Wednesday, February 27, 2008

I Love Rock-n-Roll....And Home

My spiritual life has always had the feel of journey about it. The phenomenology of that journey is that of always traveling but never arriving. And if it’s true that you can take a person’s spiritual temperature by the music they listen to, then mine would register a fever, a symptom of homelessness and the hunger for a home I often feel.

When I first began teaching philosophy at Calvin College I was given all 8:00 a.m. classes. I grew to hate walking into the classroom at that godforsaken hour. It was like walking into a morgue, as a veritable sea of pale, lifeless faces greeted me each morning. So one day, when I could take it no more, I tried something different. I arrived about 15 minutes before class began and played songs on a cd player so that what greeted students when they arrived was music. To this very day, before each introductory level class I teach, I now play music. I play music that I enjoy listening to, like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Counting Crows, Arcade Fire, Modest Mouse, Bright Eyes and others. This practice has revolutionized my classroom experience. When I enter the classroom now, regardless of the hour, there is evidence of blood coursing through veins and signs of life among my students. Since I prefer the sights and sounds of life to the deafening and soul-sucking silence of death, I am much happier.

Not long ago the before-class set list consisted of these songs: When it Don’t Come Easy (Patty Griffin), Shipwrecked at the Stable Door (Bruce Cockburn), Love’s Gonna Carry Me Home (Pierce Pettis) and Where the Streets Have no Name (U2). It occurred to me only afterward that every one of those songs gives voice to a profound sense of homelessness and a yearning for home. And though not intentionally chosen for that common theme, there is no doubt that the music I played that day says a lot about where I was and am spiritually, what I’m thinking and what I’m feeling.

Patty Griffin, for example, wonders aloud if we’ll ever make it home:
Everywhere the water’s gettin’ rough/Your best intentions may not be enough/ I wonder if we're gonna ever get home tonight…/I don't know nothin’ except change will come/Year after year what we do is undone/Time keeps moving from a crawl to a run/I wonder if we're gonna ever get home…./You're out there walking down a highway/And all of the signs got blown away/Sometimes you wonder if you're walkin’ in the wrong direction…/So many things that I had before/It don't matter to me now/Tonight I cry for the love that I've lost/And the love I've never found.

Bruce Cockburn is not exactly sure where home is, but he knows it can’t be bought: Big Circumstance has brought me here/Wish it would send me home/Never was clear where home is/But it's nothing you can own/It can't be bought with cigarettes/Or nylons or perfume/And all the highest bidder gets/Is a voucher for a tomb.

While Cockburn may not know just where home is, Pierce Pettis seems to know what or Who will lead us there: These days I’m noticing things/Smell of the rain/Wind in the trees when it gets moving/Seems to say, I’m not alone/Some day Love’s gonna carry me home/These days I’m learning to smile/The hand of a child/Has led me into fields of laughter/They make sure that I know/Someday Love’s gonna carry me home.

Finally, U2 has an unmistakable sense that when we do finally make it home differences will no longer divide, the streets will “have no name” and we will travel those streets together: I wanna run, I want to hide/I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside/I want to reach out and touch the flame/Where the streets have no name/I wanna feel sunlight on my face/I see that rain cloud disappearing without a trace/But I can dance, dance, dance in the dirty rain//Where the streets have no name/Where the streets have no name/Where the streets have no name/And when I go there/I’ll go there with you/It’s all I can do/Still building then burning down love/Burning down love//The city’s afloat/Our love turns to rust/We’re being blown by the wind and trampled by dust/I’ll show you a place with no sorrow no pain/Where the streets have no name/Love, Love, Love

Each song, in its own way, expresses what is perhaps a universal longing for rest and refuge, especially for the world-weary wanderer. Each expresses a yearning that resonates with those who never were clear where home is and who sometimes feel, in the words of Patty Griffin, like we’re walking down a highway void of signs, wondering if we’re walking in the wrong direction.

I must confess that this is part of the fabric of my own experience—disorientation, dislocation, groaning, longing, and hoping, hoping that Love has the last word after all and that when I go “there” I go there “with/you” and not alone.

Reminds me of a children’s story, Runaway Bunny, which I used to read to my own children when they were younger. It’s the story of a young bunny who schemes and shares with its mother all the ways it plans to runaway and leave home. And it is also the story of the lengths to which a loving mother will go to find her prodigal baby. “If you runaway, I will run after you,” says the mother bunny to the runaway bunny, over and over and over again. I think I was always reassured as much by the reading of that story to my children as my children may have been by my reading it. It reminds me that runaway bunny that I am, I can never outrun the long arm of Love.

The story of journeying home is the story of us all; it’s the story of the prodigal children we all are and the love of a Father who will spare no expense in coming to our rescue. Patty Griffin puts it well in the chorus of When it Don’t Come Easy:
But if you break down, I’ll drive out and find you/If you forget my love, I’ll try to remind you/Stay by you, when it don’t come easy/When it don’t come easy.

