An Affair With God

Scandalous title, right?

We all know what we think of when we hear the word “affair,” and somehow applying it to our relationship with God just seems, well, naughty. But if God is love, isn’t He also…a lover?

Such is the theme of the classic novel by British author Graham Greene, The End of the Affair. Set in London during the Blitz of World War II, the story is narrated by Bendrix, a bachelor novelist bitterly relating the tale of his affair with the beautiful Sarah, a married woman.

For the first half of this short book, all you want to do is hate Bendrix. Beyond the fact that he’s literally stealing his neighbor’s wife, he acknowledges and doesn’t give a rip about his own depravity. Jealousy, pettiness, and what he calls “hate love” dominate his relationship with Sarah as both lovers desperately try to find wholeness in each other, both knowing they never will.

But the beauty, as well as the piercing depth, of this story comes from this realistic presentation of these desperately honest sinners. When it comes to well-crafted characters, nobody does it better than Graham Greene. All depraved to the core, you want to hate them but find you can’t, because they’re you. In Greene’s writing, you are faced with the reality of the darkness that we all carry inside of us, the darkness that can only be dissipated by the power of God’s grace.

And this book is about grace.

When Sarah ends her affair with Bendrix, his maddening jealousy convinces him that she has a new lover. Bendrix hires a detective to track down this unknown rival so he can win Sarah back, convinced that no one can love her as much as he does. But what if this new lover is even more jealous, strong, and loving than Bendrix could ever imagine?

I would love to talk about this book forever, since it’s my all-time favorite novel (and that means a lot, because I read a ton). But the best part of The End of the Affair is the way it hits you right in the soul with unexpected truths, and I don’t want to take away from any of the surprise of the experience.

I do want to say that while it’s an amazing book, it shouldn’t be interpreted as a theological text. Graham Greene was supposedly a Catholic, and if so not a very good one, so his word is not gospel.

But I can say with confidence that every time I’ve read this book I’ve come away with a deep-in-the-heart feeling of how our ordinary lives hide amazing spiritual realities and am reminded (to an extent I rarely receive from theology books) just how jealously God loves each of us. Each time I turn the last page, I take a deep breath and appreciate anew the most passionate, fulfilling relationship I have ever experienced, the one that saved me from the utter loneliness of this empty world: my affair with God. I hope that in reading The End of the Affair, you can be reminded of the same.


In Defense of Rest

I remember vividly what my daily schedule looked like in graduate school. My graduate program was two full, long years, and at the same time I had begun my first year of ministry as a campus staff member for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. My days looked a lot like this:

7:10 AM – run to Kinko’s to print something really important for work.
7:31 AM – Triple shot espresso (I am not a morning person!).
8:07 AM – Set up and run a discussion board board leading and training college students to engage the campus in conversations about Jesus. Have 3 spiritual conversations with atheist students.
12:10 PM – Eat 2 cupcakes for lunch (forgot to plan ahead!).
12:20 PM – 4:00 PM – Class for 4 hours.
4:30 – 6:30 PM – Clinicals (a part of my graduate program).
6:30-7:30 PM – Phone date (gotta give at least an hour to maintain relationships!).
7:30 PM – Broccoli for dinner (a little healthier this time!).
7:30 – 10:30 PM – Lead our weekly ministry large group.
10:30 PM -12:30 AM – Best friend comes over to study and fill out invitations for upcoming Halloween party.

At this point of my night on this particular day, I remember thinking, “why in the world do I have a headache?” This day, though, was followed by at least 3 more days like just like it, running from one thing to the next, until I crashed that weekend and slept for almost two straight days, and at the end of it all, I thought, ‘awesome.’

But hey, I’m an achiever. It makes me feel good to get things done, go after new pursuits, accomplish big things. That’s how God made me, with a never-ending fire to dream, go, live, try, lead.

The problem comes when the God that I follow, the Creator of the universe, sets up a system that includes and demands space for regular rest. What a waste of time, right? I can sleep when I’m dead! In college, I began to wrestle with this tension, at a time when I had started taking seriously my own growth as a disciple of Jesus, and one thing that trusted mentors kept telling me was that I needed to take a regular Sabbath every week, a day to rest and not do any work. I hated that idea. For me, a day of no accomplishment felt like a day wasted. My identity was so tied up in my various forms of work that taking that day off actually felt harder, more uncomfortable, than jumping back into the daily grind. For me, the grind was easier.

