What have we got to lose? (The Playboy Mansion, Pop)

I’ve been good, ’cause I know you don’t want me to 
Do you really want me to be blue as you? (If You Wear That Velvet Dress, Pop)

Tonight the moon is a mirrorball 
Light flickers from across the hall 
Who’ll catch the star when it falls? (If You Wear That Velvet Dress, Pop)

Your father, he made the world in seven 
He’s in charge of heaven 
Will you put a word in for me? (Wake Up Dead Man, Pop)

Jesus, were you just around the corner? 
Did you think to try and warn her? 
Or were you working on something new? 
If there’s an order in all of this disorder 
Is it like a tape recorder? 
Can we rewind it just once more? (Wake Up Dead Man, Pop)

Love, lift me out of these blues
Won’t you tell me something true?
I believe in you (Elevation, All That You Can’t Leave Behind)

Did I waste it?
Not so much I couldn’t taste it (Kite, All That You Can’t Leave Behind)

Did I know you – did I know you even then?
Before the clocks kept time
Before the world was made (Wild Honey, All That You Can’t Leave Behind)

Are you still growing wild
With everything tame around you? (Wild Honey, All That You Can’t Leave Behind)

I send you flowers – cut flowers for your hall
I know your garden is full
But is there sweetness at all? (Wild Honey, All That You Can’t Leave Behind)

And it’s already gone too far
Who said that if you go in hard
You won’t get hurt? (Peace On Earth, All That You Can’t Leave Behind)

Jesus can you take the time
To throw a drowning man a line?
Peace on Earth

To tell the ones who hear no sound
Whose sons are living in the ground
Peace on Earth? (Peace On Earth, All That You Can’t Leave Behind)

You don’t even blink now, do you? (When I Look At The World, All That You Can’t Leave Behind)

Tell me, tell me – what do you see?
Tell me, tell me – what’s wrong with me? (When I Look At The World, All That You Can’t Leave Behind)

Of all of the promises, is this one we could keep?
Of all of the dreams, is this one still out of reach? (The Hands That Built America, Best of 1990 – 2000)

Donde esta? (Vertigo, How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb)

Can you hear me when I am singing? (Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own, How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb)

The TV is still on
But the sound is turned down
And the troops on the ground
Are about to dig in
I wonder where is the love?
Where is the love?
Love and peace? (Love And Peace Or Else, How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb)

I’ve seen you walk unafraid
I’ve seen you in the clothes you made
Can you see the beauty inside of me?
What happened to the beauty I had inside of me? (City Of Blinding Lights, How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb)

The only pain is to feel nothing at all
How could I hurt when I’m holding you? (A Man And A Woman, How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb)

From the brightest star
Comes the blackest hole
You had so much to offer
Why did you offer your soul?
I was there for you baby
When you needed my help
Would you deny for others
What you demand for yourself? (Crumbs From Your Table, How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb)

Should I come on?
Show you so?
You’ve been keeping your love under control (Original Of The Species, How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb)

Tell me now
Why the dark before the dawn? (Yahweh, How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb)

I cried to my daddy on the telephone 
How long now? (The Saints Are Coming, U218 Singles)

A drowning sorrow floods the deepest grief 
How long now
Until a weather change condemns belief? (The Saints Are Coming, U218 Singles)

Oh can’t you see what our love has done?
What it’s doing to me? (Window In The Sky, U218 Singles)

Oh can’t you see what love has done 
To every broken heart?
Oh can’t you see what love has done 
For every heart that cries?

Oh can’t you see what love has done?
Love left a window in the skies (Window In The Sky, U218 Singles)

Never seen a moon like this
Can you see it too? (Get On Your Boots, No Line On The Horizon)

You don’t know how beautiful you are
You don’t know, and you don’t get it, do you? (Get On Your Boots, No Line On The Horizon)

You’re so high above me, higher than everyone
Where are you in the Cedars of Lebanon? (Cedars Of Lebanon, No Line On The Horizon)

If you go your way and I go mine
Are we so
Are we so helpless against the tide?
Baby, every dog on the street
Knows that we’re in love with defeat
Are we ready to be swept off our feet
And start chasing every breaking wave? (Every Breaking Wave, Songs Of Innocence)

Do you live here or is this a vacation? (Volcano, Songs Of Innocence)

Go through the day like knife through butter
Why don’t you? (Sleep Like A Baby Tonight, Songs Of Innocence)

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How social media messes up our experience of community

Control. That’s the problem with social media. I’m in control. You’re in control.

Our social media worlds revolve around us like planets around a sun. It’s the web and I am the spider, sitting plumply in the middle.

