Broken Together

Music is the narration of my life. I can think of an applicable lyric fragment to nearly any situation, and certain songs still have a visceral effect on me, as they evoke strong feelings from past events.

Music has a way of touching us deeply like no other expression. Music imprints itself upon our consciousness. How many of us used a song to memorize otherwise useless information, like the periodic table (no, I never did actually memorize that)? Really though, chances are much higher that you remember the lyrics to some song than a book you read or movie you saw. Soaring strings can lift your spirits and dissonance can make you feel uncomfortable.

Many years ago, I made the decision to listen primarily to Christian music. This wasn’t based on theology or conviction, but a simple observation. As I drove daily through Houston, I found myself much more tense when listening to the Top 40 station than when I listened to the Christian station. I really don’t care if it’s music or teaching, I just feel more peaceful when hearing the things of God.

However, my critical nature is difficult to keep in check. Some songs are on very shaky theological ground. Others are, as Twila Paris put it, “bubble-gum pop” with nothing of substance. Others are simply “7/11s”, with the same seven words repeated 11 times.

Since I am so hard on so many artists (and for the most part, this is an inner conversation that I don’t subject others to, except on occasion my wife), I thought it would be worthwhile to celebrate some of the truly excellent music that has touched me in recent years. From time to time I will write a blog like this where I highlight a song that is excellent in its composition, arrangement, performance, and theology.

First on my list is “Broken Together” by Casting Crowns. This song is rich in so many dimensions. The first time I heard it my heart was gripped by the gut-wrenching honesty and vulnerability of a man admitting his failure and renewed dedication to his wife.

Musically, the persistent, insistent, repeated note in the left hand of the piano creates a tension which is reflected in the lyrics. As the emotion is poured out, the tension builds until finally resolving in the chorus when the words change gradually from pain to hope. This is a marvelous example of music that is perfectly suited to the lyrics.

Also, the simplicity of the arrangement places the emphasis squarely where it belongs, with the lyrics. The piano provides sufficient foundation with support from a lone cello at times, and understated strings in the chorus. As a side note, if the violin is the voice of the orchestra, the cello is the soul. The prominence of the cello in this piece is appropriate to its soulful subject matter. I love everything about this orchestration, as the different instruments blend flawlessly to carry us along on this difficult emotional ride.

Mark Hall’s performance is honest and unassuming. It doesn’t feel like he is performing, but rather that he is pouring out the hurt, fear, and hope in his heart. This vulnerability adds to the discomfort of being included in a conversation where we don’t belong, which in turn allows us to connect to our own failings.

There is no deep theology here, just common human experience. Too many people come into marriage with an idealized notion that their spouse will fulfill all their needs. Too many marriages devolve into separate lives lived under the same roof as that reality sinks in, and fulfillment is sought in other avenues (work, children, recreation).

The theological truth is this: I’m not perfect and neither are you. But if we come together to the God who is, he can give us the strength to bear with one another and be more together than we are separately. That is, when I stop trying to “fix” you and accept all of your strengths and weaknesses, and especially accept that God is working in your life to conform you to the image of Christ, just as he is in mine, and when I humbly confess to you my failings and imperfections and stop pretending like I am perfect and can do no wrong, THEN perhaps I can love you the way you need to be loved, and you can do the same for me. But none of this is possible apart from the power of God working in our lives.

New Year’s Resolution: Remember

Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.
James 1:23-25

I got a dash cam for Christmas. You know, a video camera that looks out of your windshield and records continuously. Once the sole purview of law enforcement, they are now the preferred yuppie (is that even a thing anymore?) toy. I believe that one day they will be built in to all cars as standard equipment.

Dash cams are great in the event of an accident or other traffic incident. Having a video record of what actually happened can go a long way towards proving your innocence (or guilt!). My model has a built-in accelerometer that detects a collision and locks the recording so that it can’t be overwritten.

I wanted one because my daily commute takes me through a beautiful canyon alongside a minor creek where the foothills rise up on either side and the foliage is lush and colorful. On occasion the deer and (rarely) elk will compete for right-of-way on the road. The red rocks rise powerfully, insistently from the earth and the skyline is defined by the sharp ridge of a hill just above the tree line.

I catch glimpses of this beauty as I drive, but my attention is necessarily focused on the road, and I can’t appreciate it fully. So I wanted a camera to record my trip so I can look at the wonder of God’s creation in the safety and comfort of my office, at my leisure. I’m excited to try it out when I return to work.

However, after the initial installation a sobering realization came over me. What if my camera reveals just how bad of a driver I am? I mean, I think I’m a pretty good driver, but then 70% of Americans think they are above-average drivers (do the math, let that sink in). I’ve never had an at-fault accident and I have no tickets on my record. We are all the stars of our own show, and the screenplay of my life is written to cast me in a favorable light. To be me is to like me. I’m the hero.

But the truth is, I’m aggressive. I have decided how fast I want to drive, and when someone in front of me hasn’t come to that same conclusion, they need to be encouraged to either speed up or get out of the way. I am quick to judge people who don’t live up to my standards of decision making (which mostly means, getting out of my way). I can delude myself and rationalize my behavior to maintain the fantasy of my skill and competence but what will the harsh reality and objective truth of the video recording reconcile with my screenwriting abilities? I’m a little nervous.

A lot of people have a love-hate relationship with the mirror. When you look in the mirror, the person looking back is often not as tall, slim, good looking, or young as who you think you are. Maybe they have less hair than you remember (or hair in the wrong places). Maybe there are bumps and blemishes in obvious places that just aren’t there in your mind’s eye.

Often, we look in the mirror with a micro-focus on the task at hand, such as putting in a contact lens, or brushing teeth, or even applying make-up. In these times, we see the detail but fail to comprehend the whole. And for many of us the cognitive dissonance between who I think I am and what I see in the mirror is so great that I just can’t comprehend the image before me.

You see, when it’s just a matter of my memory or my perception, I can always come out in a good light. My brother likes to tell “sea stories” and he has adopted the line, “This may not be true, but it’s the way I remember it.” Isn’t that the way most of us tell the story of our lives? Everyone else on the road is an incompetent, inconsiderate jerk, but I am a paragon of virtue.

In the same way that a video recording will reveal the truth of my driving, God’s word is the objective standard for how we live our lives. As long as you never look into it, you can continue to enjoy the screenplay you have written for yourself, hero or heroine deluxe. Or, you can look at it and feel the twinge of conviction, but then walk away and resume your regularly scheduled programming. After all, there are dragons to slay and damsels to rescue.

But for those who will commit to engaging with the word, and who refuse to twist it to match their preconceptions, but rather allow it to transform them into the image of Christ, the result will be amazing and the rewards incalculable.

I’m not sure how my driving will change as a result of the incessant tattle-tale on my windshield. But I do know that this year I will continue to search out the truths of God’s word, allowing it to convict me of sin, challenge the limits I place upon God, and inspire me to live a life worthy of the calling to which I have been called.

What mirrors will you look into in this coming year? What will you allow yourself to see?