Our culture seems to feel the same way that I did. How often, when you ask a friend or coworker, “how is your week going?” do you hear, “it’s going great! I’ve finished work on time every day this week, spent quiet evenings home with my family, and gotten nine hours of sleep every night!”? No, instead, we hear, “busy” (followed by a long sigh), “I’m exhausted,” or, “I can’t wait until Friday” (also followed by a sigh).

According to a study by CNN health, the percentage of Americans that get 6 or fewer hours of sleep per night is steadily increasing, while the percentage that get 8 or more hours steadily declines. Though we are praised for our busy-ness and applauded for our hard work, deep down many of us long deeply for a life that is more than just work.

Bronnie Ware, an Australian nurse who spent several years working in palliative care, caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives, recently published a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying about the wisdom she has gathered talking with her patients. Guess what the second most common regret was?

I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

Maybe I should have stepped off the daily treadmill more often, maybe I should have sat down, and really looked… looked at God, looked at myself, looked at my family.

Maybe the world really wouldn’t have fallen apart if I had done that, if I hadn’t spent those extra hours doing paperwork at the office, worrying about the laundry that didn’t get done, or catching up on the 73 emails I didn’t get to during the week. Just maybe.

In the beginning of the Creation story in Genesis 1 and 2, we find a God who busies himself making things out of nothing for an entire week. And then, amazingly, we find this:

By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done (Genesis 2:2-3).

But God wasn’t really 100% done, was he? He does more after this and continues to work to this day. He had just “finished the work that he had been doing.” And this is God that we’re talking about here. Did he really need to take a nap or sleep in to feel better for the next shift of working? Probably not. If God himself is not above rest, is it not arrogant for us to think that we’re personally too important to take a day off?

So why does God rest, then, if he doesn’t need it?

Perhaps he was setting up a system, built within the very threads of Creation, that would make humans more than just workhorses, more than machines. Maybe, out of great love, he was modeling rest, so that, from the least to the greatest of us, we would find our identities in how he sees us, not in how many widgets we can make in one hour. In any society, children produce and accomplish very little of value, and yet Jesus, who was grounded in the heart of the Jewish Sabbath, says, “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Children are valued for who they are, not what they accomplish, and so it should be with you.

Not only does God model rest, he “blesses” the seventh day and calls it “holy.” During the previous days of the week he has called many things good, but this is the first day to be called holy and the first day to be blessed.

Is it possible that days of rest are even more important than days of work, even if your work is sharing the gospel, or feeding the hungry, or preaching?

This past year my husband, Theo, and I had the opportunity to lead our church Bible Study in Lectio Devina, an ancient practice in which we read a Scripture passage aloud several times, asking God what he might want to say to us, both individually and corporately, through that passage. The passage was the feeding of the five thousand in Mark. As we began to go through the experience, we realized that God was speaking the same message to everyone in the group through Jesus’ advice to the disciples: “Come away by yourselves and rest for awhile.” Even though this wasn’t the main point of the passage, God was speaking strongly, trying to get through by any means possible. This was an intergenerational group of engineers, vets, nurses, and parents, and they were all exhausted and struggling with anxiety, insomnia, lack of space for God, and sickness as a result of not resting regularly.

How should we respond, then, in a world of stress, exhaustion, and busy-ness?

If I weren’t a follower of Jesus, I would most certainly overwork, make more money, accomplish big things, ignore any personal problems I had by working more, and overall just be my own god.

That would be the easier choice, but if we are followers of Jesus, we are called to be different.

We are called to pursue worthy endeavors with all of our hearts, yes, but we are also called to rest, regularly, before all of the work has been done, and just “be.” For me, this has meant taking some time off every day, pursuing a schedule that allows for a full night of sleep, and taking a weekly Sabbath. On that “blessed” day, I turn off my phone, forget about social media, and just let myself “be,” with God, with myself, and with my husband. Maybe that’s the rest that you need for your soul; maybe it is something different, but may we all experience deeper fullness of God’s kingdom by pursuing regular, holy, and blessed rest.

