Saturday, December 4, 2010

A musical eschaton

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Nearly 15 years ago a handful of high school buddies with some modicum of musical talent came together and formed a band called “Honnold.” It's an odd word, “Honnold.” It's a German family name, as well as the name of the eponymous street in Monroe, Iowa, our hometown. Yes, I was in Honnold, which existed as a proper rock band for just two years before college scattered us across the country, far from each other and our childhood homes in small-town Iowa. As our lives have taken shape since then, Honnold has lived on in various ways, both musically and otherwise. The former drummer, Kyle, and I, with a few other friends along the way, have managed to record three albums, the most recent one in 2008. Especially for Kyle and I, the songwriting and recording bug has never stopped biting, so I suppose we'll continue to periodically come together and do that for years to come.

Writing lyrics has been my least favorite part of songwriting since day one. It's never the first thing that comes to me and it's often pushed to the absolute end of my creative process. I fancy myself a wordsmith but there's something about lyrics that I've never gotten the knack for. There are a few Honnold songs, though, whose lyrics seem to have hit the mark and continue to have particular poignancy vis-a-vis my spiritual journey. The purpose of this post is to explore the lyrics of one such song and let them be a bidirectional lens for reflection on aspects of my spiritual/religious formation. So let's begin at the end.

First, take a listen to the song in question:
Last Song by Honnold

Now read on for the extended reflection...

“Last Song”: Existential restlessness, Call to ministry
As the title suggests, this song appears at the end of our 2002 album, Transparent. It is also a “Last Song” in the sense of when it was written and recorded along with all the other songs. Huddled around an old Roland SH-101 synthesizer given to me by my pastor, Kyle and I finished it in the small hours of the morning one autumn night while my wife and two year-old daughter slept in the rooms adjacent to the office/studio. As an album, Transparent took over a year to write and record and the project was part of a tumultuous period of our family life. I was 23 years old when I pushed “stop” on the recording software to complete the “Last Song” and finish Transparent.

The year before, in 2001, my wife, daughter, and I had moved back to our native Iowa from Kansas, where we spent about four years working on college and starting our life as a family. I started work as a web developer in Des Moines but visions of rock bands were constantly dancing in my head and it wasn't long before I was setting up my home studio. I was the only one of my friends who was married, much less with any children, so Kyle was more than ready to start working on a new Honnold album. As the year progressed I continued to be unsettled at work and at home. Being close to my friends from high school again, many of whom were still in college, created some tension in my wife's and my marriage. At work, I didn't like feeling like a small cog in a very big corporate machine. Also over this period we transitioned from renters to owners (i.e. borrowers). As I find myself saying a lot these days: Life was happening on all fronts. So let's look at the lyrics to “Last Song”; what follows is the first stanza:
I want to feel like this is over
I need to know we'll be okay
You said to wait until we're older
To live dreams that won't go away
And when I leave you will feel colder
Whisper those words you could not say
The two lines in bold cry out from these circumstances. In them I'm speaking to my wife but before I progress any further I should say that my wife may already be a saint. Through this period of time she showed tremendous grace, patience, and forbearance. Put another way: I was a huge pain in the ass.  More recently, in my first two years of seminary, I had to do a lot of reflective work and it's become increasingly clear to me coming through that process that I can be tremendously self-centered and overly ambitious.

The first four lines above reflect the numerous and long soul-searching conversations that my wife and I had during our first year back in Iowa. Amidst this malaise there was the question of vocation. What did I want to be when I (finally) grew up? Briefly we talked about just me moving to LA and completing a year-long recording engineer program, something Kyle had done, then going from there. If I daydreamed about music all the time, maybe that could be my trade? This idea was never concretely acted upon but well after these lyrics were written and the immediate context from/to which they were speaking changed, the question itself continued to agitate. Vocation will come up again later but next let's take a look at the second stanza:
You gave me this much
Now please take it from me
I can't stand on my own
You gave me this chance
Now please come with me
I can't stand to be alone
You gave me this chance
Now please take it from me
You gave me this much
Now please take it from me
I can't stand on my own
I can't stand to be alone
There's deep ambivalence in this stanza and that certainly was part of life at the time. “You” here can seem at times to represent my wife but also God. Which is it? The consistency in repetition of “You gave...” shows that God has ministered to me deeply through my wife, and so I'm happy to let that fuzziness stand. My response here is less sure. Only once do I ask the other, “Now please come with me.” More often I'm asking to be relieved of something, responsibility perhaps. In either case I'm pleading. I'm not sure what I need but it's something other than what I have.

