Friday, January 07, 2011

Until the End of The World

The good people at have a fun feature called Like a Song where their staff writers share what various U2 songs mean to them. This inspired me to write down my thoughts about Until the End of the World.

My two year old daughter surprised me recently by pointing to a poster hanging on my bedroom wall showing Bono and Edge reaching out to each other from the catwalk of the U2 360 stage. “Edge is reaching out to Bono,” she said. It seems my wife has been training her well. This is surprising because my wife would prefer we leave our teenage years behind and not cover our walls with rock and roll images. Perhaps she has come to accept that this reach image, from the Until the End of the World (UTEOTW) portion of the set, has a profoundly deep meaning for me.

It is very satisfying to gradually discover additional sonic and poetic layers of U2 music. I remember talking to a friend about Achtung Baby! not long after the album was released. “Did you know that UTEOTW is an imagined conversation between Jesus and Judas in the hereafter?” Yes, I had heard that. But it took me 18 years to grasp the message of the song: that Love, capital “L” Love, aka compassion, has the ability to reconcile and heal. At least that’s what I get out of it now.

I can trace my UTEOTW awakening to the U2 Conference in North Carolina in October 2009. As I entered the building, I walked by the table of books for sale and I promised myself I would not buy any. I had read enough books about U2, Thank you very much. I especially was NOT going to buy that book about Achtung Baby! by Stephen Cantanzarite. I wasn’t about to let someone else tell me how I should think about that album, thinking I had already figured it out.

By the end of the weekend, I had purchased no less than five U2 books. I even bought Stephen’s Achtung Baby! book. After speaking with him in the hallway for a few minutes, I realized what a bright guy he is. I sensed that he might actually be able to enhance my understanding about the album, and perhaps about other things.

So I bought the book and I read it in one sitting on a cross country flight from Philadelphia to Los Angeles a few weeks later. I listened to the album as I read. Song by song. Over and over. I dove deep into the connected narrative of songs I had previously experienced in siloed isolation. The story had me follow a couple through a decaying relationship, corroded by an unwillingness to truly communicate with each other. This was heavy stuff.

The chapter that really got me was the one focused on UTEOTW. The narrative augments the post mortal Jesus-Judas exchange told by the song, juxtaposing Judas’s glib tone with Jesus’s soft, persistant focus on Love. I found myself in tears as I pondered this concept of forgiveness. It isn’t at all rare for a U2 parable/song to bring me to an emotional state, but this was something else. A rock and roll-inspired religious experience at 30,000 feet.  

I have been a spiritual, religious person my whole life, devoted to the same belief system that I was raised on. But in the months leading up to October 2009, I was beginning to wonder if there wasn’t something more out there that could better inspire me. I wasn’t losing my religion, but I was bored with it.

The congregation I was attending at the time met in the Philadelphia suburbs and I found our worship services to be painfully repetitive. I remember sitting in church one Sunday reflecting on the fact that there we were, listening again from soft, padded pews to a sermon on living a Christ-centered life.

My mind wandered to my comfortable life. My comfortable car, my comfortable house, my comfortable job and my comfortable wife. My comfortable service to the youth of the church who lived in comfort with their comfortable parents and attended safe schools. Comfort is great. Everything I’d always worked for.

The mental wandering continued. Not five miles away, tens of thousands lived in poverty and not much comfort. Southwest Philadelphia feels otherworldly compared to the suburbs. Despite taking the train through that part of town nearly every day, I had never met or served anyone from that community. I never said hello or tried to get to know them. The disparity of my comfortable life relative to the third world conditions of Southwest Philadelphia seemed painfully hypocritical given my beliefs on brotherly love.

And then everything changed.

In November 2009 I was asked by my church leaders to attend services with a congregation in the city and be part of a team of three who look after the physical and spiritual needs of the congregation. This congregation is comprised largely of refugees from Liberia’s civil war. It was as if my bluff was being called. “You think compassionate thoughts,” the universe was saying. “Can you BE compassionate?” I knew right away that this was what I needed.

I initially fell into the common trap of thinking that this was a case of the needy being served by the more materially stable. I was quickly humbled. I came to know the reciprocal nature of service and love. I immediately had scores of new friends from Southwest Philadelphia and the more I tried to serve, the more I was served in return. The more I Loved, the more I was Loved in return.

This Love that I feel from fellow members of my congregation has caused me to reflect many times on the “Love Love Love” section of UTEOTW. This is the only part of the song where we hear Christ’s point of view. And what does Bono have him say? “Love Love Love...” To me this is an expression of unconditional love. An acceptance that transcends actions or external requirements. This resonates strongly with me because I need that kind of acceptance. I am a flawed human being. I am broken and I need to know that I can be fixed. And that’s why I find this song to be so beautiful. It stands as a reminder that we can be forgiven. That Love can conquer all. That, regardless our religious affiliation, or absence of affiliation, things can get better. Stay optimistic. Talk to each other. Love one another.

Behind the accusation “You, you said you would wait” is the implied response, “I did wait. I’m right here.” And so we can be right there for those we would Love and serve. As we learn in another song from Achtung Baby!, we get to carry each other. Not have to, we GET TO. For as we serve, as we wait on each other, as we Love one another, we are Loved in return. A risky proposition, to be sure and Pop religion though it may be, I have found it to be true.

Back to the poster in my room. There’s one thing I’m still trying to figure out. In the U2 360 performances of the song, at the very end, Bono and Edge, representing Judas and Jesus come ever so close to reconciliation as they reach out to each other from opposing catwalks. But just as they are about to make contact, the catwalks draw apart. Is U2 implying that in the case of Jesus and Judas, Love does not conquer all? Are they making a theological statement about whether or not what Judas did is beyond forgiveness? Or are they pointing out that too often we fail to come together in reconciliation. In my mental vision of the performance, they are able to bridge the gap. This brings hope to my ability to bridge gaps in relationships, both earthly and divine.

The poster hangs in my bedroom because my wife made me remove it from the living room where I hung it after bringing it home from the frame shop. While it might have deep spiritual meaning to me, to her it is nothing more than a rock poster. “How long will I have to wait until you see that this image has a place in our living room?” I recently asked. “Until the End of the World,” she replied.

Thank heaven for Love, Love, Love!



Blogger Ryan said...

"I reached out... but you said you would wait."

I don't think that implies ultimate rejection. It says that the reconciliation has to wait (so that justice can be served?).

Thanks for sharing your story. I'm glad you are finding inspiration in your calling

Friday, January 07, 2011 8:57:00 AM  
Blogger Meg said...

Very interesting post, I'll have to go re-listen to that song. I love the end of the post with the commentary between you and Nean on the poster. Sounds so much like you both of you. We miss you guys.

Friday, January 07, 2011 4:35:00 PM  
Blogger mandi said...

Just when I feel I am certain of some things, those things change on me.
I like that.

Sunday, January 09, 2011 8:00:00 PM  

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