Truth and Comfort in the Wake of Tragedy

If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will get neither comfort nor truth, only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair. – C.S. Lewis

Five times I’ve been shocked out of my routine by a phone call telling me that someone I loved had died, and strangely, all five times those calls have come on a Saturday.

The first call came during the summer between my first and second years of teaching. A student who had been in my class – my first class – had fallen out of the back of a truck and died instantly.

He’d approached me halfway through the season the previous year to ask if he could join my football team, but it was too late for that season. He’d have been a great addition to our team, but we told him he’d have to wait until the next year.

He didn’t make it to the next year.

The second call came while my wife and I were out on a photo shoot – she was taking senior pictures for one of my students. The father of a beloved family in our community had not woken up that morning. He left behind a wife and four children who still needed him. They still need him now.

The third call woke me up early to tell me there had been a fatal car accident only a few blocks from my house. We found out later that day that one of the people killed was a teenage girl who had been in my Bible class for several months during her sophomore year of high school. When she arrived at our school, she didn’t own a Bible, so my wife and I bought her one to use in my class. In the days following her death, her mom told me how she’d been baptized in the ocean in the Philippines, the home of her ancestors, and I gave her parents a letter she had written to herself about what following Jesus really meant to her. I had planned on giving the letter back to her later that year.

The fourth call interrupted a drive home from a youth retreat to tell me that another of our students, a precious, joyful, intelligent little girl who had been a light every day she walked through the doors of our school had finally lost her battle to the brain tumor that had been ravaging her body for years. She never made it to her sixteenth birthday, and though it was “expected,” her death was no less tragic for not having been a surprise.

And the fifth was the worst of all for me personally. The fifth was the closest to home, because that call woke me up to tell me that a young man who had been in my class for four years, who I had seen on weekends at youth group, who had been to my house to record a video project for my class, who had shared with me some of his deepest pain and the dreams closest to his heart, and who had once helped me push a car out of the snow for a person neither of us had ever met, was dead.

He was strong. So strong, in fact, that I called him a rhinoceros when he walked by my classroom. He was young and healthy, and he loved God. But one morning his heart just quit working.

In April of my Junior year of high school, two students at Columbine high school took the lives of thirteen of their classmates and teachers. When baseball practice started that day we didn’t know the extent of the massacre, but we brought a radio to the field with us and listened to the news as we took batting practice. But when we started hearing about bodies being carried out of the school, we ended practice early to go home to our frightened and weeping parents.

I remember seeing an interview of a student who was wounded in the shooting. He was a baseball player – a pitcher, just like me. We played Columbine the next summer, and even though it was months after the massacre, seeing him walk on to the field that day was surreal. It’s not easy to play a baseball game against a kid who got shot in his school cafeteria.

About two and a half years later, my college classes were cancelled when two planes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York.

A few months ago a highly-anticipated movie premier turned horrific when it was interrupted by gunfire.

And over the past two weeks our community has ridden a roller-coaster of shock, fear, hope, and horror as the details of the abduction and murder of a ten-year-old girl have come to light.

In each of these situations, in addition to dealing with my own grief, I’ve been the recipient of countless questions about God’s goodness and power, and particularly about how that goodness and power can still be asserted in the midst of such unthinkable evil. I’ve been a friend, teacher, counselor, coach, and pastor when these events have taken place, and I’ve learned over and over again that much of the real work of healing takes place in the aftermath, when the wounds of the past are re-opened by the death of someone else’s dad, or son, or brother. And in those conversations, the ones that take place a year, two years, or five years down the road, I get to see the real impact of the answers we give on days like today, when the questions are fresh and the wounds open for the first time.

A number of responses to such tragedies keep popping up in my conversations with people far removed from their own tragedies and still trying to heal. They’re answers that have been given by well-meaning, wise people who have a deep concern for the hurting. They’re given in an attempt to provide some sort of comfort and understanding in the midst of confusion and pain.

The problem is that they’re just not true.

At least not in the ways they’re received by a person who is overwhelmed by pain and searching for answers.

