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wandering church: U2 and hebrews

February 20th, 2006 by isaac · 13 Comments

Music has always been important to my friends and me. If nothing interesting was going on, we’d head to Zia Records and wander up and down the aisles of new and used CDs. Maybe someone would buy something, but not necessarily. It felt good just to look around and talk about music. Songs were part of our common language; music flowed through every corner of our worlds. Sometimes we’d be sitting on a back porch talking about nothing, or maybe we’d cram into a car at midnight and head for the first rest stop up Mount Lemon to see the city lights, or we would be out in the middle of the desert at the edge of town watching the stars—and someone would break the silence or the chatter and say, “Dude, I can hear Mazzy Star right now. Yeah, Fade into You is the perfect song right now.” And, we’d stop… and think for a minute—we had to feel the moment while playing the song in our heads. Sometimes it was unanimous: “Fade into You…yeah…perfect.” Other times a heated argument ensued: “No way! Forget that, man. You’re totally off. Right now feels like something off the live Portishead album, or…” We were after a soundtrack, a soundtrack to our lives—an album we could play in the background of our very ordinary lives.

It’s the inverse of some of Brian Eno’s projects. Many call him the father of electronica—but that’s a bit misleading because his stuff sounds nothing like today’s “electronica.” Anyhow, he made a few soundtracks… but they weren’t soundtracks to any movie. Instead, he created music-scapes for imaginary movies, imaginary lives, imaginary landscapes. Great stuff. But my friends and I did the opposite sort of thing. Music was the language that held our lives together and we wanted a compilation album that made sense of us, or helped us make sense of our ordinary worlds; or, probably more true (maybe even painfully true), we were a bunch of kids stuck in the middle of an uninteresting town with middle-class lives and middle-class problems that struggled to escape the ordinary, to make things a little more interesting, more edgy—you know, piercings and tattoos, and stuff like that. This is indie America, friends. It’s no accident that Conor Oberst and his constantly shifting crew (i.e., Bright Eyes) are from Nebraska.

Well, I don’t know what this says about me, but I still carry around this idea of a soundtrack to life. Most of my songs are still in limbo; I’m not ready to release an album. But there are two that you can be quite sure will make the final cut: Radiohead’s “Talk Show Host” and U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Yeah, that U2 song, in particular, says it all—as Lauryn Hill and the Fugees might say, “Telling my whole life with his words.” It’s one of those songs that I can’t live without; the sounds and melodic words reach deep down inside me and accompany those groans too deep for words. It’s a song that walks with me, whose music moans with a world waiting in eager expectation for something to happen—the arrival of something that will make sense of the shadows. When I hear it I feel something stirring in this present darkness: a fleeting beauty, a glimpse of eternal light, something unspeakable,…maybe divine?

But it has to be the live version from Rattle and Hum, not the one from Joshua Tree. There’s something about that African-American gospel choir that sings along with Bono—it just makes more sense. In the Madison Square Garden, singing with a full gospel choir, Bono sings these words that, in a sense, become my words, the words of a pilgrim—or, better said, a refugee:

I have climbed the highest mountain; I have run through the fields, only to be with you. I have run; I have crawled; I have scaled these city walls, only to be with you. But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for… He will lift you higher and higher. He will pick you up when you fall. He will be the shelter from the storm. I believe in the Kingdom come, then all the colors will bleed into one, bleed into one, but yes I’m still running. You broke the bonds, loosed the chains, carried the cross of my shame, of my shame, you know I believe it. But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.

It speaks of a taste, a sweet moment, a brief glimpse of something. But as soon as it came, it left again: I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. Does the overflow of ecstatic love leave despair in its wake? It’s hard to say. Maybe that’s why I’m usually pretty pessimistic about this world that’s fading away. But the song also witnesses to newness… something happened: I’m still running, Bono says. And that’s just it. I can’t help but keep on runningcrawlingclimbing. Because there’s still that after-taste on the tongue, a faint savoring. There was a brief glimpse that passed away as soon as it came, but I am left remembering—and it’s a memory that promises, a memory that births hope.

Maybe years of listening to that song predisposed me to the Epistle to the Hebrews. That letter makes me feel the same sorts of things I feel when I listen to U2’s song. Right in the middle of the description of those great saints who lived by faith, we read about the wandering people of God, the refugees:

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. (Heb. 11:13-16)

They were aliens and strangers on earth because they were longing for a better country. And Bono sings, “I have climbed the highest mountain; I have run through the fields, only to be with you. I have run; I have crawled; I have scaled these city walls, only to be with you. But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” One echoes the other.

Unsettling. The text and song disturb any sense of belonging: “Where’s home?” “Who are my people?” Of course this unsettling provocation calls into question civic commitments and political ‘responsibility’—this is not our country. But the way Hebrews and the U2 song unsettle me runs deeper than the issues surrounding citizenship and belonging to the nation-state. My question: who am I? If I am without place, without a context, without frames of reference, my identity (dare I say ontology?) is insecure, tentative, unstable. It’s like being stuck in the middle of the Atlantic without a compass or stars above that could set the bearings for the journey. This, I think, is Bono’s desperate longing; this is Israel’s wandering in the wilderness, desperately awaiting the promised land—a people without land, looking for “the world to come,” as the writer of Hebrews puts it.