Being the center of our own universe is a huge problem. It’s something we start out with but which life is supposed to have disabused us of by the time we’re adults.

I think of the U2 lyric: “When I was three, I thought the world revolved around me. I was wrong.” (From “Trash, Trampoline and the Party Girl,” a 1982 b-side)

That’s a young Bono singing. And he already gets it. But here we are 34 years later, building social networks around ourselves, acting like three-year-olds.

It would be fine but for a couple of considerations.

The first is that God alone is the center. It’s God that you and I and everyone else actually revolve around, whether or not we want to. To usurp his place is the most basic of all our sins, the Eden sin of wanting to be our own gods.

OK. So there’s that little problem. But it keeps going.

The flow of relationship in social media is exactly the opposite of what it is in real community.

Wity community, we enter in. We are a part of a whole that’s bigger than we are. But with social media, others enter into our sphere.

I’m not the only one who has observed how much harder it is for people to participate in community now in our transient and virtual culture. But I’ve watched so many people longing for community and yet pulling back from full participation in it. Social media didn’t cause the problem, but it does exacerbate it.

With Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, etc., we friend whom we want, unfriending and blocking whomever we want, for whatever reason or no reason at all. But that’s not the way real community works.

Real community is about immersion. There is no holding back, no toe in the water. It’s a plunge.

Not only is that plunge about commitment, it’s about dealing with fear and entering into something outside of our control.

As a kid, my family would take trips to Yosemite each summer. And each time we were there, the pack of kids I ran around with would jump off of river banks, bridges, and rope swings into the Merced River. If I remember correctly, the first jump was always so difficult to make that we’d stand at the rail of a bridge for half an hour before getting up the courage to take a leap. It didn’t matter that dozens were jumping next to us, we each had to deal with our own emotions about how high we were and how cold the water would be. But we always ended up jumping.

With social media, we do a lot of dipping of our toes in the water. We post silly comments and cute photos and repost humorous videos. None of this requires anything from anyone other than the simple click of a Like button. Even a comment or a repost is a negligible action.

But inviting someone over for dinner or drinks is an entry into face-to-face relationship that intimidates many of us. With social media, all we need to do is close the app or the browser window to be done with an annoying interaction. With someone across the table, we have to deal with the awkward silences, the inappropriate comments, the uncomfortable behaviors, the lack of chemistry, the bad breath, the inconvenient dietary restrictions, the long-winded political diatribes, and so on.

The sheer physical presence of real community is demanding.

The buzz of our phones may feel insistent, but they can remain in our pockets and purses. Real community isn’t silenced so easily. When my neighbors show up at my front door, requesting a cup of milk or the use of my ladder, their physical presence demands something of me which a Facebook post doesn’t. To ignore one is easy. To ignore the face-to-face demand of the other is relationally deadening.

When we jumped into the Merced River, we entered into its element. It swirled around us, pulling us downstream. It’s chill waters thrilled our bodies, causing us to react with gasps and an urge to move and swim to increase in core temperatures. It was initially uncomfortable, but always exhilarating.

May we be bold to take the plunge into real community and not just be satisfied with the pocket-sized and controlled relationships of our social networks.

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Caring for our neglected souls 

We live in a culture that knows almost nothing about souls.

The word is used so rarely, it may soon drop out of the language altogether. And who treats us like we have souls?

We are treated like consumers most of all. At every turn, we are told to want things, to buy things, to eat things. More and more and more. And in the process of all our consuming, it is actually our souls which are consumed.

Next, we are treated like information systems. The nonstop compilation of information is supposedly a good thing. But in the info glut, we’ve come to know less and less about our souls. And our souls, which cannot be fed by information, grow thinner and more malnourished.

Next, we are treated like target markets, lumped together masses to be pandered to and manipulated in an effort to get us to do this and vote for that.

Even our friends do this to us. Our email inboxes and our text messages are filled with requests for information and action. “What’s John’s friend’s contact info?” “Pick up milk on the way home.”

My favorite concert video is U2’s Elevation 2001: U2 Live from Boston. In it, Bono isn’t just engaged in a horizontal relationship with his audience, he’s continually looking upward, engaging with God.

At one point, he half yells, half sings the word “soul” over and over again. It’s like he’s trying to remind us of something we’ve forgotten, neglected. He’s trying to wake us up to a reality we’ve fallen asleep to.

We have souls. And so too does each person we engage with. The question is: Will we engage their souls or just their access to information, just their ability to do something or buy something?