I don’t pretend to have answers that will bring healing to the hearts of those who have been directly affected by tragedies like the ones I listed above. No amount of truth will ever “fix” a tragedy, nor should we try to make it “fix” a person who is hurting. Often, our biggest mistakes in situations like these come from trying to explain away someone’s pain, or from trying to convince them that they should be “ok” by now. Let’s be clear that grief doesn’t work on a predictable timeline, and the acceptance of truth about a situation does not remove the emotional fallout of encountering evil.

But if we’re going to give answers (and we are, at some point, going to try to give some kind of answer), let’s give answers that will help rather than hurt. And let’s remember Jesus’ claim that the truth sets us free.

If our responses to tragedy result in more bondage and guilt than freedom, then we need to honestly evaluate whether or not those responses are true, both propositionally and systematically.

Here are a few examples of responses that, when given without explanation or clarification, I’ve seen do a great deal of damage in the lives and hearts of the hurting:

1. “God has a plan.”

Is God in control? Absolutely. Does He have a plan? Undoubtedly. But in the midst of severe emotional pain, the distinction between God’s plan and his desire becomes quite difficult to keep straight. Telling a hurting person that God has a plan is roughly equivalent to telling the parents of a stillborn child that God wanted their baby to die because He didn’t have any better ideas about how the day might go. We present God as the kind of dad that throws a four-year-old boy into the ring at a UFC fight to try to make a man out of him and then yells at him for crying about his broken leg.

What we’re probably trying to say when we give this response is that someday, somewhere, God is going to sort everything out, but in the moment it tends to feel like telling people that God is an abusive monster who they should trust just because He says He loves them. There’s really no other way to hear this one than “God wanted your dad to die, and if you can’t accept that, then you really don’t have much faith.”

2. “God will bring good out of this.”

Often, this response quotes or nearly quotes Romans 8:28 – “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” The principle of the verse is, of course, true, and we must always assert God’s omnibenevolence – all things He does are good and He is able to bring good out of even the most horrendous evil. But as we saw above, the application and interpretation of truth must be tempered by wisdom. And in the wake of tragedy, telling people that God brings beauty from ashes sounds more like excusing a cosmic villain than explaining the actions of a benevolent God.

Here’s a rough translation of what this response sounds like to a hurting person – “I know you’re hurt by the fact that your baby only lived for three months, but now you appreciate your other kids more, so it’s ok.”

Please forgive my bluntness – I know that we’d never say such things, especially to parents who have just lost an infant, but when we tell them that “God is going to bring good out of this” in the midst of their pain, how can we expect them to hear anything else?

And where in the world did we get the idea that if good comes from tragedy, it justifies the tragedy?

I can think of a few people in history who have acted out a belief that tragedy was worthwhile if the end result was good. The most famous one is Hitler, and I’m not sure I’m comfortable putting his name on the same list with God’s and pretending that, even though their methods are the same, God is good and Hitler is evil.

Let’s keep Romans 8:28 within its context of an ultimate, cosmic restoration of all things through the redemption of both human beings and the creation itself and not try to make evil look like good just because God doesn’t give up hope when bad things happen.

3. “It was their time to go.”

This oft-repeated response to death has a measure of truth to it, because God certainly knows the exact time and location of every person’s death, but in the moment it can come across as more than a little trite. The primary weakness of this response in tragic situations is that it tends to completely ignore the glaringly obvious element of human choice by reducing the complex web of the divine-human relationship to “God’s timing.” And in the case of suicide, for example, such a response comes quite close to a deterministic justification of evil by implying that, had the individual in question not taken his own life, he would certainly have died that same day and time by some other method. Thus, the means of death becomes meaningless, and we become pawns in God’s cosmic game of chess.

So how do we respond when evil interrupts our lives? What can we say to people who have come face to face with the unthinkable and are unable to reconcile an unstoppable flood of despair with the claim that God’s goodness has invaded our world and forever transformed the human experience for all of us?

The Bible teaches us a few truths that, though not so “tidy” as those above, may in the long run prove much more helpful and effectual for those who must certainly face tragedy again.

1. God hates death.

It has for some time been my conviction that the primary reason for Jesus’ tears in John 11:35 was His deep pain over the presence of death on Earth. We say that death is simply a part of life, but it was never meant to be. In the perfect world that God created in the beginning of all things, there was no death, no pain, no suffering. Its presence among us now is a constant reminder that we are not home, that things are not as they were meant to be, that the very foundation of our existence is broken and torn.