The final two lines in bold are socially and spiritually confessional statements. Socially, it's mostly true that I can't stand to be alone, at least not for long. Spiritually/religiously, I'm a firm believer in what Calvinists refer to as the “total depravity” of humankind. Put in more generic theological language, I have a strong sense that sin has its mark on all of us and on our own accord – individually or collectively – we are ultimately powerless (and deep-down unwilling) to remove it. So to say “I can't stand on my own” implies a need for relationship but also redemption. This desire for relationship continues in the final stanza of the song:
You need to understand
Don't go away now
We've come too far
You need to understand
Just hold me tight like
You need me now
You need to understand
One last fling before we start again
You need to understand
What troubles me in this final stanza is my repetition of “You need to understand.” A fitting rebuttal to this comes from the famous prayer attributed to Francis of Assisi: “O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.” Being open to correction and learning from past mistakes (whether actions or attitudes) implies some level of humility and is part and parcel of the Christian life. Without humility, pride goes unchecked, increasingly deadening your critical self-awareness to the point where you no longer have eyes to see nor ears to hear Jesus' word that precedes the gospel: “Repent!”

Similar to its lyrics, the music of “Last Song” expresses feelings of ambivalence and hope born out of a deep sense of longing. The song is opened by a full minute of instrumental fading to near-complete silence before the song starts back in. Each stanza is accompanied by a shifting mood, first reflective, then more demanding, then back again before the song begins to close in a swirling mix of guitars and synthesizer. The guitars fade and the synthesizer has the final word in a buzzing, undulating downward spiral into silence. End of song. End of album. End of the road? What just happened? Exactly.

To close this reflection it seems right to say that “Last Song” is a beautiful window into a deeply troubled part of my past. Musically, Kyle and I still enjoy listening to this song. Stylistically, it built the bridge to the album which we would record over five years later in much better circumstances. The personal and theological junk of mine it digs up still makes me wince but I see the seeds of hope planted in this song. Following the persistent dreams of God's call to radical discipleship certainly seem to have their early manifestations here, both in the lyrics and in what was going on in my life when I wrote them.

Beyond the end
The concrete steps that led to a significant life change for my family started two years after Transparent was finished, in 2004, when I was 25 years-old. While working full-time in corporate IT, which I still was not enamored with, I began working on a BA in English. The expressed intent of this move was to 1) provide further time for discernment and 2) make me eligible for pursuing further study, likely at seminary. The first hints of my call to set-apart ministry came in high school and popped up here and there through the experiences described above. This call finally started to take prominence in my discernment process, which was thankfully becoming more communal, therefore less me-centered. By the time I graduated at the end of 2007, at the age of 28, it was only a few months later when the strong sign came that our lives were about to change significantly.

After graduation, as I mentioned above, another Honnold album came to fruition. Written and recorded entirely in the month of February, 2008, Doxford International is a symbol for a moment of my life in which the same deep longing persisted but accompanying circumstances had dramatically improved on all fronts, personally and professionally and spiritually. Seven days after Kyle and I pushed “stop” on Doxford International, I encountered the man who triggered the end of life as we knew it. Howard Zehr was speaking in Des Moines at a restorative justice conference at which I was also doing some speaking. Something struck me about the man and prompted me to look him up on the internet once I got back to my office from the conference. It was then that I discovered EMU, their Center for Justice and Peacebuilding and the seminary, as well as the dual degree program between those two. Life currents suddenly converged and it was clear to my wife and I both: This was it.

Now just over halfway through our time at EMU, with both my wife and I working on graduate studies, I'm certain “Last Song” will continue to sing into our life. As a symbolic eschaton it begs the question: What's next? That very question weighs on us nearly every day because we have no crystal clear plans for post-graduation life. These “dreams that won't go way” certainly haven't, eight years later. We've moved past the “wait until we're older” phase and seemed to have entered into a sojourning existence, which many Christian scholars have helped me see should be the permanent expectation for the Church and its members, disciples of Jesus Christ on the Way to that big “E” Eschaton, the fulfillment of God's Kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven.” So by the life-giving Spirit we continue on, striving to be mindful/faithful in the present, while periodically looking up and around for glimpses of what may lie ahead.

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