U2 and Me: How Long to Sing this Song?

I arrived at home this morning nearly 18 hours after I left it, wearing the same clothes, the same contact lenses. My ears still rang, my voice was ragged. I had crossed one national border, ridden the Toronto subway for nearly a dozen stops, been hoodwinked out of $12 dollars by the fare collector, gone without food for nearly 24 hours, stood damp and drowsy in the muggy summer air under a full moon along with 60,000 other strangers who were there for the same reason as I: to see U2.

But when I walked in the door shortly after 8 a.m. and my wife greeted me with her kind, understanding smile and a shake of her head and asked, “Well, was it worth it?” I cracked a rueful grin. My mind replayed the events of the night, and any doubt about the legitimacy of this pilgrimage was erased.

Why? What is it about this band?

The answer is hard to define, as most deeply-felt emotions are. But I’ve been thinking about it for most of the past 13 hours since the last notes of “Moment of Surrender” drifted into the hot Toronto night, and I think this is some of it:

I believe in absolutes. There is a Creator. Like all creators, he dreamed this and other worlds up out of his mighty imagination, casting its inhabitants in his image to duplicate this mighty imagination. And his is a feverish creative mind, conceiving the greening of the apple tree in my backyard, the pastel sunsets over the Rockies, and the “fury of the pheasant’s wing,” as Rich Mullins put it. That’s good news to me. But it gets better. We are all imbued with this spirit of creation, and this creative process is divinely inspired. In its purest form, creation is not intended to be a selfish pursuit. Every act of creation is supposed to bring us together with our Creator. We see things through his eyes, feel what it’s like to bring something into existence. It’s not mimicry; it’s something deeper.

Most times, we muddle things up so badly, our output feels mostly like a bad children’s finger painting. The lines are sloppy, the colors dull, the ideas not fully-formed. In short, we don’t deserve to go on anyone’s refrigerator.

But sometimes.

Sometimes, we’re lucky and we get it right. A chord is struck, we grab hold of a rope tied to someplace lofty and it swings us out and over the cavernous expanse of the unknown. Our pulse pounds, our heart races, because we know that we’re not the ones doing the swinging. We’re being carried someplace strange and exciting by a force greater than us. It’s terrifying, but it’s magnificent, this adventure of creating.

In the words of one of my favorite creators, songwriter Andrew Peterson:

A thing resounds when it rings true
Ringing all the bells inside of you
Like a golden sky on a summer eve
Your heart is tugging at your sleeve
And you cannot say why
There must be more.

On Monday night, amidst the sweat and noise in that city of blinding lights, I felt something. My heart was tugging at my sleeve, telling me there was something more. We all came for different reasons, but most of us came to feel that, I’m sure of it.

There was a moment, when Bono held the microphone out to the crowd on “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and let the crowd sing for him. I threw back my head, aimed my chin to the heavens and shouted the final verse at the top of my lungs:

I believe in the Kingdom Come
Then all the colors will bleed into one
Bleed into one
But yes I’m still running

You broke the bonds
And you loosed the chains
Carried the cross
Of my shame
Oh my shame
You know I believe it

In that moment, when I closed my eyes and let the mighty roar wash over me like a thunderous tide, I knew. The work of Christ on the cross has made things right between me and my God. The opportunity is there for all of us to be set right. The broken pieces inside of us have already been mended, if we choose to let them be. The music served as a bridge.

Like at the end of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, when Lord Asriel tears a hole in the sky and walks across the bridge to the other world, U2 gave me a glimpse, if only for two and a quarter hours on a muggy Monday night in Canada, of what life on the other side of the bridge will be. Perhaps more compellingly, it let me see what life on this side of the bridge is supposed to be like. Service, love, generosity, humility, faith, patience – these are the things we have to give. This is all we have to give. I suppose it doesn’t seem like much, but when it’s all we have, it’s more than enough. What else can we give than everything we have?

All will be well. But it is not all well yet. This is officially known as the “already, but not yet” doctrine. I see it more as my job description for the brief puff of smoke that is my time on earth. The work has been done. But there’s still work to be done. It’s why we’re here, I guess.

More words from Andrew Peterson, from his song “All Things New:”

The world was good,

The world is fallen,

The world will be redeemed,

So hold on to the promise.

Being with U2, and so many other like-minded dreamers who want to hold on to that promise, is the best kind of experience – a reminder that this is not all there is, but it is all we have, so we must make the most of it.

The Pixar Letdown: The Importance of Dangerous Storytelling

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why Cars 2 has flopped. I haven’t seen the movie, mostly because of the logistical constraints brought on by two toddlers. But I still hope to sneak out one of these days and find a couple hours to digest it, mostly because – as much as I admire the sentiments of the critics who are pronouncing it uninspired – I still can’t bring myself to believe they’re right, that Pixar has actually neglected quality, original story and brought forth a noisy mess. That has always been Dreamworks’ department, right?

Of course the obvious culprit is that the people behind the story were different than in years’ past. There’s no Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, or Brad Bird working on the story. And that makes a huge difference. These guys put together a string of masterpieces unmatched by a movie studio in quite some time. But, that shouldn’t matter that much. Story is in Pixar’s DNA. It’s why they’ve been so successful.It’s why they hire the people they do, and obviously why John Lasseter is being called the new Walt Disney.

So, the conclusions I’ve drawn from the Cars Debacle of 2011 have to do with the difficulty of creating innovative, emotionally satisfying stories. We begin with a character, toss them into a situation, and try to find a way to draw out the truth of life by moving them through these situations. It’s hard. And the scariest part of all is you’re working without a net. If the story cuts corners, takes the easy, illogical way out, people know. (Not the people who will shell out money to see Transformers in 3D, mind you, but the other folks. The ones who count.) That’s why it’s terrifying to be the one under pressure, tasked with whipping up a story that will be truthful, inspiring, and innovatively plotted and paced.I can’t imagine having to do it while knowing there are millions of advertising dollars riding on my creative decisions. It’s hard enough sitting in my writing room every day banging the keys on my laptop like a monkey and trying to be coherent.

But the one thing I’ve come to realize is that in top-notch storytelling, there are no shortcuts. It’s take the hard road or don’t tell the story at all. The reader – or viewer – deserves more. I belong to that vanishing breed of people who believe that a story has the power to change my life, and so when I sit down with a book, or in a comfortable cinema seat, I’m putting my life into the hands of the storytellers. I’m saying to them, “Go ahead, blow my mind. Make me think about something I’ve never thought about before. Make me feel something. Broaden my horizons.” And if they don’t, I feel let down, especially if it’s someone who I know is capable of so much more.

I think that’s the source of the passionate outpouring of frustration directed at Emeryville these past few weeks. We know they can do better. We hope they can do better. Because we need stories like we need oxygen. Go a few days without them and your grip on reality starts to become fuzzy. There’s work to be done, by the geniuses at Pixar, and by those of us in much less prestigious digs.