Earlier today, as part of my weekly Six for Saturday post, I highlighted a new article on Relevant magazine website called “C.S. Lewis, Sadness, and What Eternal Hope Looks Like.” The author, Jonathan Trotter, is arguing that honestly grieving the brokenness of the world we live in can be–in fact, must be–a very important step in the process of fully coming to terms with the hope of the Gospel. I’d like to try to say the same kind of thing, in my own words, using my own metaphors and examples. And because what I’m going to say ties in so much with the story of God’s grace in my life told through the music that He has used to reveal Himself and His love to me, I’m going to make this part of the series I started a couple of weeks ago called Songs of His Pursuit.
Six years ago, when I was sixteen years old, I went through a season of great personal crisis. It was a season when a hundred deeply rooted insecurities, fears, and doubts about God and who I was to Him came violently to the surface. Whatever structure and direction there was in my life at that point came suddenly and rather violently to a halt. There were spiritual realities that demanded my attention breaking out from under the surface of my life, and I fought for the right to listen to them. There was a darkness jealously contending for my soul that I had to find a way to face. Of all the various instruments of God’s grace that kept me from being overwhelmed to the point of suicide or worse, I can point to two above all. One was a youth pastor who simply listened. The other was a contemporary Christian musician named Bebo Norman. Specifically, an album that he wrote and recorded in 2006, called Between the Dreaming and the Coming True (supplemented with a few songs from 2008’s eponymous album, and a smattering of tunes from other records). Without Pastor Joe and Bebo listening to me, affirming my desperation, and helping me be a man fully assured of the poverty of my own soul apart from God, I doubt that I ever would have been able to take my own sense of suffering and spiritual need seriously enough long enough for the work of God’s saving and healing grace to take root in my heart. As much as I wanted to, there’s only so much that a broken heart can do on its own in a world that doesn’t seem to give or care.
Between the Dreaming and the Coming True (link is a youtube music playlist) is about the tension between hope and suffering, between the way things are and the way they are meant to be, and about a God who draws near to us and delivers us even as we’re torn by that tension. It opens with these words:
You could turn a hundred years and never empty all your fears
They’re pouring out like broken words and broken bones
They could fill a thousand pages, be the cry for all the ages
And the song for every soul who stands alone
The ache of life is more than you are able
Hold on love, don’t give up, don’t close your eyes
This is a way of saying, “I see you, I hear you, I feel what you feel” that goes beyond what simple sympathy can say. These are the words of a fellow sufferer who has somehow been lifted above his suffering by the kindness of a savior.
As the hungering dark gives way to the dawn, my love
Hold on, hold on
It won’t be long
I needed language like this. I needed someone to tell me that “hungering dark” was not just an overwrought construction of my imagination, that it was something that actually was, and that there was a dawn that could break through it. The open wound of my need is where the grace of God gets in.
What is hope? For suffering people, hope is the belief in a not-broken reality which we will someday come into out of our brokenness. It’s health to a sick man, full sunlight to those who cannot escape the night, spring to those for whom it is always winter and never Christmas. Our greatest danger is to forget in the midst of the sickness that health is actually a thing. “Don’t let the night become the day,” Bear Rinehart croons in the bridge of one of NEEDTOBREATHE’s best songs. The worst thing that can happen when you’re walking through the valley of the shadow of death is to forget that there’s another place which is not the valley of the shadow of death, because at that point, anything is possible. This is what Jonathan Trotter so aptly describes in the article I referenced at the beginning with these words: “hopeless people are dangerous people, willing to hurt themselves and others without measure or limit.” When Puddleglum defies the witch, it’s because he realizes that giving in to her version of reality is a worse death than death itself.
On the second song of Between the Dreaming, “Be My Covering,” Bebo sings,
War-torn are the rags of every nation
Fear lives in the heart of every home
Louder than the groans of creation
Oh, my God, be the voice of hope
One of the beautiful things about what we believe who believe in Jesus is that like no one else, we know ourselves to be fallen, and understand that we have a right to think of ourselves that way. This is a deeply comforting thing if you think about it, and I think that sometimes we as Christians take it for granted. Things are not what they were meant to be, and the word of Christ actually affirms and encourages our grief at that fact. One of the things that sets Christianity apart is that it is the only groaning ‘religion’ that has ever been. We groan, and we hear a groaning in the world around us, and instead of being told to put a faux-holy face on things, we are told to listen to the groaning and trust that the groans of Jesus on the cross has made (in a now-but-not-yet sort of way) an end of all of this groaning.