In Jesus’ tears at Lazarus’ tomb we see God Himself mourning the pervasive consequences of the sin that He warned Adam and Eve to avoid. And though God is unceasingly joyful, He is also unceasingly aware that the great pain of the human condition and the immeasurable devastation of sin in the lives of every man, woman, and child who has ever been born never had to be. Had we trusted Him enough to choose His way in the beginning, no one would ever have died, and our intimacy with Him would have remained unbroken from the very first day of our existence.

From Abel forward, every death that has ever taken place has been a reminder that the very best plan of God existed in reality only until Adam and Eve chose to listen to the voice of the serpent instead of the voice of God.

Every death is a reminder that, by default, we are at war with the God who has loved us enough to shed His own blood on our behalf.

We do not mourn like those who have no hope; nevertheless, we do mourn. We must, for our pain need never have been possible.

2. God is making all things new, but He’s not finished yet.

We simply do not have to act like we’re already at the end of the story. God has won, but the loving law of God does not yet fully reign in our cities and towns. The blood of Jesus has torn the veil of separation between God and man and in so doing has forever conquered the power of sin and death, but God’s choice to be a benevolent King rather than a tyrant guarantees that so long as men choose to rebel against Him and He chooses to delay His return to earth, we will continue to experience the devastating consequences of sin.

The refrain of the Psalmists – “How long, O Lord” – can and should be our cry as well when we experience the evil of a broken world. And the presence (in various forms) of such a refrain throughout not only the Psalms but the Scriptures as a whole should tell us that God not only understands but commends the kind of honesty that says, “God, I know that you’re going to fix all this, but I can’t help but wish the fixing process was over, because the pain I’m feeling right now seems like it’s going to paralyze me forever.” God asks us for faith, of course, but He also asks us for honesty. In the midst of our own tragedies, let us join with the Psalmists in crying out to God, full of honest pain and full of faith that the long road He has chosen is the best road possible, even if we can’t see around the next bend.

3. God brings beauty from ashes, but the ashes are still ashes.

I think the book of Lamentations may be the most comforting book in the Bible, but most of it is spent in meditation on suffering, and a basic reading could easily leave us with little hope for the future. But right in the center, in the section that the structure of the book points us to as the central and most important passage, we read these words:

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,

For his compassions never fail.

They are new every morning;

Great is your faithfulness.

-Lamentations 3:22-23

Lamentations never ignores the ugliness of the ashes that Jeremiah sits in while he writes the book. But it doesn’t let him (or us as we journey through the book with him) stay in those ashes.

The point is this: We shouldn’t mourn forever, but we don’t have to lie about the devastation we’re facing. And sometimes the best prayer we can pray is, “God, I hate this.”

Jesus wept. And then He woke Lazarus up and told him to get out of his grave. Let’s join him in both.

4. God is able to simultaneously seek both justice and forgiveness.

Understanding the theological paradox of God’s simultaneous desire for both justice and forgiveness will help us avoid the kind of false dichotomy that says we can either forgive and love our enemies, as Jesus commanded us to do, or we can hope for the perpetrators of great cruelty to be caught and punished.

The truth is that God wants justice more than any of us, because He alone understands the full horror of sin. He alone has felt and experienced every detail of the suffering of countless victims of countless tragedies stretching back to the beginning of human history.

And He wants mercy more than any of us, because He alone understands the full horror of sin. He alone knows the crushing weight of guilt experienced by those who bring horror into the lives of others.

We need not try to choose between justice and forgiveness.

Tragedy, and our ability to deal with it honestly, proves the necessity of hell, and the necessity of the horror of the cross for its escape, for only in the cross do we fully see God’s simultaneous passion for both justice and mercy. Only in the cross is there any hope of forgiveness for the grievous evil that invades our lives, and for the grievous evil that we ourselves commit. And only in the cross do we see a God that does not keep Himself distant from our pain, but chooses instead to join us in our deepest tragedy and our deepest mourning. Not only does He join us there, but through the cross He conquers that pain and that mourning so that someday we will never have to face death again.

5. God will never lie to us, either by word or by experience.

God’s primary method of teaching us truth is His Word, but He has designed our universe to teach us truth as well, and when appropriately interpreted, the events of our lives, and the consequences of those events, can be trusted to tell us what God is really like.

