40, Revisited

Prologue

Tonight, I will see my fifth U2 show. The first one was 30 years ago. It was November 3, 1987, at the former St. Paul Civic Center, and the first of two shows. The tour was supporting The Joshua Tree, and the show we are seeing tonight is the 30th anniversary of that record and that tour.

Thirteen years later, Jen and I began attending a small church in Minneapolis called Bryn Mawr Presbyterian. Being a small church, members are sometimes called upon to do things you would never see in a larger church, and in in my case, in 2000, not long after we joined, I was asked to “deliver the message” aka Preach. I’ve done it maybe a dozen times since then, but this time was my first.

This is the story I told back then. It seems relevant to revisit it again, given the occasion. The problem is, I don’t have the original anymore. It was stored on a hard drive that crashed a few years ago and I was not able to recover it. I thought I would try to rewrite that story, but then I realized a couple of important things. First, my memory, as it turns out, is not so great that I can recall the text of a meditation I wrote nearly 20 years ago.

Second, and more importantly, I had a realization: The story has changed over time. My life experience is different now and even if I could recreate that story, it would be nothing more than a snapshot in time from my past. As a result, this story not a replica, but is a new story, inspired by the original.

I

Something happened in the room that night. I can’t explain it, but I know others experienced it too. For years after that night, whenever I encountered someone that had also seen that concert, the first question always asked was “which night were you there?” We all knew that something had happened, that we’d been touched in some way, even if we weren’t sure what it was. It was warm, spiritual, communal – it was like church. The question that always came out eventually was – “Was there something in the room that night?”

II

The song is called “40”. It’s from U2’s “War” album. For years the band used it as the final number to close its shows. I’ve never been one to pay attention to lyrics all that much, but I was always taken with the musical aspects of the song. As is the case with most songs, I am usually drawn to the sound of the instrumentation, and in a rock song like 40, that means the interplay between guitar, bass and drums. I hear the vocal too, but I hear it more as just another instrument – just another musical element of the song.
40 does this interesting thing. It starts very small, with just the bass, adding drums and then guitar. It builds, and then the vocal is introduced. As the song continues to build, it eventually reaches a peak, and then begins to wind down, deconstructing itself as it concludes. As a show closer, the effect is very cool. Each band member, as their part is peeled off, leaves the stage and does not return. First Bono and the vocal, then Edge and the guitar, then Adam and the bass, and finally Larry playing the drums all alone on the stage. Then he concludes and, the show ends, the lights come up, and everyone goes home into the night.
What is 40 about? I never really cared or paid attention. Was it about impending middle age? Who knew. I only knew that I loved how the song made me feel when I heard it and how it perfectly tied a bow onto the end of a U2 show.

III

In the early part of my youth, my family did not attend church, but later we began to attend a nearby Catholic church. I guess you could say I “grew up Catholic” as that is where all my formative religious experiences came from. Both Mom and Dad were Catholic in their upbringing. Mom had a little more church experience than Dad, and I think they wanted to make sure I had a religious experience growing up. She always said it would give me a foundation to help me decide for myself what I wanted as an adult. She was right.

I was a pretty good experience, as a young person. I connected with other kids my age and we formed a tight-knit group. We went to CCD and confirmation together, took retreats up North to the Boundary Waters, participated in bowling leagues, and generally looked to one another for support and comfort as we navigated our adolescence. I have very fond memories of those experiences and the friendships I made. Some of those friendships extended into my adulthood, and others did not last.

Despite the strong bonds formed with people in the church, as I grew older and began to think more critically about the teachings of the church, about what it believed, and about what it said I needed to believe to be an observant Catholic, the more I began to ask questions. It became increasingly difficult to reconcile what I saw and heard. It was become a sort of hypocrisy, one that revealed itself to me in different ways. As this unease continued to grow, I began to believe that I could not continue in the church without becoming a full-fledged hypocrite myself. So, when I became old enough to make my own decision, I ran and never looked back.