It’s been my experience that life rarely comes easy. And I am more like the runaway bunny than the sheep who knows its Shepherd’s voice and follows. In the hardest of times, when the water is “gettin’ rough,” I am easily temped to forget God’s love and to want to runaway. Even so I’m still on the highway, stumbling and blundering home. At times I may even be walking in the wrong direction, heading home but way off course. The really good news is that even if I am sometimes heading in the wrong direction, then just like the mother bunny, God runs after me. He “drives out and finds me.” And He carries me home, where I “dance, dance, dance.”


Kari said...

Hmm. Lots of thoughts prompted by this... Playing Dylan, Arcade Fire, Bright Eyes, etc. before an 8:00 class sounds like a great idea. I wish more of my 8:00 profs had done that. I might have discovered some new music that I didn't know I liked. ...

I love that Patty Griffin song. Not only are the lyrics terrific, the music has such a great feel of bittersweet longing about it. I don't know who Griffin had in mind when she wrote the chorus, but like you, I tend to hear that as God/Jesus driving out to find me and to remind me of love. For another song that has that same musical sense (even though the lyrics aren't quite so explicit - I think it's still in there) check out "I Hear You Say So" by the Innocence Mission. ...

I feel like on my spiritual journey so far I have felt progressively less sure about things, but actually the less sure I am, the happier I am. Maybe that comes from letting go of the fear that the thing (convictions, "truth", whatever) you hold so tightly may at any time be snatched away. Maybe it's the promise that when I finally "know and am known", it will be that much sweeter. In any case, there's a certain joy and reassurance that comes when my soul recognises a fellow traveller, so thanks for the blog. Peace.

Dan Brennan said...


I love the fact that you listen to music before teaching. I also love the Patty Griffin song

Keith DeRose said...

with no direction home
how does it feel? how does it feel?

Kevin Corcoran said...

.... to be on your a complete a rolling used to talk about...everyone that was hangin' you don't talk so loud... That is a GREAT song and I just watched part one of the documentary No Direction Home this past weekend.

Keith DeRose said...

I first started listening to Dylan toward the end of my time in high school. Right after SLOW TRAIN COMING came out, our cool-big-brother-type counselor at our church's cadets brought that album to our meeting & told us a bit about Dylan & his conversion to Christianity. I found myself wanting to try out, not SLOW TRAIN, as the counselor had hoped, but some of the early, "evil" Dylan. Well, when you're flipping through Dylan albums at the record shop with that mindset, you know what you're going to end up buying: Highway 61, with rebel Dylan on the cover looking into the camera. So the first thing I played was the first song of that album: "Like a Rolling Stone." And I was hooked.

I remember the day I moved out of my family's house & into Calvin, I hurried to get my stereo hooked up in the dorm room b/c I felt a very strong need to hear that song right then.

When my sons recently bought an ipod for me for my birthday, they put a limit on the percentage of Dylan songs I could put on it. (I cheat on their limit a bit by including other artists covering songs Dylan wrote. I especially like Lou Reed's cover of "Foot of Pride.")

I have a personal tradition of listening to BLOOD ON THE TRACKS every year on Good Friday:

There's a lone soldier on a cross
Smoke pouring out of a boxcar door
You didn't know it
You didn't think it
could be done
But in the final end he won the war
After losing every battle

Kevin Corcoran said...


You're killin' me, man!

It was gravity which pulled us down and destiny which broke us apart/You tamed the lion in my cage but it just wasn't enough to change my heart/Now everything's a little upside down, as a matter of fact the wheels have stopped/
What's good is bad what's bad is good you'll find out when you reach the top/You're on the bottom.

They don't write 'em any better than that. Ah.... Idiot wind...

Kevin Corcoran said...


Thanks for sharing! I don't know I Hear You Say and I don't see it on their myspace page. What album is that off of? I love her voice, btw.

There is definitely a joy that comes from discovering others who share the road. Most efinitely!


Kari said...

"I Hear You Say So" is the last track on Glow from 1995. Great album.

Kevin Corcoran said...


Thanks! I'm on it....

Keith DeRose said...

Toward the end, there's a line in the Griffin song that wasn't easy for me to make out, but apparently it's:

And when the last bird falls

(And once I found those lyrics on-line, it was easy to hear the line as such.) I would find it a rather odd line except that I hear it as a reference to the well-known saying of Jesus:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. Matthew 10: 29-31

It may be that no harm at all can befall us without the will of our Father, but that apparently doesn't stop episodes where birds, and those of us worth more than that, are dropping like flies. There's really nothing you can imagine happening to someone that's so terrible that our Father's will hasn't allowed something every bit that bad -- and worse -- to happen to his children -- some closer to Him than I am, some as close, and some not as close. So if what you're afraid of is something truly dreadful happening to you (or to a loved one), the fact that it can't happen w/o the will of your Father provides little relief from the fear, given how our Father's will seems to operate. (Be not afraid. Why not?)

So I hear that line as, along with other parts of the lyrics, referring to a very desolate point in one's journey -- the signs are all gone, there's no direction, not telling whether we'll make it home, and if God is out there, He is not being at communicative or helpful. It's at this "break down" point that someone's driving out to find us. Yes, it would be nice if that was our Father.