He does not deceive us, and there are many things that we desperately need to know.

We need to know that evil is real, and powerfully destructive. For God to soften the effects of our sins or the sins of others would be to lie to us about the true ugliness of rebellion against His laws.

We need to know that the consequences of some sins are permanent and irrevocable. Forgiveness does not erase the consequences of sin here on earth. It never has, and for God to make it otherwise would be to deceive us.

We need to know what a world without His moral guidance actually looks like. Despite the pain we must experience in learning what happens when we live our lives in rebellion against God’s intended way of living as expressed in His moral laws, and despite the pain that He experiences when He sees us rebelling against those laws, God chooses not to stop us from living as fools. He chooses to let us see what happens when we reject the moral truths He has so graciously revealed to us.

And finally, we need to know that the consequences of our personal sins are never only personal – they will always impact those we love, those we have only just met, and those we don’t even know. We cannot escape the communities in which we live our lives, and for good or ill, our actions affect those communities. As we are confronted by the suffering and horror one person can cause by evil deeds, let us remember also the great good that one person can do by righteous deeds.

6. There is no good that can make a tragedy “worth it.”

We know that God can redeem even the worst of circumstances. We know that He brings good out of evil. But no amount of good can justify tragedy – and God never attempts to justify tragedy.

After 9/11, our nation came together in unity in a way that I had never seen. After Columbine, students cared for one another in ways they never had, and they joined together to pray for each other. During the search for Jessica Ridgeway over the past couple of weeks, countless parents (including me) have renewed their commitment to love their children well, and an entire community has left aside its many political, religious, and socio-economic differences to join together to look for a lost little girl.

These are all good things. They’re things we should be thankful for, and I believe with all my heart that they come from God.

But they don’t justify the evil.

They don’t erase the terrible things that have taken place among us.

God does not send tragedy so that we will grow from it. He does not beat us up so that we’ll get stronger.

Good comes out of evil because God doesn’t get discouraged and give up when sin seems to be winning. And good comes out of evil because we carry His image, and deep down, we know that evil can never win.

The question is, will we allow the tragedy to continue to triumph in our lives by allowing it to paralyze us, or will we take our places as God’s image bearers and, like Him, work to bring beauty from ashes?

Will we move forward in a way that honors the lives of those we’ve lost, or will we spend our days in a disheartened stupor and effectually make ourselves one more casualty?

“Why?” will never yield a satisfactory answer, because even the best answer will never bring back what’s been lost. But if we’re honest, and if we’re courageous enough to move forward into hope, we’ll honor both those we’ve lost and the God who walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death.

Last night I had the privilege of attending Jessica Ridgeway’s funeral. Among the many things I experienced was a profound sense of hope, not particularly because of anything that was said, though the things that were said were stunningly powerful and captivatingly true. I felt hopeful there because, though the evil we remembered last night was gruesome, it was hidden in shame and darkness, but the beauty of the Body of Christ, the truth of God’s Word, and His great love for His children were proclaimed in the light among a crowd of thousands and were broadcast to countless more.

You see, light never hides.

Truth never flees in fear of evil.

Good never shies away from a confrontation with evil.

When good men and women stand together in unity under the authority of a good and strong God who refuses to lie to us, who refuses to let the story end before the good guys have triumphed, who refuses to take shortcuts to avoid the pain and struggle of justice, evil slinks away in inglorious defeat.

So God, let us not lie about the pain and evil we experience. Give us the courage to stare long and hard at the bleeding wounds we carry. And give us the hope not only to stand in your truth, but to move forward as you encourage us, challenge us, and sometimes even carry us, knowing that the wounds are real, but knowing also that in the light of your profound goodness and grace, those wounds shrink away to shadows and dust.

May we stand with God in triumph, not because we’ve excused away the pain of our tragedies, but because we’ve taken them to Him and let His strong and gentle hands heal us. And because the future is worth it.

The Return of the Kings: Mumford & Sons’ “Babel”

Mumford & Sons’ highly-anticipated sophomore album, Babel, successfully delivers everything that was great about their Grammy-nominated debut Sigh No More. But to some fans, this may be disappointing news. Many of us were waiting for something fresh or different, perhaps a side of Mumford we didn’t hear in the first album. However, the band offers nothing new musically here, and they do seem to play it a bit safe by sticking to that familiar sound of foot-stomping anthems and heart-wrenching ballads that won our hearts (and ears) in their first album.