IV

Paul David Hewson – aka Bono, for those of you who don’t know – was born in 1960 in Dublin, to a protestant mother and catholic father. She died in 1974 when he was 14. Dad made it a lot longer, passing in 2001 at the age of 75. The early experiences with church and religion formed his world view. The tension between his catholic and protestant influences created a certain balance, one that has permeated the band’s music and philanthropic causes.

Full disclosure: I love Bono. Even though some people describe him as self-righteous, an elitist hypocrite, and a pompous, self-aggrandizing gasbag, I love him. In fact, these are the reasons I love him. Not because he is all of these things – who knows? I don’t know him, so I have no idea if these descriptors are true. No, I love him because of how he uses his pulpit as a forum for discussion of topics that a lot of people would choose to avoid – HIV/AIDS, hunger, extreme poverty, the plight of refugees, human rights, etc. – all things that most reasonable people can agree are bad.

Perhaps such social consciousness, paired with the excesses of a successful life as a rock star, can easily make one a target for criticism. I can accept that. Maybe U2 is just not your cup of tea? I get that too. I don’t like Bob Marley – so sue me. But me? I am huge fan, and will glad weather the occasional “Shut Up and Sing” hurled at him. Some people have their Lennon, or Beatles, or Stones, or Marley, or Springsteen, or Vedder, or Morrissey. For me, that band is U2, and that person is Bono.

My favorite Bono story revolves around the late Senator Jesse Helms. The two became friends, despite their vast political differences and views of the world. Bono arranged a meeting to discuss an AIDS relief package for African nations. Helms was chair of the Senate Foreign Relation committee at the time, and any such conversation would have to flow through him. Rather than confronting Helms on his previous statements, who called LGBT people “perverts” and “weak, morally sick wretches”, they focused on their common ground in their biblical upbringing, ultimately reading scripture and praying together.

This connection created a bridge, one where the topic could be discussed as an issue of faith, free of politics or sexual morality. Through several conversations, Helms became convinced that the modern-day AIDS epidemic was no different than New Testament stories of Jesus healing the lepers, and that people of faith had not just an opportunity to do something about it, but an obligation. Later, on the occasion of the Bush administration issuing a $5B AIDS relief package to Africa, the president said in his speech “Dick Cheney walked into the Oval office, he said, ‘Jesse Helms wants us to listen to Bono’s idea.'”

V

I never really had too much difficulty in school while growing up. Grades came pretty easy to me. I was always the smart kid. Even in first grade, the teachers let me read stories aloud to the other kids. As I got older, while some kids passed me by, I never really had a hard time in school. I could get an A or B just by showing up.

When I got to college I began struggling right away. My past success was no predictor at all of future performance. As quickly became Cs, and sometimes worse. I changed colleges a couple of times and things didn’t really improve. As it turns out, intelligence was not nearly enough. Success in college required effort, drive, organization, and commitment, and I had none of these at that time. At one point, at the University of Minnesota, I bottomed out, grade-wise, and then dropped out. So, after what was a fairly humiliating college experience, I went to work.

I had a series of not-great jobs, and was generally miserable. Choosing to not go to college is a perfectly acceptable thing, if that is what you want – but it is not what I wanted. I had failed, and it reflected back at me constantly. Dropping out and working was probably the best thing for me, but at the time I could not possibly have been convinced of that. I just saw myself as a 21-year old failure, with no prospects, and no hope that anything good would come my way. In that mindset, feeling like a loser, it is easy to make bad choices, ones that a confident person wouldn’t make. So naturally, I made many.

VI

Jen and I started church shopping in early 2000. Ryan was five, never baptized, and we’d begun to wonder if we needed to give him some type of church experience. I’d been away from the church for 15 years. I can’t say I was angry, as any lingering feelings about my previous experience had long faded. I was just being reminded anew that religion, by its very nature, is a strange thing. I appreciate the power for good that it can be, and am distrustful of its bureaucracy and rules, which often puts people second in line in importance behind those rules. More than anything, however, I am naturally suspicious of anyone that says they have all of the answers, so I headed into this process with a wary eye.