Is this the ecclesia? A people always called out? A people never arriving, never fixed or settled; rather, always to come—a provisional people, nomads living in tents, worshiping in tabernacles. The church: a people hastening to the edge of history’s collapse, and waiting for the city of promise to come down from heaven; a wandering people, marching (in circles?) in this chaotic wilderness at the border of the promised land, the heavenly city. The temptation in our wilderness is to build lasting houses, comfortable accommodations filled with the comforts of accommodation, which promise to shield permanently the desert winds—structures of order that promise reasonable and responsible defenses against the relentless bombardment of violent sand-storms, anarchic whirlwinds.

This is the ecclesia: the pilgrim people of God, refugees that witness to the world to come through wandering, through breaching the walls of security erected by those who fear the desert…

Aliens and strangers on earth, longing for a better country—a heavenly one.

Tags: life · music · pop culture · theology

13 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jason // Feb 21, 2006 at 6:36 pm

    Your post really resonated with me, Isaac. It seems the more classes I take and the more books I read the less I know and the more I feel like a wanderer. Unfortunately it feels that often the only place I find other people searching, wandering, “breaching walls of security” is in the blogosphere. Right now, wandering in the desert sounds like a good place.  A place where I can breathe and see and rest… Usually, though, it feels like my spirituality takes place in the city, where the streets are cramped and the walls thick and impermeable.

    And now I’m off to find that U2 song on iTunes, the Rattle and Hum version, of course.

  • 2 Camassia // Feb 22, 2006 at 10:58 am

    Isaac, you sound like the next candidate for my burning a copy of that bootleg U2 CD that Beth of U2 Sermons sent me. It has a great version of that song on it, with an added verse.

  • 3 Nancy // Feb 22, 2006 at 2:53 pm

    Great post, Isaac. Excellent unpacking of U2’s song (and I liked the shout out to “Killing Me Softly” -one of my all time favs in highschool). I think many people resonate with songs that are able to say what they can’t quite put into words, music which makes the sounds of the soul.

    Well done.

  • 4 isaac // Mar 1, 2006 at 8:32 am

    Thanks for all the kind comments. And thanks for taking the time to read my rambling thoughts about spirituality, and I am grateful that some of ya’ll were even edified! That’s great.

    In an email Jason said I should see if I could get this thing published at Relevent Magazine. He thinks it might be the sort of thing that fits well over there. I’m wondering what ya’ll think—if there is anyone else out there familiar with that mag. What are the weak points that I should think about changing or cutting or whatever? Maybe the whole thing is just nice and fits well on a blog, but isn’t the sort of thing that’s worth putting in mag? Any thoughts?

  • 5 Beth // Apr 14, 2006 at 10:24 am

    Isaac, I don’t know why it took me so long to notice this, but I’m going to link it on U2 Sermons after Easter. Lovely post.

  • 6 isaac // Apr 14, 2006 at 10:32 am

    Thanks for the visit, Beth. And for the kind comment.

  • 7 Ellen // Apr 22, 2006 at 7:07 am

    Found this post via U2sermons – “Stranger in a Strange Land” is the name of my weblog, and U2 is my favorite band ever, so you might see why it resonates with me just a little… :)

  • 8 Craig // May 1, 2006 at 11:19 pm

    Bono rocks and so do you !! And, yes, the gospel choir version is definitely the best
    God Bless
    (and Peace Out, my Brother)
    Micah 6:8

  • 9 isaac // May 2, 2006 at 4:36 pm

    Thanks Ellen and Craig for the kind comments. Ellen, I checked out your site. And it looks like you are in the neighborhood—do you worship at Church of the Holy Family in Chapel Hill? I have friends there. And I worship at Chapel Hill Mennonite just across the road on Raleigh Road near UNC. We meet in Sunday evenings (5pm). If you ever want to stop by, you are more then welcome.

  • 10 Pastor Bill // Mar 9, 2007 at 2:10 pm

    Just a quick thank you for your comments about U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” I have been a pastor (Lutheran—ELCA) for almost 9 years and this song has always touched me deeply. I am reflecting on this song in my sermon this week. I did a search on line and found your blog and just wanted to say thanks.

    Peace to you as we journey through Lent and anticipate Easter.

    Pastor Bill Dahlberg

  • 11 isaac // Mar 17, 2007 at 3:54 am

    Pastor Bill, thanks for checking out the blog, and for your comment. I hope you visit often.


  • 12 dave wainscott // Jul 11, 2008 at 5:15 pm

    Great post

    I teach at Fresno Pacific U, and am a U2 fan, so of course I loved this post. inspired this:

  • 13 isaac // Jul 17, 2008 at 12:38 pm


    Thanks for reading my post. And thanks for the link to your website. It’s nice to find a brother who digs U2.