In other words, the music is great, it’s just nothing different.

But I’d also say that bands rarely reinvent themselves on a second album, and since the ingredients of Sigh No More launched the English foursome into international success, Mumford has sensibly obeyed Bert Lance’s advice, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Still, for any band whose debut unexpectedly (and nearly unilaterally) ignited a folk-music revival by wooing the mainstream masses with a not-so-commercial-friendly genre (Indie Folk), the sophomore album (no matter how good) might be a disappointment in one way or another.

However, Babel does offer what I believe to be the best songs the band’s ever written (“I Will Wait,” “Lover of the Light,” “Lover’s Eyes,” and “Below My Feet” are nothing short of epic). The religious quality of their lyrics is somewhat expected, as many listeners of Sigh No More quickly recognized the spiritual undertones and biblical language of “The Cave,” “Awake My Soul,” the title-track and others. But what most distinguishes Babel from its predecessor is its thematic cohesion; the album’s uniformity resembles that of a concept album unified by its single (and profoundly religious) theme: the deep longing for light and truth in a world of darkness and deceit.

Lyrically, Mumford is in top form here, so I think highlighting the poetic quality of their lyrics is in order. Personal confessions, joyous eulogies, aching laments, and numerous binary-ladened motifs of “dark,” “light,” “blind,” “sight,” “lost,” and “found”  fill the album from beginning to end, underlining the dualistic nature of its theme, truth vs. falsehood.

The first track, “Babel,” opens the album with triumph and power, and its gritty timbre and biblical imagery instantly establish the album’s tone of restlessness and a longing for the transcendent. Alluding to the Genesis account of the Tower of Babel, the title-track explores human weakness with the confessional cry,

Like the city that nurtured my greed and my pride,
I stretch my arms into the sky,
I cry Babel! Babel! Look at me now,
Then the walls of my town, they come crumbling down…
‘Cause I know my weakness know my voice,
and I’ll believe in grace and choice
And I know perhaps my heart is farce,
but I’ll be born without a mask.

The confessional language here is echoed by the humble plea in “Whispers in the Dark”: “Spare my sins for the ark, I was too slow to depart, I’m a cad but I’m not a fraud, I’d set out to serve the Lord.” Indeed, several songs either sing as prayers, both penitent and petitionary, or allude to prayerful bearing. The joyous “I Will Wait” shines as the band’s most melodious song to date, complete with its anthemic refrain near the end that evokes the aching request of a man in need of redemption:

And I’ll kneel down
Wait for now
I’ll kneel down
Know my ground

Raise my hands
Paint my spirit gold
And bow my head
Keep my heart slow

This prayerful tone continues in “Holland Road,” a darker song that begins with the admission, “So I was lost,” but ends with the spirited promise,

And I’ll still believe
Though there’s cracks you’ll see
When I’m on my knees I’ll still believe
And when I’ve hit the ground
Neither lost nor found
If you’ll believe in me I’ll still believe

The haunting yet hope-filled “Ghosts That We Knew” furthers the exploration of the desire to find the truth and light: “So give me hope in the darkness that I will see the light, ‘Cause oh they gave me such a fright, But I will hold as long as you like, Just promise me we’ll be alright.” Similarly, the hymnic “Lover’s Eyes” tells the story of heartache and guilt through the eyes of a wandering soul haunted by lost love:

Love was kind, for a time,
Now just aches and it makes me blind,
This mirror holds my eyes too bright,
I can’t see the others in my life

Were we too young? And heads too strong?
To bear the weight of these lover’s eyes.
‘Cause I feel numb, beneath your tongue,
Neath the curse of these lover’s eyes.

