If you see U2, give them this letter from me

Dear Friends, 

It’s 1984. I’m a little American girl living in Kenya, the child of evangelical missionaries. We have no TV, no radio, no real phone, really, just deliveries from America from time to time, or visits there every couple of years, where we pick up little snippets of the culture. My older sister, on the verge of adolescence, gets a U2 cassette from someone. My parents, ever vigilant about the corrupting influence of the secular world, interrogates her as to its possible depravity.  She tells them you are an “Irish political band” and gets to keep the tape.  I listen, too. The music is nice, but it floats on by. Someone else gives us a video with a news feature about Band Aid. That registers more clearly. I am acutely aware of the famine. It’s not a full blown humanitarian disaster in Kenya, but still a sustained and devastating drought. The USAID bags of maize arrive. On a trip a few hours north of our home, where pastoralists on a good day eek out an existence on arid lands, people and cattle are hungry, their bones protrude, and their dejected eyes search mine for a crumb of hope. I briefly despise every single thing I own. I’m glad there are rock stars, however heathen and immoral as I am told they are, who are taking a break from their sinful lifestyles to try to help.   

It’s 1996. I’m lost and unmoored, and I’ve already taken a good shot at ruining my life, but I can’t face any of it, because I am a Very Good Christian, I have all the answers, and I don’t participate in any major categories of sin. Upon graduating high school in 1992, I returned to the US full of grief for a life and a home and an identity that was never really mine to keep, I get married to the first thing that comes along, and somehow that fails to fix everything. A deep seated, ever-present nausea settles into my stomach. But Very Good Christians don’t get a divorce, so I’m in it for the long haul. My soundtrack is a lot of crappy Christian pop, that’s what Very Good Christians listen to. The music reinforces the idea that faith is simple and easy and certain. Paint by numbers. If it’s not, you’re not doing it right, you’re on a wrong path, maybe you were never really on the right one, and there are eternal consequences for that. Fear Not is a verse for the for the saved, not the damned. Every now and then, a U2 song comes on the radio, and I’m briefly transfixed. It doesn’t sound like anything else. It has a transcendent quality, lyrically and musically. I don’t know why. 

It’s 2000. Everything is coming apart. I can’t do it anymore. I’m going to hell, but it can’t be any worse than what I’m in now. Still, I’m terrified. To save my life, I’ll lose my faith, my very salvation. Or so I think. I can’t imagine that God is bigger than a literal Adam and Eve, a 10,000 year old planet, the mandatory phrasing of the Sinner’s Prayer, the literal words on an ancient page. I can’t quite find the courage to take a leap of faith, the dictionary definition of it, which does not include the certain knowledge I’ve been told is the whole point. One day, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” comes on the radio. I’ve heard it a thousand times without listening. I listen. The lights come on like stars at dusk, and soon my night sky is a galaxy. I look up lyrics on the internet, I buy CDs, I go deep, excavating hidden meanings and translating code. I’m not sure in all cases I found what you buried. I probably read too much in. But I know I’ve found a beautifully attainable example of faith. Searching, journeying, expansive, welcoming. Big enough to hold all my failings and pain and questions and that feeling that I never did quite buy in to the form of religion that was sold to me from birth.  And I begin to think that maybe God is good enough and powerful enough to save us even if we don’t believe everything just so and don’t live our lives just right and don’t sign on to a narrow program and maybe I won’t go to hell for that after all. 

It’s 2005. I still haven’t found what I’m looking for, but I’m closer all the time, or I’m closer to learning it’s not a linear road to a certain destination. I’ve found a true partner on my journey. He wakes me up on my birthday and tells me we’re going on a trip, pack my bags. I still don’t know where we’re going when we walk up to the gate. I still don’t know why we’ve gone once we arrive. Over lunch, he gives me an envelope that contains two tickets.  Several hours later, we’re 10 feet from the stage, and “Where the Streets Have No Name” is accompanied by a curtain of African flags. By now, I’m well aware of the ONE campaign, your role in the birth of PEPFAR, and your love of a place I still call my home, whether or not I have a proper claim to it. The lights go on as the audience sings the last strains of “40.” You have thousands of people singing a Psalm. Your faith has invited them in as they are, regardless of what they believe. It’s the best church service I’ve ever been to. 

And now it’s whatever year it is whenever you might read this, if you ever do. I still haven’t found what I’m looking for, but I’ve made my peace with that. I still have my partner for the journey, and I’ve still got my soundtrack. I’ve been to more of your church services and bought more albums and meditated on more layers of lyrics. I’ve been transported to otherworldly places by Edge’s ethereal guitar, which sounds like light rays streaming through storm clouds. I’ve been grounded in my soul by the rhythm of Adam’s bass and Larry’s drums. As we all age, I’m more and more moved by your enduring partnership. I can see the love on your faces as you look at each other, I can see the fulfillment that has surely come from rock-stardom, yes, but perhaps even more from traveling so far in relationship with others, from walking together without a map or an endpoint, in communion and community. You can’t pick me out in the massive crowd, but that’s how I’m looking at U2. 

Thank you, thank you, thank you for doing what each of us is called to do, to use our gifts to put love out into the world, however imperfectly, where it reverberates beyond our imagining, whether or not we are rock stars. I’m just one drop in the ocean of people you’ve touched, and I’m sure my story isn’t remarkable to you. But it’s everything to me, and sharing it with you adds to my joy. I hope it brings something to you as well. 

Until we’re no longer stranded in skin and bones, 

Holly 

One thought on “If you see U2, give them this letter from me

  1. I too found a U2 concert to be one of the most meaningful church services I have ever attended. If only we had known how to listen to their ‘sermons’ back in Swallow dorm days!

    Liked by 1 person

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