I felt that I’d moved on from my Catholicism, so going back there was not an option. So we decided to explore. We tried the Unitarians. That didn’t seem much like church to me – more of a political rally or community meeting. Then we tried the Quakers. It was ok. The quiet contemplation was nice, but so far removed from the high-church experience I grew up with that it still seemed very foreign. Everyone was nice, but it all seemed weird. I was beginning to think that there would never be a good fit, and considered giving up.

At some point in our process, Jen found a website for a small in the Bryn Mawr neighborhood of Minneapolis. It was Presbyterian, and other than being Protestant, I had no idea what that meant. Truthfully I still don’t, not exactly. I didn’t really want to go, but she used her wifely-powers to convince me. We went, and amazingly, it was Ok. I didn’t think it was that weird. It had a nice mix of casual and high-churchy things. It was new, but with a certain familiarity in ritual. It stated an openness to all kinds of folks, which we were able confirm in our observations. It had a cool gospel choir, and a rich musical tradition. So we came, and we stayed.

VII

Some time after we’d been attending the church for a while, I was up late. It was that moment in the day, after all the chaos that is part of a typical day in the life of a young family, where it was peaceful and quiet. Jen and Ryan (this was BE – Before Evan) were asleep, and I was up, decompressing from my day. Frequently at this time of the day I’d be sitting in front of the computer with my guitar, looking up chords and tablature for songs I know. Frequently it would be The Beatles, as the songs are fun, the chord progressions are often interesting, and it was easy enough to play and sing along at the same time. On this night I was digging through the U2 catalogue.

There are so many great songs. Sunday Bloody Sunday. Bad. Pride. With or Without You. One. The challenging thing is that not all of these songs are too intuitive to play on an acoustic guitar, at least when you compare them to the recording. But eventually you find that pattern, and like a good Beatles song, you can just sing along.

It was that night I revisited a song I hadn’t thought about for a long time – 40. I remembered the cool way the song started, and tried to emulate the bass intro. Eventually I worked out some chord voicings that sounded ok. I finally got to the lyrics, and after a bit of singalong, I had a sudden and shocking moment of clarity. Sitting in front of me, in plain sight, were the words to Psalm 40. I mentioned I’ve never been much for lyrics, and hadn’t been much for church either, and so until that moment I’d never made the connection.

I raced to find a bible and looked up the passage. As I read it, I sat there stunned, and a wave of emotion began to wash over me. In that instant, all the fragments of my life began to come together into a story that started to make sense. I thought about growing up in the church, both the good and the bad. I thought about my life as a young adult, feeling like a failure at the the things that were most important to me, and how low and dark that time of my life was. I thought about my family and the path I’d taken to where I was at that moment.

Most of all, I thought about that night in 1987 in St.Paul, and how everything in my life at that time was part of a story that I didn’t yet understand, that things were happening even in my dark moments, that I wouldn’t see until much later. At that moment, I felt trapped in a life I didn’t want but could not escape. What I know now is that show was a lifeline, a way to buoy me and give me a moment of inspiration when I most needed it.

What I didn’t understand in November of 1987 was the things that were directly, immediately in front me that I could not yet see. I couldn’t see then that in just a few weeks I would meet a pretty girl who would quickly become the love of my life and we’d set off on a grand adventure. I didn’t know that shortly after that I’d return to college full time, finish strong, and later complete graduate school. I didn’t know that I’d have two lovely amazing sons, and that being a dad and husband would become my most fulfilling, important calling. What I didn’t understand until much later, until sitting in front of a computer with a guitar and a bible, was that night in 1987 was the beginning of a new chapter in my life, a narrative that would propel me forward 30 years, to today.

There was definitely something in the room

Epilogue

I waited patiently for the Lord, he inclined and heard my cry
He brought me up out of the pit, out of the miry clay
I will sing, sing a new song. I will sing, sing a new song.
How long to sing this song. How long to sing this song.

He set my feet upon a rock, and made my footsteps firm
Many will see, many will see and hear
I will sing, sing a new song. I will sing, sing a new song.
How long to sing this song. How long to sing this song. that night.

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