The oldest song on my new album is also the title track.
I wrote it in Pennsylvania in 2008, after spending a few days at Lancaster Bible College, a fine establishment that flew me in to talk to the students about writing and to put on a concert with the Captains Courageous the next day. (Psst! Lancaster! I had a great time and would love to come back.)
So there I was in Lancaster, feeling as sorry for myself as I ever had, languishing in the hotel room alone, wishing Andy and Ben’s plane would hurry up and arrive. The road is, of all lonely places, one of the loneliest. There’s a certain thrill in the beginning of the trip. I love seeing the sights, exploring new towns, feeling for a while like an observer of life rather than a liver of one. Of course, that’s a dangerous place to be.
Soon the excitement fades, and before you know it every face you see is a reminder of the faces you left behind. Every house looks sad. You start paying attention to the weather in your hometown. My heart literally aches sometimes when I hear my children’s voices on the phone. Along with the homesickness, on this particular trip I was shadowboxing some old familiar demons. I’m susceptible to a particular set of lies, voices that ring in my ears, voices that would have me believe a thousand things of myself and my God other than the truth to which I cling. When my faith falters and I forget my God, when I forget that his undying love now stands guard against all condemnation, I hold myself in contempt. I can hardly look in the mirror because all I see is sin, sin, sin. All I see is a fool. I see a failure.
This is the point in my little essay when I stop and make a disclaimer. I don’t loathe myself every day. When I’m with my family, when I’m on a plane with Ben and Andy, when I’m at church, most of the time I’m doing shows and talking to folks afterward the voices are silent. I don’t hear them because Christ himself has my attention. I don’t hear them because I am forgetting self and remembering the holy Other. Because I felt this way in Lancaster doesn’t mean I’m in a constant funk. Joy marks my life in Christ. In many ways happiness does, too. Still, there are moments of despair.
That reminds me of this woman I met after a concert once. I opened for Michael Card, and at the end of my set we played “The Silence of God” together (another lament). She found me after the show and with a smile as big as her purse said, “You should be happier. Be happy! Don’t be so sad! Be happy!” I tried and failed to hide my annoyance. “Why?” I said. “Was Jesus happy all the time?” She blinked, smiled her immovable smile, and repeated after a moment, “But you should be happy!” Here’s the thing: God wants more for us than happiness. In fact, of all our emotional postures, happiness might be the most fleeting and inane. What do we learn about holiness through happiness? Compassion (literally to “hurt with”), joy, gladness (which is not the same as happiness, I don’t think), contentment, sorrow, and even righteous anger are all more sanctifying than mere happiness. There’s nothing wrong with happiness. It’s a good thing. But it’s not the only thing. You won’t be healthy if all you eat is cake.
Back to Lancaster. I, like Westley in The Princess Bride, was in the Pit of Despair. I hated myself. I disbelieved that God could love such a worm as I. That day, that little hotel room was as dark a place as I could remember being. The room was thick with sorrow seasoned with fear–a potent combination. My soul cried out against all hope that it would be heard.
And then, though I hardly knew it at the time, I was. The King of Heaven heard. He stooped down from Heaven and loved me in my lowly state. And that, of course, is the story dripping like dew on all creation. He loves to tell it.
I started this song that long, dark night without knowing where it would end. I didn’t know what I thought, or what I believed. I didn’t know what I was trying to say. I was lamenting. I knew that much. By the time the final refrain appeared I believed again, weak as I was. The Lord reached deeper than my anguish and my disbelief and lifted me into the truth.
THE LAST FRONTIER (A NEW LAMENT)
Why don’t the mountains make me cry no more? They don’t sing the way they did before They’re just piles of stone, as dead as bones Like corpses on a field of war And they just don’t make me cry no more
And the highway’s like an old sad song People moving through their lives alone On the run from grace, from place to place Like fugitives without a home And the highway’s like an old sad song
And my heart is black as coal It’s been mined and there ain’t no gold It’s so dark in there, but I don’t care I will lay down in this empty hole Where my heart is black as coal
And oh, there is nowhere left to go from here I have fallen past the last frontier But at the bottom of this well I hear you breathing:
Love below me Love around me Love above me Love has found me Love has found me here
So lay me down Oh, lay me down in a field of gold and green
I got up in the morning, washed my face, and picked up the guys from the airport, ready to sing my songs and tell my stories to whoever would listen. It wasn’t until later that I remembered King David’s words:
Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.