the sound of being born (looking for salvation in Madison Square Garden)

I am going to take it easy for a bit on sharing book excerpts, generally. But I felt like I somehow needed to share something that actually has some joy in it--the kind of joy that ambushes you at night, like a stranger, even when you've been spending your days trying to drown out the sound of your demons. In July, I went to see U2 in New York City at Madison Square Garden. I said little about it at the time to much of anyone-the experience was too holy. It was within weeks of the deadline for How to Survive a Shipwreck. At least for a moment, it was an experience of my soul finding the shore--so at the last minute, I included it, late in the manuscript: 

I was afraid Tulsa would feel like exile.  But instead the town itself has been synonymous with the name of the Church I work for now—sanctuary.  The simple authenticity of the people here makes me feel even safer than the ingrained politeness of the South where I grew up.  I have good friends and genuine community here that help bring me back to life, slowly.  I thought that in letting go of the town where I felt called, I might be letting go of God himself.  What a surprise, to find out he has a place in Tulsa, too. 

Many days, I wake up feeling like I misplaced my whole life, and there are tears.  I still wonder how I got here, sometimes.  I feel like the new puppy, Stella, I got a few weeks after I arrived, the day I brought her home.  It was time for bed, and you could almost hear through her squealing—but where is my mom?  What happened to my family?  What am I doing here?  And yet in the softness of my new friends here, there is grace. 

 I had just been in Tulsa for a little over a month about the time that U2’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience” tour was coming to an end.  I had not missed a North American U2 tour in 20 years, and was seized with the impulse that I could not bear to miss one, now.  A lifelong fan who had been to 15 shows before, I actually wasn’t sure that I was ready for the emotion I knew would be waiting at the door of the arena, if I showed up then.  But for all that had changed and was still changing, the wide open spaces of U2’s music had always felt to me like home.  So just days before the show, I splurged to make it all happen—a last minute flight to New York City to the next-to-last show of the tour, in Madison Square Garden.

I was in the city for less than 24 hours.  I had been there a number of times before, but never like this, in my discolored new skin, on these unsteady new feet, as a stranger to my new life.  It was alien; and it was magical.  Down on the floor, a few feet away from the stage, letting all of me out into the wideness of sound, I sung out my old innocence, and sung into my own songs of experience, going from the garden into the depths of hell, and came back round again.  I already had quite a soul-history with the song “Beautiful Day,” a tune about the life that begins with the sky falls.  But I had never had the sky fall in like this before.  I had never lost so much.  And thus, I had never known such skin-bursting new life, that thing that came out of my chest cavity during as I sang along with Bono at the top of my lungs: “WHAT YOU DON’T HAVE, YOU DON’T NEED IT NOW, WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW YOU CAN FEEL, SOMEHOW!”  God, yes.   

The fleeting moments of joy I had experienced thus far—and there truthfully had not been many of them, yet—came wrapped in guilt for swaddling clothes.  It was as if any new life I experienced that brought me pleasure, was a life that did not belong to me, and thus a life I had no business enjoying.  And so during the song “City of Blinding Lights,” while Bono was singing, “some pray for, others steal, blessings not just for the ones that kneel…luckily,” I am weeping.   Because I know that whether I feel I have a proper claim on these new gifts or not, God is the one who is giving them.  And in the same way that the shipwreck taught me to open my hands, and open my life, and let the waves have their way with me; now I had to give myself over to wave of blessing sweeping over me, just as much.  Again here comes the Spirit, sweeping over the face of the waters—like she always does. 

Throughout the tour, the band had been playing a cover of Paul Simon’s beautiful “Mother and Child Reunion” during the encore:

No, I would not give you false hope

On this strange and mournful day

But the mother and child reunion

Is only a motion away

 

Oh, little darling of mine,

I can't for the life of me

Remember a sadder day

I know they say, "Let it be"

But it just don't work out that way

And the course of a lifetime runs

Over and over again

 

No, I would not give you false hope

On this strange and mournful day

But the mother and child reunion

Is only a motion away

 

Oh, little darling of mine,

I just can't believe it's so

Though it seems strange to say

I never been laid so low

In such a mysterious way and the course of a lifetime runs

Over and over again

 

But I would not give you false hope

On this strange and mournful day

When the mother and child reunion

Is only a motion away

 It’s a song that moves me deeply, that Simon wrote after his dog died in 1971—and how I missed my sweet little dog, back in North Carolina.  How I missed, everything.  It’s a song about not giving false hope, and how unrealistic it is in grief to follow the counsel of the Beatles a few years before, and just “let it be.”  And yet there is this message embedded, too, that there is still a reunion possible, somewhere on the other side, “only a motion away.”  That maybe there is a space just beyond this one, where all the things we can’t make right on this side of veil, will be made right, still.  That there is a reunion on the other side of us, where we can be reunited with all those we feel estranged from now, in a kingdom big enough for all of them, with new hearts big enough to love and embrace them all.  And their hearts will be large enough, too, in this spaciousness of grace, to embrace us back, past all of our sins against them. 

 Since it was New York City, and the end of the tour—there was Paul Simon, just in front of the stage.  The 73-year old songwriter got up on stage to join U2, while Bono bowed, and sung it through with the band behind him.  I heard myself say, out loud, “My God.”  I felt a reunion in my own soul, with own God, with my own life.  I was not yet at home in the world, and in some ways may never be…until the day.  But I was at home inside my own skin again, at least, and in my weary bones. 

 If there was still some ambiguity, about whether or not the hoped for reunion can or will be realized, U2’s guitarist The Edge answered the question, chiming out the opening chords to the band’s most soulish anthem, “Where the Streets Have No Name.”  If that is not what being born again sounds like, what is?

Then and now,  I’m as white as I ever was.  But damn if I don’t have my own shout.