But the lamenting tone of the track ends on a redemptive note with the line, “Lord, forgive all of my sins,” and group harmonies howl a demand to be rescued out of a loveless desert: “And I’ll walk slow, I’ll walk slow, Take my hand, help me on my way.” The gentle chorus of “Reminder,” a quiet 2-minute ballad, captures the album’s theme as Mumford pleas for the “light that might give up the way” to his lover, for “without her [he’s] lost.” The rousing “Hopeless Wanderer” extends this theme further as Mumford echoes the psalmic angst of an aimless man facing the painful truth of his errs:

But hold me fast, hold me fast,
Cos I’m a hopeless wanderer.
I wrestled long with my youth
We tried so hard to live in the truth
But do not tell me all is fine
When I lose my head, I lose my spine

The album reaches its musical and thematic climax with the soaring yet solemn chorus of “Below My Feet,” the most captivating melody of the album.  In an almost a cappella chant, the foursome makes its boldest request, one that can only be made to a higher power: “Keep the earth below my feet, For all my sweat, my blood runs weak, Let me learn from where I have been, Keep my eyes to serve, my hands to learn.”

While the Mumford & Sons of Babel sound just like, well, the Mumford & Sons of Sigh No More, the new album is conceptually cohesive and musically compelling. The album is great because the songs are great, and though the band’s sound is familiar—acoustic-driven folk-rock accompanied by gritty vocals, raw harmonies, bright horns, and a banjo pickin’ to the pulse of a kick-drum—the album is refreshingly poetic, passionate, and powerful, a rarity in today’s musical landscape.

Death is Gain in this Life

“Your supreme weapon is killing. My supreme weapon is dying.”

Dr. Joseph Tson was the pastor of Second Baptist Church in Oradea, Romania, during the years of intense communist oppression. On several occasions he was arrested and subjected to long periods of brutal interrogation. During an interrogation in Ploiesti, he was threatened with death if he did not cooperate with the authorities. He replied with the statement, “Your supreme weapon is killing. My supreme weapon is dying.” He told his captors that his sermons had been recorded on cassette tapes and that he had written tracts to encourage his fellow Christians. He said if he were to be executed, people would know he truly believed what he had said and had been willing to die for those beliefs.

Each day I wake up with a question that I heard from Francis Chan a few years ago: “Do I really believe that what I say I believe is really real?” Though I may not like to think about it, the implications of failing to actually believe what I say I believe are massive. In reality, every choice I make is based on what I actually believe and not necessarily on what I say I believe. This challenge from Chan has been a life altering one.

So what is the cost of true discipleship? What is the cost of obedience to God? Is there such a thing as Christianity without cost? Am I living my life to “save” it, or to “lose” it?

John 12:24-25 states: “Truly truly I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

But what does that mean for our lives practically? I believe that most Christians would be willing to die for Jesus if it came to that, but the more important question from John 12:24-25 for those of us who aren’t facing death for our faith is whether or not we’re willing to die to our selfish and sinful desires.

Stop and think about how this would affect our day-to-day lives. For the single person it would mean treating people of the opposite sex with dignity and respect and not seeking your own selfish pleasure. For the married person it would mean loving God and your spouse more than yourself or your plans and desires. For everyone it means going to the workplace and living with complete and perfect integrity, like Job (Job 1:1).

Laying OUR agendas at the foot of the cross means realizing that each day we wake up is not just another boring day — it’s a gift of God to be alive and a day on mission for the gospel of Jesus Christ. Every moment of every day is a chance to glorify God. Whether we are at school, at home, at work, on a sports field, in a relationship, wherever. We are always on mission.

Sure, people are “called” to different arenas and not all called to hold offices in the church, but we are all called to full-time ministry (Matthew 28:19-20). Every day a Christian is to be on mission. Then and only then will we find true satisfaction in our daily lives. As John Piper states: “Nothing makes God more supreme and more central than when people are utterly persuaded that nothing–not money or prestige or leisure or family or job or health or sports or toys or friends–is going to bring satisfaction to their aching hearts besides God.”

I’ll be honest–these are thoughts and questions that are rattling in my head and heart on a regular basis. Have I “made it” completely and perfectly in every moment of my life yet? No way–but my desire and passionate prayer is that I live with the kind of focus and intentionality that glorifies Him in every moment. Can you imagine if believers rose up to this challenge and lived with this kind of intentionality on an individual and corporate level? True change would occur in our own personal lives and in the lives of others because the Holy Spirit would have true freedom to roam in our hearts and lives without restriction.

My greatest weapon in this world is dying — dying to myself and my sinful and selfish desires.