The easy thing is to keep in step with our soul obscuring, soul crushing culture. But this is what Psalm 14 cries out against:

Don’t they know anything,
all these impostors?
Don’t they know
they can’t get away with this—
Treating people like a fast-food meal
over which they’re too busy to pray? (Psalm 14:4)

The psalm decries the result of godlessness, of prayerlessness. When we lose our sense of God, we lose our sense of soul. We stop praying, stop living out of the depth within us that has everything to do with God, with the holy. We stop dealing with the holy in each other, treating one another like fast food that is gobbled down without a thought, a taste, a prayer.

In contrast to the outside world of landscape, poet Gerard Manley Hopkins referred to this vast interiority of soul as inscape. I love that word and find it quite helpful.

Just as our landscape goes wild and fruitless when no longer cultivated, so too does our inscape, our soul. And we cannot tend to each other’s souls if we do not consider and tend to our own.

There is more to this world and to each one of us than what we have, what we consume, what we know, and what we can do. There is a wide interior country. There is soul.

It’s time to start living from the depths of our souls, connecting soul-to-soul, praying soul-to-God. This is where our real humanity is rediscovered and restored.

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Sorrow & joy in an age of terrorism

Evil is restless. Terrorists are amped up on a double dose of wide-eyed purpose and wild-eyed adrenaline. When you’re willing to kill in the name of an ideal and then go out with a bang, is there any rush more intense? It’s no wonder passion-driven youths seek it out.

And in the aftermath of terror, it’s no surprise to see ourselves and our leaders reacting fiercely and violently out of anger — anger being the presenting emotion when we feel out of control. And so France flies its bombers and unloads them on the already bombed-out Syrian landscape in a defiant but ultimately useless show of forceful retaliation, doing exactly what the terrorists hoped they would. Do the French really think their hastily planned airstrikes will do more damage to ISIS than months of air assault by the United States and Russia? It’s all just bluster which the agents of terror laugh at.

Terrorists aren’t stopped by fighter planes or boots on the ground. In fact, when they survive those, they only feel that much more invulnerable and believe their cause that much more righteous.

This may seem unrelated at first, but my kids and I have been having a conversation about what would be more effective: One massive, city-destroying robot or a swarm of infiltrating nanobots. We’ve unanimously agreed that though a massive robot may seem more impressive in its size and strength, it’s the smaller infiltrating bots that get the job done. In the H.G. Wells classic War of the Worlds, it wasn’t the firepower of the Martians that won the day, but some unseen and unnamed Earth-based virus.

Military might is impotent in the face of terrorism. In fact, it merely fans the fanatic’s flame.

The small. The unseen. The nameless. These are the ones who take down the great and mighty from within. It’s always been this way.

The biblical story of Gideon is a case in point. After Gideon had raised a large army to go head-to-head with the Midianite invaders, God had him dismiss most of them, leaving a band that was smaller, weaker, and stupider than the original host. And these few didn’t even have to engage the Midianites. They merely introduced fear into their camp, through a trick with horns and lamps in the night, and let the enemies destroy themselves from within.

The only effective answer to terrorism is to not be terrorized.

This is where the Irish rock band U2 comes in for me.

Like most Americans, I was shellshocked by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. For weeks after, I feared every airplane I saw in the sky. Would this one fly into a building as well?

But U2 toured the U.S. soon after and did something amazing. They led us in sorrow and in joy. They taught us how to grieve and how to dance again. They brought their unique blend of Irish Christian melancholy and passion to bear on our fear and pain. Their Super Bowl XXXVI performance on Feb. 2, 2002 was deeply cathartic in its head-on engagement with our grief and its refusal to be diminished by it. I still weep each time I see it when it gets to the midpoint.

The music. The list of names. The prayer. The lap around the stage. The flag sewn into Bono’s jacket. It could have been gimmicky, but it wasn’t.

Everything is there that needs to be there. Nothing left out. All in earnest. All exuberant. There was no posturing, as we Americans tend to do, pretending that nothing has happened. At the same time, there was no cowing before terrorism and no hating.

As the Pixar movie Inside Out showed us, sorrow and joy need not be in conflict with one another. In fact, these two extremes of human emotion make for good companions.

As U2 has taught us, the answer to terror is to enter our sorrow and rise up with joy, both as expressions of love. For as the Scriptures say, “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” [1 John 4:18].

[For a related article on U2 and responding to terrorism, click here.]

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Erotic spirituality — the good, the bad, and the ugly of combining faith and sexuality

What is the relationship between sexuality and spirituality? In many ways, sexuality has become its own spirituality. And in the process, it has coopted church music and biblical language to articulate it.

