“O God, I would bring before Thee tonight the burden of the world’s life….”*
I have spent much of life walking into the rooms of the world, asked to speak into the questions of the human heart. Who are we? What is the world like? What do we believe about the world, and what difference does it make? How are to live and labor and learn? And on and on.
A few years ago I was introduced by a good man whom I know well, whose invitation was to speak to people who in their own ways had come longing for more reality, for ways of making sense of life and the world. His first question to me, wanting the group to get to know me a bit, was something like this: “Whenever I ask you, ‘So how are you, Steve?’ you say something like, ‘There are things that make me glad, and things that make me groan.’ Why is that?”
We had not practiced this, so his question was a surprise. All I could say was simply, “Because that is my life; I have no other life than that.” All day long, every day, there is beauty and there is tragedy, there is honest joy and heartbreaking sorrow, there is glory and there is ruin. Every day that is the life I have, that is the world I know.
And I thought of this again this week, joining scores of thousands at the U2 concert in Pittsburgh. Thousands and thousands of men and women of different generations, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, older and younger, some from the ‘Burgh itself, and many who had driven hundreds of miles from faraway places to spend an early summer evening with Bono and his band rock-and-rolling our way through some of their best music.
It was glorious. From the opening moments when a rainbow appeared literally right over the stage just as the band was coming out, causing me to wonder whether some artistic and technological genius employed by U2 had “created” a rainbow for wonder and effect… but then realizing that even U2 couldn’t pull that off. It could only have come from heaven above for reasons that I can imagine, but don’t fully understand.
A U2 concert is nothing if not amazing, from glorious beginning to glorious end, with incredible energy and unparalleled skill the band singing songs shaped by the truest truths of the universe in language the whole world can understand. With a screen backdrop as big as the stage itself running across the whole of the end zone in Heinz Field, moment-by-moment we were mesmerized by the technological wizardry of their creative imagination, song by song twined together with visual images that gave us windows into more than words alone can ever convey.
But as full of wonder as it all was, before the night was over we were invited into the wounds of the world too— because that too is U2. In a way that is unique on the face of the earth in this generation of artists, the band has used its platform to give voice to things that are just not right in the world. One cannot enter in very fully to their music without being forced to think about the wrongs and sorrows of life.
Years ago now I was asked to contribute to a book of essays on U2’s music. The question was asked of some folks from all over the English-speaking world, “Would you be willing to contribute to a collection an address you have given that interacts with their music?” I offered two, which became part of a book called, Get Up Off Your Knees. Given in different places to different people, both of mine were public presentations that drew on songs by U2 that were born of loss and longing, one a speech at a college and one a wedding homily.
Walking into the rooms of the world in which I work, my assumption is always that everyone has suffered in some way. Sometimes with heartbreaking sorrow, sometimes with aching disappointment, but I have come to conclusion that everyone knows “the burdens of the world’s life.” And so when I speak about what I speak about, I always want to make sure that I acknowledge that reality. It is a broken, broken world, and we are broken, broken people, sons of Adam and daughters of Eve who in our very different ways know both the glory and the ruin of the human heart.
When the whole of Heinz Field sang out, “How long, how long must we sing this song….?” the words ringing out across the city of Pittsburgh all the way to heaven above, I could only think of the good gift it is to sometimes, somewheres, have music that is true to the way the world really is. The guitars rang out, the drums beat, the voices loud enough to be heard across the Golden Triangle, every one of us singing our own song, wondering as we must about the meaning of life, knowing our own hurts, feeling our own pains, hoping and hoping that someday somehow we will find what we are looking for, what we are longing after with every fiber of our being.
That is the great gift of U2, and it is why the stadiums of the world fill up at almost a moment’s notice when the word goes out that the biggest band in the world is going to come again to sing their songs shaped by the truest truths of the universe in language the whole world can understand. We all know those songs, we all will sing them, again and again and again.
*(Prayer from John Baillie, Scottish Presbyterian, 20th-century, the evening of the eighth day of the month, Diary of Private Prayer)