When I cry out under the weight of fatherlessness or loneliness or betrayal or cancer or poverty or whatever I might suffer, the Christian way of thinking and believing tells me that my suffering is part of a bigger story of a world that fell and a God of grace who is making all things new, and that though these waters rise, they will not pull me under, because I’ve been united to the one who has conquered death and all his friends, and I have been seated with Him above the fall. But having this certainty of victory doesn’t have to make me flippant about the fall at all. In fact, quite the opposite. The depth of our fallenness only magnifies the power and the glory of God’s grace that is lifting us out of it.
It’s the honesty of Between the Dreaming and the Coming True that drew me in. It was an honesty I could bathe in and be lost in for a while. How is it possible for an album which gave birth to such an intimate and triumphantly hopeful anthem of worship such as “I Will Lift My Eyes” (probably Bebo’s most successful radio song to this day) to close with a gut-punch of inconsolable regret like “Now That You’re Gone”? It’s possible because even though there really is a God who meets us in our emptiness and forsaken-ness, redeems us from sin and carries our burdens (“I Know Now”), sometimes our shadows still surround us (“The Way We Mend”). There are moments when the beauty of everlasting love breaks through into our little lives with such radiance that we wonder whether our dreaming can lift us right out of this life (“Sunday”), and there are moments when words of gold grow cold and it seems that time is wearing down the best of our intentions to the bone (“Time Takes Its Toll On Us”). There’s something about listening to another man be honest with himself and the world that cuts a path for you to be honest in the same way. This is one of the holiest opportunities of the artistic calling. (You might, think, for all of this talk about the lyrics of the record, that my interest in it is more lyrical than anything else. I swear, I have never heard anyone succeed in marrying lyrics with music ten to twelve times more gloriously than Bebo Norman does on this record. I’m a perfectionist about such things, and listening to the record for the second hundredth time, it still seems that almost every note is perfection.)
Bebo’s exploration of other themes only adds texture and depth to his main theme. Yes, the well of eternal things is all that I thirst for (“Bring Me To Life”), but human love is more than something I merely want (“To Find My Way to You”), and somehow those two realities don’t need to stand in opposition to each other. Maybe holiness is not about a forsaking of the creature for the Creator, but seeing and seeking the Creator through the creature. Maybe loving others and being loved by them is something that can help me understand the way God loves me. I would give up on a thousand dreams just to find my way to you, and the reason I would ever feel that way is because I’m made and being re-made in the image of a God who abandoned paradise to seek and save that which was lost, bring me to life, and reveal His kingdom in me. My feeble earthly loving is a picture, however humble, of His uncreated, everlasting love.
And as I’m drawn in by all of this, right around track nine, any sorrowful reflection on my own suffering, any quiet cherishing of my best hopes and wrestling with the day-today reality their disruption, dissolves into weeping awe and wonder at the mercy of a God of majesty who stoops to show grace to sinners.
I come in rags, tattered by the fall and all the earth
A witness to my crime
Weep over me and let your tears
Wash me clean
Be merciful with me,
For my eyes have seen holy
This is what I need to hear most of all as a broken man in a broken world, because the Jesus who doesn’t belittle my suffering is the same Jesus who doesn’t belittle my sin. The kindness of God towards suffering man could not be greater. His only Son went to the cross to experience the infinite depths of every kind of suffering in order that He might one day make an end of our suffering forever. But we have to understand that He did this, not to make some sort of apology for creating a world that got broken or for writing the story of our lives with brokenness in it, but to redeem us from the sin that is the first cause of our suffering. Rightly understood, this reality of our need for redemption doesn’t act as a counterbalance to our sense of our need for healing in a broken world. Instead, it only reveals in more brilliant colors the generous heart of a God who chose to be with us in spite of ourselves and how absolutely wrong we were, and still would be without Him. This is a God who came to earth to be crushed for our sins so that we could be made holy. The morning can find us alive because there was once a morning that found Him dead. If this God is for me, who can be against me? If He did not spare Himself, how will He not also with Himself freely give me all things?
What need, then, is there for me to be anything less than honest with this God of great compassion about the suffering in my human condition? I will not close my eyes to the helplessness and turmoil and pain inside me and around me. I will lift my eyes to the maker of the mountains I can’t climb. I will lift my eyes to the calmer of the oceans, raging wild. I will lift my eyes to the healer of the hurt I hold inside. And when it seems like all that I ever wanted is broken, I don’t have to pretend to be something I’m not. I can settle into the sorrow without fear of sinking, because it is in those moments of letting go that I discover myself upheld by everlasting arms. He is, and He was, and He will be forever, the love that I need to save me.
When I listen to Between the Dreaming and the Coming True, the one voice I hear running through it all says this: Listen to the reality of your humanness. Listen to your longing. Listen to your brokenness. Don’t run from it. Don’t cover it over. Settle in, and listen, and let the sadness and the yearning that you feel in the midst of a broken world be all that it is. Jesus is here, and He will meet you here.