Ray Charles has been tagged as the first to take gospel music, which he grew up with in church, and use it to sing romantic songs. That seems pretty tame in today’s eclectic musical environment, but it was shocking at the time. Religion and romance just didn’t go together.

So, when we get to Hozier’s song “Take Me To Church,” released as an EP in 2013 and on a full album in 2014, we get to an intentional full-on coopting of both church music and church language to describe a sexual relationship and, ironically, to denounce the church for its views on homosexual practice.

The song starts out this way: “My lover’s got humour/She’s the giggle at a funeral/Knows everybody’s disapproval/I should’ve worshipped her sooner/If the heavens ever did speak/She’s the last true mouthpiece … My church offers no absolutes/She tells me, ‘Worship in the bedroom.’/The only heaven I’ll be sent to/Is when I’m alone with you.”

So, when he sings, “Take me to church,” he’s not referring to a Christian worship service. He’s talking about taking his lover to bed. “There is no sweeter innocence than our gentle sin,” he sings.

Just like Hozier, Beyoncé’s song “Halo” uses a gospel choir to give it a churchy feel while picking up on church language. She sings: “Everywhere I’m looking now/I’m surrounded by your embrace/Baby, I can see your halo/You know you’re my saving grace.”

Instead of a halo representing holiness as in ancient church art, Beyoncé’s romantic feelings toward her lover give him a halo’s glow in her eyes. And then the coup de grace: “you’re my saving grace.”

Really? Your lover/husband is your saving grace?

As someone who was raised in a Methodist church, she ought to know better theologically. And yet as someone who is often described as a devout Christian, it’s understandable that she would reach for images that resound with the deepest part of her to express similarly deep emotions.

Yes, there is a relationship between sexuality and spirituality.

The book of the Bible where we see this most is the Song of Songs (also referred to as Song of Solomon or Canticle of Canticles). As preteens, my friends and I would giggle over the blatant sexuality that was right there in our Bibles. And no one at church could ever fault us for reading it because, hey!, we were reading the Bible and that’s always a good thing.

My Mom has often referred to reading the Song of Songs as a teenager as key to her understanding the love of God. And St. Bernard of Clairvaux preached 86 sermons from the Song and barely made it into chapter two of the eight-chapter book. Both of them and many others have seen a correlation between sexuality and spirituality that just doesn’t exist elsewhere.

This is why we have had so many Jesus-is-my-boyfriend worship songs over the past few decades. Brian Doerksen’s “Come and Fill Me Up” 20 years ago may not have been intentionally erotic, but if you exchange the God references with a boyfriend’s name, blushing ensues:

I can feel you/Flowin’ thru me/Holy Spirit/Come and fill me up/Come and fill me up … I am thirsty/For your presence, Lord/Come and fill me up … I need you/I want you/I love your presence/I need you/I want you/I love your presence

There has been plenty of criticism of both popular musicians who pull from Christian spirituality to express their sexuality (especially Madonna, who has made a career of doing so) and worship musicians who have pulled from sexuality to express their spirituality.

For one, Jesus is my boyfriend. For the other, my boyfriend is Jesus.

But is the criticism appropriate? We’ve already noted that there is precedent for doing so both in the Scriptures themselves and in the history of Christian spirituality.

Like the nuns at the Catholic high school I attended, I wear a wedding band on my right hand to symbolize my commitment to Jesus.

There’s something right about this. It’s why Bono of U2 has been able to sing songs to an unnamed “You” who is either his lover or his Lord. In fact, he often slurs intentionally while singing, so the listener is uncertain if he singing “Love” or “Lord.” Bono even went so far as to refer to God as “She” throughout the Achtung Baby album to further blur the spirituality/sexuality line.

I find that in Bono’s capable hands, it works. And it works exceedingly well. But not so in other hands. The romanticism of some worship song writers is cloying at best. And the deifying of sexuality by some popular artists is blasphemous and idolatrous. It’s all in how it’s done.

As my Mom sensed as a teenager, there is something to this overlap between religion and romance. This is why the Church is referred to as the Bride of Christ. This is why the marriage relationship was the final and crowning and completing part of the Creation.

At the same time, there’s a reason why prostitution was as aspect of so many pagan rites. The soaring of the soul in sexual expression has been used to sell empty gods, something the God of the Bible never does. In fact, in a world of sexualized pagan deities, the Old Testament writers consistently refused to sexualize Yahweh. The same is true of the New Testament writers with Jesus.

There is something to the romantic and the religious to be explored. And books like The Divine Romance and The Sacred Romance: Drawing Closer to the Heart of God can help lead us into it. At the same time, there’s only one of the 66 books of the Bible devoted to it. So, we ought to keep it in perspective.